Prague, Czech Republic

by - January 02, 2011

Sunday 2nd January 2011

Old Town Square, Prague
I am now 3 months into my impromptu gap year.  Seeing as I ended my European travels with next to no money, I have spent most of this time building up my bank balance (apart from my two week excursion to Egypt).  It turns out that when you aren’t earning money or travelling, gap years give you a lot of time to yourself which, in my case, is spent planning where to travel to.  This desire to plan everything, combined with the amount of free time I now seem to have has led me to pin up on my wall the many National Geographic maps that I have gathered, before acupuncturing them in the places where I have been.  Thus far in my life, the European map is by far the most impressive, but there is one gaping hole in my travelling repertoire - Prague, and the Czech Republic in general.  Those of you who read the Overlord blog, which documented my last trip to the continent, will know that after a frantic sprint around the Viennese metro, I was two minutes away from visiting Brno in the south of the country - missing the train.  After such a disappointment it was only a matter of time before I planned a visit to the city of a thousand spires.  Just because its a romantic trip with my girlfriend doesn’t mean I can’t right a blog, right?

Astronomical Clock, Prague
This trip is a little different to my last travels, in that I have booked 5 days in an apartment in the centre of Prague and aim to use this as a base to visit other cities in the Czech Republic, Poland or Eastern Germany.  I have yet to decide where we will go.  However the key destination is Prague itself and after arriving in the city at 11 this morning, we have started to explore a bit.  Our apartment is located right next to the National Theatre (the statue on the roof is the main sight from our terrace), so we have a nice central location on the east bank of the Vltava, to the south of the Charles Bridge.  We started with a random meander around the city, which started with coming across the infamous Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square.  The clock is very impressive, but is known for being very unimpressive and it didn’t disappoint - it is amusing just how insignificant the actual chime was when it struck 11.  The Old Town Square itself was pleasant however as the Christmas Market hadn’t left yet and there was a big Christmas Tree in the centre.  The Christmas theme continued as we walked from the square to the Charles Bridge as not only were decorations still up, but there was a fair bit of snow still around.  The paths were cleared, but the roofs of buildings were white and big snow piles had been made my the sides of the road.  The Charles Bridge is the most famous crossing of the Vltava and is one of the most well known bridges in the world, due to its being adorned with over a dozen statues of saints.  It is also the bridge from the first Mission Impossible film.

Charles Bridge, Prague
I know that there isn’t much historical context (or architectural/artistic knowledge), but that is because I don’t know much yet (the overly American based content of my school history course has left me fairly clueless about European history).  However we hope to amend this at some stage by going on a walking tour.  For the time being this means I will just say where things are and what I thought of them.  After a spot of lunch near the Charles Bridge at a local cultural restaurant that most definitely wasn’t McDonalds, we headed towards the Petřín Hill.  The hill is quite bizarre as it dominates the skyline of the west bank of the Vltava, but is actually pretty empty - imagine if you were walking down Oxford Street and somebody had turned Hyde Park into a big hill and you get a rough impression.  Looking down at the city from the top of the hill we were surprised to see just how small it seems.  Having seen Slovakia’s Bratislava and Slovenia’s Ljubljana, I have seen how newly emerged countries can end up with small cities as their capitals which had been bit parts of the Austro Hungarian Empire.  Somehow I expected Prague to be different - I would rank it up with the most famous cities in the world. Yes, it is still considerable bigger than the aforementioned examples, but there is no sign of it just being one large urban sprawl.  While there are a few sporadic concrete monstrosities on the skyline, the city centre and surrounding area seems to have retained much of its character.  At least from what I could see from the Petřín Hill.  Our plan was to go up the “Belvedere” - a small imitation of the Eiffel Tower, but frustratingly we couldn’t find our way to it.  Despite it being an obvious landmark on the skyline.

