Prague Czech’ed off our list – December 2014

When my wife and I were deciding where to go for the long weekend over Christmas, we entertained the possibility of warmer European destinations, but decided in the end, to head out to Prague, Czech Republic to check it off our list. Prague, or Praha, consistently makes the list of top European destinations so we “just” had to go there…and what better time than the present to head out to the “City of a Hundred Spires.”  We knew the weather would be colder (and it was), and it would be expensive as Christmas time is still part of Prague’s high season…so off we went with our thickest winter coats, gloves, beanies, and joyous Christmas spirits for an adventure in Prague.

Old Town Square with the Old Town Hall and Church of the Lady Before Tyn dominating the landscape with its majestic spires.

Old Town Square with the Old Town Hall and its famous Astronomical Clock and Church of Our Lady Before Tyn dominating the landscape with its majestic spires.

LOGISTICS:
We drove out to and flew out of Milan Bergamo on WizzAir…mainly so we can claim we did…as in took a Wizz…Air…on our way to Prague. Sophomoric I know, but it was a low cost airline, based out of Hungary, that actually wasn’t all that bad. WizzAir flies out of Venice Treviso as well, but only twice a week. That was our first time flying on WizzAir and first out of Bergamo. A small airport, right off the A4 autostrada, Bergamo airport (BGY – aka Orio al Serio airport) caters mainly to low cost airlines (i.e. RyanAir, Pegasus, WizzAir) and was easy to navigate through with plenty of options for parking. The drive wasn’t too bad, although our GPS took us on a crazy route to our chosen parking structure (Azzuro Parking – which by the way had the worst customer service we encountered…making us wonder how and why they got decent ratings on ParkVia’s website).

While our travel to Bergamo and flight to Prague were uneventful, our arrival and efforts to get to our hotel were anything but. We left Bergamo late afternoon on Christmas Eve and arrived in Prague’s Vaclac Havel International airport after 7:00 P.M. Prior to our travel, we had planned to take AAA Taxi from the airport to the hotel, as we’ve read some favorable reviews of the company, as being reputable and cost-effective, especially if you factored in a discounted return trip to the airport (20% off). All we had to do was make a beeline for the AAA Taxi kiosk in the airport, right outside baggage claim area, and arrange for transport to our hotel. Easy right? Did I mention this was on Christmas Eve? When everything apparently closed by 7:00 P.M. so folks can spend time with their family for Christmas Eve? We actually caught the ladies behind the AAA Taxi and FIX Airport Cars (the other authorized airport transport company) as they were closing up shop, not paying any attention to the helpless looks of tourists just arriving from far away lands. What we expected as a fairly straightforward taxi ride to our hotel, located close to the city center, turned out to be quite an adventure in itself!

Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River

Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River

We tried to get on the express bus right outside the airport that would take us to the city center for a mere 32 Czech Koruna (CzK or Kc) per person. Problem solved right? Well, the ticket dispenser only accepted coins and the ATM at the airport where we withdrew some CzK earlier only dispensed 500 CzK notes. So, OK…we saw some vending machines inside the airport so we figured we can purchase something small so we can get some change for the bus ride. Well, the vending machines only took denominations of 200 CzK and below…so we went back to an ATM to withdraw 200 CzK (good thing we have a bank account that doesn’t charge us ATM fees). Incidentally, 100 CzK is roughly about $5…rule of thumb for conversion is to drop the last digit, then divide by 2. (NOTE: The conversion rate is actually better for those using the strong US dollar, with $1 equal to about 24 CzK). Armed with a 200 CzK, we went back to the vending machine and repeatedly inserted the 200 CzK into the vending machine…once, twice, three times…NOT A LADY! The vending machine will not accept the 200 CzK regardless of our multiple efforts to smooth out any perceptible crease on the bill. We finally gave up and waited outside by the taxi stands, among with seemingly the rest of the tourists arriving in Prague that night. I suppose things could have been worse had the airline lost our luggage like what happened to a couple of folks from New Zealand and Australia whose heavy coats were in their “lost” checked luggage…as they stood there shivering while waiting for a taxi.

