Text and photos by Mandy Stark

I realize I am finally in Prague as soon as I can’t understand a single word uttered over the airport’s intercom. Feeling lost in an unfamiliar land, I become intimidated by the signs covered with writing so foreign, that it may very well be Chinese. Fortunately, since Prague is a popular tourist destination, many residents are multi-lingual and can articulate a few English words. Upon cracking this language barrier, I order a taxi and am swiftly driven away into the Czech countryside.

The rolling hills of Eastern Europe guide us along windy, narrow roads away from the airport into the heart of the country, pulsating with urban folk and trendy nightlife. A city rich with history, boasting of pre and post-World War II European locales and high-end boutique shopping, Prague claims a spot for the Czech Republic on the map. In a diverse city like Prague, the actual poverty of the country is hidden beneath tourist distractions. One would never know, without traveling outside the city limits, that the average Czech lives among what American standards would deem poverty level.

However, because of the country’s lack of financial profusion, the American dollar stands far superior to the Czech Koruna (“crown”), and thus the American traveler yields a fine bargain. Currently, the Czech Koruna is equivalent to about $0.06 of the American dollar.

After descending down into the valley-like region in which Prague rests, my taxi driver drops me off at the Hotel Merkur. A rather shoddy three-star establishment, the hotel is not ideal. The closet-sized lobby is bustling with high school students on tour, an omen that further makes me envy the beautiful four-star pink Hotel Opera adjacent to mine. I wonder how its rooms compare to my stale, un-air conditioned accommodations. Nevertheless, I remind myself that I would only be sleeping here for two nights.

Map in hand, I venture out on foot into Prague city central, with the intention of watching the sun set over the famous Charles Bridge. Lined with artists, musicians, and street performers, the Charles Bridge is one of Prague’s most prized structures. Its magnificent 14th century, Gothic-style stone stretches across the Vltava, joining Old Town with Lesser Town (Mala Strana) and stirring tourists with a medieval atmosphere.

I tune out the over stimulating clamor of people dining al fresco on the cobblestone streets and loud roars from motor vehicles passing by. As evening approaches, Prague comes to life. Foot traffic makes its way into tiny shops, bars, clubs, and restaurants, engrossing itself in the somewhat nocturnal European lifestyle.

I first encounter the large open square, home to the Orjol, the Prague Astronomical Clock. The intricate, golden-numbered clock, dating back to the 15th century, was built into the Old Town Hall tower. Dark and weathered from years of pollution and precipitation, the tower stands in the midst of restaurants and nightclubs within the square. As promised, every hour on the hour, a live trumpeter sounds his horn from atop the tower, augmenting the excitement in the nighttime air.

I continue with the crowds on the rustic roadways towards my destination, to finally capture one of the most spectacular sights one could imagine. Glowing in a swirled purple and red sky, the intense setting sun radiates like a starburst at the tip of the Prague Castle spire in the distance. The reflection in the river is so vivid, that one could easily mistake the live scene for its mirror-image counterpart.

Awestruck by this romantic panorama, I then cross the Charles Bridge into a fairytale. If ever Walt Disney sought inspiration for his Cinderella Castle and his imaginative parks, it was in Prague. I feel as though I have stepped onto a movie set, as I walk under the pointed arch of an old city wall lined with bright yellow and red medieval flags. This theatrical gateway reveals just beyond it, a playful row of buildings clad in whimsical pastel colors: pink, blue, yellow, green, orange.

Absorbed in the architectural beauty of the intricately decorated and colorful buildings, I decide to make my way back to my hotel for the evening; for the next day, I would be visiting the Prague Castle.

I awake early in the morning to a chilly, damp fog. The hazy forecast hardly ruins my plans to see the royal palace, so after a paltry breakfast of fruit cocktail and poor-quality pastries, I turn the corner from my hotel and catch the free public tram. The tram runs 540 km throughout the city on 33 different lines, and, with the visual aid of maps posted at each tram stop, it is simple to navigate around Prague.

The Prague Castle, nestled ever so humbly on top the hill of the Vltava’s left bank, grows even grander in my eyes as the tram draws closer. The charming wrought-iron gate at the grounds entrance preserves the historic integrity of the castle and its magnificent cathedral. The rooms in the restored stone palace are mostly vacant, with a few tapestries and furniture pieces, revealing the natural beauty of the castle’s edifice. Once home to many kings and emperors, the castle is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the largest coherent castle complex in the world.

I gaze out a narrow window in an eerie, white hall, what used to be the royal dining room, and take in the spectacular view of Prague from above. Intense rain clouds swiftly advance over the city, threatening of a severe storm. Suddenly, rain begins to pound heavily upon the roof, and the smell of must and water-soaked brick permeate the castle. On days like these, tourists relish the opportunity to be “trapped” inside such prestigious dwellings. If rain approaches before midday, not allowing enough time for visitors to reach the Prague Castle, there is always indoor shopping at the mall, or relaxing river cruises along Vltava.

The spirit of Prague comes to life in the imagination of the traveler. I retreat to this magical city whenever I need a respite from my busy life as a student, whether I actually hop on a plane and fly to Prague, or reminisce my last visit.