Saturday, 28 September 2019

Gem of Europe

The beautiful city of Prague - a true Gem of Europe
Strahov Monastery.
On guard at Prague Castle.
Easter break this year was a longer wait than usual. Normally it comes either the last week of March or the first week of April, but this year we had to wait a little longer. This term is always hard for teachers, you've just got back from Christmas break, having had lots of public holidays in the first term as well so it feels you haven't even really started, then comes Term 2. A real desert of a term, no public holidays to be seen, no 3-day weekends, no respite until the promised Easter Break and beautiful holidays! Flights need to be booked well in advance, plans on where to go organised and thought about thoroughly. Somewhere warm yet not too hot, close but a little exotic, and cheap but exciting. Last year I visited Ireland, Dublin and Belfast, and while I had a great time, I wasn't warm nor cheap. Ever since summer last year, plans had been forming for the next break, and I was leaning towards the Czech Republic. I hadn't been here since way back in 2008 when I was driving from London to Milan in my van, having worked in the UK for 3 weeks and then heading down to Italy to start a new teaching year in a new country. I visited Prague and by a lucky stroke of luck (after walking past a travel agent and seeing a poster) also visiting the magnificent city of Czesky Krumlov. So plane tickets were booked, accommodation researched, and my good friend Teresa contacted as I hoped to meet up with her in her home town - we hadn't seen each other since she visited Barcelona in 2016 and before then in Sydney in 2015, so it had been a while. This trip was forming up to be something great - a re-visit to a beautiful and interesting country, a chance to visit a good friend whom I hadn't seen for years, and the first big trip with my girlfriend.
Prague's castle square - and the queue to get in.
Prague's Old Town is typical Central European architecture - stunning!
The walk past the castle walls to the centre.
Domes and towers are everywhere in Prague.
Prague, as everyone knows because they've visited it or because it's on the list, is a beautiful city, a real archetypal Central European city. With hundreds or churches, spires, stone bridges and buildings, century old clocks and cobbled streets, you can't help but to fall in love with this city. Known for these things, its architecture and history, Prague has also been a city for Stag Parties and pub crawls for Europeans, popular with the Brits and Germans due to the cheap price of beer and budget flights. Sadly, over the past 10-15 years, the situation has been getting worse and now the government is trying to crack down on drunken, disruptive behaviour that tourists are bringing to the city. This is something that is happening a lot in Europe, and Worldwide too I'm sure - too many tourists. Barcelona struggles with the double-edged knife - on one hand, you have millions of tourists coming to your city, spending money and helping the economy, yet on the other hand, the cost to the locals way of life, traffic, prices and overall state of the city (more tourists = more rubbish and pollution). So what is the limit, the line to be drawn, and then how to you enforce it? I knew that Prague was going to be very busy in April, but less so than when Summer would be in full swing and everyone taking their August holidays, so I decided to face the crowds and visit as maybe it would be the last time for a while. Although I'm also a tourist, I don't like fighting crowds, being part of huge queues to see some tourist attraction or pay more money than I should simply because I'm a tourist. On the other hand, I don't always say I'm doing it 'like a local,' the typical traveller's catch phrase now. I try to get off the beaten track, as much as possible, but I also like the road well-travelled as there are reasons why lots of people visit a city or country. I try to taste the local food, but do not call myself a 'foodie,' but also don't pay a lot for these things, as you don't have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the simple things in a place. Anyway - Prague, here I come!
Prague Castle from Charles Bridge.
The castle seen from Aussichtsbank park.
Prague in Spring!
Morning walk.
