Prague 8-11 May 2017
Prague has long been on our bucket list, having read that it is incredibly beautiful, full of history, crammed full of first class cuisine, the best beer in the World and much lower costs than most other European cities. All of the above is true. This is a city that uses up all the superlatives in very short order.
We arrived from Passau on the Flixbus at around 6pm and had to find a way across town to the other side of the river and the apartment we had rented for our four day stay. Despite being part of the EU, the Czech Republic does not operate on the Euro and has Czech Koruna (or Crown) as its currency with around 17 to the Aussie dollar. We decided to cash some Australian notes at the bus station, even after we had read all the warning signs about scammers giving you Hungarian notes instead of Czech and the prevalence of counterfeit currency. An official changer gave us a good rate then it was off to find a taxi.
The driver didn’t seem to have a meter and wanted a flat 400Kc for the ride. We weren’t in a position to argue though and he gave us quite running commentary of the sights, the problems with the Social Democrat Government, the traffic problems and lots more besides. He explained that our address was only a hundred metres or so from the US Embassy so the car would get checked over for bombs, even though he had been up that street three times previously that day.
Once the car had cleared the inspection, we were dropped off in a tiny one lane cobbled road outside number 8 Vlašská to await the arrival of Michal, our host. We had said we would be there at 7pm and were half an hour early but had no Czech phone SIM to ring him. By 7:10, we were getting cold and irritable so Christine prevailed on a restaurant across the road to ring for us. Michal had thought we were getting to the bus station at 7pm so he apologised and hurried over. He proved to be a very helpful young man and he showed us around the gorgeous one bedroom apartment. The apartment is in The House of Three Swallows, on the ground floor of an ancient building and had a beautiful vaulted ceiling in the kitchen and wonderful carved and decorated open beams in the sitting room.
Central Prague is roughly divided into four areas, Old Town, New Town, Castle District and ours, the Mala Strada or Little District. The surrounding streets and lane ways were simply charming, crammed full of interesting shops, wine bars, beers halls and restaurants. A few blocks away was the main tourist drag (where prices rose accordingly) which was constantly filled with walking tours and guides carrying flags on sticks. Our street was quieter but there was still a steady parade going past our front windows. Our closest big attraction was the beautiful Charles Bridge, built in the 15th Century. These days it is a walking bridge, covered with people, artists, street theatre and the like. Several beggars had regular spots on the bridge and stayed hunched over in a position reminiscent of Yoga’s “Child Pose” but I suspect it was a way of hiding their full bellies from view.
The walk across the Charles Bridge produces amazing views of the Vitava River and across to the Old Town. Each end of the bridge is guarded by a beautiful stone fort that rises majestically up and is topped by a sharp spire. The city is often nicknamed “City of a Hundred Spires” and that is certainly the impression, with multiple towers and spires being visible in most directions. The ability to build stable ten storey towers in the 11th Century is quite an impressive feat.
The Little Quarter or Mala Strada is flanked on one side by a huge parkland that would make for perfect strolling grounds amid the huge shady trees if it weren’t for one major problem. It rises almost vertically up the side of a very large hill. At the peak of the hill is the Petrin Tower, a copy of the Eiffel Tower built in 1891. It rises 382 metres above the hill and has two viewing platforms. We climbed up through the parklands, using a complex series of switchback walkways, learning later that there is a funicular railway that achieves the same end. Once there, we continued the torture by climbing the Petrin Tower (and paying quite a bit for the privilege) but the views at the top were actually worth the money and the aching legs.
The other flank of the Little Quarter is taken up with the Castle Precinct, dominated by the enormous Prague Castle, the World’s largest castle complex. We walked down the opposite side through the sprawling monastery complex towards the castle area. However, the weather had taken a turn for the worse so we abandoned plans to check out the castle and began to navigate the numerous flights of steps and alleyways heading in the general direction of home. Occasional glimpses of the Stars and Stripes heralding the US Embassy kept us on a general path and we were rather pleased with ourselves when we emerged right at the head of our little street. Along the way, of course, we had to stop for a beer and a bite to eat. A fabulous candle lit dungeon provided an excellent refuge from the now heavy rain and we were served up with delicious sausage, hot mustard and crumbed fried camembert cheese. A half litre of excellent draft beer cost us a whopping $A1.60 each. Another day, we went back to this little gem and were rewarded with marvellous goulash and slow cooked pork with dumplings and sauerkraut. The Czechs really know how to cook good cold weather food.
The following day was fine, although cold with a forecast maximum of 9 degrees. We rugged up and walked across Charles Bridge to the Old Town. It is very hard to find the words to describe the beauty of the Old Town and its incredible Town Square. Walking progress is slow at times because there is so much to stop and look at. Almost every building has something special about it and everything is different. Thousands of statues adorn the plazas or cling to the outside of the many majestic buildings. Intricate designs are etched into the plastered exterior walls, baring the underlying stone and producing some amazing effects. Many fine mosaics decorate the faces of churches and civic buildings, often using small cubes of glass to produce the designs. So much of the finery in other cities dates from the 18th Century but here it shows off how advanced the culture was as far back as the 12th Century.