The vague sightseeing of the early afternoon had only really happened because we hadn’t been able to go to the apartment, so after coming down the hill we headed back across the Vltava to pick up the keys and have now basically crashed in the apartment, due to our 3.30am start this morning.  We want to be up bright and early for tomorrow’s excitement.  The content of which we have yet to decide.
Oh, and Ellie is awesome. 
Prague Skyline from Petrin Hill

Monday 3rd January 2011
National Museum, Wenceslas Square, Prague
After a brief walking tour of Prague yesterday, we continued to look around the city a bit more today.  We started by heading towards Wenceslas Square.  While I had heard of this square and assumed it was fairly important, I had no idea what it was so headed over.  We missed it first time, because stupidly Wenceslas Square is actually a Wenceslas Rectange - a wide road more like Champs Elysees than Trafalgar.  It is the economic centre of the city and is dominated by the grand National Museum at one end of it.  Whilst walking up the “square” it started to snow heavily.  The Czechs appear to be well prepared for snow however - we saw a group of officials cleaning the snow off the top of bushes with brooms.  It seems that Czech hedgerows are better cleared than British runways amusingly.  We went in the National Museum’s lobby, but having read that it was only for people who had a day to kill or had a specific interest in an exhibit, we gave it a miss and walked to the station to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s trip.

Jubilee Synagogue, Prague
Despite my extensive European rail travel last year, I hadn’t actually bought a ticket from a European station - as I had used my interrail.  The Czech Republic, it seems, is a bad place to start, as it is a very complicated language and there was no translation.  After A LOT of guess work and shutting my eyes as I put my card in the machine, we got what seemed to be tickets to Kutna Hora.  Prague station was very impressive though and we decided to have our lunch here.  Our next stop was the Henry Tower and the Powder Tower - two old buildings surrounded by modern ones between the station and the old town.  On the way to the towers we stumbled across the Jubilee Synagogue, a wonderfully ornate building which is down a random side street.  The Henry Tower is fairly similar to the other older buildings in the city and while it is possible to climb it, the surrounding high rise buildings hide any view somewhat.  The Powder Tower however is very pretty and is located next to one of the city’s theatres in Republic Square.  It is also next to a huge shopping centre which is bigger than any other I have seen.  The Czechs seem to be obsessed with shopping centres and department stores - large swathes of the city are dedicated to shops. They are also very confusing and Ellie got a bonus half hour in a shopping centre as I desperately searched for a toilet.
Republic Square, Prague

After the towers we headed for the Old Town Square again where we happened to stumble across the Astronomical Clock again.  After Ellie made me watch it again (she loves it), we climbed the tower that it is attached to, for what is meant to be one of the better views over the city.  It was a nice clear day - the snow and clouds had cleared and it was crisp and sunny, so we got a good view. Unfortunately the cathedral in the square was closed, so we have yet to go inside the predominant landmark on the city skyline.

Prague Skyline Panorama
After a final bit of sight seeing we headed to the supermarket as, being in an apartment rather than a hotel and being half student as a couple, we were doing our own food. Or more, being only half able to cook as a couple, I was doing our own food.  The supermarket had a pretty shocking selection annoyingly, so we settled on salmon in a white wine sauce.  Apart from the fact that Ellie had to serve her sauce through a sieve, I think that it was a roaring success.  Cooks have to start somewhere.
See, a roaring success
Wednesday 5th January 2011

Prague skyline at night
Having explored the majority of the east bank in the day and a half we had already spent in Prague, we headed for the west bank for what would be our last full day in the city.  We crossed the Vltava at the bridge opposite the National Theatre and stopped on an island in the middle of the river to take photos of the Charles Bridge.  Whilst on this island, happily snapping away, we heard a sudden loud voice that seemed to blare out across the entire city.  The voice spoke in Czech but was followed by a similar one in English which said that something was going to sound continuously at 12 - in about ten minutes time.  Curious as to what this was, and also as to how a voice could be projected over an entire city, we waited on the island to see what happened.  Bang on midday, a piercing siren sounded - far louder than the voice had been.  It sounded like a fire alarm, but over the entire city and we still had no idea what it was.  All I can think of is that it was some kind of warning system if the city was to be nuked.  I have attached a video with the sound on so you can see what I mean.

