Day 28 and 29 – Prague

Trip Start Aug 01, 2013
Trip End Jan 15, 2014

Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Friday, August 30, 2013

It has been a few weeks since we last posted a travel journal – finding no time and energy to write as vacation time has come to an end and we had to work again when not traveling and sightseeing. So this posting will be the first of several more that we need to do to "catch up" with where we are – which is India at the moment.  After this description of our time in Prague, there will still be journals about our visits to Stockholm, Riga, and Moscow before we even get to our time in India.

It was about a seven hour train ride from Budapest to Prague in a second class compartment in an older Slovakian train.  It was nice scenery in Hungary, Bratislava, and the Czech Republic, but nothing spectacular.  We had the shades drawn to try to keep cool for much of the ride.  Riding the train in Europe is nice, convenient, and comfortable, but sometimes they really need to improve their air conditioning.  After all those hours of sleeping, playing games, writing journal/blog updates, and listening to music and podcasts, we arrived at the central train station in Prague (Praha Hlani Nvradi).   As our train pulled into the city, we could already see its old European beauty.  We had arranged pickup at the airport with the apartment rental service we were using, so we were met by a man holding a sign with our names on it and then hopped in his car to go to our apartment rental.  It was nice not having to look up transit and walking directions to the apartment, and the pickup also made obtainment of our keys and entry into the apartment easier.

The apartment was located in a neighborhood of Prague called Vinohrady – which means vineyard in Czech.  Apparently, there used to be vineyards located in the area, and it was home to wealthy people.  Now, Vinohrady is still an upscale district of Prague, but it is filled with apartment and condo buildings, shops, cafes, and restaurants.  Our apartment on Manesova Street was right next to a nice little park with a subway stop in it, a large church at the other end, and a busy outdoor market.  We could take the subway into the old town areas, or we could walk – Prague is a bit smaller than Budapest and the old town and tourist attractions are less spread out.  Unlike our apartment in Budapest, we didn't have to deal with multiple locking gates – much easier entrance into the apartment.  It was nice enough inside, and would serve as a comfortable home base for our few days in Prague.

After setting our stuff down in the apartment, we needed to get dinner.  We walked around the Vinohrady neighborhood and saw several options, and finally settled on the not-very-Czech option of Vietnamese food.  We had pho, springrolls, and eggrolls, and it was good.  We then made our way back to the apartment to rest up for a few hours before heading to a local bar to get a drink.  I had some Czech beer – a pilsner of some kind – and I didn’t think it was great.  I was too spoiled by the abbey beer of Belgium and the wheat beers of Germany.  It was a quiet bar, and we left soon after I finished my beer.  That was the end of our first night in Prague.

After waking up the next morning, we started our day by checking out the outdoor market at the park next to us.  It was not a very large market, stretching out only about 40 meters or so and maybe 20 meters wide, but it was quite busy.  There were all kinds of pastries, fresh produce, charcuterie and other meats, cheeses, flowers, and some scary looking vats and trays of fermented and pickled dishes that seemed similar to sauerkraut.  We only partook of some pastries before heading down into the subway to catch a ride to a stop near the Charles Bridge.

The Charles Bridge is perhaps the most famous attraction in Prague.  It crosses over the Vlatava River from one part of Old Town to the most enchanting and scenic part of Prague, which is on a large hill and crowned by the area known as 'Prague Castle’.  Construction of the Charles Bridge started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished in the early 1400s.  It is 621 meters long and 10 meters wide, and lined on both sides by beautiful statues.  There are impressive medieval gates on both sides of the bridge, and as you walk through onto the bridge, you see Prague Castle on the other side rising up on the hill in brown, orange, terra cotta and other beautiful warm and earthen shades.  A cathedral sits on top of the hill, but beautiful medieval structures abound all over it.  It would not be out of place in a Tolkien story or in Game of Thrones.  As you walk past the statues on the bridge, through big crowds of tourists and past musical performers and artists and street vendors, and look out onto the winding river with Prague Castle on one side and Old Town (which has its own splendor) on the other, you realize that there may not be a better postcard city in Europe than this one.   On all our travels so far, I would say that only Salzburg rivals Prague in postcard perfect scenery, although the two cities look very different.

