Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Year's Eve '09

And what a New Year's it was.

This was by far my favorite day in Prague, despite being half-trampled by large groups of Italians and Germans... but I'm getting ahead of myself. We started out with the feast of a breakfast again at the hotel before heading into New Town, the (as you're probably surmised) modern part of Prague. Barely a 10 minute walk from the Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square in the heart of New Town is like being transported from the middle ages to 1989, or, the fall of Communism in Prague. The Square, really just a long, walkable space on a large boulevard, feels much like any other big city in Europe. Tourists standing around looking at their maps, actual Czechs heading to work with a Starbucks in hand, and taxi drivers who must be imagining their lives are a real version of Grand Theft Auto. But like the rest of Prague, the buildings and history here are just as juxtaposed. It was in this square, like the area surrounding our hotel, that you can really feel the faded Communist presence. The functionalist buildings were perfect examples, but also the National Museum, showing the pockmark-like scars caused by Soviet bullets when putting down a local uprising against Communism in 1968. A little way down the square in front of the statue of St. Wenceslas is a memorial to two students, who, not being able to stand living under such oppression, set themselves on fire on the steps of the National Museum. All these little reminders of how life was like gave me some idea of what they must have felt, but also reminded me of how thankful I am for the life I was given.

Then we walked down another large boulevard to the Mucha Museum, my favorite museum in Prague and one of my favorite museums ever. I didn't know much about Alfons Mucha before this trip, but Caitlin had been dying to go and I'm very glad I tagged along. Mucha is a Czech national credited for being the founding father of Art Nouveau (which he started in Paris around the end of the 19th century), and even if you don't recognize the name if you googled Mucha I'm sure some image will pop up you've seen before. The museum itself isn't very large, but is well laid out, with English descriptions and even a nice 30 minute video. Continuing with the Art Nouveau theme we headed over to the Municipal House, a large building designed by, who else, but Mr. Mucha. It was very lavishly decorated inside and out, and even had an "Ameriky Bar" inside. As if there aren't enough of these opposites in the city, the Municipal House (built just after 1900) shares a block with the Powder Tower (built in the 1400s). It is amazing how often this occurs and it's not an eyesore.

But getting hungry we found a restaurant with some pretty good soup. At least my goulash was great, but Caitlin's garlic soup tasted like just garlic and water. I finished off her soup and made sure not to stand too close when asking someone for directions, lest they pass out. Little did I know it might have come in handy, as we headed for the Charles Bridge, the most characteristic bridge in Prague, and one of the best in Europe. This is where we almost died for the first time that day, the second being after dinner.

Before I relive this horror for your reading pleasure, I have to point out that Prague seemed inundated with tourists for New Year's Eve. I think the closer nationalities-Germans, Austrians, and Italians-traveled in just for the night. Either way the city felt packed. We could tell there were crowds on the bridge but it wasn't until we were a good quarter of the way across before the panic set in. Half of the bridge was closed off for renovation, so turned into a math equation: Half the space + twice as many tourists = .... you get the idea. It seemed like instantly Caitlin and I were swept into the mob of loud Germans and smelly Italians trying to get across. As if that wasn't enough, a large group of mean, fat, German women were trying to push their own way through, as if they had much more pressing business getting to the other side. I could see Caitlin wasn't taking it well and although I tried to reassure her that it must clear up soon enough, I was blessed with my mother's genes and therefore couldn't see anything over the towering Europeans surrounding us. The breaking point was when I was carried a good 10 feet without my feet touching the ground. Then I grabbed Caitlin and we somehow crossed into a one lane stream of people heading back the way we came, where we eventually escaped to freedom. We decided to call it an early day to head back to the hotel and rest/get ready for our evening out.

Caitlin found this website where we could book a restaurant for a New Year's Eve meal, and she couldn't have found better. All dressed up we took a joyride into town, where we transferred to a funicular that took us up Petrin Hill to our restaurant, Nebozizek. It was perfect. We sat next to the window, which, high up on the hill, overlooked the floodlit city with amazing views of the castle. The restaurant was pretty classy and there was a man playing piano all night who somehow seamlessly switched between playing Mozart to Abba. The six course meal was delicious (I have a picture of the menu in my photos) and even better was the Czech booze. We each got a half bottle of white wine, a half bottle of red wine, a glass of champagne at midnight, and unlimited beer all night. I had a great time. I had such a great time, in fact, that I almost forgot about it being New Year's Eve, until our waiter came to us with a thin package. I opened it up and it turned out to be a lantern of sorts. This was actually a really cool idea. We went outside with everyone else and what you do is light a fire underneath these paper lanterns and let them float off in the sky. They were coming up from all over the city, and that with fireworks going off in every direction was just incredible. Not to mention all this was seen through drunk goggles. At the end of the night, and one beer too many, our waiter called us a cab, which was the scariest/funniest ride of my life. "Scary" in that he spoke no English besides "No worry, no stress," and drove along a walking path in thick smoke and fog winding along the hill towards the castle, barely avoiding pedestrians who obviously had the right of way. And "Funny" in that it was ridiculous and I wasn't too serious about anything at that point. After speeding through several intersections and a U-turn across the median of the freeway, we made it back to our hotel where it felt good to be alive after the ride in what I affectionately named the "Death Cab" and we stumbled up to the room. Hands down, best New Year's ever.

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