Every time I told Americans that I was going to spend 5 months traveling in Eastern Europe they would all say, "So you're going to Prague?"
For most Americans Prague is Eastern Europe. Ironically, it's the least Eastern European city in Eastern Europe. It might as well be in France. The only difference is that the Czechs are actually nice.
Yes, Prague is great
OK, I've said it. Yes, go visit it. It's awesome and romantic. Certainly on my Top 5 major cities in Europe, and it may be in my Top 5 in the world.
But go elswhere
For example, check out Ceský Krumlov, which is one of Bohemia's most beautiful towns, with a well-preserved historical centre that is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The city's castle is the second largest in the Czech Republic, after Prague Castle, and it dominates the town from a hill overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Vltava river. The town's traffic-free historic centre is a magic area of narrow cobbled streets lined with Renaissance and Baroque facades.
Or see Ceský Budejovice, which is near Krumlov. It has a romantic square and charming streets that will send you back into the 18th century.
Or go to Brno (pronounced "Bruno"). The second largest city in the country, I thought it was lovely (see picture on this page).
Foreign languages spoken here
It's nice that 20% speak English, up for 10% in Poland and 1% in Belarus.
It's a big relief because I didn't want to learn Czech. After all, try to say this Czech phrase: "Strc prst skrz krk."
The Czechs assured me that it is not hard, because it's pronounced exactly how it is spelt.
"Thanks for the tip," I tell them, "but that really doesn't help me much."
What does it mean anyway?
"Stick your finger through your neck."
I prefer "motherfucker."
By the way, when I was in Belarus I found out that in the last five years the Belarussians are now using "motherfucker" as an insult. Before that, no one said it. So now we have three great exports to Belarus: McDonalds, Coke, and Motherfucker.
OK, let's get serious again.
A bit of history
Here's a few random facts on the Czech Rep:
- Celts, Germans, Slavs were all running around here since the 4th century.
- The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) started in Prague and went on to destroy most of Central Europe. I stood in the room where it all started. Two important Catholic dudes were thrown out a window after a dispute with some Protestants. The event was called the 'Defenestration of Prague' which is latin for "out of the window."
- The war led to the Germanisation of the area and the oppression of the Czech language and culture.
- 200 years later the Czechs started remembering their roots.
Why Czechoslovakia was born in 20th century
After WW I the Czechs and the Slovakians were like two whimpy kids in a playground of bullies.
Tired of being beat up by the Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and Russians, these two kids said, "Hey, let's join forces and maybe we can take on these big boys."
The problem was that the Czech was like an 9 year old and the Slovaks like a 8 year old. Both too puny when dealing with teenagers, but the slightly stronger Czechs dominated the smaller Slovakians. So the relationship was always tense, except when they had to face the rotten Nazis.
Those mean, bad, evil Nazis again
Under the Munich Pact in Sept 1938 Britain and France agreed not to oppose the annexation of part of Czechoslovakia to Germany. With friends like these....
Of course, the Nazis just took over the whole country within a year and installed Reinhard "Hangman" Heydrich as the leader. But on May 29, 1942 Czechoslovak resistance fighters parachuted in from London and killed his ass.
Friendly tip: It's not good to piss off the Nazis.
As payback, the Nazis razed the village of Lidice, 25km of Prague, and shot every single male living there. And then they deported all the women and children to concentration camps. Nice guys.
More "nice guys" show up
The Soviets liberated most of the country and then occupied it for 40+ years.
The whole industrial sector was nationalized and the government's economic policies nearly bankrupted the country. In the 1950s non-communists fled or were imprisoned. Hundreds were executed or died in labor camps, often for little more than a belief in democracy or religion. Stalin purged (i.e., executed) many leaders, even high ranking members.
In the 1968 Prague Spring, the communist head of Czechoslovakia tried to be the Gorbachev of his time.
Moscow retaliated by making 500,000 party members lose their jobs. Many educated professionals were made street cleaners and mnual laborers. Dissidents were routinely imprisoned.
But in 1989 the Wall broke apart and a few years later so did Czechoslovakia.
Why did Czechoslovakia break up anyway?
Because the name was too *$@#* difficult to spell!!!
I asked a couple of young Slovakians why Czechoslovakia broke up.
"I don't know," said one.
"Politics," answered the other.
Gee, great. Thanks.
Strangely, it's not easy to find the answer. And it's even harder get a consensus on if it was a smart move, even 12 years after the fact.
Some say that the Slovakians really wanted independence from the stronger Czechs. They were tired that all of Czechoslovakia's government functions were in the Czech side, not the Slovak side. They wanted respect.
Meanwhile, some say that Czechs wanted to break up because the Slovaks were dragging them down, just like East Germany was dragging West Germany down after they united. Czechs also felt that having Slovakia was hurting their chances to get in the EU.
Some folks on both sides thought it was a stupid move.
The most common opinion was that most were against the breakup, but that the oversized egos of the politicians made it happen.
Ironically, they both got in the EU at the same time. Now they have different currencies, but in a few years they will both have the Euro. Border crossings will be even easier than they are now (which are already super easy). In short, Czechoslovakia will be united again.
In other words, the Czechs don't seem to have gained much from the breakup.
Meanwhile, it seems that the only thing that Slovakia has managed to accomplish with the breakup is confusion about its name. After all, doesn't Slovakia sound just like like nearby Slovenia?
August 24, 2004