For Prague and I, it was love at first sight. The city is effortlessly magical. You could have no knowledge, map, or sightseeing plan; and still wander aimlessly into (and around) architecture and culture that is beyond impressive. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from, Prague will certainly surprise and delight you.
Pilsen and the drive…
The drive to Prague from Ansbach is 3.5 hours. You can easily make it in one shot, but my travel companions and I decided to make a pit-stop at the Pilsner Urquell brewery. It is located in the town of Pilsen, just an hour’s drive west of the city of Prague. Pilsen is not the most impressive of European cities. I am thankful we were only there for the afternoon and not an overnight. The factory compound itself is a site to see, the tour is interesting, and the beer is unique. There is a restaurant at the brewery too, if you need to eat. We ate there, at Na Spilce, after our tour. It’s easier than looking for another place to eat, but it’s pretty gimmicky. It reminded me of eating at an enormous Houlihan’s. The food is traditional Czech. After we ordered, it literally only took two minutes for it to be brought out. It was too quick; quicker than you’d get food at McDonalds. It didn’t taste bad, but we were hoping that future Czech restaurants would have more to offer. Luckily, they did.
We toured the production line and learned some interesting facts about the bottling and canning. We watched a short film on the recipe and ingredients, and got a taste of toasted barley and mashed hops. We toured the old factory (built in 1839) and learned how they used to produce beer. We saw straight to the inside of the old copper kettles. Then it was on the new production side of the factory. The new side is shinier, has bigger and better boilers run by computers, and a fee if you wanna take pictures. It’s funny, the factory already reminded me of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory before entering. Then once inside the information sharing and potential secrecy reminded me of all the kids getting everlasting gobstoppers. For the record; none of us took a secret photo without paying. Seriously. And we’ve never met Slugworth.
For the latter half of the tour you go underground. There are 9km of tunnels under the factory. I believe they used to run beer through there and store it. The brewery is serious about the temperature the beer is stored at, and much of it is kept in handmade oak barrels too. Until the mid 1980’s the brewery used to keep the beer underground cold with an ice chamber filled of ice bricks ,made from the snowfall the previous winter. They have since switched to modern day forms of climate control.
The tour wrapped up with a tasting of fresh, unfiltered, unpasteurized beer. It’s hoppier than beer I normally like and has higher contents of hops and yeast. It could be described as spicier; and the claim is that it is good for your health. Who wouldn’t drink to that? To the betterment of our health we sipped the hoppy, yeasty brew in a 30 degree damp tunnel at a barrel table surrounded by the smell of malted barley, fermenting beer, and rows and rows of untapped wooden kegs while listening to and anecdote (or two) about the history of Pilsen and its beer tradition.
Pilsen is a 13th century town. In that day the king granted every citizen (300 at the time) the privilege to brew their own beer. They made it for themselves to drink, and to share with their neighbors. The tradition goes that when a family had brewed a fresh batch of beer they would hang a wreath on their front door to make all aware of the fresh brew. When I grow up I want neighbors like that.
It was an hour’s walk from our hotel to the city center. It’s one of the most impressive city walks I’ve ever had. Since we had stopped at the Pilsner Urquell brewery, did the tour, and had lunch; we got to our Prague apartment early in the evening. A simple walk to (and thru) Prague’s greatest hits was a most appropriate idea. It allowed us to get our bearings and work up an appetite. The architecture of Prague immediately had me wrapped around its finger. I took an impressive amount of photos, starting the minute I walked out our front door. The West bank is loaded with the most ornately decorated houses I’ve ever witnessed.
The closer you get to the Charles Bridge, the more alluring it becomes. My photography only increased. It’s not just the architecture of the bridge that is impressive. It is a melange of its surroundings, its history, its tall tales, urban legends, superstitions, culture of the Czech people, and how that relates to the millions of tourists that occupy it at any given moment. The bridge plays host to statues, pigeons, artists, gypsies, hippies, homeless, vendors, peddlers, beggars, travelers, lovers, and locals. While on the bridge, your eyes play host to endless rooftops, balconies, windows, dock side bars, blue skies, a setting sun, boats, riverbank museums and cafes, and a skyline of impressive castles and church spires. When we were there it was as bustling as it ever is. This warm atmosphere was the perfect ambiance to fall in love with Prague. (or fall in love with the person standing closest to you…which is what plenty of people were doing)
There were make-out sessions everywhere! I had to document one.
