Prague (Feb 1-4)

We had a perfect start to our 14th City. The destination was Prague, and we set out to Bristol airport to catch an afternoon flight. We flew with Easyjet, and it was a pleasant flight – helped by us having an exit row to ourselves. There was also free entertainment, as a stag party towards the rear of the plane had dressed their stag as Bruno. It was a short and uneventful trip, and we were soon exiting the airport having very quickly passed a bored looking passport control officer. Greg had arranged for transport from the airport, and a friendly gentlemen greeted us to drive us to our hotel. He was an expat American, having grown up in LA but spending the most recent decade or so in Prague. And when we remarked that it was easy to be a lazy tourist speaking only English he disagreed, saying “do you know how hard it’s been getting the rest of the world to speak our language”!

Our accommodation, the Alchemist Residence Nosticova, was delightful. It is a small boutique hotel located in a quiet area on the castle side of the river. We received a very friendly greeting as a member of staff (Rene) helped us with our bags and the receptionist, Zuzana, invited us to relax on the sofa as she checked us in, and to help us unwind we were quickly provided with a glass of fizz! Soon we were told we had been booked into a small suite on the 3rd floor, and Rene was directing us to the small lift. Much to our bemusement rather than try to fit into the lift with us, he lent in to press the 3rd floor button and then told us he’d meet us on the 3rd floor. So as our lift traveled upwards he ran up the stairs ready to show us to our suite! It was a delightful suite and we quickly settled in. Greg had a restaurant in mind for dinner which was close by, towards the castle, and we set off to find it. Rather than walk all the way we found a small funicular which stopped just by our destination and so enjoyed this unusual transport to climb the hill. The restaurant itself, Nebozizek, had stunning views of Prague from the hillside, and we stood and admired the beauty of the partially lit city for a few minutes before going inside to eat. The food was excellent – we shared a fois gras and spiced poached apple starter, and for mains Greg had leg of wild boar and I had rabbit in old Czech style (roast with tomatoes, herbs, and Czech dumpling) which was delicious. After dinner we slowly walked down the hill, admiring the magnificent view along the way. We finished off the evening with an episode of Brideshead Revisited from the iPad, and fell contently asleep. All in all a perfect first day!

We woke up at 7:15 for an early start on Saturday (or 6:15 UK time as my body kept reminding me). We kicked off with the hotel breakfast, which consisted of a small but well formed buffet plus a few dishes cooked to order. I enjoyed some excellent patisserie – croissant and pain-au-chocolat – and an omelette with mushrooms, mozzarella and black forest ham. We then wandered up to the castle, pausing frequently to allow me to try and capture a few of the very photogenic street scenes. The castle itself took us most of the morning to explore, and has a wonderful collection of grand scenes and smaller exhibits. I enjoyed a wander down the famous Golden Lane, where the tiny old houses have been preserved (and which have been tourist attractions for over a hundred years!). I also found the exhibition about the palace guard interesting, which detailed their history, outfits and changing duties through wars and changes of government and country. We also witnessed the end of a religious ceremony which attracted a wide range of priests and nuns, though we don’t know the occasion. The most impressive single element of the castle is the gothic cathedral (St Vitus), which has been constructed over 600 years – only being finished and consecrated 80 years ago! It’s a monumental building, with a very tall ceiling which creates a vast sense of space inside. We also enjoyed watching the changing of the guard, a suitably over-the-top ceremony. As well as the soldiers on the ground there was a small band performing from a first floor window, with music that sounded at one point distinctly like Thunderbirds! From the castle we headed towards the town center, grabbed some food, and joined in a Royal Walking Tour.

The guide turned out to be a friendly brit called Simon, who was born in York and grew up in my home town of Scarborough! He used to be a sports journalist but quit to go inter-railing a few years ago, started in Prague and didn’t quite manage to leave! He was an entertaining guide, and for the next 2 1/2 hours took us on a fascinating tour of old prague, the Jewish quarter, and the newer city center. This gave us a good opportunity to admire some of the impressive architecture, including some impressive churches and residential buildings; some of which definitely felt almost Parisian. The Jewish museum was closed, but from the outside it we could see the cemetery where apparently thousands of bodies are buried. At the time the Jewish quarter was a walled enclave in the city, built by the city governors, that the Jews were confined to. Within it the cemetery is a small confined space, prescribed by the government of the day which rapidly filled up. Bodies were then buried atop each other creating an artificial hill in the cemetery. We stopped at a fabulous bakery (Prague Bakeshop) along the way, where we purchased a few delicacies for later, including a divine white chocolate and raspberry tart. We went past the Franz Kafka statue which is as odd as his books (we had previously visited his house on Golden Lane in the castle) and visited a high baraque Catholic church. The tour finished in the St Wenceslas square in new town, hearing about the Communist era of occupation (including a fantastic story of how a 4 hour invasion was stretched out to 3 days by the locals through the removal of street signs and overnight renaming of towns surrounding Prague to all be called the same – the name of the city govenor of the time). That evening we headed to Strahov, a small monastery for dinner, and
ate some traditional Czech food (selection of ham, pork tenderloin and beef with dumplings) along with local monastic beer.

On Sunday we decided to visit the National Technical Museum, though we didn’t know a great deal about it. We ended up spending several hours there, and were blown away by the quality of the exhibits. Several sections were particularly interesting – from a work perspective I really enjoyed the sections on printing and astronomy. The printing hall covered technological advancement through the years, and had some impressive presses on display. They were also proud that a Czech invented the lithographic technique. The astronomical exhibit had a wide range of sextants, telescopes and other devices, right up to modern day GPS based equipment as well as an atomic clock. I also really enjoyed the photographic hall which was small but perfectly formed and showed the advancement of the photographic process from inception to the modern digital era. This includes the very first ever image from an early photographic technique, which took about 2 days to expose! We also enjoyed viewing the finalists in the Czech national design awards for 2012. For the afternoon we traveled to the outskirts to visit Aqua Palace. After going almost to the end of Metro line C we travelled by bus for the remaining 20 mins, and I rather enjoyed seeing the small Czech villages go past, as it gave us a very different view of the people than from central Prague. The Aqua Palace was a great way to unwind and we spent several hours there in the Sauna area, going though a sequence of about 14 saunas and steam rooms, including the Vulcan sauna @ 100 degrees C! (I lasted the recommended 8 minutes) and the Russian Banya at 95 degrees which involved an outside dash down a 2 story (freezing) metal staircase and across the courtyard before getting into the heat. It was also nice to see some families with all ages there, which I guess must be partly a Czech cultural thing. Eventually we left and caught the courtesy AquaBus back to the metro, and hence central Prague. For our last
action in Prague we got off the Metro early and walked along the river and across Charles bridge. This proved to be especially atmospheric as snow had started to fall, and we wandered along the ancient bridge through falling snow admiring the statues of Pope’s and other religious figures as they appeared through the weather. A memorable end to our visit to Prague.

On Monday morning we checked out of the hotel, headed to the train station, and caught the Antonin Dvorack intercity train to… Vienna!

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