Monday, May 19, 2014

A weekend in Prague, Czech Republic

On Friday, May 16th we flew directly from Nice to Prague to spend the weekend. Wasn't sure if we would get here as the government workers went on strike on Thursday, which affected the flights in and out of Nice. Thankfully, they were back at work on Friday. Prague has been on our must see list for some time, and considering we could get a direct flight, decided to go for it. Our daughter, Christine, says its one of her favourite cities and only after a day and a half, we can certainly understand why. The historic area is on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Our first encounter with the country was the cab driver who was sent by our hotel to meet us at the airport, which took about 30 minutes. He spoke broken English but was quite a character...." look, look green parks, lots of green....look left, children's school...look right, ugly soviet era building....communists bad for country, Stalin like Hitler! ....Czech people love Vaclav Havel. He good for country...died a few years ago...drank, smoked and many women! We still love him....look left, Prague Castle...many many take tram, o.k......look right, big church. Most Czech's Catholica, some Protestante and some other. You eat at hotel...good for Europeans, expensive for East Europeans. Good hotel you stay....two boys at desk speak good English ...Martin and Martin...ha, ha! Yes, two Martin's..nice boys. You no take taxi unless hotel get for you...pickpockets on Bridge and central square, you be careful. You have hotel call me, I take you back to airport." Well, did you take that all in, I was almost tired by the end of the ride, but don't need to take a tour!

A little history about the Czech Republic. After the First World War, the closely related Czechs and Slovaks merged together to form the new nation of Czechoslovakia. During the Second World War, the country avoided the fate of the massive air bombardments and invasions that levelled most of the historic neighbouring cities in Europe. The country fell within the Soviet sphere of influence and remained so by force until November 1989, when the Communist government was deposed in a peaceful "Velvet Revolution".....peaceful demonstrations that lasted for a few months. On 1 January 1993, the country underwent a "velvet divorce" into its two national components, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It was a very peaceful separation that was sponsored/led by Vacla Havel, who became President of the Czech Republic.

Prague (Praha) is the capital of he Czech Republic and the Bohemia area. It is the 14th largest City in the European Union. Population is about 2 million and has been in existence for 1,100 years so a lot of history here. Wow, Calgary, our home town was founded in 1875.... a bit different in terms of history. Robin read somewhere that Prague is the third most visited city in Europe. Can certainly believe this, we have never, ever seen so many tourists and from all over the world. Our hotel is located in the "lesser town" in the shadow of the Charles Bridge, which leads into the "old town". Arrived about 5 p.m. on Friday and headed across the Charles Bridge to the old town, drizzling a little and a little cool, but still o.k. for walking around. Lots of artists and musicians on the bridge, so makes for an interesting crossing. All the signs are in Czech, so you need to know where you are heading.

We made our way into the old town and into the main square where the famous Astronomical clock is located ...must digress a bit here. When we checked into the hotel, Martin (#1) welcomed us and gave us a quick overview of things to see. He had three warnings for us....1) if you need a cab, let us call one for you 2) don't go to a money exchange shop, use an ATM to get local currency and 3) watch for pickpockets on the Charles Bridge and mostly if taking pictures at the Astrological clock. He says everyone is busy looking up at the clock, so makes it very easy for the pickpockets! Back to where I was....careful of our possessions at the square while taking pictures, lots of people around.

Came across some small outdoor food shops and we thought we would try a local sweet pastry. It is called Trdelnik....Interesting how it is made. The dough is rolled into a rope which is then rolled around a cylindrical tube. The tube is then put on a spit and rolls around over the hot coals. Once it is cooked, it is taken off the spit and tube in one long section. When you buy a portion, they simply break off a piece about six inches long and roll it around in sugar....yes...very yummy.


Dinner at our hotel was indeed very good, as our cab driver told us. Prices here are indeed very good, especially when comparing it to the high prices in France! The currency here is the Czech Korona or Crown. Bigger establishments will accept Euros but for smaller purchases one does need local currency.

Saturday morning breakfast at the hotel and our waiter was Martin #1. He told us that in the service industry one normally works 12 hours a day. Martin #2 holds down the front desk.

Saturday headed out early, a little cool, but no rain. Walked up to the Prague Castle (Prazsky brad) which took about 30 minutes uphill and up some stairs. Visited the Old Royal Palace, a historical building in which the Story of a Prague is told through artifacts, St. Vitus Cathedral, Basilica of St. George and lucky enough to see the last part of the Changing of the Guard. Then back towards lesser and old town, but had to stop for hot chocolate, cappuccino and apple strudel.....hey...we shared the strudel......did I mention they are known for their pastries here! Even little cookies waiting for us in our hotel room at the end of each day!

Back to the old town and main square and wound our way into the Jewish quarter. Came across a new and and a very old synagogue. Very high end shops here. Started raining so headed back to our hotel around 4 p.m. Great day of seeing new sites in a beautiful ancient city with interesting history and architecture.

As this City caters to the tourists, one can't help but notice all the tours that are tours by foot, bike, Segways, historic cars, boats, hop on-hop off, etc. then you have the opportunity to do a tour ending up at a brewery or even better for the younger crowd, a pub crawl tour. Robin tells me that young people come here to party....I still heard them partying at 5 a.m. this morning! And the tours go on...ghost walking, communist walking tour, glass factory, pilsner brewery...and the list goes on, believe me! The other thing that is very noticeable is the number of classical concerts that are offered in all of the churches, which are numerous. Might take one in if I can convince Robin!

Prague seems to be the place for young men to come and party, guess its inexpensive here and the beer is extremely cheap and plentiful. Saw groups in the early afternoon very inebriated. Must be a few having stags, as even saw one young man in his group only sporting his underwear. All groups wearing various hats to denote their specific group.