This immediately incredible impression is merely an appetizer for what awaits you on the opposite side (east side) of the Vltava river. You funnel out off the Charles Bridge into the Old City and its square. It is riddled with amazing sites and sounds. I’d love to describe them all, but I fear boring you to death. I do have to mention the astronomical clock however, since it’s the most amazing clock I’ve ever seen and there’s nothing else like it in the world. The clock was built in the 15th century. When I look at it I can not find the time. To one that knows how to read it however, you can determine Central European Time, Bohemian Time, Babylonian Time, the date, the sign of the zodiac, what saint’s day it is, and when it’s a holiday. A guy named Master Hanus designed the figures that pop out and put a show on every hour. Apparently when he was finished the town counselors blinded him with a hot poker so he could never recreate anything to its liking ever again. In retaliation Hanus felt his way through the clock tower and broke it; thus successfully shutting it down for the next eighty years but also educing a heart attack upon himself.
In addition to this ridiculous clock the old square has towers, statues, food stands, a beer garden, street performers, and more gorgeous architecture piling three to five stories high and snuggling up around winding streets of shops, bars, and theaters. Once you’ve had your fill of the Old City there are four other neighborhoods in Prague you’ll end up touring. There is the Castle Quarter, the New Town, the Jewish Quarter, and the Little Quarter.
Our apartment was in the Little Quarter. It’s about as far southwest as you want to go in Prague. We went to the Veletrzni Palac museum one afternoon and a beer festival the same evening. These two sites took us farther northwest in Prague than you’d normally want to go. Luckily we found the tram and metro system to be a breeze. Everything else was centrally located and in wandering distance of the east bank of the Vltava river.
On our second day in Prague we visited the Castle Grounds. It’s a destination where a tourist can choose their level of exploration. You can go for free and simply walk around the outside of all of the buildings taking in the street performers, beautiful views, gardens, and inspiring construction. Around 15 different buildings make up the grounds, so it’s like a small neighborhood in itself. We bought a ticket that gets you into four of the (possible eight) main sites. I believe it is called the short tour. I’m happy to have done this because the church, St. Vitus Cathedral, is included in this package. Despite the crowds and all of the guards herding the crowds, St Vitus Cathedral is impressive and worth a look-see at all the sculpture and stain glass. We finished up our castle tour with lunch at the Lobkowicz Palace Cafe. It was lovely. We ate a delicately satisfying array of pastas, salads, and desserts, on a second-story stone balcony table, overlooking a garden and thunderstorm in the city.
It continued to rain through out that afternoon. Since we were trying to avoid getting (and staying) too wet we chose to visit the Mucha Museum. It isn’t a terribly large museum, but it does cover the life and work of Alfons Mucha. Mucha was a successful Art Nouveau artist who dedicated his life to the Slavic people and their struggles. I wanted to visit this museum simply because I like art nouveau. I had no idea my friends and I were going to fall into deeper infatuation with the artistic style and this prolific artist.
Mucha’s illustrations are terribly popular. He lived and worked in Prague, Paris, and America. He was commissioned for prints, paintings, and design across the world. While I was familiar with his illustrations I was not familiar with his life’s masterpiece.
The Slav Epic is the most amazing art work I have ever seen. It’s 20 panels, each 20′ x 25′ in size, depicting images of the history of the Czech and Slavic peoples. It took Mucha 16 years to complete. Mucha was barely able to afford to finish it, and he was barely able to physically finish it, but his dedication to the project (and his people) never faltered. I think these facts alone make it a beautiful piece of art. The Slav Epic survived the war, it survived unpopularity, and it survived a couple of moves to new homes. It is permanently housed now in the Veletrzni Palace. This visual marvel was the highlight of the trip for me. I have never been so impressed by a single work of art in my life. Upon seeing the first panel I cried. I feel like it sounds silly, but I was truly overwhelmed by the amount of emotion I felt when I set my eyes on it in real life. All 20 panels are impressive and beautifully rendered. Mucha designed compositions of multiple worlds existing in harmony threaded with a wonderful use of color. His craftsmanship is truly a dream.
(Coincidentally, while searching for a photo of the Slav Epic I found another blogger who also thinks that the Slav Epic is a tear-jerker. Here is a link to his post about the artwork. It shows the panels in their entirety.)
On Thursday morning we toured the Jewish Quarter. Like the Castle Grounds, the Jewish Quarter is a place that you can pay to discover based on your level of intent. In order to get to this neighborhood we walked down Parizska street. It’s recently turned into a posh street, with storefronts from every famous designer one could think of. It’s luxury shopping in a gorgeous setting of (more) impressive art nouveau architecture and big, old shady green trees canopying over the sidewalks. Once in the concentrated area of the Jewish Quarter, a full ticket will get you entry into seven sights. We chose to wander around and take in the sights from the outside. This neighborhood is known as the most interesting collection of Jewish sites in Europe. As the Nazis destroyed the Jewish neighborhoods they allowed the Prague Jews to collect treasures of their choosing in this section of the city. Amongst other shops and buildings, the seven popular sites are six synagogues and one cemetery. The cemetery claims the most coveted of views. At ground level the cemetery has 12,000 tombstones, but there are layers underneath. Guesstimates claim that the total is over 100,000 tombstones in this one spot. For over 300 years it was the only burial ground allowed for Prague Jews. You can not buy a ticket just to see the cemetery. If you want to see it you have to steal a peek. There are numerous ways to achieve this. We did it via the gated path to the public restroom. If you squat down and peer under the fence you can catch a few glimpses of the massive tombstones piled on top of one another and growing mossy vegetation. It was quite a bit lovelier than I would have thought, given my pathetic vantage.
