Enjoying Prague

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

12.8.09/12.9.09     Continuing To Enjoy Prague

Yesterday (12.8.09) was a very cold, very rainy day in Prague.  After breakfast at our hotel, we headed out for Josefov (Old Jewish Quarter), this time walking a different route to get there (and again, stopping a few times along the way to enjoy some local churches, like the Church of St. Petra). 

Josefov, Prague's former Jewish ghetto, contains about half a dozen old synagogues, a town hall, a ceremonial hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery (in a grotesquely ironic act, the Nazis "spared" these buildings to be a “museum of the extinct race” – but instead, they have survived as a memorial to seven centuries of oppression). All of the synagogues except the Old-New Synagogue (which is still used for services) have been converted to exhibition halls and galleries, containing what is probably the world’s biggest collection of Jewish artifacts.

Once we got to the Pinkas Synagogue (also the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery), we had to wait in line in the rain for quite a while to buy our combo tickets to the Josefov area.  Our first stop, of course, was touring the Pinkas Synagogue (Pinkasova Synagoga), built in 1535 and used for worship until the 1940s.  After World War II, Pinkas was converted into a powerful memorial, with the names, birthdays, and dates of disappearance of the over-77,000 Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Nazis inscribed across wall after wall.  This synagogue also contained a gallery of paintings and drawings by children held in the Terezin concentration camp during WWII, which was quite powerful.  

After viewing Pinkas, we entered and walked through the Old Jewish Cemetery (Stary Zidovski Hrbitov) located just outside.  Founded in the 15th century, this is Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery – truly a monument to dignity in the face of great suffering.  It is a serene and mournful place, even after two centuries of disuse (it was closed in 1787).  The cemetery itself contains approximately 12,000 crumbling stones – some heaped one nearly on top of another – but underneath these stones there are as many as 100,000 graves, buried in layers because of space limitations.  It really is something to behold.     

Just past the exit from the Old Jewish Cemetery, we entered the Ceremonial Hall (Obradni Sin), which was built in 1906 as a museum of Jewish traditions.  Interesting.  From there, we walked the short distance to the Klaus Synagogue.  This synagogue was built in 1694, and also contains a vast collection of artifacts relating to Jewish traditions, such as ceremonies of birth, death, worship, and special holy days.  It was a very informative exhibition.

After the Ceremonial Hall and the Klaus Synagogue, we passed by the Old-New Synagogue (but didn’t tour the inside, given the extra admission price) on our rainy walk to the Spanish Synagogue, the latter so named because of its absolutely gorgeous Moorish interior (archways of gold and other brilliant colors, painted in swirling, geometric patterns).  Built in 1868, this building now contains an exhibit on Jews in the Czech Republic from emancipation to the present day.

After all our touring in the rain, but before leaving the Old Jewish Quarter, we stopped for some refreshments at Café Franz Kafka (hah) – lattes to warm up, and delicious, traditional Czech apple strudel just for kicks.  From there, we took the Metro back to Nove Mesto (the New Town) and Wenceslas Square, so we could view this massive “square” in the daytime (albeit the gray and rainy daytime!).

Wenceslas Square (Vaclavak) is a huge, rectangular area several city blocks long.  It served as a horse market in medieval times, and has been the site of a great deal of Czech history since then (e.g., university student Jan Pallach set fire to himself here in January 1969, in protest of the Warsaw Pact invasion; in 1989, Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel declared the end of communism from a balcony overlooking the square).  Wenceslas Square is flanked at one end by the beautiful National Museum; the rest of the square is lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes.

After walking around Wenceslas a bit, we grabbed lunch at Bon Vita Restaurant, where I finally got a little “Mexican” food (sort of – an avocado salad and a quesadilla; Murray had Russian soup and a pork knee with cabbage.  Beer?  Yes, beer!).  We also stopped for some ice cream on the way to take the Metro back to the hotel.

After some rest (me) and a rainy walk (Murray), we decided that tonight was a great movie night!  Along with Mexican food, I have been craving going to a movie (and, of course, having popcorn – amazing what you miss when you don’t have it, isn’t it?), so off we went!  It was a nice, relaxing way to spend a cold Prague evening.  We saw “Law Abiding Citizen,” a psychological thriller with Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx (not a great one to see when you’re pregnant – very violent! – but decent for what it was).  Interestingly, along with regular “salty” popcorn, this Czech theater also sold “bacon cheddar” popcorn – and, to Murray’s delight, beer!  We had a good time.

Today (12.9.09), I was up very, very early (3:30am) with no hope of getting back to sleep (is this the insomnia/pregnancy thing that people have warned me about?!) – so after another hour in bed, tossing and turning, I finally showered, dressed, and made my way to the lobby armed with our computer.  I spent a few hours catching up on some journaling until Murray joined me around 7:30 for breakfast together.  Afterward, we took the Metro to Prague’s main train station, where we validated our Euro Rail passes for tomorrow’s train ride to Bratislava.  We then caught our first tram in Prague (clean, modern, and quiet!) from the train station back to the Mala Strana (the Small Quarter) to do more exploring there.

We first walked around Malostranske Namesti (the Small Quarter Square), which is actually two different squares, and toured the beautiful churches of St. Francis Carolus and St. Nicholas (a different church from the one with the same name on Old Town Square!). 

