Pork Knee's and Beer Cheese... We Love Praha!
Trip Start Apr 14, 2011
65Trip End Nov 16, 2011
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Introducing guest bloggers Mark and Sandie...
Sunday 16th October began quite early. Who can wait for the alarm when it is set to go off seconds after you've fallen asleep? Five arrived and an hour later so did the taxi to take us to T5 as we have learnt to call it.
The dense fog seemed insignificant until shortly after seven when we realised that we had gone past the take-off time, while waiting at gate A 22. A graduate of both flying school and charm school, the pilot addressed the passengers of BA 0854 much as Mark Anthony may have addressed the citizens of Rome. The fog at Heathrow meant no flying and anyway, there was fog at Prague too! We frantically "texted" everybody we knew in Prague. A little too premature because as the gloom lifted, so did the pilot’s ambition and we got away only 75 minutes late. “Everybody” included Oliver and Lisa and a very old work friend called George from SGS days in Moscow. Plans had changed and Lisa advised that we would now be safe in the hands of Venables Tours, a trusted and reliable tour operator from Italy.
BA service is not what it was and the single canapé offering at 35,000ft did not replace the breakfast missed in Egham earlier in the day. By the time we were installed in the apartment, met George and later his wife Hana, and found a suitable table most of us could have eaten a horse.
Oliver had researched a Czech delicacy and four were ordered. George and I were more restrained and ordered a simple dish of chicken and potato. We had arrived in Prague or Praha and the beer flowed. Then large pieces of animal appeared on mini spits mounted on wooden platters and a post mortem revealed them to be pigs’ knees! Do the maths. If we were eating four pigs’ knees, did that mean that some poor old porker was left literally without a leg to stand on? The restaurant called U Vejvodu was at the bottom of our street and it won 2nd best in the 2009 contest for the best pub guide. Inside has many levels, vaulted ceilings and knickknacks on the walls. The building is pre-Hussite and dates from 1403. George and Hana then took us on a mini tour of Prague which included Tesco, Mozart’s House and some good places to eat. The rest of Sunday is lost in the mists of tiredness!
Monday dawned bright blue and clear and promised to be a great day in a truly attractive city.
We had agreed the previous evening to join a free tour of the city organised by Sandeman and met the guide in the Old Town Square outside Starbucks, yes dear reader, they have got everywhere! This was a great idea. Not just because our guide Michael was knowledgeable and sometimes passionate about his subject but we saw and heard things about Prague and the Czech people that we would have missed by going DIY. Trip Advisor will be updated with very positive feedback.
We even became a little addicted to watching a metal cockerel together with hundreds of other tourists below the world famous astronomical clock. You have to go there yourself if you want to know more. We learnt about Adam and Eve, the twin towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, the interior is Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque (unfortunately locked during our visit), Old Town Square and the many acts of cruelty, The Powder Gate c 1475 (last remaining city gates), Municipal House (Prague’s most prominent art nouveau building built from 1905-1911, the street of the Black Madonna and the cubist building next door, Wenceslas Square, the scene of many key events in recent history (here when Jan Palach burnt himself to death in 1969, and in November 1989, a protest rally against government brutally led to the velvet revolution and the end of communism, The Frans Kafta statue depicting the main character from one of his best known surreal novels, the Jewish Quarter and the Old New Synagogue which allegedly contains a Golem and a young SS officer in the loft (???), the Jewish Cemetery which over the centuries has risen from the earlier levels when the quarter was basically a swamp next to the river. The people were prevented from using any more land and burials took place over existing graves.
From the area of New Jewish Town you could look across the Vltava up on to the side of the hill in Letna Gardens and see a flat plinth where once Stalin’s monument stood from 1951 – 1962 when it was blown up with 800kg of explosives.