My friend Jess had been trying to get us to go on a Prague bike tour all week. For the first three days it never worked out. It was always the wrong time or raining. Actually, it was always raining. Until Friday it had been easy to find other worthwhile things to do instead. Friday however, we (she) were determined to make this bike tour work. Despite the fact that it was pouring rain and cold we headed downtown to the bike store. The closer we got, the more evident it became that it just wasn’t in the cards. When we got off our metro stop, at Namesti Republiky, we had come to the firm conclusion we would not ride bikes that morning. No sooner had this happened than we saw a huge sign in front of us that read Palladium. Having no clue what it was we walked right in. As it turns out, the Palladium is Prague’s newest, biggest mall. I don’t particularly love malls and shopping, but I am an American child of the nineties (as are my travel buddies) so we decided to give it a trolling. We discovered an underground shoppers paradise. There was every mediocre chain store you could think of, all cleverly fitted in this mall design that winds up and down for four levels. Since the entire situation is underground, for me it gives new meaning to the word mall rat.
We got tired of the Palladium pretty quickly and decided to go out, and up the street, to visit the Municipal House. This is a tourist destination in Prague that was also not on our initial list and counts as another time I was delightfully surprised by how fabulous our choice of activity was. Now knowing what the Municipal House looks like, I would have been sad to have never experienced it. It’s a jaw dropping representation of Art Nouveau architecture at its finest. The building itself, it’s facade, windows, trimmings, entrance, and outer mosaic mural are stunning. Inside there is an unbelievable working restaurant, coffee shop, and underground bar that are more beautiful than I would have thought for a place you can walk into and have a beer in blue jeans. I found myself wishing I had arrived by private taxi, had my hair done, been wearing jewelry and maybe a fur shawl. It is a step back in time for sure. It’s Prague’s largest concert hall and is called “the pearl of Czech Art Nouveau.” It was built in 1905 as a ceremonial house to celebrate the culture of the Czech people. In 1918 Czechoslovakia’s independence was declared from the balcony. You can pay to go inside and tour the Municipal House, see an exhibit, or attend a concert; but we just did the free walk-thru and were more than delighted by the beauty we’d witnessed.
Finally on Friday afternoon we got the two hour window of sun we needed to tour the city on a bike. Once you get past the chattering of your teeth as you bike over cobblestone, it was really fun. (and affordable) It was our last day, but surprisingly we saw sights we hadn’t seen, and the tour guide fed us a ton of little info tidbits; the likes of which we had no previous knowledge. It was like a tapas history lesson; stuff one could only get from a Spanish Prague local, not in a guide book. He showed us the city’s first theater, and then told us how a girl got her face stuck in a nearby statue late one night. He showed us a popular intersection, and then pointed up to a sculpture of Sigmund Freud hanging from a rope over the middle of it. We biked to a view of the Charles Bridge, and then he told us it was held together with eggs. We biked through a riverside park, and as we were going by a graffiti stencil he told us about how the stencil was of the first president after the fall of communism. The man is Vaclav Havel; he was a writer before he held office. He wasn’t really a politician at all. The people loved him, and he served them for a long time.
Speaking of graffiti, our guide also showed us the Lennon Wall, and gave us the history of its conception to what it means today. I liked it less after his historical account. It once started out as a political statement and now it’s a place that everyone thinks is cool to write their name. You can barely even see Lennon on the wall anymore. Someone gave him a silly mustache, and the wall has more “______ was here” than a bathroom wall in a late night hang out. As much as I like colorful graffiti I still had to enjoy the piece of art. I just agree with our guide that it doesn’t have much political or social meaning. My favorite story from the tour was when Daniel took us to the Rudolfinum Concert Hall. It’s a Neo-Renaissance building that has a bunch of sculptures of composers on the top. The story goes, that during an invasion of the Nazis, soldiers went up on the roof to knock down the staute of a famous Jewish composer, Felix Mendelssohn. They weren’t sure who-was-who and ended up accidentally knocking over the statue of Richard Wagner instead. Wagner, the well loved German composer smashed to pieces on the ground below and the Mendelssohn statue remains. Gotta love that.