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, we were finally able to snag a taxi from FIX Airport Cars…we got on what was available as taxis were becoming scarcer by this time, around 8:15 at night, and didn’t want to wait for a AAA Taxi. Well…smooth sailing to our hotel, right? Wrong! The taxi driver drove like a “bat out of hell” through the deserted streets of Prague. Yes, we got to our hotel in record time, but with less color than when we boarded the taxi cab. The taxi driver charged us 700 CzK for the ride…and I didn’t feel like dickering with him right then and there, but made sure I took a picture of his license plate (which he seemed annoyed I did) in case there is a legitimate claim of overcharging. (NOTE: I called the FIX Taxi office a couple of days afterwards and verified that 700 CzK was their going rate for transport between the airport and the city center; AAA apparently charges less, at 500 CzK for the same service)

We stayed in a boutique hotel located in Praha 1 municipal district where Old Town (aka Staré Město), Jewish Quarter, and Little Quarter are located. Hotels located in Praha/Prague 1 are generally more expensive as you are staying in the heart of the city where most of the tourist attractions are located. Pretty much all the main tourist attractions are within walking distance from Prague 1 and one can use the tram system to get to other locations that might be outside comfortable walking distance or for those simply opposed to walking.

Tram 22 is a popular tram line that takes one along most of Prague’s tourist attractions, considered a good alternative to a bus tour of Prague. We took Tram 22 up to Prague Castle from where we were staying to get a feel for the tram system and to get up to the castle as early as possible to beat the crowds. We bought tickets for the tram at a local mini market for 32 CzK per person one way (not all tram stops have ticket dispensers).

For additional information and ideas for your visit, take a look at Prague’s official web portal.

Prague Castle and city of Prague as seen from Strahov Monastery

Prague Castle and city of Prague as seen from Strahov Monastery

ATTRACTIONS:
Prague Castle Complex. Located on a hill on the west bank of the Vltava River overlooking Old Town, this castle complex dominates the Prague skyline befitting the “most significant Czech monument and one of the most important cultural institutions in the Czech Republic.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site and recognized as the largest castle complex in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, the Prague Castle complex combines various architectural styles for its palaces and religious buildings.

The awe-inspiring Gothic building with its imposing towers is the St. Vitus Cathedral (although technically the Cathedral of St. Vitus, Wenceslas, and Adalbert), named after St. Vitus who was a Christian saint from Sicily whose bones in one hand were given to Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia as a gift from King Henry I of Germany in 925 A.D. This relic is considered a sacred treasure and still kept inside St. Vitus Cathedral. St. Vitus Cathedral, founded in the mid-14th century, also houses the remains of various Bohemian kings and Holy Roman emperors, namely King Charles IV (whose original name was Wenceslas III or Vaclav in Czech), Maximilian II, and King Rudolph II (the latter two from the House of Hapsburg). The remains of Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, are also kept prominently in St. Vitus Cathedral, with its dedicated chapel. He was later recognized as King Wenceslas, martyred and made a saint soon after his death in the 10th century, later growing in popularity in 1853 with the release of the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” commemorating his legendary kindness and righteousness.

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

Tickets for the Prague Castle complex vary in price according to the circuit (or group of attractions) one would like to see. We chose Circuit B at 250 CzK per person to see St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, and Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower. While the last four were mildly interesting, St. Vitus Cathedral was the highlight. Incidentally, if a visitor has limited time and/or do not want to pay the price of admission, one can visit Prague Castle complex for “free” with limited views inside the attractions. In St. Vitus Cathedral, for example, one can go inside the cathedral, and get decent views of the nave and the magnificent stained glass windows, without a ticket so long as one doesn’t go past the turnstile for paying visitors.

Charles Bridge, or Karluv Most in Czech, spans the Vltava River and connects the Stare Mesto, aka Old Town, with Mala Strana or Little Quarter. Commissioned in the mid-14th century by Charles IV it was finished in the early 15th century. Situated along the “Royal Route”, the name given to a route which for many centuries had been taken by the Czech/Bohemian kings in a procession to their coronation in the St. Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge boasts 30 religious sculptures in Baroque style and three towers at its ends, with two towers on the Lesser or Little Quarter and one tower on the Old Town side. Having withstood a series of natural disasters, mainly flooding, and military conflicts, it stands today as arguably one of the most significant Gothic structures in the world.