An early morning flight allowed us to land in Prague and grab the train to the city then a tram to where we'd be staying for the next 2 nights. We landed to cloudy weather with a touch of drizzle, not the most promising weather for a holiday. Like most people, apps had been checked every day, or several times a day, and then checking them on arrival too. Both of my apps promised nice weather by tomorrow, even clearing up this evening. This is enough for me - and usually even without modern tech like this, I'm positive about the weather and that it will be just fine! I have to say here that the weather for the whole week was amazing - warm and sunny, with not a drop of rain to be had after the first day, unlike Barcelona at the same time where it was cold and even had some rain. Positivity wins. As we couldn't check in until 3, we decided to have lunch and our first (of many) beers in the country to celebrate the start of Easter Holidays. A 5 minute walk to our accommodation and also right in front of the tram stop where we got off, we found a cosy little Czech pub, with a few locals drinking and chatting, but more importantly, mouth-watering smells coming from the kitchen. This is where we had some lovely Czech soup and bread, warming up from the inside, as well as relaxing with some great Czech beer. I have to say now that my whole time in the country, I found coffee very expensive - far more than beer. An average beer would cost you around 25-50kc (€1 - €2) for a pint, whereas coffee was at least 50kc, sometimes up to 120kc the centre (€2 - €4.6and not that good. So we just had to drink more beer - easy. We checked in with our host, the room was a decently sized studio-style apartment, with a shared bathroom with one other couple. We had a small kitchen, a fridge, air-con and a window - it was pretty good and very reasonably priced too! A quick shower and change of clothes before we headed out into the city for sunset and our first real exploration of the city.
The Vltava River that intersects the city.
Walking across Charles Bridge.
Walking by the castle walls.
30 statues adorn this beautiful bridge.
Walking down into the city, you can't help but notice the wonderful architecture here - the buildings all have something about them. Their pointy roofs, cute shuttered windows and the 'eyes' in the tiled roofs, all very Central European. The hostel is minutes from the centre, so before long I was looking right at Prague Castle, sitting up it's hill with the best panoramic view of the city it was built to protect. Build in the 9th Century, this castle has some history, that's for sure. It is not the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic, but has been the seat of power for the many people previously, including the Kings of Bohemia, the Holy Roman emperors and the presidents of Czechoslovakia. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the largest castle complex in the World - 70,000 m2. It is also the most visited tourist attraction in Prague, with more than 1.8 million visitors annually. This would have to be the reason I have never visited the castle - there is always a huge, snaking line outside, winding its way around the square in front of the building, all tourists waiting to pay the over-priced entrance fee. Prices start at 100kc and add up in increments depending on what you want to see, including a fee for taking photos, which I hate paying and always refuse. I gave it a miss back in 2008 and did the same this year - I think the real beauty of this castle is either the view it gives and how you see it from the river and the rest of the city. Anyway, in my opinion it is no longer really a castle, more of a palace complex with a church in the middle. This is probably due to a large fire in the mid 16th Century and damage during the Bohemian Revolt in 1618 and during the 30 year war (which ended in 1648). I'm much more of a stone walled castle fan anyway, so I don't feel I'm missing out on much.
Prague on the river.
The priest that was thrown off the bridge - now good luck to touch the bronze plaque.
The crowds on Charles Bridge.
Polishing the broze.
What everyone comes to see (and walk over) is the Charles Bridge, which joins the castle side of the city with the Old Town and cathedral side. Crossing the Vltava River, the Charles Bridge is just over 600m long, not too bad for a 14th Century stone bridge. Construction started in 1357 to replace the older bridge that had been damaged  by a flood, and was at first called Stone Bridge (Kamenný most) or Prague Bridge (Pražský most) but has been "Charles Bridge" since 1870, named after King Charles IV who started the project. Up until 1841, it was the only way to cross the river, making Prague a key connection between Eastern and Western Europe. The famous statues that line the bridge on each side, 30 in total, are also a main attraction, very impressive 18th Century Barroque statues which have been replaced by replicas. Most of the statues are of saints, one of note is of St John of Nepomuk, a holy looking figure with a halo around his head, but more interesting than this is the bronze plague below depicting someone being thrown off the bridge. Legend has it that St John was killed upon the King's request as he refused to tell him the Queen's confession - in fact he brought an enemy of the Kind into the city, but he was thrown off the bridge. It's good luck to touch the picture and it's supposed to ensure you visit Prague again soon - obviously a load of rubbish but one nearly every tourist can't pass up, forming a queue to do this and polishing the bronze at the same time. There are many other stories behind the sculptures, and every one is interesting in some way. We were very lucky, as the bridge is due for some repairs later in 2019, so it was the right time to see it as it is before they cover it over and do who knows what to it for the next 20 years (yes, the scheduled repair time!). It's not easy walking over the bridge, its 10 metre wide walkway isn't nearly wide enough to handle the amount of tourists, wandering and stopping randomly for photos and selfies or the check out the small stalls. If you want to cross the river and get into the city quickly, this isn't the way, but you have to do this walk, at least twice (during the day and sunset) if you come to the city - it's a must, no matter how many other people are doing it. Enjoy your time, walking slowly, get your photos in, then get off before you get sick of the pushing and crowds!
