“See Prague from the darker side”

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Well, here it is. The accumulation of every photographic technique I have learned during this class. My magnum opus of sorts — my final project.

Prague Special Tours offers several types of tours, including a ghost tour, a communism and nuclear bunker tour, a beer tour, and an underground tour. I had decided to do my final project on the ghost tours because it seemed the most appealing to me.

“I used to work for other tour services. But then I finally realized my ideas couldn’t take shape so I started my own company.”   —Ivan Galik, Prague Special Tours owner

Galik designed all of the tours himself, writing the scripts and picking stops along the tours. His story is entrepreneurship and creativity at its best. He saw a way to make improvements and refused to give up until they were realized and has been rewarded with a successful and thriving business.

“We had to mix theoretical research with logistics to start this business. I looked at the research and also where in town I wanted the tour to go. I put the two together to see what we could do.”   —Galik

He is enthusiastic about his work. The ghost stories and legends are based on research about Prague that he himself carried out so that the tour can carry a history lesson along with it. The ghost tour script in English transitions flawlessly from a terrifying ghost tale to a lighthearted joke. The knowledgeable and friendly guide brought the script to life. The time put into the tours is evident. Several ghosts and ghouls pop out at tourists as they pass by. Just when I thought no one would get scared on the tour, someone screamed bloody murder.

“All of the tours were designed by me — they are not copies. Everything, down to the costumes, is typical medieval Prague. Other ghost tour services use costumes reminiscent of old England but that isn’t what Prague is about.”          —Galik

The tour snakes through the back streets of Old Town. Old Town Square itself is crowded with tourists and lacks the ambiance of a ghost tour. However, just a couple of blocks away the ghost tour walks along secluded streets from site to site.

Prague Special Tours is a true success story. After all, I am sure the American Dream has a sibling called the Czech Dream — and this tour service is living it for sure.

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Filed under Czech Republic, The Nocturnalist

Vienna: beyond beautiful

Our last free weekend took Ashley and I to Vienna, Austria, a city I knew almost nothing about — but that only added to the excitement. My Polish cousin Magda who I had showed around Prague a couple of weeks ago is currently studying abroad in Vienna so she was able to show us around!

My first impression of the city was: WOW. I had no idea what to expect and was very pleasantly surprised. Sure, Prague has beautiful buildings and architecture but the only word I can use to explain Vienna is dense. Every where you turn there is a gorgeous, historic structure. There isn’t a central point with all of the historic things, it is the entire city, every street corner.

We finally met up with Magda a little bit after we checked in. She got us started right away on the highlights of the city. She showed us numerous palaces and also gave us suggestions what of to do the next day. The most memorable thing was when she took us to the top of a giant hill that looks over the city. The view was magnificent and it gave us a scale of the size of the city. It was even bigger than Prague, which I didn’t think was possible. It was a place that I seriously doubt Ashley and I could have found on our own even if we searched a whole day so that made it even more special that they took us there.

The city was expensive (I don’t know how students study abroad there for a whole semester) and the language (German) contained extremely long words. But, I had the best traveling companion and guides I could have ever asked for. It was a great ending to my entire experience in Prague.

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Filed under Angels in the Architecture, Czech Republic

Brewed to perfection

Ok, so my love of beer continues and it reached its climax when we took a tour of the brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic, where Pilsner beer is made. We saw the filling lines, we saw the heating vats and we even saw the old cellars where the beer matures. Let’s just say I geeked out a bit and also beer deserves two blog posts, of course.

Again, it was evident how beer and tradition are almost one in the same. Like all great enterprises, beer began almost as a mistake. It was then slowly perfected over hundreds of years to become the many forms there are today.

Our tour of the brewery taught us how Josef Groll first made just one batch of Pilsner and the business took off from there. This bottom-fermented beer was wildly popular amongst the darker, lower quality beers on the market at the time. It is a small business success story and a history lesson all rolled into one.

As the success of the beer grew, the brewery had to expand and is now an ultra sleek, modern, state-of-the-art brewery so it can meet the demands of the beer-drinking public. The filling lines were constantly running at full speed, filling cans, plastic bottles and glass bottles like a well oiled machine.