Lastly, Michael explained the last days of World War II when large numbers of German troops were trapped by advancing Allied and Russian soldiers. Prague was spared any wholesale damage during the War, in part because it was one of the longest occupied cities (from 1938) and in part because The Little Corporal happened to like the place. General Eisenhower also ordered General Patton not to enter Prague which helped.
It’s very easy to collect large numbers of leaflets and flyers as you walk around Prague. City sites, entertainment and more is advertised in this way. Not a city in which to get bored. For our late lunch, we returned to the scene of the crime of the previous afternoon and discovered beer cheese and more beer. Strangely, in this city, Coca Cola costs more than beer.
Monday evening ended both literally and metaphorically behind the Iron Curtain. Oliver and I went to a basement bar where the beer was 12 Kc a glass (nearly a pint) until the barrel runs out. Unfortunately, the staff were also from that part of the world and did not seem to be enjoying the experience and so a second beer was not ordered. (It’s said the Czech people don’t smile unless they aren’t working – well there’s a few UK residents like that as well).
Home cooked chicken in the bag (a Venables Tours speciality) and a pile of potato croquets turned the apartment into a sauna (slightly iffy oven) but went down well and gave us all a satisfied glow.
Tuesday dawned amazingly fine, clear and crisp again – what’s all this, we must go with Venables Tours again they seem to have some influence over the weather!
We started out at 10:00 from the apartment to walk to Charles Bridge and up to the Castle. This bridge dates from 1357 and replaced the Judith Bridge which was swept away. There are 31 statues but they didn’t start appearing until 1638, then I guess everyone wanted in on the act. One of the statues is John of Nepomuk, which has the reputation of giving people good luck if you rub it, although we had it on good authority from Michael the guide, you are only supposed to rub the one showing John being thrown off the bridge and not the one with the dog – Lisa and I duly did as told so let’s hope it’s true. Personally I think it’s just a ruse to get the brass cleaned myself and people often rub both for good measure. It’s a wonderful bridge with lovely views of the other historic landmarks on the Praha skyline. Praha really is a truly beautiful city. Bridge crossed - now to find the Castle or should I say the way in. Up and up we tramped not too many signposts on route but instincts led us to the right entrance arriving a short time before the Changing of the Guards. Should we wait and see how they faired in comparison to our dear Queens at Buck House, let’s just say there’s no competition but the break gave us time to recover from the hike.
We plumped for the 4 attraction ticket, St Vitus’s Cathedral, Royal Palace, St George’s Basilica and Golden Lane plus free stop at the Dalibor Tower for a bit of torture.
First stop St Vitus’s Cathedral just how did they build these amazing places? Started in 1344 it was only completed in 20th century – one should probably say evolved instead of built as there are various architectural styles and fashions including a beautiful Alfons Mucha stained glass window and St Wenceslas Chapel with it’s amazing Gothic frescoes, gilt work and walls which are a patchwork of polished gemstones. Very different to anything we’ve seen on holidays abroad to date.
At last time for 'Venables Tours’ packed lunch baguette specials, the trendy 2 ended variety, egg & ham and egg & cheese. The thing we noticed all over the city, considering the hords of tourists, everywhere was clean and free from rubbish – a real joy these days as the UK does look like a rubbish dump at times.
Next stop for ticket punching was The Royal Palace which had a huge hall, still used for dinners and concerts today, with a wonderful vaulted ceiling in which I could see faces – the rest of my family thought I’d been on the sauce and had started seeing things which weren’t there – thankfully they became clear to all, they of little faith. What also caught our notice were the 17th Century Dutch stoves, which were used for heating and still are. They’re huge green majolica ceramic objects but are amazingly quite effective. The thing we will all take with us from the building is the ‘Defenestration’ of 1618 – (great word, introduced to us by Michael – it means throwing out of windows) the way radicals tried to rid themselves of a couple of opposing councillors. Amazingly they survived by landing in a huge heap of dung at the bottom of the moat although this sparked the 30 Years War.