After crossing over the Charles Bridge, we could see that there was a relatively steep ascent up the hill to top of Prague Castle.  But it was a very pleasant walk on the narrow, winding cobblestone streets, past shops and restaurants, churches and museums.  Near the base of the hill, in the Malá Strana neighborhood, we entered the Church of St. Nicholas and admired its beautiful baroque architecture and the painting on its ceiling.  At the top of the hill in the Castle complex, we walked by the palace of the President of the Czech Republic and the National Treasury, guarded by soldiers of the Elite Prague Palace Guard.  Just as we arrived there, there was a changing of the guard ceremony, much like what you would see at Buckingham Palace in London.  Near the palace, there was a scenic lookout with a spectacular view of Prague.  We then continued on to St. Vitus Cathedral, which is the building that dominates the top of Prague Castle and its most notable building.  At this cathedral we saw textbook Gothic architecture, with its flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and gorgeous stained glass windows.

After leaving St. Vitus cathedral, we explored a little more of the Prague Castle complex area.  I had read that there was a Toy Museum there, and we found it.  Housed in an old building that used to be the Supreme Burgrave’s house, it was a bit underwhelming and overpriced.  But we did see many dolls and action figures there and got to walk up four steep flights of stairs.  From the windows of the Toy Museum, we could see the Golden Lane below, with its very old and picturesque pastel colored shops and dwellings.  These buildings were once inhabited by castle servants, including the goldsmiths – hence the name “Golden Lane.”  To walk on the Golden Lane, we would have had to purchase tickets for entry.  After seeing that from the Toy Museum and finally finding the Star Wars collection on the top floor of the museum, we were ready to go.

We next started walking down a road that led down out of the castle through some gates. Descending from the peak of the hill, passed another scenic lookout and entered a vineyard area, with purple grapes growing among the rich greenery.  After taking some more pictures of the spectacular views and scenery from there, we walked down a path and a few stairways and found ourselves back at the bottom of the hill.  From there, we walked to another bridge that took us across the river, crossing into Old Town.

Old Town Square, in the heart of Old Town, is a magnificent central square with the cobblestone plaza surrounded by restaurants, shops and churches and government buildings and museums, all with a very old world European style, much as we had seen in other European cities such as Brussels, Bruges, and Venice.  It is teeming with tourists and there are food stalls and street performers and horses. It has a totally different look and feel than Prague Castle, and somewhat amazing that the city would have two such picturesque and old and totally different areas.  We found one food stall selling some delectable looking ham.  In the process of purchasing the ham, there was some miscommunication due to the language barrier and we ended up spending something like $50 for a large chunk of honey roasted ham.  To add insult to injury, bees would not leave us alone as we tried to eat the ham.

After eating, we found one of the most interesting sites in Old Town Square just around the corner – the Astronomical Clock.  The Astronomical Clock of Prague is a very ornate medieval clock mounted on a tower of the Old Town City Hall.  It is called an astronomical clock because it has an astronomical dial showing the position of the sun and the moon in the sky, and various other astronomical details.  Part of the clock has figures mounted on it – figures of the Apostles and Death itself, which move in an hourly show.  The oldest part of the clock dates back to 1410 – making it the oldest working astronomical clock in the world. 

After seeing the Astronomical Clock and taking some pictures, we felt like we had seen enough of Old Town Square.  We walked some more and stopped to get some food and drink at a café, where we sat outside, relaxed, and rested our tired legs and feet.  After that, we found the nearest metro station and went back to our apartment in Vinohrady, satisfied with our day of sightseeing in Prague.

-- Tom

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