All of this brewing and bottling got me thinking. What is the purpose of beer?

First and foremost, it (well not all) tastes pretty darn good. But also, it lets hardworking individuals take a load off at the end of the day. It’s a stress reliever and a routine that keeps people going. Who knows, maybe society’s productivity would drop immensely without it.

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Pictures of paintings

Oh modern art. So baffling yet so beautiful and intriguing at the same time. It is a style where every line, every angle, every brushstroke is begging to be interpreted.

The Prague modern art museum is located just two blocks from the apartments we are staying in so a visit there as a group was an easy feat. A tour took us through the history of modern art and then we were able to explore the huge museum on our own. The best part about this museum? We could take pictures!

In a separate part of the museum was the famous Slav Epic by Alfons Mucha, which we unfortunately weren’t able to take pictures of. We have learned a lot about Mucha on this trip and have seen a lot of his work. So it was nice to finally see the cumulation of his life. Mucha worked on the Slav Epic for 16 years. It was his gift to the Slavic people, and it depicted them coming back to true freedom.

The Epic contained about 20 extremely large paintings standing at about 20 feet tall each. I mean it when I say HUGE. Knowing how much other work he created and then seeing the Slav Epic on top of that really had me in awe. My main question is: How can someone create that much work? And furthermore, how does someone’s creativity and inspiration span this much work?

I feel accomplished if I get one or two lines in each of my blog posts that I consider good writing and after 400 words a day for almost a month, the creative part of my brain is about to just give up. But Mucha was able to create and create and create for years and years and even on one big project when it came to his Slav Epic. It always gets me marveling at how he must have thought.

Did he have entire paintings planned out or did inspiration randomly come to him? But alas, I must digress. My knowledge of psychology is no where near deep enough to evaluate how Mucha’s  brain must have worked when compared to mine.

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At its core

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Prague is steeped in Jewish history and I feel like I haven’t done it justice by not posting about it until now. But a formal tour of the Prague Jewish Quarter seems like the perfect springboard for the topic.

Everyone knows the great oppression the Jewish people faced. They were expelled from countries as early as when Columbus discovered America and were forced to live in ghettos where they could settle. And then came World War II, where the Nazis’ Final Solution resulted in the extermination of millions of Jews. Today they still face some oppression but tolerance from other groups is steadily increasing.

Our tour around the Jewish Quarter took us to numerous synagogues, one of which is the oldest functioning synagogue in the world. It also took us to the Jewish Cemetery, the only place Jews were allowed to be buried for hundreds of years. Because of this, the bodies had to be buried on top of one another. Fifty thousand bodies make up almost 12 layers in the small cemetery and the cramped headstones prove it.

The most interesting observation I have made about Judaism is one I have had for a long time, but it was certainly heightened by visiting the Jewish Quarter and hearing our guide. The term Jewish is used as if it were an ethnicity and not just a religion. I don’t find that this is the case with other religions; no other social group is identified solely by their religion like Jewish people.

Now there are many possibilities for why this might be the case. It may be a simple matter of tradition. Perhaps the Jewish faith is unique in the way it is passed through generations at a higher rate than other religions. Another reason may be that there is no other way to group them. Because they were constantly expelled from countries they didn’t really have a place of origin. Also, they were always grouped together, which possibly also added to the formation of the catch-all term.

Or perhaps the reason is more of a negative one. They are grouped together without thought of who they individually are or where they are from. To those who think little of Jews nothing else matters except that they are Jewish.

If you ask me, a faith that gets a people through literally hundreds of years of oppression and then a period where they are almost exterminated completely has to be doing something right.

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Filed under Czech Republic, Small Wonder

It’s a ‘faux’

As my time in Prague dwindles, the anxiety sets in about seeing all the sites I wanted to get in. I rush off randomly to see something I heard to check out from a guide. I go here, I go there, I snap a few quick pictures.

