Thursday, August 12, 2010

Farewell Prague

We spent a glorious week in Prague. I think January was the perfect time to visit - it wasn't inundated with throngs of tourists, the Charles Bridge still endured its barrage of artists, musicians and beggars keen to make a crown or two but it wasn't seething with sightseers - it was a joy to cross. It would be fun to see this city in all of its glory in springtime but I'm not sure I could cope with the masses.
Would I return - absolutely. And what would I do? I would make a date with the Black Light Theatre (in retrospect, I think we should have listened to our friends' advice and taken in a performance), I would go on the Communism Walk (it covers the communist era and the most important events of the 20th century including the occupation of Prague by the Nazis in March 1939) and I would soak up the sounds of a Mozart Christmas Concert inside the ancient Church of St Martin in the Wall. What would I recommend? Definitely the scenic cruise down the Vltava River, time-out in St Nicolas' Church and a tour of the Jewish Quarter...and take a walk up to the Absinth Shop (Uvoz 1, Praha 1) where you'll watch the art of making an absinth drink and you're treated to a sample of this heart-starter. Such fun!

Next stop: overnight in Rome then onto Florence.

Astronomical Clock

I have to admit it was what I refer to as a Mona Lisa Moment when I finally caught the clock in motion. I don't know what I was expecting - maybe a little more activity, maybe a few more characters popping out of its edifice, but it was splendid just the same.

Located in the oldest Gothic part of Old Town, the Astronomical Clock (early 15th century) features 12 apostles which appear every hour between 9am and 9pm. The bottom portion of the clock is supplemented with a round calendarium which including the signs of the zodiac. It is the main meeting place for guided tours and a key tourist attraction.
You can't miss simply can't miss it (in more ways than one!). I've purposely not included an image of the clock in full action - why spoil the surprise. Go to Prague and experience it for yourselves!

Haunted happenings

Ghost trails are big business in Prague with the city's Old Town streets and alleys providing the perfect backdrop for tales of haunted happenings. Prague is 'besieged' by infamous spirits and, according to some locals, it has the dubious distinction of being the most haunted city in Europe. There are walking tours aplenty and whether or not we made the right decision, we opted for McGee's Ghost Tours of Prague. Maybe the name McGee's should have rung the warning bell - sounds like an Irish comedy doesn't it? At the appointed hour, layered with our thermals and thicker than thick coats, we ventured out into the Old Town Square for our arranged meeting with the Man with the Red Umbrella. As fate would have it, we were the only two crazy enough to wander the city streets in the freezing cold at night in search of paranormal activity. I admit it would have been difficult to get into the spirit (pardon the pun) of things when there are only two observers on the ghoulish adventure but the ghost hunter was witty and enthusiastic, much to our surprise. The fact that he was an American ghost hunter took the gloss of the experience a little - I think it would have been more tantalising had he spewed forth his narrative with a strong Czech accent. At 9pm, from our meeting place under the Astronomical Clock, we ventured forth to explore "the darker side of Prague" following our ghost hunter's lantern as he lead the way down narrow lanes, twisting corridors and passages that lead to nowhere, past ancient structures, haunted churches and legendary theatres that have "birthed many of Hollywood's monsters". Our American ghost hunter and paranormal investigator spoke of mass executions, homicidal thieves, and Gothic creatures whetting our apetite for as many gruesome tales that he could dish up. Check out for a full rundown of his "bone chillin' ride". We took this tour in the middle of an icey Prague winter...perhaps in summer the tour is packed, but I rather liked having this wicked gent all to ourselves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

History with views

Old Town Bridge Tower is a gem of a location. Not only will you learn about Prague's history (tower incorporates a museum and slide show) but climb to the very top (the parapet) and you will be privy to a spectacular panorama of the city.

View from the castle hill

Following our castle and cathedral tour, we made our way back to the city via the castle's hilltop vineyard. From this vantage point you are afforded a bird's eye of Prague.

Gothic glory

Prague Castle and its cathedral tower above Prague from the long hill known as Hradcany. Prague isn't the easiest city when it comes to disciphering the language so we opted to join a tour group and bused our way to the castle precinct. This proved to be a clever move as the guide regaled us with wonderful snippets, intelligent answers and quirky tales as we meandered through the castle grounds and wandered inside St Vitus's Cathedral (pictured) and its silver-laden St Wenceslas' Chapel. The cathedral is an ornate yet medieval masterpiece with is towering spires and beautiful stained-glass windows and gargoyles. Originally the residence of Bohemian royalty, today the castle is a political stronghold and the seat of the modern-day Czech government, overseen by its President.

