Monday, December 15, 2014

The Fairytale Capital of the Czech Republic

We arrived in Prague bright and early at about 7:30am on November 2nd after having taken the train from Krakow the night before.  I would recommend that anyone doing an over night train trip like this should book a bed to sleep in on the way - it's worth the extra money, trust me.  Even though it was a somewhat uncomfortable ride, I made the most of the opportunity to meet and learn about the man sitting across from us.  You never know what interesting conversations you might have with someone, and it is amazing what a simple friendly hello can do.  It turns out this older gentleman was a former surgeon in the U.S. originally from Poland.  All in all, a great conversation with a very friendly person who ended up helping us with which stop to get off.  After a few hours of catching up on sleep it was back to the grind - just under three full days in Prague is not nearly enough, but I certainly intended to make the most of it! 
      Early morning - about the only time you will ever see the Charles Bridge this empty (above left)

I have started to realize that one of the best ways to open up a trip to a completely new European city is via a 'free' walking tour, something offered nearly everywhere.  As we all know, nothing is really free, but it is essentially up to your discretion at the end of the tour how much you pay for it based on what you think it was worth - a pretty cool model.  The guides are usually quite good, otherwise they would obviously be out of the job.  Anyway, as I'm sure you can guess, day one in Prague began with a very insightful walking tour.  Before the tour we did have a little time to walk around the Old Town Square and caught the famous Astrological clock and it's centuries old performance happening on the hour (trust me, you can't miss the spot, a hundred or more other tourists are always there waiting to see it as well).  I also finally tried an interesting looking pastry that I had seen many people enjoying, a trdelnik.  I have to say it is now amongst my favorite pastries; it is made from rolled dough wrapped around a stick, then grilled and topped with sugar and walnut mix.
There is a reason Prague is often referred to as the hidden gem of Eastern Europe.  The diverse city boasts an immense amount history, beauty, and activities.  I could see why many of my new European friends categorized it as a top three must visit destination within the continent.   The walking tour lasted for the typical 2-2.5 hours.  We saw and learned about: the Old Town Square area and buildings, the neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum Concert Hall (1885) and statue of Antonin Dvorak, the Charles bridge (1357), a view of Prague Castle, the Pinkas Synagogue (1535), the Old-New Synagogue (1270), the Old Jewish Cemetery (1439-1700s), Franz Kafka's birthplace, the Church of St James (1200s), the Powder Tower (1457), Wenceslas Square in New Town, and the Estates Theatre (1783)....I think that pretty much speaks for itself in terms of Prague's diverse offerings, and that was only in 2.5hrs! You can see a few of the things I mentioned in the photos I took along the tour below.  These are just some of the sites to see, but certainly not all.  Unfortunately with limited time we only managed to return to and explore a few of them, but I already cannot wait for my next visit :)!

    Powder Tower & Municipal House above
Some additional interesting tidbits our tour guide mentioned about the sites above:
-Pinkas Synagogue is dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia.  It has a memorial inside with 77,297 Czech names, all victims in Holocaust.  There are even some drawings hanging on the wall from children during their time in the concentration camps.
-The Old-New Synagogue, completed in 1270, was one of Prague's first Gothic buildings.
-We also passed by the oldest Jewish burial ground in Europe - in use from 1429 through the 1700s (although Krakow also makes this claim - I'm not sure which cemetery is truly older, but the two are quite close in age).
- The Church of St James is the 2nd largest in Prague.
-The late Gothic period Powder Tower is connected to the 1912 Municipal House.  It is one of 3 like towers left in the city.  It used to be a part of the one of the 13 gate entrances to the city and was used to store gun powder.
-The Estate Theater (opened 1783) is apparently the only theater left where Mozart himself performed, having conducted the famous Don Giovanni there in 1787.