I finally found myself at Petrin Hill and the Petrin Observation Tower, which is actually a small replica of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. It was built for the 1891 Jubilee Exhibition as a way for Prague to, well, show off a bit. It stands at 60 meters and is also perched atop a hill above the city of Prague so it supplies visitors with an impressive view. The lead up to the tower was also beautiful, with rose gardens and a small uphill tram to make the trip less strenuous.

We decided to opt out of using the elevator and climb the stairs because it was the cheaper option, which I immediately regretted after realizing the staircase was even hotter than it was outside. But I was rewarded at the top with a spectacular view. And, I was able to snag a picture of a professional photographer in-training. Maybe if he is from another country he will one day come back to study abroad for a photography class in Prague also. Hey, stranger things have happened.

I have to say the view took my breath away. I had never seen Prague from that high up and was astounded by its size! My mind went straight to an earlier blog post where I mentioned that I thought I knew the city at one point and how that mindset quickly changed. Well, whatever new idea I thought I had was just blown to smithereens.

I stood there for a bit and looked out, pointing out the places we had been to and recalling the stories and tidbits of history I have learned about each one. But alas, the city is too rich — rich in culture, history, customs and mysticism. I can only try my best to get the most out of Prague with the time I have left.

And I break out in a run to the next attraction.

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Filed under Czech Republic, The Out of Towner

The dark side of Prague

Walking the streets of Prague at night can be scary in and of itself. But when a tour guide is filling your head with ghost stories and legends, things can definitely get a little creepy.

I finally began to start on my final photo story project for my class, a ghost tour through the company Prague Special Tours. The contact I had, who is the owner of the company, is Ivan. He is letting me go on as many tours as I want for free in return for the photos I take. I don’t quite know if this is a fair deal since my photography skills are often lackluster, especially at night, but his generosity is certainly appreciated and I want to try my best.

The best part about the tour is that it doesn’t hit the usual tourist spots. Ivan designed the tours himself to be extra special by going just two blocks around Old Town Square where the alleyways are deserted. This ingenious approach really makes the tour unique and extra scary.

Sadly Ivan doesn’t guide many tours since he is the owner but the girl who does the English tour is very good; she can switch from a lighthearted legend to a creepy ghost story in an instant. Although the tour is only an hour long it gives a nice look at the tiny hidden streets around Old Town Square and packs numerous legends and ghost stories to make your imagination run wild.

I have been on the tour several times now and it hasn’t gotten old. I always notice something different that sparks my imagination as I wonder if the restless spirits who departed this world unjustly are still among us. The tour also brings with it some of the difficulties of night photography so I am worried about making the required amount of photos to put together a good photo story. 

I have always loved ghost stories. When I was little I would read book after book of them, the scarier the better — it gets my heart racing. I also love scary movies but can’t see them that often because my friends don’t like them. I just love being scared.

With the occasional ghost or ghoul hiding in the bushes, the tour holds plenty of excitement, especially when during the darker tour at 10 p.m. After thinking no one would really be frightened during the tour a girl screamed bloody murder after turning one corner. I wasn’t expecting it and missed the photo opp!


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Filed under Czech Republic, The Nocturnalist

Zoo Praha

One of my majors is biology; of course I love the zoo. And well, after weeks of nonchalantly saying I wanted to go to the zoo an impromptu trip landed us there.

At first glance I noticed how HUGE the zoo was. I started to get really excited as we got closer and closer because I began to see its scale and imagine the endless amount of animals that are housed there. Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fish — I wanted to see them all.

The last time I had been to the zoo was over two years ago with my dual credit biology class in high school. Thanks to the Texas heat not many animals were out then and I was hoping to make up for it at Zoo Praha. Sadly, I don’t recall any sharp memories of trips to the zoo before that high school trip. I guess I never really cared to go. National Geographic was my zoo. I didn’t think there was much difference between seeing them on TV and seeing them in real life. But this trip opened my eyes again to the wonder of seeing the exotic creatures of our Earth up close and personal.

Even though it was quite hot still in Prague today the unique design of the zoo still allows visitors to get a glimpse of the animals. An animal can be seen from the outside by passersby, but if he/she decides it’s too hot and retreats to the inside it can still be seen through glass. This innovative design highlights a sophistication that is showcased all around the zoo.

