Expectations are a finicky thing that have a tendency of sticking around. This seems especially so while traveling - every place and person and, even sometimes, ingredient is buzzing with mystery and challenging you to find the familiar to weave it all together with. Some places seem to unravel and organize themselves before you in some kind of divine animation. Others not so much - immediately exposing the reality that you've come someplace with your mind full of notions, personal stories and dreamy ideas, even though you told yourself to try really hard not to do so.
It is inevitable, really, since we humans do this with just about everything in that great big cloud of concept called the future. The process of disarming oneself, untangling those expectations from your brain wrinkles and replacing them with actual experiences is delicate, at times invoking some feet dragging stubbornness. But within that process is the search. The sweeping off of the path, the putting it together brick by brick. The creation of what a place is, rather than what you thought it might, could, or should be. This, for us, was Prague.
Neither of us had visited the city before, yet we both have our own small heaps of stories of friend's visits, recommendations, and assurances that it is a place we would love. This was also the first big city we stayed in without couch surfing or having a friend living there. We essentially went in cold, as most people visit most places - hence the heavy reliance on expectations. This is not to say in anyway that Prague is not a gorgeous city or was not enjoyed thoroughly by either of us. It just might be that we would've had an easier time seeing it for what it is if we had visited several years ago. Instead, we worked harder than usual to uncover an identity and were rewarded for our efforts. Under the pile of globally known stores and tourist hacks, beneath the layers of sloppy graffiti tags pretty much anywhere your eye can find, and hiding in random corners were our gems of the city.
Take the image above, for example. We heard from a fellow volunteer at Nový Mlýn about the orchards on Petřín Hill. Nowhere are these mentioned in any of the maps or articles we had scoured, and the walk up and over Petřín is a steep and winding path that takes you right through a small theme park like space at the top, complete with a mini Eiffel tower viewing platform. Once we rested for a minute and let our sweaty brows dry - amidst the throng of people spending money to see a view of the city that you can see if you walk up the hill and don't take the tram - we walked on towards the castle side. There lie fields and fields of fruit trees (apple, pear, apricot and probably others) which were planted for the people of the city to use freely. Much of the low hanging fruit had been picked clean (it is rumored that at the right time you can witness many old Czech women with baskets full) but we managed to snag, and thoroughly spit clean and shine, two crisp and tasty apples. Eli was just finishing his while taking in the view from the tabletop, which is a pretty idyllic way to view a cityscape.
On our brief walk through the castle grounds, we saw three guards marching through the square and scurried along behind them (while many folks paused and clicked a photo of the march but kept moving on) all the way to the gate where their Candyland-like watches are. There we witnessed a strict, but slick and silent, changing of the guard with a group of senior citizens cooling off in the shade:
On other days we hung out at a really good, local cafe for a bit and went on a treasure hunt of connecting the dots between seeming cool, small, design-focused shops that are scattered around Prague. Given that we just missed a pretty awesome festival that took place mid-summer, it was more difficult to find continuity of art/design here at first. However, once we found one place, we dug through pamphlets and posters and events calendars to scope out the rest. A small publication called Hunting Off Track fed us with a handful of shops where we ogled all of the goods and made some notes. After speaking at length with one of the owners, we found out that it was a new zine and she was glad to hear that it was working...the community for places like hers was just starting to form.
We were happy to stumble upon the Artbanka Museum of Young Art, housed right at the base of the Charles Bridge. We had just fought our way across the landmark, which would likely be beautiful at sunrise or late-night when less people, tchotchke hawkers and caricature artists are lined up on either side. The venue is the only of it's kind in the Czech Republic, a nonprofit that supports young artists by purchasing work, exhibiting it, and renting it to institutions, companies and individuals. It also happens to be housed in an absolutely huge old palace and is so worth the time:
Thus, the gleaming little nuggets that we dug out of our pockets at the end of our four and a half day stay are still resonating with us. There is more fantastic Czech rosé to be sipped at Bokovka, paddleboat rides down the Vltava river and a monestary brewery awaiting our next visit, whenever that is; observations we will add to some of the good advice we heeded and the things we may have missed.