The main face of the clock.
Prague rooftops.
Everyone's favourite - the skeleton.
The second face of the Astronomical Clock.
I loved wandering the streets of Prague, even though very few of them were tourist and crowd-free. There is always something to look up and see, or even in some cases, look down where your feet are. Small wonders are everywhere if you have an eye for them. Something that everyone sees, and in fact one of the reason they come here, is to see the astronomical clock in the town centre. Prague Astronomical Clock, or Prague Orloj, is a medieval clock that was installed on a tower of the old Town Hall in the centre of the Old Town way back in 1410, making it the 3rd oldest Astronomical Clock and oldest, still functioning clock in the World. I'm not sure where to being with describing this amazing piece of engineering - there are 2 clock faces, the top one tells the time as well as the position of the sun and the moon. There are indicators for night time, day break, sunrise, day time and sunset, all with mechanical hands and coloured parts of the face. Around the outside there are Roman numerals to show the modern 24 hour clock, but there is another ring showing Ancient Bohemian Time. The second face, the calendar dial, was added in 1870 showing the Zodiac symbols and marks each day of the year. Most people can't read the clock (I got my info from a website with a lot of detail) but don't come here to tell the time - they come for the hourly "Walk of the Apostles."Every hour, on the hour, the clock gives a wonderful, if short, show of moving figures, chiming and bell striking. The are 4 figures, Vanity (holding a mirror), The Miser (holding a bag of gold), the Skeleton (representing Death) and then The Turk who represents pleasure and entertainment. The skeleton is everyone's favourite and he chimes out the hours, but you have to watch everything and not focus just on him, as above march the Apostles through little blue doorways. The whole show is very impressive and it brings masses of people to the square, all standing around like fish out water trying to flies while holding mobile phone sup to video everything. You can take a tour and go up the tower, but again there were a lot of people and it wasn't the cheapest, so I gave it a miss and enjoyed the tower from the ground level.
One of the many tourists who pack the square in front the clock to watch its hourly show.
The astrological clock and the Church of Our Lady before Týn in the Old Town.
Trams are always fun!
Prague has many parks and gardens.
So much to see in this beautiful and historical city, and as always, so little time! There was a little time to walk around the city before getting the train to our next destination in the Czech Republic. We made the best use of time by checking out early, after a quick breakfast, walking down to the tram stop and getting a tram to the railway station to lock our bags up till we were ready to board our inter-city train. We bought our evening train tickets, for only 100Kr (€4), and headed out again. Bag-free, we strolled around to see the parts of the city we'd missed and to also relax a little from walking and enjoy the fantastic weather the city was experiencing. The tram itself is something you should do while here too, try and catch the really old ones for the real, bumpy experience. I've always found trams very exciting for some reason - is it because I never had them as a kid, trams only being in Melbourne (and very recently in Sydney, but they're not the same), or is it because it's just very European? Buy a ticket on board, ride the line, enjoy the sights and try not to look too much like a tourist - some people actually use trams every day to get to work and go home. Our last day in Prague before moving on was a bright, warm and sunny day, so we grabbed some food and had a picnic in one of the many gardens in the city. A bit of time chilling is always appreciated in the warm weather, and helps you relax, gather your thoughts for where you're going next, and very importantly as well, help you appreciated just exactly what you have here and now. We made the train in plenty of time, got our seats and enjoyed the 1 hour and 45 minute train journey to Hradec Kralove.
The Národní muzeum.
One of the many parks in the city.
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UncleTravellingMatt. April 2019.

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