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Prague, Czech Republic
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Prague Czech Republic
Aug 01, 2003

Pros: Incredibly inexpensive and tasty food, amazing architecture and a variety of attractions.
Cons: flooded with tourists

As previously advertised, we spent last weekend in Prague (Praha to the Czechs). It was wonderful. Melanie took Friday off and we spent almost 3 full days exploring the winding cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings in a city that has been virtually untouched by modernization since the late 1930s. The food was incredibly inexpensive and, although not always healthy, it was very tasty. There was music everywhere. The architecture is incredible. There are structures from Medieval though Art Nouveau periods – simply amazing. We had expected that we would have language difficulties, but it turns out that many Czechs now speak English. During the communist era all school children were required to take a second language – Russian. Post-communism all school children are required to take a second language – of their choosing. Many chose English. So really we had no language problems at all.

On Friday morning we flew to Prague airport and took the bus to the metro and the metro to the city centre. This was a bit of an ordeal because exact change was needed for the bus and we only had large bills from the ATM. We had been forced to check our backpack because Chris forgot to remove his Swiss army knife from his key chain and when we got to Prague we found out that the backpack had not made it onto the plane. It showed up later that afternoon and we didn’t have to lug it around on the public transport. Our hotel was very centrally located so we started exploring first thing.

We found a cafeteria where the menu was only in Czech, so we just pointed to things that we wanted. Melanie had a mystery soup that was very good and amazing sauerkraut. Chris had Hungarian goulash with bread dumplings (that we later found out come with almost every traditional meal) and we each had a beer (standard size: .5 liter!). The grand total: $4.20!

After lunch we walked around the Jewish Quarter and toured many of the synagogues that have been turned into museums. There is a cemetery there that has literally thousands of people buried one on top of the other. It was the only cemetery where Jews were allowed to be buried, so they just kept piling them in. Apparently many are buried without headstones and in many cases the headstones are just one in front of another. There is also a great deal of information about the plight of the Jews under Nazi rule. Prior to the Nazi’s there were approximately 55 thousand Jews in Prague. 36 thousand died in Nazi camps during WWII. Only 8 thousand Jews were counted in the 1947 census. Prague has many Jewish religious artifacts because there was a group who was permitted to collect the religious articles and store them for what the Nazi’s hoped would be a Museum of an Extinguished People. It’s bone chilling to think about and quite moving to see.

After the Jewish Quarter we wandered the streets and to the Old Square. The Old Square is a large plaza that has a Gothic Church, an astronomical clock dating from the 1500s, and many Baroque and Art-Nouveau buildings. The astronomical clock is very interesting. On the hour, a skeleton tips an hourglass that rings a bell, the 12 apostles parade by, nodding to the crowd, a rooster crows and the bell chimes the hour. We watched this spectacle at least 3 times during our visit. Pretty cool.

Melanie really wanted to go see a concert at the Municipal Hall – the main concert hall. Although there are chamber concerts in many churches, an acquaintance that used to live in Prague had advised that we should really go to the Muni Hall for the best quality. The Prague Symphony was playing Smetna and Dvorak that night (2 Czech composers), but Chris wasn’t really up for something that big. So instead we went to an organ recital. For $5 each we got tickets and went in. The hall is smaller than it looks – only seats about 1000 people. It is beautiful with Art-Nouveau reliefs and stained glass everywhere. It was open seating, so we helped ourselves to a box seat. The recital itself was fun. The organist specializes in organ improvisation, so after the serious numbers he did a very complicated improvisation that ended up really being Theme and Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. One odd thing was that the audience did not applaud after each number – only at the end of the recital. We’re not sure if that’s just how things are done there or if there was confusion over whether the piece had ended. The program was in Czech and English so it was unclear whether the first piece was one movement or two.

