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The Czech Republic

I think that was one of Queen's very best songs. With 18 vocal overlays or something like that, and a multitude of musical styles, it is probably one of rock's greatest anthems. The actual connection to Bohemia, I'm a lot more confused about, because the song's lyrics are all over the place and don't seem to have much to do with Bohemia. Oh well, probably just another strung out LSD song from days gone by.

I am amazed at the changes Prague has undergone in only 7 years. I was here in 1999, and even then, 10 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the place still seemed like it was getting back on its feet. But today, I hardly recognized some of the places, and I fear that Prague has finally been lost owing to it's somewhat Niagara Falls'ish behaviour these days. Probably I am over reacting. The city is still incredibly beautiful, what with countless gothic medieval towers and churches, the magnificent interior of St Nicholas's church, and the defining Prague castle perched high above the cobblestone lanes. But what does Prague really need with a wax museum, museum of torture, and museum of sexual implements? I don't understand - the place has incredible beauty - there is nothing to add.

I did manage to find the Tesco grocery store, which used to be located underground near an abandoned lot. Today, it was still underground, but now there are huge modern buildings built on the vacant land making the store a lot harder to find. Nothing has been done to damage Prague's beautiful historic centre however. The sights are still just as grand. But the place is so packed with tourists (It is September and the weather is fantastic - my previous visit was in March, when it was rainy and cold), and the prices so much higher than they used to be, that it just feels a little like Disneyland. Still, it is hard to ignore coming here; to what is likely one of the most romantic, most beautiful cities in the world.

Whenever I think of Prague, I think of my friend Mike Richardson. Back in beer drinking days, Mike had made a trip to Prague one summer, and I remember him telling me the story about "U Fleku", a 500+ year old pub that serves the best darn dark beer I've ever tasted. I'll always remember Mike yelling out "U Fleku!" during the discussion, and indeed, beer is a wonderful reason to come to Prague and the Czech Republic in general. You see, in and amongst all of these lagers and pilsners that are so prevalent here on the continent, you find some absolutely fantastic dark beers that have been made here for centuries. U Fleku is one old brewery in the heart of post soviet Prague that still slings out only one kind of beer, namely "the beer". However, even our visit to U Fleku was subject to some disappointment for me, because the place was packed with tourists, the place having obviously been written up by Fodor's or Princess Cruise Lines, or some other high end guide book/cruise ship company. When I came here those 7 short years ago, all you could have was "the beer" or "the meal". The meal consisted of roast pork, cabbage, bread, and potatoes. Now, you can get (Gasp!) a menu! And they have several items on it. I tell you, the world is really going to hell... I was grateful to see that they have retained their traditional method of serving beer though, which is simply dropping them in front of you when you are empty and putting a little scratch on a piece of paper beside you to count them. Sort of like jail cell scratches - crude but effective. They just add them up at the end and then you pay ;)

I'm sure I shouldn't complain, Prague is still one of the most beautiful places on earth, and we were really lucky to get a hostel only 60 metres from the old town square -a little noisy, but right in the thick of things. One thing we did this time that I didn't do last time I was here is take the time to visit all the Jewish museums and the cemetery here. The collections are pretty special and the experience made for a complimentary perspective to Auschwitz and Birkenau. While the concentration camps chronicled the aftermath and the awful events around the Holocaust, the museums in Prague do a great job of documenting the build up of anti-Semitism through to the establishment of the ghettos, to deportation, and finally to relocation "east".

The interesting thing about the collections in Prague is the way they came to be. As Nazi occupation began, religious freedoms for Jewish people became severely restricted, and this included the operation of local museums. As relocations and deportations began to occur, and the synagogues were converted to warehouses by the Nazis, many relics and important pieces were at great risk of being lost. Some of the members of the museum committees managed to convince the Nazis that these items could all be placed together in a collection to commemorate the Jewish people. The Lonely Planet's version of this story is that the Nazi's were in fact planning a "museum to an extinct race" and that is why they allowed the collection to go ahead. The other side of the coin would be the thinking that the Jewish curators were intelligent enough to know that this was the only way to convince the Nazis, under these extreme circumstances, to preserve their culture. The actual truth remains unknown, according to some of the information at the museum itself. I think the later is probably true. What else could they do? Without such a creative solution, surely many more artefacts would have been lost. In any case, the collection today is a fantastic array of pieces including many traditional religious items and many many documents relating to the various forms of persecution. One particularly poignant set of exhibits contains all the necessary paperwork of a young, recently married Jewish couple planning to emigrate west who were later put to death at Auschwitz - complete with wedding photograph. So sad.

We also had to use the "rule" the other day. I can't actually remember if it was here or Krakow, but anyway, we have this rule that we are to use if we get separated. We were in a crowded church and we had tickets to visit various portions of the church. Kristine got ahead a bit and all of a sudden there were two giant tour groups between us, and as I rounded the corner, she was gone. Eventually, she entered the ticketed area for the bell tower and because it was so narrow she was forced to go ahead. When she turned to talk to me, I wasn't there, but she had no choice but to go forward into the confined space. As you can imagine, she started to cry as she visited the bells in the tower, and she eventually emerged at the other end of the tower tunnel (unscathed!). I walked around the church looking for her briefly, but then executed the rule. The rule is "Return to the exact spot where we were last together". The only exception is for trains - where the person ahead is to wait at the next destination station, if for some reason one of us gets left behind at the platform. Anyway, after about 20 minutes of standing there admiring the same mosaic (the passers by must of thought I was a mosaic expert or something); she slowly emerged against the tide of Italians heading the other way, in tears. I said, "Great. You remembered the rule!" But all she could do was cry. I comforted her, but inside it was a little bit funny - I knew she would remember.

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