Charles Bridge was teeming with tourists as well as street performers and vendors hawking their wares. During Christmas season, there is a Lamp Lighting ceremony that begins around 4:00 PM. Sadly, we didn’t get to witness this as the last lamp lighting ceremony occurred before we got there on Christmas Eve.

Charles Bridge with Prague Castle complex as a backdrop.

Charles Bridge with the Prague Castle complex as a backdrop.

Old Town Square is a historic square in the Old Town of Prague punctuated by the Old Town Hall and its popular Astronomical Clock, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, as well as the statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer who preceded Martin Luther by a century. The Astronomical Clock, or Orloj, was installed in 1410 and remains operational to this day. Intricately designed, it has animated figures of the 12 apostles, a skeleton representing Death, a Turk representing the Infidel, the Miser, a figure representing Vanity and a rooster. At the bottom of the clock is a calendar board with the signs of the zodiac which is the work of the famous painter Josef Manes. The Astronomical Clock attracts hundred of tourists (and pickpockets) to witness the mechanical show every hour on the hour between 9:00 AM and 11:00 PM. There is also a memorial located at the base of the Old Town Hall, with 27 crosses commemorating the lives of 27 martyrs who were beheaded at this exact location by the Hapsburgs following the unsuccessful Bohemian Revolt in 1621.

Old New Synagogue

Old New Synagogue

The Jewish Quarter in Prague, aka Josefov, is one of the most well-preserved Jewish settlements in all of Europe, owing in large part to Adolf Hitler’s desire to preserve this Jewish Quarter as a “Museum of an Extinct Race”. Notable in the Jewish Quarter are the Old New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in central Europe, the Jewish Museum and Cemetery founded in the early 15th century, and the Spanish Synagogue, recognized as the most stunning synagogue in all of Europe. Tickets for entry into the museum and the cemetery costs 480 CzK per person with a separate entrance fee for the Old New Synagogue of 200 CzK. We just walked around the Jewish Quarter and took pictures from outside the gates since the attractions in the Jewish Quarter were closed on Saturdays. A couple of English gentlemen provided an excellent tip for viewing the cemetery through this square hole on the other side of the cemetery gates. Incidentally, one of the more entertaining and informative “free” tours we’ve stumbled upon while we were walking along the Jewish Quarter at night was given by this Irishman, who was passionate, knowledgeable, and amusing. We just tagged along and listened to him, not just recite facts, but tell engaging stories and accounts pertaining to the Old New Synagogue and the Jewish Museum and Cemetery. In further researching this free tour, I found out that it was with SANDEMANs New Prague Tour and Declan was the Irishman giving the tour.

Other notable attractions in Prague include Petrin Tower, the Lesser Quarter, the Lennon Wall, Wenceslas Square, and the Strahov Monastery. The Petřín Lookout Tower, one of the most prominent landmarks in Prague, was built as part of the Jubilee Exhibition in 1891 as a loose copy inspired by the Eiffel Tower (at a ratio of 1:5). It is 63.5 meters high, and 299 steps lead to its peak, which is at the same altitude as the real Eiffel Tower. The view from its top overlooks not only the whole city, but on a clear day you can see nearly all of Bohemia. St. Nicholas Church (there are actually 2 of them with the same name, with the other one in Old Town Square) is located in Lesser Quarter. Our best Czech meal was probably at Malostranska Beseda across the street from Starbucks at Lesser Quarter. The restaurant is just one of a number of venues in this building with a gallery, pub, cafe, and club all sharing the same name. The restaurant itself, where we sampled Czech goulash and Roast Beef in cream sauce with bread dumplings and cranberry compote on the side, was the only non-smoking restaurant we dined at while visiting Prague. After John Lennon’s untimely death in December 1980, he became a pacifist hero to young Czechs who were under an oppressive communist rule at that time. The Lennon Wall seemed to appear overnight as an expression of Czech youths’ political views and no amount of repeated efforts by the Czech secret police to whitewash the walls could silence a growing sentiment for democracy. Of course it was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, led by Vaclav Havel and his ilk, which ushered the collapse of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Lennon Wall, as in John Lennon, and not Lenin Wall, as in Vladimir Lenin.

Lennon Wall, as in John Lennon, and not Lenin Wall, as in Vladimir Lenin.