Time for a drink – wow! A drink each were truly the most expensive drinks we’ve probably ever had but only disguised as 2 latte’s, hot chocolate and a beer at 320 Kc bearing in mind we’re used to paying 32.50 Kc (28 Kc to the £) the beer was 95Kc alone…………….
Onward and upward to St George’s Basilica completely Baroque from the outside but truly simple inside and although there has been some reconstruction there are areas of the original medieval frescos to be seen - a wonderfully calm place. Briefly visiting the dungeons, never the nicest places to see humanity in action but possibly essential in the days of yore we moved swiftly on to our final visit Golden Lane, luckily for us it had been restored and reopened again this year. This Medieval street of 11 houses built in the late 16th century was built for archers and their families but later inhabited by artisans including Alchemists and as an 18th century legend has it he truly made gold but in the process blew himself up. At one time Frans Kafta lived at No: 22 and found the simplicity and quiet conducive to his writing (a bit weird).
We wandered back to the apartment and had a short breather and then went the shortest distance so far to the top of the ally to Blatnice restaurant for dinner. Set menu’s for the day had more than enough choice for either 129Kc, 169Kc or 199Kc. Traditional Goulash soup, Roast duck, ribs, and rabbit with potato dumplings were amongst the offerings. We shared the restaurant with a large party of Japanese tourists who constantly took photos of themselves eating and drinking dark beer and clapping each other. They entered before us and left long before we did with many glasses of beer virtually untouched – Japanese don’t do beer!
A leisurely stroll to Wenceslas’ Square to suss out the whereabouts of the Communist Museum on the itinerary for the following day and to pick up more beer!
Later start Wednesday as we are going posh – tickets had been brought for the Opera but more of that later. Mark & I popped out to Tesco’s, like you do, to pick up a snack evening meal for after the performance as lunch would be taken out much later in the day to span the hours between eating, opera and getting back to home. Oliver & Lisa arrived at 12 noon with Poppy under Oliver’s jacket so the apartment wouldn’t smell of puppy all day. Unfortunately for Poppy the dreaded puppy rain coat would make its appearance later. Back to Wenceslas’ Square and round the corner to the Communist Museum where going through the history and watching a film we still couldn’t really appreciate what it must be like to not have your country to yourself. Let’s hope no one again wants to take over this historic country. Also on our list was the Alfons Mucha Museum, I’ve been a fan of his since art school but hadn’t really appreciated how modern, commercial and creative he really was until now. Being known for helping to found the Art Nouveau movement he had also surrounded himself with other famous artists and actors while in Paris but still truly loved his own Czech homeland.
Having enjoyed our dinner yesterday, we decided to return to Blatnice for our late lunch. Ringing the changes meant that Lisa and I had goulash in a bun (actually a small cottage loaf hollowed out and filled with Czech beef stew) and Sandie had duck. Oliver however had ribs again!!! The only strange dish was a glass of red Martini for a starter!
By 6 pm it was off to the opera at the State Opera House at the top of Wenceslas Square for their version of the Barber of Seville. Venables Tours had organised the tickets as part of their Praha experience. The building is magnificent with gilded statues and baroque decoration. If you have left your Italian phrase book at home, the Company very helpfully provide an English translation above the stage. The seats were very central and we had not only a grand view of the opera but also some of the many local people dressed in their finest for the occasion. The plot was of course about a love triangle and misunderstandings galore. A glass of bubbly at half time finished a truly lovely evening. Happily the rain had stopped when we came out.
Our last day (Thursday 20th October) dawned dry and clear once again. Not much to record except for a very amusing performance from a Czech learner driver on route to the airport. Venables Tours delivered us to the airport and we said our goodbyes. Praha is too big and beautiful to be seen in just four days. We know or at least think we know what we missed and know that we must return.
Seeing Oliver and Lisa was good too! They had set up Venables Tours HQ on an island a tram ride away from the centre of the city. Getting to meet us and getting back in the evening seemed so simple.
Poppy remains our favourite dog of all time.