01 April, 2011

Weekendje Weg - Prague

Last weekend we had the great pleasure of a short holiday to Prague.  I had no idea what to expect, so everything was a wonderful surprise! 

I’m actually supposed to be staying home on occasion so I can take the time to change my name on my passport to Muijs, but as we’re always off on some trip or another, I haven’t yet had the chance.  If I do it within the first year of getting married, the process is free.  After that, not free.  So I need to get my backside into gear and stop booking flights!  At this stage I can’t change the name until at least June, and we’re also planning a trip to Germany/Luxembourg then, so I might not even make that!

But anyway.  

Back to Prague.  As usual, we booked a cheap flight with EasyJet.  I can’t stress how fantastic the airline is.  I know many people moan about their experiences, but I have honestly never had a bad one that wasn’t my own fault.  Presuming that 35kg of luggage would be let through for free was very naive.  It was also a pretty picture dumping all my worldly possessions out onto the ground in the check in hall to decide what could be offloaded and what was absolutely vital.  I even contemplated flying my friend over to Amsterdam with me as the ticket price for her was going to be cheaper than the excess baggage!  I have my perfect ritual which involves getting to the airport early enough to be through immigration and at the front of the boarding queue so I can get on the plane early.  I’m terrified of being last and then having to sit in the middle seat.  I’ve read so many nasty articles about fat people hogging their neighbour’s seat space that I just want to make sure I’m not “one of those space hoggers.”  Irrational much?  Oh, and if I’m travelling with Maarten he sits at the window and I take the aisle leaving a space between us.  Worked every time so far.  

To be a bit fancy, I had booked a limousine via the hotel service as we were landing at night and the public transport link includes a bus and a tram/metro, so thought it would be much easier.  But we landed about 40 minutes early, so there was no car waiting for us.  We stood around for ages wondering if it was all a bit fat cock-up, but our driver finally arrived.  Not wearing a limo driver outfit.  When we went outside to our “limo”, it was a dodgy looking old Volkswagen Passat!  Bloody limo indeed.  It was with fairly serious reservations that we climbed in the car.  The driver had no English (and fair enough too), so he could have been driving us to our death for all we knew!  Our worries were all in vain, however.  We were dropped at our lovely Elephant Design Hotel in plenty of time and the trip cost us about €25 in total.  

These BBQs were everywhere. Smelled awesome!
The hotel itself was beautiful.  At only €49 per night for the two of us including breakfast, I think it was a price that couldn’t be beaten!  There was also a nice bathroom with a lovely deep bath and all the trimmings you’d expect from a nice hotel.  It was paradise compared to the hostel that our friends were staying at, that’s for sure!  At €16 per person per night, the heater was built into the wall and they could stick their hand through into their neighbour’s room!  Very classy.  As the tariff also included breakfast each morning it really made for a big saving, not having to eat out for three meals per day.  We made sure we always had a big breakfast and a late, small lunch so we could appreciate the incredibly filling Czech food in the evenings.

We (Maarten especially) are very keen to always try the local food as much as possible, and Prague certainly didn’t disappoint.  The first night we had a feast at a small absolutely empty restaurant.  I was a bit uncomfortable about going to a restaurant with no people in it, but the food was good so I’m unsure why it was empty!
Lunch of potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes!

For lunch the next day we stopped by a potato stall at a market.  I kid you not, this stall had cooked potatoes no less than 6 ways.  We opted for potatoes with sauerkraut and sausage.  It was delicious!  But in all honesty, I could have had one of each dish, they all looked so yummy.  Maarten wolfed his down and was eyeing mine off like he was going to mug me for it at any moment! 

