Bohemian Rhapsody


This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, July 27, 2004 was originally posted on August 07, 2004.

DAY 283:  The Czech Republic, one of the newer members of the European Union when it joined in May 2004 (even though it still uses the local currency, the crown [at the time of writing]), has been a popular destination for tourists and backpackers for decades, particularly its Bohemian capital Prague.  It was here that poets, writers and musicians convened — Franz Kafka was inspired to write his Metamorphosis here, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart premiered his opera Don Giovanni.  Every backpacker I’ve met raved about Prague and it’s Bohemian vibe and I ventured on to see why.

I lucked out on my overnight train ride from Germany; I had a sleeper compartment that fit four all to myself.  However, I didn’t get an undisturbed night of sleep; a knock on the door came at about four in the morning.

“Passport control!”  Two officers searched my room to see if I was hiding anyone, saw my passport was in order and let me go.  It was hard trying to sleep after that and I stumbled into Prague later on all groggy-eyed.

AFTER GETTING LOST WHILE WANDERING OUTSIDE the train station, I managed to find the hostel I had my eye on from my guidebook — only to find out it was booked.  The woman there suggested another (also in my guidebook) where a line was already developing in the reception room — the hostel wouldn’t say any room was available or not until after the official checkout time at 10 a.m.

It was in the waiting room that I met Kyle, a 22-year-old Alaskan backpacker traveling around Europe.  We ended up assigned to different rooms at ten but met back in the lobby to explore the town in each other’s company.  We wandered around Prague’s streets, passed the colorful plastic cows of the international art exhibition known as Cow Parade, and into the Old Town Square (other picture above), which was filled to the brim with tourists either following a tour guide holding up a bright flag or umbrella or waiting in front of the Astronomical Clock at the top of every hour to watch statues of the twelve apostles (and one station of Death) pop out and ring in the new time.  We marveled at Prague’s classic architecture, including the Cathedral of St. James, all of which had survived World War II — minus a portion of the Old Town Hall damaged by the Nazis. 

The crowds of Old Town Square were almost as bad as the ones at the Charles Bridge, “Prague’s most recognizable landmark” over the Vltava River, with two watch towers on each side.  As impressive as the bridge was, it wasn’t the reason why most backpackers came to Prague as I was soon discovering.  No, they came for the cheap beer — you could get half a liter of it for about a buck, including Budweiser Budvar, the original Budweiser before the name was moved to the States with a lesser formula and a funnier Super Bowl ad campaign. 

Kyle and I sat in a bar around 11 a.m. for a round; looking around us, it seemed to be the thing to do.  Over a couple of local Pilsner Urquell’s, Kyle revealed to me that he was a poet of sorts, on a sort of pilgrimage to Bohemia for inspiration.  He recited some of his material to me in slam poetry style, which captured his personal memories of the cities he had been in throughout Europe so far.  I told him about my less poetic, but regular writing duties of The Blog.

AWAY FROM THE HORDES OF TOURISTS who also probably came for the cheap beer, we stumbled upon a traditional Bohemian restaurant frequented by locals — if locals eat at a place it must be good.  Prague’s cheap prices continued to be quoted on the menu; for just about eight dollars I got a lovely roast duck platter with Bohemian dumplings and sauerkraut.  The beer was cheaper there too and we toasted for the second time of the day.

“I say, what better way to experience Bohemia than with a poet,” I toasted.

“A poet and a writer,” he added.

After our lunch and multiple toasts, Kyle went off to take a nap since he had an even more restless night that I did on his overnight train (he slept in the aisle), leaving me to explore the sights of the Bohemian city.  On the other side of the Vltava River atop Hradcany Hill was Prazsky Hrad, or Prague Castle, the seat of the Bohemian government for over a thousand years.  The exhibitions inside were closed by the time I got there at five in the afternoon, but the outdoor architecture of its towers and its St. Vitus Cathedral was always open.  As classically Gothic the Cathedral looked, it was actually less than a hundred years old, only completed in 1929, 600 years after its start.  (Now that’s what I call procrastination!)

As Czech soldiers marched into the castle’s main courtyard, I marched down the stairs of Hradcany Hill and back over the Vltava on the less crowded Manesuv Bridge.  It was away from the masses of tourists that perhaps got me in the artistic Bohemian vibe.  As the sun set, I parked myself at a cafe table overlooking the river to write, as Kafka might have done in his day, to the sounds of jazz coming from a distant speaker. 

