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FLAS Notes from the Field: Discovering Prague beyond the Tourist Sites

Prague's Old Town Square
Prague's Old Town Square

September 1, 2016

By Alison Knight

University of Washington Slavic Languages and Literatures M.A. student Alison Knight recently returned from studying Czech in Prague on a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship (FLAS). When not in class, Alison spent time exploring the magnificent architecture and rich culture of the city. In the process, she came to know a country which is as interesting for its history and art as it is for its people:


Old Town Hall’s Astronomical Clock. Photo by Alison Knight

“In the summer in Prague it can be hard to see the city through the tourists. In Prague’s Old Town Square (Staroměstské Náměstí), tour guides find new ways to draw attention to themselves so the crowds they lead can keep track of them, and it’s equally common to have to stop to let a horse-drawn carriage pass as it is to give a group of tourists on Segways the right of way. And while I can’t blame people for wanting to walk over Charles Bridge (Karlův Most) or watch the Old Town Hall’s Astronomical Clock chime, I was grateful to be living in the far less-frequented district of Prague 6, not only for the opportunity to speak Czech with people in the neighborhood, but also to experience a less curated version of Prague. Czech Republic MapWalking from the dorm to class, I would pass cafes and stores revealing Prague’s active place in our modern, globalized world. For example, I would walk past a cafe in which a camera crew was shooting a film and then towards a shop with Japanese groceries and gifts, all surrounded by the Czech restaurants and small shops that still dominate the neighborhood.


‘The Slav Epic’ cycle No.20: The Apotheosis of the Slavs, Slavs for Humanity (1926). Photo by Alison Knight

Most of the day in my Czech language program was devoted to classes and cultural activities, including museum visits to view Czech historical artifacts in celebration of the 700th anniversary of the reign of Charles IV and the work of Czech artists such as Alfons Mucha. It was an incredible experience to stand in front of the enormous paintings of Mucha’s Slav Epic and see figures from history like Hussite General Jan Žižka looking down from the towering canvases. But my free time in Prague is when I think the most authentic experiences were had, whether these involved visiting a cat cafe and chatting with the owner, watching a 1960s Czech musical about hop-pickers, or engaging in conversation with a waiter at a particular restaurant about the best place to learn a new language. (We told this waiter we were studying Czech and he informed us that having a beer with natives of Prague would be equally beneficial as studying in a classroom. He asked us to bring our teacher in so he could convince her as well.)

Some of the most memorable sites I saw in Prague were things I found while wandering on my way somewhere or because I selected a new route randomly. For example, while wandering through the cemetery at Vyšehrad, I chose to walk through a smaller aisle of headstones and happened upon a striking grave featuring an iron spider web and a haunting inscription but bearing only the initials of the interred. This left me quite curious, so I looked up the inscription (which was part of a longer poem) and tracked down the woman buried there, who turned out to have been a magnificent poet.

Ultimately, Prague’s famous sites are amazing in their own right and the city has beautiful architecture that is well worth traveling to see, but the city is full of so many gems and unexpected corners that wandering its streets and being open to discovering something new is the best way to experience Prague.”

Alison’s participation in this ten week Czech language program was made possible by a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship (FLAS), which pays tuition and a stipend for travel and living. Qualified graduate and undergraduate students of every major are eligible for FLAS fellowships to study abroad and also at UW. Learn more about the FLAS program and how to apply here.