The biggest tourist attraction in the Mala Strana – and actually, the most visited and popular site in all of Prague – is the grand Prague Castle, which sits high on a mountaintop and overlooks the entire city.  We walked up a few steep side streets of the Mala Strana until we got to the Castle Steps (Zamecke Schody), at the top of which sits the Czech Parliament House (Snemovna), seat of the lower house of today’s parliament and also the national assembly.  When we got to Parliament House, there was some sort of ceremony about to begin, so we watched as a few cars pulled up and the occupants got out and were serenaded by a military marching band and other guards before entering the building (we think it might’ve been a greeting ceremony for the Thai President).  It was neat to watch!

From Parliament House, we walked the short distance to the entrance of the Prague Castle (by this point, we were very COLD, as we were on a mountaintop with no shelter from the wind!).  The first courtyard contains several impressive gates and a few galleries and museums; we didn’t spend a lot of time there.  The second courtyard is more impressive, with a huge baroque fountain, a 17th century well with Renaissance lattice work, and the small but lovely Chapel of the Holy Cross (once the treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral).  Finally, the third courtyard of the Prague Castle complex brought us right to the entrance of St. Vitus Cathedral, a huge and impressive Gothic cathedral – and the largest church in the Czech Republic!

The building of St. Vitus Cathedral began in 1344 but wasn’t fully completed until 1929!  It is a blend of French- and late-Gothic styles, with Renaissance and baroque architecture thrown in for good measure.  The doorways to the cathedral are really cool; they are decorated with rich, intricate historical and Biblical scenes. 

Inside, St. Vitus Cathedral is cavernous, made with white marble and containing sweeping archways and a criss-cross-arched ceiling.  It also contains both traditional and modern stained glass windows, which are stunning.  Of its numerous side chapels, the most magnificent is the Chapel of St. Wenceslas (kaple sv Vaclava), adorned with frescoes trimmed in gold, and throughout displaying nearly 1,500 semiprecious stones.  Just outside this chapel, a small door, locked with seven locks, hides a staircase to the Coronation Chamber, where the Czech crown jewels are held!  (No, we couldn’t go up to see them – unfortunately, they’re only available for public viewing once or twice a year…) 

After exiting the cathedral, we walked on to St. George Square, the small plaza behind St. Vitus.  We took a look inside the small Basilica of St. George (Bazilika Sv Jiri), established in the 10th century by the father of St. Wenceslas.  This basilica is allegedly the Czech Republic’s best-preserved Romanesque structure.  It is a great little place, and inside is the tomb of St. Ludmilla, grandmother of Duke Wenceslas. 

Before leaving the Prague Castle complex altogether (via the Golden Lane, a quaint little street with tiny, colorful cottages where artists such as Kafka and Jaroslav Seifert lived in the 18th and 19th centuries), we stopped at a few lookout points for more great views of Prague before walking down another set of castle steps and jumping on the Metro back to Republic Square.  During Murray’s walk yesterday, he had come across this little restaurant/pub with an Australian connection, called “Tlusta Koala”, that he wanted us to try out in that square.  We enjoyed delicious food there (and Murray enjoyed another great beer)!  For starters, Murray had a mixed bean soup and I had a salad – and for mains, he had a “poacher’s plate” of mixed meats with rice, and I had a chicken/red bean chili.  It was wonderful comfort food on this cold, rainy day!

Before heading back to our hotel for a while, we stopped in at the huge mall off of Republic Square and went to “Mothercare”, a maternity/children’s shop, so I could buy a belly pillow and a few other pregnancy necessities (haha).  Afterward, I took a nap while Murray took our netbook to the hotel pub to surf the Internet and drink a few beers.

After my rest, we walked a short distance down the street for dinner, to a place Murray also had seen yesterday on his walk to the post office – the Pivovarsky Dum Brewery and Restaurant.  Let me tell you – this place was awesome!  From the get-go, it was lively and jam-packed with people, but we finally managed to find two open bar stools in their basement beer cellar.  We ordered a few drinks and our food from the waiter, but soon enough, we were introduced to the owner of the brewery, who had jumped behind the downstairs bar. 

His microbrewery offers seven kinds of Czech-style classic beers, as well as a few specialty beers like banana beer and coffee beer!  Murray had several dark beers before the owner persuaded him (via several free samples!) to try a lighter beer.  Before he found out I was pregnant, the owner – in his broken English – also teased me about only drinking water in the presence of such good beer!  He poured me a tiny glass of his “Christmas Vanilla Special” beer to try, and it was delicious.  Medium-bodied and sweet (yet not overly so), with hints of vanilla, cream, and spice – it was so wonderful and unusual!  (It’s also the first taste of beer I’ve had since this summer – another reason to love it!) 

The food at this brewery was also outstanding – we started with salads and beef dumpling soups, and then I had “Grandpa’s Sausage and Beans” while Murray had pork tenderloins with spaetzle and sauerkraut.  For dessert, we enjoyed the owner’s own homemade beer cake (uh-huh, and YUM). 

We stayed at this place for a while, really enjoying the vibe and our new friendship with the owner!  Halfway through our meal, a bunch of New Yorkers sat down at the bar next to us, so it was fun to chat with them, too.  Later on in the evening, the owner gave me a small sample of his “Samp,” or beer champagne.  Again, it was lovely – but I had to share it with the New Yorkers because I didn’t want to drink too much more than the taste I’d already had.  (Meanwhile, the owner was pouring more “samples” left and right for Murray, including his own “black and tan” combination, which was really good – as reported to me by Murray!).

We finally had to pull ourselves away from the place, say our goodbyes, and head back to our hotel for a late bedtime.  Tomorrow, it’s off to Bratislava to see my brother and sister-in-law.  I can’t wait!

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