After the walking tour we headed back to the hostel area (which was conveniently right across the Charles Bridge) to grab a bite to eat.  "No, this is better" is not something I usually expect to hear at a restaurant when I tell the waiter my order - in this case, what I thought was going to be a delicious rack of ribs.  "Uhh..okay," I replied, "What would you recommend then?"  He grinned and pointed to the Roasted Knee of Pork, and I am pleased to say that I decided to go with his suggestion.  I do not think I have ever gotten so much meat for a single entrée in my life, and it is only with enormous effort that I managed to carve and devour the entire thing.  Needless to say, I did not have to worry about spending any money on dessert.  Speaking of this, I should also point out that I was pleasantly surprised at the relatively low costs of Prague in general.  One thousand Czech crowns is about 45 U.S. dollars, and my meat lovers meal only ended up costing me about 15 dollars (tip included).

I enjoyed walking around the city at night just as much as during the day- plus no crowd to deal with!

Our second, and only completely full day, in Prague was indeed a fun and productive one.  The first half of the day was spent taking a tour of Prague Castle (after grabbing another trdelník of course), which is the largest Gothic style castle in the world consisting of about 70,000sq meters and 30 different buildings (including churches, alleyways, royal residences and gardens).  I won't write about the entire 2.5hr tour, but I will say that it is well worth it.  If you aren't able to grab a tour, be sure to at least go up to the castle with your cameras to Petrín Hill, which has the best view of the city.
                  Above is the castle complex in the distance (highest building in the center of the photo)
 Petrín Hill
 A hawk perched on one of the fountains
After the castle tour I did some exploring around the city, eventually making my way back to the hostel.  I began to cross over the Charles Bridge right around sunset and remembered the tour guide mentioned that the tower at the bridge (Old Town Bridge Tower) was open for people to walk up and see the view.  Talk about an awesome photo opportunity - the sun setting with Prague Castle in the background and Charles Bridge in the foreground, viewed from an ancient 14th century watch tower.  After enjoying the view I ran back to the hostel, grabbed a few things, then made it back across the bridge to a performance at Rudolfinum, the most famous concert building in Prague.  Although classical music is not necessarily my forté, it is impossible to be unimpressed by talented musicians playing Mozart.  I wrapped up the evening with another unique meal that I had never had before at a restaurant a few minutes outside the Old Town Square.  I can't say that I liked rabbit as much as the duck I had in Paris, but hey, you have to try and immerse yourself in every part of the cultural experience, especially the food.  As I alluded to before with the pork knee, if you like meat you will love Prague.

 Charles Bridge is iconic and picturesque enough to shoot commercials I guess!

On the way to the concert hall I caught a man making candy taffy in the window -

 I came across a store with nothing but puppets as well, one would've been a great souvenir had they all not been 100 euros or more -

Someone in a Halloween costume advertising Thai massages outside a second story window...don't see that every day.  A quick photo and then on to dinner!

Our final day in Prague came much to soon, but all good things must come to an end I suppose.  Before heading to the airport in the afternoon though, we still were able to make a few more great stops.  I had heard of something called the John Lennon Wall, but was not really sure what it was, just that it was a popular site for tourists - and since it was only about a 10 minute walk from our hostel, it proved to be a perfect morning visit.  Before we got to the wall we came across...well, random giant baby sculptures without faces (bet you didn't think I was going to say that).  It was interesting to learn that these were famous sculptures by controversial sculptor David Cerny.  I was told that they apparently are criticizing the Zizkov TV Tower, which was built in the city in the early 1990s - many people do not like it and say it is an eyesore in an otherwise older, traditional area.  The lack of faces on the babies represents the idea that excessive television has a negative, mindless effect on children. 

 We continued on to the wall, which is a John Lennon inspired graffiti covered section of what would otherwise be a normal cement wall.  It is another thing that I would recommend seeing for sure, located just south of the Charles Bridge.  The wall has become a symbol of free speech and has a huge variety of different graffiti art, as well as Beatles lyrics.  We wrapped up our time in the city by stopping to meet up with one of my friends from BC (#EaglesAreEverywhere!) at a place called Cafe Cafe (and no I didn't mess up the name).  It was then off to the airport and back to the real world after an amazing five day Krakow-Prague combination trip!
 Below are a few last shots before the airport -
  Goodbye for now!