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
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
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.