Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Czech List: Our trip to Prague

In March, Alan and I booked tickets for a two-week mini-tour of Eastern Europe. Our interest in this part of the country started when I got the idea to start picking European destinations alphabetically. That led to Albania, which, even though it's shown up on some recent best-new-destinations lists, seemed a little too rough-and-tumble for us to try just yet. But its eastern location prodded us to pick some of the cities in that region-ish we have wanted to visit. The first stop on our itinerary was Prague. Here's a day-by-day look at how we spent our time there.

The John Lennon Wall.
Fri., Oct. 5: Alan and I usually pop sleeping pills when taking long flights, but unfortunately cramped airplane cabins don't always allow us to appropriately sleep the suckers off. On that note, our first day in Prague was experienced through excited but sleepy eyes. We were determined to truck it out until bedtime, though, because we've learned that even the shortest nap can set you on a path straight to Jetlagandia.

We're renting a small apartment in the Little Quarter, something we found through Airbnb. It's a charming little studio decorated with Ikea furniture and several Audrey Hepburn accoutrements. It's ideally located within blocks of the western entrance of the Charles Bridge, but just far enough away to escape all the touristy hub-bub.

We spent our first day taking a guide-book tour of our hood. Some of the highlights included a walk around the weird-sculpture-adorned Kampa Island, a peek at the colorful and imaginative John Lennon Wall and a late-night classical concert at the Baroque-tastic Saint Nicholas Church. If you can imagine, being as sleepy as we were, we had a hell of a time staying awake for that latter activity. We capped off the evening with a romantic stroll across the Charles Bridge, which afforded us our first glimpse of the more-touristy but totally gorgeous eastern side of the Vltava River. We can't wait to see more of it tomorrow.

View from the Castle Quarter.
Sat., Oct. 6:  One of our goals on every Europe trip is to try something we've never tried before. In 2010, we popped our get-stoned-in-Europe cherry in Amsterdam and in 2011 we rented a car and did a road trip across Spain. This year we have a few ideas up our sleeves — one of which is to hire a private tour guide in Prague.

Andrea Řezníčková (booked via Personal Prague Guide), a bubbly, early-thirtysomething "typical Prague girl," showed up at our door this morning at 11 a.m. She took us to a local cafe, where we "drew into a map" to configure a walking tour suited to our interests. We asked her to take us on a tour that started with sites pertaining to some of Prague's oldest history (think Hapsburgs) and transitioned to some of the more modern stuff (think Commie assholes). We started by taking a tram to the Castle Quarter where we toured the Prague Castle, which houses the offices of the sitting president, Václav Klaus, and the spectacular but way-too-crowded Saint Vitus Cathedral. Then we rode down to Prague's main thoroughfare, Wenceslas Square, where, on Nov. 17 1989, thousands of Prague citizens filled the streets to protest the country's one-party government. Known as the Velvet Revolution, this was the moment that catapulted the country to freedom from restrictive Communist rule. Andrea was an extremely well-informed guide who was happy to answer every question we threw at her — and there were a lot. It was especially interesting to hear about her own experiences with Communism in the '80s. We ended our tour over beer and a delicious spicy cheese spread at Restaurace u Provaznice (aka The Ropemakers Wife). 

After that, Alan and I pulled out the guide book and did a little rogue-style touring. We went to the stunning Old Town Square where we wedged ourselves into a ridiculous crowd to watch the funny Astronomical Clock go off at the top of the hour, and toured some of the surrounding churches. On the way home we stopped by an outdoor market called Havelske to pick up some fresh raspberries for breakfast. 

At Country Life vegetarian restaurant.
Sun., Oct. 7: We started our day with a stroll through the gardens surrounding Wallenstein Palace, which, we discovered, was just across the street from our apartment. It's a dainty, Parisian-style spot of green lined with shrubs, dotted with fountains and regularly strolled upon by a flock of peacocks — one of which is albino. It was a lovely start to the day. Our next order of business was a more-in-depth tour of Wenceslas Square. While there, we popped into a few stores to do some shopping — both winding up with a new shirt or two. Lunch was had at a vegetarian restaurant near Old Town Square called Country Life. It's a hippie-dippy, buffet-style cafe that serves salads and veggie versions of typical Czech cuisine. The food has been great here — lots of hearty, flavorful goulash, sausages, breads and cheeses — but after a while the heaviness starts to drag you down. This veggie spot was, as Alan put it, "a nice respite." Afterward we toured the Mucha Museum, which, if you ask me is skippable, but Alan really enjoyed it.

In the evening we met up with my friend and City Paper colleague Samantha, who just so happens to be on a trip here, too, with her friend Yvonne. We had a great time gabbing over a delicious dinner (and wine!) at another vegetarian restaurant called Maitrea, which also served meat-free variations on typical Czech cuisine and a few ethnically inspired dishes. Dessert and coffee was had at the historical Café Louvre, a favorite hangout of famous dudes like Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein. We tried a variety of tasty desserts — an apple strudel, and ricotta and raspberry cakes — but my hot chocolate with rum was probably the best. It was topped with a hefty dollop of housemade whip cream. Di-vine!