We spent a good four hours at the zoo and still failed to see everything. From exotic birds (large and small), to giraffes, to large cats, to penguins, we saw it all and much, much more. The design of the zoo also eliminated the use of cage after cage after cage as in some zoos, resulting in a refreshing approach. It was much more aesthetically pleasing to the eye as well as the mind. Often I wondered how some of the animals didn’t just pop out of their outside exhibits because there wasn’t a visible barrier keeping them in and it was all so natural looking.

I often got so excited that I was at the zoo that I forgot to place people in my pictures like our professor prefers! Oh well, sorry Prof. Darling. Animals are people too, right?

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Filed under Czech Republic, Weekend Miser

No, it didn’t stink

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OK, so maybe I was a tad too excited to be touring a sewer at 9 in the morning.

We were all tired from our long return from Český Krumlov and wanted to sleep in. But nope, Prof. Darling said we had a surprise waiting for us early in the morning. Thankfully, his pre-teen kids who have been here several times with him spilled the beans that we had a sewer tour in store for us.

I do have to say that I LOVE this kind of stuff. Going somewhere deep underground and seeing what is there just gets me really excited for some reason — I feel like a child going on an adventure. I have just always loved exploring new places. The expanse of the sewer was extremely large. Its construction must have been beyond labor intensive.

Sure, it was strange to be in a sewer but it was no longer in use and the reservoirs no longer contained…well…smelly things. They now contained reflective, clear water up to 6 or 8 meters deep in some places.

It was very interesting to learn how the sewer functioned and the engineering that went into it. As gross as they may seem, sewers are an important part of a functioning and growing city. Without one, production would drive to a halt; their importance should never be underestimated. The dirtiest jobs are often the most important for a functioning society, and this is highlighted in numerous facets of our world.

I was also really pleased with how some of my photos came out while on the tour. I can feel myself becoming a better photographer as I continue in this class. I have gained confidence in my pictures and have learned techniques about how to approach different photographical situations.

The unconventionality of the trip just made for an all-around interesting day. It’s another example of something off the beaten path that can lead to a special and memorable experience. And just in case you’re wondering, no, it didn’t stink.

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Morning glories

Imagine if Walt Disney designed a large village in the Czech Republic. He would have built a large castle with a multi-colored spire, bridges overlooking gently flowing rivers and tiny alleyways tucked with shops and restaurants. Extravagant, yet quaint and laid back.

Well, that is exactly what Český Krumlov had in store for me when I arrived. I stood in awe at the untouched beauty of this place. A castle was built literally right into the rock of a mountain and a river snakes through the town, resulting in numerous wooden bridges. Everyone in the group joked that they felt like a prince or princess.

Although the city is quite touristy, it doesn’t seem that way. Somehow, almost magically, the novelty of the village cuts through the crowds of geriatrics and Japanese visitors. No matter how many people you are surrounded by, the ambiance of the place is not broken. I feel as if I am still an individual in this place: that I can still enjoy it for myself. No one could take that away.

Being a tourist attraction does have some advantages however. Instead of being cut off from society, the village has become quite advanced. It is home to several restaurants, cafes and bars that are more modern, although not necessarily in their style.

A city tour showed us the small alleyways leading to different parts. One alleyway would open up into a huge street of buildings; the city is just big enough to supply my imagination and let me explore without making me too overwhelmed afraid of getting lost.

Ashley and I went out the one morning we had there to make some photographs. Because it was early there were no tourists out. My senses heightened. My adrenaline rushed. The place was ours. We walked along the streets where only locals were getting their day started or city workers were cleaning streets or tending to gardens.

It made Český Krumlov really come alive. My imagination drifted endlessly about what life was like here when the village first started. I wouldn’t even mind moving here now! Everyone knows the story of the quintessential writer who lives in a gorgeous place where he or she becomes inspired to no end. My classmates and I joked about living in Český Krumlov and making this a reality.

Well, a boy can dream.

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Filed under Czech Republic, Morning Glories