I've been doing a lot of reading about Prague in preparation for next summer's train trip trough Central and Eastern Europe. And frankly, I'm afraid. I'm very afraid.
Prague isn’t all beer halls and sausage stands. Gorgeous old churches and magnificent palaces abound. But at this point in the trip, we’ll no doubt want a break from historic beauty and will be seeking a bit of contrast, which the Museum of Communism is more than ready to provide. Its theme, “Communism – the Dream, the Reality, and the Nightmare,” involves an “immersive experience” in a factory, a schoolroom and an interrogation room. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
And if yet more thrills are needed, we can pop into its competitor, the KGB Muzeum, to view Lenin’s death mask, Trotsky’s murder weapon, the contents of the KGB laboratory where spy technology and weaponry were developed, and a beautiful banner handmade by children in a labor commune for “Grandpa Lenin.”
Just reading about that era makes me understand why the Czechs have some of the highest alcohol consumption in the world. But to be fair, they had a lot of dark years even before Grandpa Lenin. It’s hard to find a bridge or alleyway in Prague that isn’t (allegedly) haunted by beheaded medieval lords, cheated giants, star-crossed lovers or other unquiet souls. The very hottest place for the undead is 45 km outside of town in Castle Houska, which the locals are sure is the real and literal Gate of Hell.
The backstory: After countless reports of a bottomless pit from which half-animal, half-human creatures emerged to wreak havoc on the countryside, a medieval Duke decided to investigate the site. He offered to pardon any prisoner who would consent to being lowered on a rope into the pit and report what he’d seen. One prisoner agreed, but emerged screaming, white haired and utterly mad. Eventually they put a stone slab over the pit and built Houska Castle on top of it, but demonic entities continued to stir up trouble. Human troublemakers, from a 17th century alchemist to the Nazis, have performed various unsavory occult experiments on the site. Today Houska Castle is a tourist attraction, so of course, we’ll drop in. But only during daylight hours, when lots of people are around.
Sometimes, even the food is scary in the Czech Republic.
For instance, there’s a popular bar snack called Upotonek, literally “the drowned man,” which is a bloated, pickled sausage floating, corpse-like, in a pool of vinegar. Yummm....
As the year draws to a close, Czech tradition calls for placing a bowl of garlic under the table to protect your family in the year ahead. Of course, Rich and I have assured each other that this is nothing but superstition. But just in case...
I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.