After the concert, we checked into the hotel and decided that we would walk across the Charles Bridge to a different part of town for dinner. Except we didn’t quite make it. Along the way we wandered by the astrological clock again and there was a person standing with a sign that said “beer and pub tours”. We inquired and learned that he gave a walking tour in English of the micro-brew beers and non-tourist pubs around Prague. After some debate (because we hadn’t eaten dinner yet) and some further discussion, we decided to take the tour. Turns out that we were the only people on it, so at the first stop we were able to get dinner. Cost for tour: $12 per person, including 2 beers each. Cost for dinner: under $6 total. Being the only 2 people on the tour made it more interesting because it was sort of like hiring a private guide. We asked questions about Communist era/post-communist era, Czech history, architecture, specific buildings we had seen and the like. One interesting tidbit that we learned: During the Communist era roads were repaved with asphalt. Post communist era the asphalt is being replaced by the old fashioned cobblestones. That’s progress in the tourist era!

Saturday morning we again made our attempt to get across the Charles Bridge and over to the Prague Castle. We actually started relatively early, but there’s so much to see along the way! For instance, there’s that clock again – always about to strike the hour when we’re walking by. ;-) By mid-morning we did make it to the bridge. The Charles Bridge is a very long and wide pedestrian bridge dating from medieval times that crosses the river Vltava. Along the bridge are many statues of people critical to Czech history. There are also many artists selling their wares – paintings, jewelry, tiles, CDs – and playing music. It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs.

On our way from the bridge to the castle, we stopped at St. Nicholas’ Church. This doesn’t look like much on the outside, but inside it is the most ornate church we’ve ever seen. There are large statues of saints and angels and who knows what else. The walls and ceilings are painted with amazing murals everywhere. It’s not a very big church, but is absolutely gorgeous.

So, after touring this, by the time we made it to the castle, the ticket office was closing for a ½ hour lunch break. We were able to wander the grounds and see the Royal Palace but not really go in to see the buildings.

So, we decided to take a lunch break too and walked up a hill to a monastery where we sat out on a patio and had a very nice Czech lunch.

After lunch, we went back to the castle. We had been warned that Prague would be flooded with tourists and that was true. There were lots of bus tours, plus the Rolling Stones were playing in Prague on Sunday night so there were many people in town for that concert too. We wandered the buildings with our guidebook and decided in the future it is probably worthwhile to take the audio tour or a guided tour. We saw lots of pretty things, but we are sure that we didn’t understand the full impact of what we were seeing. We did walk up the 287 steps to the top of the bell tower for a spectacular view of the city.

By the time we were done with the castle it was getting close to dinnertime, so we decided to wander around a little bit and then chose a restaurant on a hill overlooking the city. We had to take a funicular to get there – another adventure in finding change. The view was beautiful and again the food was good and very inexpensive.

There is a brewery, U Fleku that has been brewing beer in Prague since 1499. After dinner, we attempted to find it. The guide from the previous night’s tour had marked it on our map and it looked like we could take a bus from the bottom of the funicular to a spot very close the U Fleku. However, once we were on the bus it was not going in the direction we had expected. We got off and ended up on a Subway which took us to a part of the city that was off our map. Well, long story short, we wandered pretty much in circles for 30 minutes, didn’t have a clue where we were or which direction to head and at 11:30 finally decided to take a cab back to the hotel. Guess we’ll have to find U Fleku on the next trip!

Sunday was a nice relaxing day for final souvenir shopping and last minute wandering. We went to Wenceslas Square (of Good King Wenceslas fame) and saw his statue as well as more amazing architecture. We got lost some more, walking in many circles and ending up where we had started on more than one occasion. We went back to Charles Bridge – which was WAY too hot that day. And we had lunch at the Imperial Hotel. This is an interesting place because 1) it is covered in tiles from around 1914 that are just beautiful and 2) they give free jelly donuts with every cup of coffee. This was our most expensive meal because we ordered soup, meal, beer, coffee + the free donuts! Melanie ordered “potato with garlic and cottage cheese au gratin in tin foil” thinking that it was some sort of local specialty. What came? A baked potato with sour cream and garlic in tin foil! At $13 for two it was cheap, but this is the one place where we got ripped off too – they brought fancy coffee when we had ordered just regular ice coffee and added a 15% gratuity (10% is normal in Prague) and didn’t tell us until we asked. Oh well. It was still really great.

In summary, 3 days is enough time to do just an overview of Prague. We will definitely go back for a longer trip to see more details as well as some of the 5 recently designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Czech Republic. Before we had left Amsterdam, many people told us how beautiful it is – and we agree. If you ever get the chance to visit, definitely go there.