After Kiev, Prague felt like fairy tale. Not a candy-coated one Disney one with their plethora of princesses, but more of a dark Brothers Grimm one, with something a bit sinister in it. The book I’m reading cautions about applying too much myth and mysticism to the city but it’s hard to avoid. Walking from the Hradcany castle district, over the Charles Bridge to the old town (a walk that I did every day I was there, for various reasons), there are secrets and mysteries tucked into every corner; in the almost unpronounceable language, behind the ornate house insignia in the upper old town, and of course in the architecture.
Prague was one of the few cities in Europe that was never bombed or burned and so you can see how the city has grown over time; Gothic, then Baroque, then Renaissance, then Neo-Gothic, then Modern…all crammed up against each other. Like most European towns, there is a castle on the high ground but in Prague the castle is a relatively modern addition and really more of a palace so what you see towering above is instead St. Vitus Cathedral.
We were staying in Smíchov, a non-touristy neighbourhood about 40 minutes away from the Stare Mesto old town / down town and while there is a good transit system in place, I like walking and was too busy to get in any runs in Prague, so I just walked to town along the Vlatava river every day, and then up to the Hradčany castle district. I didn’t mean to go every day…the first day we were exploring as a group and then the second day I went to spend more time on my own. Later I went to check out the Loreto of Prague, a baroque Catholic church and cloister and Strahov Monastery, with its grand library and Cabinet of Oddities a little farther up the hill but it got so that I enjoyed the slow transition from bustling everyday working Prague, through the dog park and past the art gallery along the river to the Charles Bridge and then into the tight meandering and steep streets up to the castle, and so I just walked.
From there I would walk down through the maze of paths and streets back over the bridge to the Old Town Square. This is a beautiful spot, with Tyn Church (above), the Astronomical clock (below) and Town Hall, several street food vendors, a Baroque church, a carriage stop and many restaurants. It’s also a fine time to mention the tourists.
I know it seems like after Kiev, I may have been pining for a tour bus but not only do I don’t care for swarms of tourists, but I generally don’t like a lot of tourist attractions either. I hate eating non-local food when I’m travelling (unless it’s somehow relevant and culturally important), I don’t get the point of 90% of souvenirs and tourist escapades and reenactments that take advantage of / bar you from seeing historical buildings and sites fill me with rage. Prague has a reputation for being a bit of a tourist trap so I was a bit worried about it, but it turned out to be just fine. That’s not to say that I didn’t see the potential and preparedness for the tourist hoards – in the multitude of tiny museums, menus with pictures and 6 language sections and wide open spaces in restaurant back rooms and in front of ticket kiosks – so I know they must come, but during a rainy week in September it was really quite manageable.
I crossed the bridge several times a day, at all hours, and was never stuck in a bottleneck of tourists, I had no issues with scams (other than being given a heaving plate of Prague ham sold by weight when I had asked for one order – but it was delicious), and I criss-crossed town square almost every day without tripping over anyone. Yes, there were bagpipes and some offensive thing being done to Mozart on an organ and plenty of tourists taking horse-drawn carriage rides but they were easy enough to avoid and so worth dodging for the sake of looking at this beautiful church. On one evening we ate on a patio in the square and as the light got dimmer and dimmer, I kept taking “just one more photograph” until I had a collection but the beautiful black powder towers with their sky-reaching spires are straight out of that fairy tale I mentioned, especially when golden hour hits.
I had the same relationship with Charles bridge. Our first sighting of it was midday with the whole group of Matt’s coworkers so we only saw a small part of it at it’s most crowded but I came back to it several times over the next few days. One magical evening when I was rushing home after a day of wandering and shopping (Matt was sick at the hotel) I saw that it was golden hour and tried to catch the light on the bridge for some photographs. I just missed it but saw that glass-harp player Alexander Zoltan was setting up in between the artist stands and could not help but stay for a bit of his performance. He played Air on the G string exceptionally well – on water glasses! and he was funny too. So I stayed and listened then continued on my way back to the Smíchov neighbourhood, only to see that the lights had just come on on the bridge and a full moon was rising over it, white swans gliding silently by underneath. It made for some gorgeous imagery but between the swans and the music and the lovers leaning into corners and the just-right temperature of the air, it was almost too much so I got an ice cream and walked home the long way, stopping to listen to more street musicians with a dopey smile on my face. I will never forget it.
Another favourite stop was the Strahov Monastery library at the Loreta of Prague. The chapel and cloister were closed so I missed seeing the statue of St. Wilgefortis in the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows which made me so sad, but I did get to see the library’s Cabinet of Curiosities. The cabinet of curiosities is the precursor to modern museums with their collections of oddities. I’d never seen one before and I was surprised to see that more than half of the collection was marine-related, including many extinct species. This collection came to the monastery from the estate 1798 when Prague’s access to the see would have been very limited, so it makes sense that there would be a fascination with those kinds of objects.