Like many other events we enjoyed on the trip, the Beer Fest was nothing short of a surprise. It was up on the northern outskirts of the city. Not a place in the general flow of tourist traffic. The fest is not heavily advertised. It’s more for those “in the know”. Unlike Oktoberfest, it is not a fest attended by drunks the world over. It’s mostly just Czechs and a few aficionados, like me and Jess and Brian. Luckily, aficionados will go to great lengths to taste new beer. The fest was not only difficult to get to, but it was cold raining, and we had no idea where the actual fest tent was located once we found the festival grounds. It got a little hairy before the moment we found it. We were wet, cold, thirsty, had walked in a few circles, and the place was a dump. The grounds of the fest actually bared a striking resemblance to Asbury Park. If you’ve not been to Asbury Park, New Jersey, then let me say it looked like a dirty abandoned amusement park and municipal hall. (In other words, there’s something depressingly charming about it.) We were relieved once we finally arrived and were able to get down to business. The beer fest had multiple tents, food and entertainment. There were some 15 companies represented with two to three types of beer each. I had three rounds consisting of a dark (but not too dark and sweet) beer, a smoked beer, and a semi-dark beer. My buddies had everything from unfiltered beers, to R.I.P.A.’s, to grapefruit beer. Each was equally as delicious. I have never been so satisfied by a beer festival.
I’m not sure if we just got lucky, if we adhered to only the suggested eateries in our guide books, or if the food in Czech is just simply fabulous; but I enjoyed everything my friends and I ate on our trip. I would definitely recommend the city to even the choosiest of food snobs. My least favorite meal was the fast food at the Pilsen Brewery, but it certainly wasn’t horrible. The rest of it however; the burrito, the burger, the lasagne, the many salads, the pork knuckle, the rabbit, the duck, the chicken, the deer, the kielbasa, the lentils and the curries, the pizza with bacon and eggs, the potato chip sticks, the trdelnik (featured above), the devil’s toast, the breads, the camembert, the onion pie, the mushroom pancake, the chocolate cake, the kheer, the cheese cake, the Masala tea, and the Arabian coffee, were all delicious. All of my senses were satisfied at the end of every meal.
I would like to take this time to recommend any of the restaurants we ate at in Prague. Jama. Lobkowitcz Palace Cafe. U Kroka. Indian Jewel. Cafe Bar. Olympia. Maestro.
Forget what anyone says about German Beer. It’s all about the Czech beer.
If you know me you know that drinking beer is one of my favorite past times. I highly recommend Prague to any beer snob. In fact, if you love beer it’s a must-experience. My favorite spots that we drank beer on the trip were Jama, U Kroka, U Medvika, (which is actually a micro brew that offers extremely interesting beer) Back Door, and at the beer fest. It just doesn’t get any fresher than a beer fest, but in most guide books you can read up on pubs serving unpasteurized beer and the latest microbreweries.
I didn’t speak any Czech while I was there. I only picked up on a few words. Namely hello and goodbye, which are the same word and pronounced like the English word Ahoy. (What girl with an anchor tattoo doesn’t love using that word?) Beer is Pivo. Please is Prosim. And I still can not accurately pronounce the word for thank you which comes out of my mouth sounding like Jack-Koo-E. It’s not a terribly popular language. In fact it almost died out centuries ago. There are a few things I found charming in it though. Namely, the Czech words for the months of the year are beautifully descriptive nouns. A few shining examples are February, it is unor, and means hibernation, November is listopad (leaves falling) June and July are cerven (red) and cervenec (redder). I think December has to be my personal favorite, prosinec meaning “slaughter of the pigs.” As in other languages, in the Czech language cheers (Na zdravi) literally translates to to your health. And the Czechs mean it; they drink beer because it is good for you. In Prague you can even bath in it at beer spas. Many beauty shops boast lines of skin care with beer, or barley, or hops, being a main ingredient.
If you are still reading this I thank you. I had a blast in Prague and I don’t want to forget even the smallest detail. The more I travel and learn the more I learn about myself. In paying attention to what you remember, which spots you tend to linger at, what you photograph, what makes you laugh, and what makes you cry, you can begin to learn what inspires you. I think it can also teach you about cultural traditions or behaviors that you already have and guide you in making your next travel choices. Next travel choices? Yup. Thank goodness I still live in Europe and traveling is (relatively) cost effective. Once you pop you can’t stop!
And don’t think you’ve read the last of me and Prague; I rubbed the statue on the Charles bridge that you rub for luck in returning to Prague. Plus, I decided that I still need to experience Petrin Hill, the Communist museum, the other castles, hilltop parks, the buried Stalin statue, and picnicking on the islands of the Vltava. There are more microbreweries and jazz clubs whose doors I have not opened, I never made it out to the bone church of Kutna Hora, and I didn’t eat enough trdelniki’.