If I can give you one tip and one tip only for Prague, it is to wear the best walking shoes you can find.  In Berlin I made the perilous mistake of wearing a combination of knee/high flat boots and my Converse AllStars.  As you can imagine I wanted to cut my feet off at the end of each day.  Actually, I wanted to cut my feet off by lunchtime.  So, this time round I opted for a pair of comfy trainers.  Good idea, right?  WRONG!  Trainers are not designed for walking long distances, and in Prague you walk looong distances.  I’m still kicking myself with my half mangled feet for not just wearing my hikers.  I don’t remember these problems from other trips, but if I think of it almost all my other trips have been in good weather or I’ve worn my hikers.  In the summer Birkenstocks are indispensable.  Say what you will about their attractiveness, but they are the most comfortable shoes in the entire universe.

Charles IV Bridg
Where did we walk?  Well, from our hotel we walked to the Republican Square and then on to the Main Square, which is where the main attraction - the Astronomical Clock is located.  We weren’t in time for the ‘show’ on the first day so we kept walking on to the Charles Bridge, which is probably one of the most famous bridges in Europe.  It’s named for Charles IV and was finished in the 15th century.  At one time it was the most important link between eastern ad western Europe.  A fun fact that Wikipedia told me is that INXS filmed their video for their best song (in my opinion) Never Tear Us Apart in Prague and on the Charles Bridge especially, which I never realised!  The bridge itself is crazy busy, with literally thousands of people crossing in one direction or another.  The edges are lined with hawkers selling photos, portrait sketches and kitcsh souvenirs, but strangely none of them are too in your face.  They’re all quietly going about their business, so crossing the bridge wasn’t the confronting experience it could have been.

Old Castle Steps
Finally, once across the bridge we made our way up to the castle.  And up it was.  We started up the steep streets, and then made a quick turn to see if we could avoid the masses and were then faced with about a hundred miles of stairs (also in the film clip!) which are known as the Old Castle Stairs.  Now, after living in Edinburgh I’m used to stairs to get from one part of the city to the other, but these stairs put anything Edinburgh has to offer to shame!  I didn’t take the time to count how many there were, but surprisingly I didn’t want to die by the time I reached the top.  I’d recommend taking the stairs to the castle rather than the long steeply sloped street.  You avoid a lot of tourist shops this way too!

When we finally made it to the top of the mountain (that might be a small exaggeration) the view of the entire city was staggering.  At least, it would have been if the sky wasn’t so hazy.  It looked as though Prague hasn’t seen any rain in a long time.  I don’t think the haze was all smog, it seemed more like it was a bit dusty.  All the cars were covered in dirt and it was very dry.  But still, the view was amazing.  You could see what seemed like the entire city from the castle walls.  So after some jostling to get a good photo, we decided to go inside.

What a shock!  The castle itself isn’t really a traditional castle, more a sprawling collection of beautiful buildings.  Did I mention that the castle and the bridge, along with a large portion of the old town are all UNESCO listed?  

Inside the castle itself the amount of people was staggering.  I think you’d have a quieter time going to Disneyland!  The best part is, most of the castle is free to walk around.  You need to buy tickets to go into many of the buildings, so we bought Short tickets which included the Cathedral of St. Vitus, Old Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, and the Rosenberg Palace.  The queues to get in each building were huge but moved quickly and the cathedral was a sight to behold, which in its current form dates from the mid 14th century and is the single most commanding presence on the Prague skyline.  It is easily as impressive as the Notre Dame in Paris and I would venture as far as to say that it is more beautiful inside.
Cathedral of St. Vitus

Once we left the castle we walked back over the bridge and then on through the Jewish quarter with the intention of visiting the cemetery, which is one of the must-see sights in Prague with all the headstones piled on top of one another like a scene from a Tim Burton movie.  But, when we stood at the front gate we found that we couldn’t just visit the cemetery, but had to buy a reasonably expensive ticket to enter the Spanish Synagogue as well.  I have to have a moment of honesty here, I’m not really interested in Jewish history.  I’m very interested in the holocaust, but I’m just not that interested in any other part of the religion.  In the same way that my Fabulous Aunts aren’t all that interested in castles.  So, we decided that the cost was more than we were prepared to pay and kept on walking.  And walking.  When we finally  made it back to the hotel in the late afternoon we’d walked the soles off our shoes and were absolutely exhausted.  Cue nap time.  I think we passed out actually.  We managed to stagger out later for some food and a couple of amazing beers.  Who would have thought that Budweiser actually tasted good?