Czech food is ridiculously heavy and clearly meant to stick to your ribs; goulash (gulášovka) with both bread and potato dumplings (knedlíky), fried cheese (smažený sýr), sausage (klobása), Prague ham, lots of pork and other roasts, fruit dumplings (ovocné knedlíky) and lots of beer. There is occasionally a vegetable, although it’s usually cabbage. It all comes in enormous sizes and quantities and costs virtually nothing so it’s hard not to over-order every single time – especially as it was almost universally delicious. I had read an article before we left about a regional specialty involving marinated head cheese and Matt was trepidacious but even that turned out to be tasty.
On my last night I had to order something that I’d seen on all the menus but hadn’t had the stomach space to order yet – a Bohemian pork knuckle braised in beer with apple horseradish, mustard and pickled vegetables. It comes to the table on a tray, an absolutely massive thing with a knife simply sticking out of the top of it. I did my best but if we lived in Prague that would have come home with me to be an entire second dinner.
There is a strange round pastry called trdelnik (above) which is sweet dough wrapped on a roller and dusted with sugar and almonds before being cooked over an open flame. It’s usually sold on the street and there are trdelnik shops all around the old town so we had it a couple of times.
Czechs drink more beer per capita than anyone else in the world and so it’s easy to come by. The beer is as plentiful (and enormous, and cheap) as the food and I truly don’t understand why everyone here isn’t obese or at least very stout. Pilsner Urquell and seems to owns this town with buddies Budvar and Staropramen and every square has at least one (but usually several) patios filled with umbrellas and signs indicating the particular brewery loyalty.
But the real fun is in the beer halls. U Fleků beer hall is the oldest in Prague and seats 1200 so I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hofbräuhaus in Munich, although here their only beer is a special 13% dark beer that they’ve been making since they opened in 1499. It’s not heavy or overly flavourful, just nice and strong and the guy with the tray comes by often, handing them out to anyone who makes a move. There was also a choice of honey or herbal “aperitif” that turned out to be a shot, handed out by an adorably pushy waiter and a series of rotating accordion players, including one that looked like Super Mario. I also went to U Černého Vola – a tavern where the decor is medieval, the beer is good and dark, and the barmen are the appropriate combination of friendly and surly – and U Medvídků.
Smoking inside is strangely permitted for such a modern European country but after picking up an ashtray in Andorra last year and looking at it from all angles before deciding it was some kind of weird vase, we were at least a little more prepared for the possibility here.
One of the days found me in the small town of Kutná Hora, east of Prague, where I went to see the Sedlac Ossuary, a.k.a. the bone church. The ossuary has 40,000+ bones stacked in the basement of a church. They had been dug up from surrounding lands (that were to be used for something else) and brought to the church where they were washed by a half-blind monk and later they were made into artful piles and decorations. It looks cool but there wasn’t much of a story there so I was surprised to find myself more interested in the rest of the tour.
Kutná Hora is an old silver mining town that dates back to the 10th century. It had the deepest mine in the middle ages – 500m deep – and the only way in and out was by climbing up and down a ladder single file. A mint was created and all that silver coming through town meant that it was the second richest city in the Czech lands. It competed with Prague for centuries during which time they built a gorgeous Gothic cathedral (that still has Gothic and Renaissance paintings on the wall), a beautifully decorated Gothic home and even a Gothic water cistern. As the town became richer they moved the town hall to the Italian Court with intricately painted walls (especially in the gorgeous – but not photos allowed! – Chapel of St. Wenceslas) and built a promenade reminiscent of the Charles bridge in Prague.
On our last day Matt and I went to Český Krumlov, a small town that is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like all towns, the castle is front and centre but being so close to the Austrian border and at the valley’s entrance leading to Prague, this one is actually quite well fortified. The castle uses the river partly as a moat (and live bears at the gate) with sheer walls rising up from the water. Inside the walls are painted to look like architectural details, a technique that I liked but Matt found distracting. The bus trip took a couple of hours which didn’t leave us much time to look around, but it’s a small town and by the time we walked up the tower and through the grounds and down to the town we were pretty much done. It would have been nice to spend an evening checking out the pubs and restaurants but we hopped back on the bus to Prague instead.
We loved Prague and the Czech countryside and can’t wait to go back and explore it some more. The people are generally pretty awesome, but they are not universally nice (which is okay because between the $2 beer and fairy tale towers there are enough tourists). People smile and say good morning to you, and there is a genuine warmth. They were out enjoying the September days, drinking beer on patios or walking dogs in parks…it was just wonderful.
Here are the rest of my photos from the trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/degan/sets/72157635563944293/