Jewellery and crystal shops by the hundreds. They are selling crystal glasses of all shapes and sizes and even crystal chandeliers. The jewellery shops mainly sell garnet, which is mined in this area and lots of Amber. Also lots of stores selling handcrafted goods such as painted tinware, corn husk dolls, local pottery and some stores devoted only to marionettes.

The food here so far has been very good. Last night had rabbit and veal and both were delicious, accompanied by some Czech wine which was decent. The National dishes seem to be goulash (gotta try), sausages, pork knuckle, dumplings and oh, beer and more beer. Second night Robin had goulash which he very much enjoyed and I had duck, also very tasty. No desert on either evening......o.k. just because we had it earlier in the day doesn't count, right!

Have come across many shops selling "absinthe". It has a highly alcoholic spirit (90 to 148 proof) and is green in colour and is called "the green fairy". It is normally diluted with water before consumption. This drink rose into popularity in the early 20th century in Europe and was associated with the Bohemian way of life. Many famous authors and artists of the time were said to be addicted to this drink, including Hemingway, Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh and others. It was banned in North America and Europe in 1915 as it was thought to be a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. In the 1990's it was once again approved for production by the European Union as it was found not to be a drug, simply a very strong spirit. Think the picture below tells it all.....beware. We will not be trying it.

Sunday found us heading out for a long walk around the Mala Strana neighbourhood where our hotel is located, but away from the touristy areas. Residential area along the river, also a few embassies located along the way. Came across a great wall of graffiti, finding out afterward it is known as the John Lennon graffiti wall, quite amazing. Then found our way to Petrin hill. We climbed up the hill which us located in the center of Prague and this took us about 1/2 hour. The hill is covered in gardens and is where a lot of locals come to relax and enjoy the views above the City. Also numerous religious monuments at the top along with art pieces scattered throughout the park and a lookout tower at the top (built in 1891) which resembles a miniature Eiffel tower. Then rode the funicular back to the bottom and walked back to the lesser town.

Mentioned previously that Prague has hundreds of jewellery stores and yesterday we stopped at one near our hotel. I tried on several Garnet rings and Robin wanted me to buy one. Those who know me well will know my fondness for nice jewellery. I said "no, I wanted to think about it". The owner of the store spoke English, as most people here do, and he said "I can't believe it. I have never met a woman who has said no to her husband who wants to buy her jewellery"! we walked by today, Robin convinced me that I really should get a garnet ring, as they were so reasonably priced here and also the fact that garnet is my birthstone. I capitulated folks..... I am now in possession of a lovely garnet ring! Thank you Robin.

Stopped to visit St. Nicholas Church located in Lesser Town. A beautiful baroque construction church, built between 1704 to 1755. The paintings/frescoes amongst the nicest we have seen. Beautifully painted ceilings and a magnificent pipe organ.

Cool weekend with some showers. This doesn't stop any of the outdoor restaurants. They are all covered with large awnings and have heaters, blankets and some chairs covered in sheepskins. All the outdoor restaurants were very busy even with the showers/rain.

On our last night in Prague, we decided to attend a classical music concert in the Rudolfinum, which is a neo-renaissance building built in the late 19th century. This building did house the Czech parliament for a period of time, but is now used for concerts and social events and is the home of the Czech Philharmonic orchestra. When we stopped by the front desk of our hotel this morning to enquire about attending a classical music concert tonight, Martin (#2) quickly steered us towards this concert. He told us that a lot of the classical music concerts held in Prague are quite bogus as far as what they charge, the length and quality of concert. We are to report back to him as to the quality of the concert. The concert was very enjoyable and featured a quintet made up of two violinists, one viola, a cello and a bass. They played a variety of well known classics such as Mozart, Vivaldi, Dvorak, Bizet and finished with The Hungarian Dance by Brahms. An enjoyable evening for our last night in Prague and the rain stayed away for our walk back to the hotel.

We can't say enough about the Pod Vezi hotel here in Prague. If anyone is planning on visiting Prague, we would definitely recommend this hotel. A great location, the staff have been excellent, great breakfast included in the price, large room with good amenities, and a restaurant with top quality food. Little cookies and chocolates every evening in your room and this morning we got a free certificate for a crepe and coffee at a little restaurant next door and we were given a tiny bottle of bubbly to thank us for staying!

Monday morning arrives and we are due to leave at noon, and the sun comes out. We decide to go back into the historical center to catch the chiming of astronomical clock. Figures of the apostles make an appearance n the top of the clock every hour on the hour. Hard to capture in pictures as they move so fast. Walked through the old town for about one hour then back to our hotel. A couple of "odd" things that I meant to comment upon. Every time we have crossed the Charles Bridge, we see numerous people touching one of the statues, which we are told is a Prague ritual. It is supposed to bring good luck and to ensure that you return to Prague soon. One is supposed to touch it with your left hand.....well we didn't touch....kind of yucky...reminds me of people kissing the Blarney Stone...yuch! The other odd thing we saw our last morning was taking place in the large square where the astronomical clock is located. There were probably about eight Chinese couples, young ladies in wedding dresses and their male partners dressed quite casually. They were getting their pictures taken individually and as a group. As one tourist behind us said..."kinda creepie" !

As we left the hotel this morning, Martin #2 gave us a fridge magnet as a momento of our stay....ah, what more could one ask for. Have to tell you, notwithstanding the cloudy/rainy weather, we absolutely had a wonderful time in Prague. If you haven't been, put it on your list.

For my nephew Marc, Prague was a holiday away from our holiday!


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