If you haven’t already heard, Czechs are passionate about their beer. I suppose one should expect this with cities such as Plzeň (or Pilsen) and České Budějovice (Budweis) brewing beers since the 13th century. The first Pilsner beer, Pilsner Urquell, was produced in Pilsen in 1842 while Budweis has been producing Budweiser Budvar beer (not to be confused with the American Budweiser beer) since 1895. Some folks actually make a trip to Prague or Czech Republic just to tour the breweries and sample copious amounts of beer. I am not really a beer drinker, preferring wine or mixed drinks over beer, but I had to try the Pilsner Urquell and it was very good.

For architecture fans, Prague boasts numerous structures with Art Nouveau designs, shaped by influential Czech artist Alfons Mucha. The  Prague Municipal House and Hotel Paris are just two fine examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Prague.

There were a few other attractions that we didn’t get to see but would definitely be worthwhile for any visitors to the city. Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic in Veletržní Palace is considered a seminal work of art depicting the history of the Slav people and civilization. A day trip to Kutna Hora, whose town center is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with the Sedlec Ossuary attracting visitors with its chapel containing skeletons from 40,000 to 70,000 people, was also part of our plans. The bitter cold weather, however, altered our plans a bit and we decided to stay within Prague instead. In addition to the Slav Epic and Kutna Hora, we also didn’t experience a classical music concert while we were in Prague. There were a number of venues hosting classical music but our desired composers and venues were not available during our stay and we didn’t want to settle.

OUR EXPERIENCES:
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the City of a Hundred Spires, despite the cold weather during Christmas time. It was actually quite a surprise to see a thriving Christmas Market and various shops and restaurants open on Christmas Day, especially for a Christian country. We found Prague to be an easy city to walk around in and see the sights, although we pretty much stayed in the Prague 1 district where all the main tourist attractions are located. It was also easy to get around from a language point of view as English was spoken pretty much everywhere by everyone under the age of 40. It was a good thing too since we found the Czech language to be quite difficult even to mimic as it was not based on Latin nor German. Even though we were told that Christmas time was part of the high season for Prague, we found the cost of goods and services to be reasonable.

Prior to visiting Prague, we read about how smoking in public places was the norm, so it wasn’t a surprise to see patrons smoking in restaurants. Despite that knowledge, however, it was still a bit annoying, even with efforts by restaurateurs to segregate smokers from non-smokers, to smell cigarette smoke while you were eating your meal.

What I found interesting was how Jazz music and Thai massage parlors were quite popular in Prague. There were a number of Jazz clubs and even an International Jazz festival during the fall months in Prague. Further research point to jazz’s popularity in Prague starting as early as the 1920s and 1930s with emigres bringing back Jazz from America. Now, the Thai massage parlors is another head scratcher. Apparently, a number of Czechs would spend their holidays in Thailand and a few of them decided to bring Thai massage back with them. Now, there are over 40 Thai massage parlors in Prague. Just something incongruent with that…but whatever works.

NOTES:
– We didn’t really get much snow while in Prague. There were some occasional snow flurries but nothing that amounted to much. It was freezing cold at times, but not much precipitation to speak of. Imagine our surprise when we flew back to Italy and saw the landscape around Bergamo, all the way to Vicenza, blanketed in snow.

– In addition to Malostranska Beseda, we liked the Bakeshop (went there twice), Hastalsky Dedek (for pork knuckle with red cabbage and mustard – yummy – bring an appetite), U Sadlu (delicious Budweiser goulash…be careful with the spread that accompanies the bread, as it is bacon lard), and Kafka Snob Food (wife thinks their bathroom was quite nice…and the food was good as well). We tried Nase Maso but didn’t think it deserved the great reviews on TripAdvisor…it was OK. We really wanted to try their burgers since we read they were great, but alas, the grill was not working when we dined there (limited seating  by the way) so we opted for meatloaf and spicy sausage. Vallasky Pivnice, a cozy restaurant on the way to Strahov Monastery in the Lesser Quarter, specializes in Wallachian cuisine. It was just OK in our opinion.

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Posted on February 14, 2015, in Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Although fortunate enough to visit many European cities I think Prague is definitely one of my favorites, but of course with such diversity and uniquenes with each city it really is difficult to choose a favorite. And despite the cold, Christmas was the perfect time to visit this beautiful city. As always I am amazed at your ability to recall the details of our vacations and then retell the story in an entertaining, adventurous way!

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