St Nicholas dome
Thoroughly freaked out by the siren, we carried on to the west bank to see the rest of the main city sites.  This started with a visit to Mala Strana, the district near to the castle where the old aristocracy used to live.  The elegant city streets have now seen the majority of their buildings turned from palaces and stately homes, to embassies or government buildings.  This was unfortunate as it meant that they weren’t really open to the public.  The main building in the area - the Wallenstein Palace was only open on the first weekend of the month.  We didn’t spend that long in this area as a result of it being -7 degrees and nowhere being open.  The exception to this was the St. Nicholas Church, one of the most recognizable domes on the Prague skyline.  We spent a fair bit of time in here - partly to warm up and partly due to the grand structure and decoration of the church itself.

St Vitus Cathedral
After the Mala Strana district, we headed up to the Hradcany district where the castle and other important sites are located.  On arrival at the castle - which dominates the entire city, it became clear that something major was going on.  Barriers had been put out and crowds had gathered around the main street.  Our first guess as to the reason of this was thinking it was a state visit, but after waiting at the barrier for a while and seeing nothing, we decided that it wasn’t worth staying and headed towards the St Vitus Cathedral.  The cathedral is the most important religious building in the city and frustratingly shut at 2.40pm on this particular day due to the mysterious event that was occurring.

Ridiculous Italian man on the right
While we were a bit annoyed but able to get over the fact we had arrived at 2.45pm fairly quickly, the Italian man behind us got VERY angry.  As a result of this, Ellie and I subtly stalked him for the next 45 minutes as he went on a rampage, complaining to everyone in sight.  This started with an argument with the guy at the entrance to the cathedral that got so loud that a policeman came over with the sole contribution of repeatedly tapping the closed sign and brushing off the Italian man’s English pleas with “no, Cesky”.  As uncultured as it sounds, we decided to put the sites of the castle off for a bit to continue hearing the Italian trying to complain in potted English.  His next stop was the tourist office, where he called the manager and went on the explain how he felt that he was being discriminated with because he was Italian (Czech residents were still allowed in as part of the unknown event) and how the tourist officials should let him in as “the Czech Republic is a country with a history of liberty and freedom”.  I have attached a picture of this man, so if you ever meet him you can tell him he is ridiculous.

It was then that we found out what the crowds were there for.  We had seen a lot of kids in costumes of the three kings and it turned out that there was to be a parade through the castle in celebration of it being the twelfth night.  This kids in costume were one part of the parade, but the main attraction was three men who road camels at the front of the procession to a mock stable.  It was quite a spectacle and possibly the only time I will see camels walking along a snowy road.  After watching the majority of this parade, we headed back across the castle district to the Cathedral to climb one of the towers as it had now gone dark.  This was a superb time to climb the tower and we were able to get some fantastic views and really finish off the Prague part of the trip in style.  Aside from briefly going to the Charles Bridge on Friday morning, we didn’t venture out into the city again.

U Flecku Beer Hall, Prague
Before leaving however, we decided to get the smallest of tasters of Prague’s famous nightlife.  It wasn’t the kind of trip where we were going to spend the entire night on pub crawls, but we did decide to go to a nearby beer hall.  Apparently the locals don’t like it as it is “too german”, but having been to the beerhalls in Germany, I didn’t really see that as a problem.  It was the kind of place where a man walks around with glasses of beer for you to just grab, and where people sit on long benches next to each other, rather than on individual tables. It also included a man playing an accordion - a variety of traditional tunes mixed with foreign stereotypes whenever he ended up at a table of tourists (Skippy the kangaroo for Aussies, Yellow Submarine for Brits etc).  This was all part of the fun though and the beer, which was brewed on site, was really good.  As you probably gathered from my European blog, beer halls are a big must.

St Nicholas Church

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