After dropping off the ladies at their hotel, Alan and I strolled back to our apartment via Charles Bridge, which, for the first time since we've been on it, was crowd-free. It gave us a nice chance to walk across leisurely, checking out each of the statues and gaze at Prague's dreamy landscape, all lit up like a fairy-tale land on each side of the Vltava River.

On Petřín Hill.
Mon., Oct. 8: We started today with a plan — to take a tour of Prague's Jewish Quarter — but that quickly fell through when we arrived and realized all the sites were closed for a Jewish Holiday. Plan B? The Medieval Museum. But come to find out, it's closed on Mondays. There wasn't really a Plan C, so we had to improv. We decided to stroll north along the Vltava River to see the Dancing House. Along the way we stopped for a browse through the Artbank Museum of Young Art, a multi-leveled ultra-contemporary art space filled with all kinds of strange works by young artists. We really enjoyed it. After that we stopped for a great lunch at School, a slick-looking restaurant that focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients. We each had a glass of local white wine and a bowl of spicy pumpkin soup that was lick-your-bowl-worthy. 

The Dancing House was pretty cool, a super modern clunk of architecture that sits on a corner alongside a row of fancy baroque, gothic and art nouveau-era facades. From there, we crossed back onto the eastern side of the Vltava to take an exhausting hike up Petřín Hill. The view from up top was something else.

We ended our night with a fab meal at Lehka Hlava, another crunchy vegetarian restaurant owned by the same folks as Maitrea. We actually liked this spot a little better. The food was about the same, but the atmosphere was cozier, setup in a small dining room decorated in a colorful enchanted-jungle motif. It was pretty dreamy.

Final Impressions: Prague has earned itself a spot at the top of our favorite-places list. The city is extremely walkable and fairly easy to navigate - that is, when you're not being stalled by the crowds. It's definitely a tourists' city. I'm thankful we stayed in the Little Quarter, which kept us just far enough away from the hustle-bustle but only a hop and skip to Old Town, where most things seem to be happening. Prague is an exciting, vibrant town, and one of the most beautiful places we've seen. The enchanting, well-preserved blend of architecture — Medieval castles and looming baroque cathedrals alongside Art Nouveau-era concert halls and ornate Renaissance palaces — lends the city an enchanting quality that makes you feel like you're living in an honest-to-God fairy tale - especially when it's glowing at night. We had a wonder- filled time.

Neither of us have had any experience with the Slavic-rooted language. But the Czech people have had plenty of practice with ours. We did our best to use some of the basics. Locals seemed appreciative when we'd say things like "Dobrý den" ("Hello," pronounced "doe-bree den") or "Deku" ("Thank you," pronounced "jyaa-quee"). But we never had to go much further than that.

We didn't have a single bad meal in Prague. We started the trip seeking out traditional Czech cuisine, which is hearty, super flavorful and bone-sticking. Our favorite regional bites were the goulash (tomato-based stew with spices, beef and potatoes) and the spicy cheese spread we had at Restaurace u Provaznice. When we felt like we'd had it with the meats and cheeses, finding veggie restaurants was a breeze — contrary to what we heard before coming. We found three places (all listed above) that we loved, and saw several more. The wine was great, too, especially in a culture that thrives on beer. We made it a point to stick with regional varieties, which tend to be full-bodied and almost pepper-y when red, and the whites were nicely dry and crisp.

Money: The U.S. dollar goes a little farther in the Czech Republic - especially when dining. For example, our meal at Lehky Hlava (two glasses of wine, an appetizer, two entrees, a dessert and two cups of tea) was 700 Kč, which may sound wildly expensive, but was only $35. Tip: An easy way to convert kcs to dollars is to drop the last number (700 = 70) and divide that by two (70 \2 = 35). We were told by our landlord and tour guide that it's customary to round to the nearest half-dollar when tipping (700 = 750 = about $38). Easy breezy cheapy!

Next stop: South to Český Krumlov, a small castle down near the Austrian border. Stay tuned!.


andrena said...

hey Josh! what a wonderful trip! Glad you had a 'poppin' good time! the pictures are fabulous! I love the graffiti wall and the CHURCHES!!!! The marionettes are spooky...and the dripping wall?? Ewwww makes my skin crawl...what was it dripping from? What made it look like that??? Anywho, just glad you had a great time, and thanks for sharing!!

Josh Middleton said...

Hey, Pastor Ingram! Great hearing from you. Thanks for your comment. I'm actually not sure what the wall is made of; some kind of stone, I think. If you look close there are faces of monsters and other scary things in it that were used to scare people away from the palace! Hope all's well where you are. We should get together soon. Smooch!

Bill Fogle said...

Sounds like another successful trip, dear one. I love the surprises and different sneaky experiences for each European trip (Alan got stoned?!?!). I shall be reading more ...