The Jewish Quarter

Heart-wrenching and truly unforgettable, the Jewish Quarter is a must-see for anyone visiting Prague. Known as Josefov - the Jewish Quarter encompasses a number of wonderful historic sights including the Maisel, Spanish, Klaus and Pinkas Synagogues but for me, the most emotionally moving part of our journey was the Old Jewish Cemetery - walking in silent reverence as the snow crunched loudly under the weight of our boots. Here we were surrounded by hundreds of graves and their crumbling, leaning headstones...testament to the treatment of the Jews who were confined to their own ghetto, even in death.

Winter Hungries

It's amazing how winter gets the tummy rumbling. Whenever His Lordship and I have travelled in the past it's always been during the summer months. Europe in June/July can be pretty hot - I remember one time in Rome it was 40 degrees; an absolute scorcher! This holiday is such a breath of fresh air for me because I simply love the cold. Add snow, hot toddies and man-sized meals and I'm simply in heaven. However, it seems in Prague walking the tourist track is considerably more pleasurable than wearing the boots of a working Czech. On our first day in Prague, while walking the streets in search of a cosy lunch retreat, we passed some poor sod handing out his business card trying top get customers into the restaurant he was promoting. I later learned he would only be paid commission if we actually went into the restaurant and ordered a meal. It was freezing cold that day and he looked as though he was almost turning blue. Tough way to make a crown.

Prague is a haven for foodies. We dined out every lunch, dinner and in-between meal snacks. Each day was kick-started with a generous continental breakfast consisting of bread rolls, sliced meats and cheeses washed down with a hot beverage - daily ritual which took place in our hotel's cosy dining room. Although our bellies were always full after breakfast it's amazing how often you're inspired to duck into a restaurant or cafe or tavern for a quick bite to eat, glass or two of red and platter of mixed cheeses.

Marie Teresie Restaurant is a wonderful introduction to Prague fare. Their menu is extensive, presented in six languages, and each dish is numbered so there's no possible mix-up when the waiter is taking your order. We opted for traditional Czech cuisine.

His Lordship ordered the veprovy gulas krusovice (hearty pork goulash) and I chose selska veprova (a big slab of cooked-to-perfection farmer's roast leg of pork served with white and red cabbage); we also added houskove (white bread dumplings) to our dishes. These plump doughy additions helped to mop up the left-over gravy on our plates.

Another food destination we highly recommend is Potrefena Husa - a Czech pub with lashings of modernity. We heard of the pub through staff at our hotel - this is their local 'watering hole' and the place where they meet their friends after work. On a snow-laden winter's night there's nothing better than tucking into a cob of bread that has had it's soft centre removed and replaced by a generous serve of hot, thick potato soup. His Lordship ordered a goulash version - sensational! (pictured) Needless to say, after a feast of that size we both opted to take a leisurely walk across Charles Bridge. Although there were other equally good eating places (namely Old Town Square's Hotel Cerna Liska - for pea & pork knuckle soup; Pivnice U Kata which is conveniently next door to our hotel Tri Bubnu - for soup that was so thick you could stick a spoon in and it would almost stay upright on its own; and for a quick pick-me-up afternoon glass of red and cheese plate U Pavouka - it is wonderful medieval tavern) on our last night in Prague we returned to Potrefena Husa to try the house specialties - I chose the 1-kilo pork knuckle (that's right ... and no, I couldn't finish it all) served with a crunchy crackling crust, mustard, gherkin and fresh horseradish and His Lordship opted for the grilled duck breast with glazed shallots, mashed potatoes and plumb sauce. We washed this huge meal down with a few glasses of Frankovaka red and went to bed feeling well and truly bursting at the sides. Although we happily succumbed to every restaurant's goulash or port offering, after one week of this winter food I was looking forward to our next destination for a change of pace.

Just a thought: most of the restaurants mentioned above should have websites if you're keen to check them out.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Me Myself + Prague

OK so we've landed in Prague and arrived at our hotel - and it is picture perfect! The Hotel & Residence U Tri Bubnu at U Radnice 8, 10 Prague 1 is in The Old Town and literally just around the corner from the Old Town Square (pictured). I know we opted for a typically touristy spot but it's so central to everything including the Palladium Shopping Centre which was very handy when I needed to purchase a thicker coat to ward off the minus two degrees icy chills. Family friends who have been to Prague twice before recommended this hotel; they also suggested we should catch a performance at the Black Light Theatre. I know it's a specialty of Prague's but it just didn't grab my attention. And when you have only a week in a city it's important you cull your list and prioritise to ensure you see those 'musts' first. If you want to know more about the Black Light Theatre there are plenty of sites on the web which will give you a detailed overview supported by a plethora of images taken by countless amateur photographers.