Astronomical Clock
After wolfing our breakfast down the next morning we headed off to be in the Old Town Square in time for the show at the Astronomical Clock.  Fun facts about the Astronomical Clocks are that at being about 600 years old it’s the oldest working clock of its kind, although the apostles were added only about 150 years ago.  Presumably the crowds on the hour weren’t big enough prior to that and they needed to give the clock a bit more of a tourist pull.  All joking aside, the clock is wonderful however the pushing and shoving to see the apostles on the hour is ridiculous.  I gained far more enjoyment from looking at the clock without the show.

The crowd on the hour for the Astronomical Clock
After the show, we walked along the Wenceslas Square and on to another, lesser known Vyšehrad Castle (well, fortress) via the Dancing House.  It felt like a thousand miles to walk down there, but when we finally made it Vyšehrad Castle was a major highlight for me.  It’s said that this fortress, dating from the 10th century is the site of the first settlement in Prague.  It’s the home of the city’s oldest building, Saint Martin’s Rotunda and probably the most interesting view of the city and the Vltava river that we experienced.  We could walk around the entire fortress wall, and I just loved it.

Dancing House
Looking at our watches, this adventure had taken most of the day, so we decided to go back to the hotel via the tram.  Public transport in Prague is ridiculously cheap.  We bought a 24hr ticket (so we could take the tram to the airport the next day) for about 100kr per person, which is a little less than €5.  Ridiculously cheap.  Feeling ripped off at home?  I know I am.  Glad I’m not reliant on public transport all the time!

Moravian Sparrow
On the last evening we went for dinner at a lovely Czech restaurant called Kolkovna.  It’s a chain style restaurant, and there are few of them around Prague.  I took the opportunity to try the ultimate Czech dish, Moravian Sparrow.  Sounds interesting I hear you think.  Sparrow for dinner?  Well, Czech dishes all have names that don’t tend to resemble what you’re getting in the slightest.  For example, my Moravian Sparrow was actually roast pork with red and white cabbage, along wih potato dumplings and gravy.  The food was absolutely delicious, and the epitome of what you would categorise as comfort food.  Oh, and it goes without saying that the beer was fantastic.  Another Pilsner Urquell if you please, for the price of a pack of chewing gum in Holland.  Eating and drinking was so cheap it couldn’t really be true.  A two course meal at a reasonably expensive restaurant (by expensive I mean touristy) like Kolkovna was about €25 including a massive beer each.  I’m glad I don’t live in Prague, purely because the food was so tasty and calorific that I would be housebound or hospitalised within months!

Once you’re done gorging yourself on pork, potato dumplings and a litre of beer, it’s essential that you get out and walk along the Vltava river in the dark.  The city is spectacular when the sun goes down.  The view of the castle is inspiring, and the Charles Bridge is just a little less crowded.

All in all, in our three day visit to Prague, we spent around €225 (plus €150 for accommodation and €95 for flights).  All in all, the trip cost under €500 and we had a fabulous time.  Would I go back?  Book me a flight, baby!


Unknown said...

Wonderful place to spend a few days and it seems it's not expensive at all. I would do short trips like this more often, but considering I have expensive must-have holidays in Argentina every year, I kinda manage to take short trips once or twice a year. Prague has been a candidate for quite a while now, it looks very nice. Thanks for sharing this!

Unknown said...

It really was gorgeous! I know what you mean about the expensive holidays on the other side of the world. You must go to Prague. We didn't get out of the city, but if we had had one extra day we would have gone down to Cesky Kromlov and to the bone church (whose name escapes me). Just loved it.

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