IN 1787, WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART PREMIERED his opera Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre in Prague.  Two hundred seventeen years later in the summer of 2004, Don Giovanni was back in the same theater it began, available for a whole new generation of opera enthusiasts with the cash to spare for it.

Meanwhile in the smaller Divaldo Theater, an ongoing production of Don Giovanni continued to please audiences daily — for over 2,500 performances (at the time of writing).  This longer lasting production lasted so long probably because it was an opera performed with marionettes.  Anyone who’s seen Being John Malcovich knows that puppeteering can be a serious and respected art form, and in Prague, such is the case.

I’m guessing puppeteering is another one of the Bohemian art forms because Mozart’s Don Giovanni wasn’t the only marionette performance; other productions in progress at other theaters included La Nozze di Figaro and the Broadway musical Cats.

Killing two birds with one ticket purchase, I opted to see Mozart’s famous opera as acted out by Pinocchio’s cousins.  I felt a bit underdressed in my sweatshirt sweater because some people actually dressed up for the occasion in evening wear.  For about two hours, we sat in the small theater and were entertained by puppet masters moving traditional string-on-top marionettes, Muppet-like dolls with wires on the bottom and hand puppets to a pre-recorded playback of the famous opera.  To make it a bit more entertaining, characters that weren’t “singing” did silly things (similar to characters on Saturday Night Live‘s animated “Real Audio”), like looking up female puppets’ dresses or swatting down puppet birds that randomly came out of nowhere.

“HEY MAN,” I CALLED TO KYLE the Poet sitting at the computer in the hostel reception.  He had just woken up from his much-needed nap just in time for nightfall.  The two of us went up to the hostel’s third floor bar, a chilled out place where backpackers convened and, if they chose, to have a sample of another Bohemian tradition, shots of absinthe.

Absinthe, an alcoholic drink made from an extract of wormwood, looks like green Scope mouthwash and tastes a bit like strong licorice or Sambuca.  With 140 proof, it’s a fairly strong drink, consumed by artists and writers like Van Gogh and Baudelaire since it was known to stimulate creativity — and lead to hallucinations and addiction after prolonged use.  While marijuana may have replaced absinthe as the vice of choice in the modern Bohemian lifestyle, absinthe is still consumed in Prague in its original form — other countries had outlawed it in the early 20th century.

“Now that’s real Czech,” an African-American guy holding a beer said at the bar when he saw Kyle and I order a round of the green liquid.  The two of us absinth novices consumed it in the traditional manner:  taking a spoonful of sugar, soaking it in absinthe, setting it on fire to caramelize it, quickly stirring it into the glass and shooting it straight down.  The looks on both of our faces went from constipated to smiles.

Literary artist Oscar Wilde one wrote:  “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were.  After the second, you see things as they are not.  Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

Having heard that from Kyle, we stopped after a second round. I’m not quite sure how absinthe stimulated creativity in the writers, musicians and puppeteers in Bohemia’s past though; all it did for me that night was make me just pass out in my bed.

Next entry: Classical, Hip Hop and the Ghosts In Between

Previous entry: Palace Pictures

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Comments for “Bohemian Rhapsody”

  • That’s funny, absinth has just been de-outlawed here in Holland. Haven’t tasted it yet though because the liqueurshops aren’t stocked up yet. But it’s supposed to do weird things to you if you drink too much, Van Gogh cut off his ear while under the influence ...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/07  at  01:47 PM

  • I’m soooooooo jealous!

    Posted by Liz  on  08/07  at  03:09 PM

  • ERIK - need to add an close italics tag after Don Giovanni, in the paragraph that begins with “In 1787”... I would do it but i forgot your log-in…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/07  at  07:29 PM

  • Great pictures, once again. Thanks.

    So, I have nothing on Czech procrastination, eh?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/08  at  05:26 PM

  • wow, i didn’t realize the cows on parade thing was an international art exhibit. that is pretty cool.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/08  at  09:57 PM

  • So is THAT where the cows went? I always wondered about those—I’m assuming they are the ones that had been in NYC several years back.  Good stuff Erik, with your last few entries, I’d now consider checking out Germany!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/09  at  02:20 AM

  • NOELLE:  I know!  I thought I was King of Procrastination!

    CHRISTY / ALICE:  Yup, they’re there, including the ones with company-specific colors, sponsored by their companies…

    LIZ:  Keep your expectations of Prague low…  Mine were really high—everyone and their mother raved about Prague—and when I got there, it was just sort of “nice” but overrated from what I had heard…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/09  at  10:14 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Classical, Hip Hop and the Ghosts In Between

Previous entry:
Palace Pictures


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