On the walls of the Town Hall tower is a famous astronomical clock which simultaneously shows the time in normal 24 hour time as well as complex movements of the sun and moon along with time on the old Bohemian timescale. Given that the original clock was manufactured in 1410 it is a remarkable mechanism.
The sheer concentration of well maintained ancient buildings is down to the fact that Prague survived World War II largely unscathed. In fact, there was probably more damage and neglect arising from the years of communism and Soviet domination than anything else. Evidence of ongoing restoration and repair work is everywhere but, equally, there is plenty left to do. The beautiful city is not quite in the same state of maintenance as Turin or Milan but the hordes of tourists are bringing in the dollars and things will change rapidly. The Czech Republic has a strong economy with the lowest rate of unemployment in the EU so big public works are part of the way of life.
After wandering the Old Town and the adjoining Jewish quarter, we hopped onto a tram without really knowing where it was going. We had bought a three day pass to the public transport system and so far hadn’t used it so a jaunt on the trams seemed like a good idea. It is a great way to cover big parts of the city. The tram stops display very good maps of the city and the tram lines so the only hard part is figuring out which way the trams were headed. Only once did we get it wrong and then it was just a matter of getting off and swapping sides. Some of the trams are ultra modern jobs while others are rattling remnants of the communist era. We roamed around on one tram somewhere up behind the castle until we spied a large supermarket and a post office, both on our list, and jumped off. Our chores complete, we consulted the map, chose a tram number and were very pleased when we managed to get off only a couple of hundred metres from home.
On our last full day in Prague, the weather was fine and the temperature up to a warming 15 degrees so we climbed the dreaded hill once more to Prague Castle. We found the main entrance gates into what looked to be a somewhat uninspiring courtyard, a series of large mostly 18th and 19th Century buildings well adorned with carvings and statues but not particularly special. Once through the security checks on the gate and inside the enclosure, things changed quickly. The castle as such is really an enormous complex of buildings of all ages, fortifications, plazas chapels and totally dominated by the massive St Vitus Cathedral. We have said it a few times before in Europe but this is the most impressive church yet for us. Much of the building dates from the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in the 14th Century and is an amazing example of a gothic cathedral with beautiful stained glass work and majestic supporting columns. We spent more time here than we usually do in the churches. We spent even more time outside just viewing the building’s finery from all angles. It is truly inspiring.
We had followed the advice of the guide books and arrived at the castle early, giving ourselves time to move around and explore the huge grounds in relative peace before the big crowds arrived. As we worked our way back to the entrance, the going got harder with a sea of people and selfie sticks coming at us. We pushed through and skirted around the castle into the palace gardens to wander amongst the many fine trees planted there. It proved most informative because we had wondered at many of the trees we had seen so far on our travels and the botanical garden section managed to name most of the ones we had encountered to date.
From the castle we caught a tram back down the hill to our apartment for a bite to eat, finding a great little deli to buy some rolls and mortadella. Then it was off back across Charles Bridge to a funny little shop called Prague Dolls that specialsed in Miska Dolls, the nesting kind. They had sets of dolls featuring AFL teams so we bought one of the West Coast Eagles, with Priddis, Gaff, Shuey, Sheed and Mastin. We got a set for Rob too and a Dockers one for Yvette. We realise that a set of AFL dolls is a pretty weird memento of Prague but they were so cute we couldn’t resist.
Then we headed into the New Town area. Even though some of the buildings in the New Town are still many hundreds of years old, the newer influences are all there, with a few glass and steel jobs and quite a few bland and boring 1950s and 60s boxes. What is impressive are a couple of huge wide open boulevards, intersecting the streets and opening up the city with some lovely vistas. The best known of these is Wenceslaus Square, not really a square as such but long avenue largely closed to vehicles. One end was crowded with people around a free concert to promote Cancer Awareness.
We walked some more before stopping at a terrific little bar for a beer and fried onion rings. Christine was showing signs of spitting the dummy on more walking so we got on a tram to work our way home. After around 10 stops we decided that the tram was going the wrong way but we had seen lots of interesting things and it was a simple matter to switch trams and ride back. Eventually, we did get off a little early so we could walk and scope out some eateries for later that night.
Our apartment hosts drove us to the airport, picking us up at 5.15am, and charging a fraction of what a taxi would have cost. We ended up giving both our hosts and the apartment a rave review because the place was fantastic, especially the location. Prague and The House of Three Swallows will be talked about for years to come.
House of Three Swallows
359/8 Vlašská 118 00 Praha, Czechia