Dobrý den Praha!

29 Sep

Our flight out of Gatwick can best be described as ‘wildly turbulent’ – the kind where the Captain asks the flight attendants to take their seats, mid flight! So it is with some relief that we are back on terra firma at Ruzyne International.

The centre of Prague, though not far from Ruzyne, isn’t particularly well connected to the airport, as European capitals go! A combination of Bus + Tram / Metro usually does the trick but since we had a 6 AM flight out of London, we make our way to the taxi rank – definitely the quickest, but also the most overpriced way of getting downtown!

We check in to the very conveniently located Hotel Astoria, drop off our bags and make our way out to the Old Town or staré Město. The sky is overcast and the forecast for the next few days’ calls for equally gloomy weather, with more than a chance of rain! Perfect timing, I think to myself!

Minutes later, as if a switch has been turned on, the gloom vanishes from my face only to be replaced by a wide smirk! I am facing Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square), possibly one of the most charming city squares I have ever laid my eyes on. At the centre of it performs a choir; several stunning old buildings surround the plaza, and the aroma of Czech Country Ham fills the air! It’s good to finally be in Prague 😉

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The ham does well to divert our attention from the live performance, and after quickly partaking in our first round of red meat for the day, we slowly take in our immediate surrounds. The centrepiece of the square is quite easily the 15th-century Týnský Chrám (Church of Our Lady before Týn) which flanks its eastern boundary. On the western edge of the plaza stands Pražský Orly, the tower bearing Prague’s Astronomical Clock, a city icon in its own right!

Dividing the city’s old and new quarters is Národní, an important east – west artery, home to one of Prague’s cultural landmarks, Národní divadlo or National Theatre. Národní is also lined with several interesting Cafes, pandering to the many needs of the theatrical minded! We stroll into Cafe Louvre, which opened its doors to the city’s intellectual set back in 1902, and has since served, among others, Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein! The menu’s probably changed since their time, but one thing persists – pipe-touting smokers!!

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Národní is a busy tram route and within minutes we are deposited at the base of Petřín Hill, where a Funicular whisks us up to the summit. Petřín boasts one of the city’s largest parks, an Eiffel Tower look alike, an observatory, a rose garden, a couple of churches, a stadium turned concert venue, and occupying prime real estate atop the hill, Strahovský Klášter, a magnificent old monastery dating to the early 12th-century!

The monastery complex is home to a variety of buildings, varying in vintage – 12th to 17th century – and architectural style. But the real gem within all those wonderful structures is the monastery library, comprising several halls, each and every one of them truly exquisite!

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Right outside Strahov Monastery is Bellavista, a Cafe selling overpriced Cappuccinos and the promise of a view. The Coffee fails to deliver but Bellavista, at least, lives up to its name!

It is a day full of weddings in Prague, and newly weds have a tradition of driving away in vintage Czech cars. As we sip on an insufficient dose of caffeine, a banger – to borrow from British slang – struggles up a steep country road leading to the monastery.  It is a surreal scene, a bit of a time warp – the old Škoda, the majestic backdrop – but this is real life, this is Prague, I tell myself 😉

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As Bellavista proved, Coffee can be a hit or miss item in Prague, so you’re probably better of sticking to Beer! And it’s probably just as well – for starters, Beer is often cheaper than bottled water in most places, and if anyone knows a thing or two about brewing the stuff, it’s the Czechs!! They’ve been at it for almost a millennium, and with every bit of respect to the Germans and Belgians, the Pilsner was invented here!!

The Czech Republic is today home to over 100 breweries churning out close to 500 brews, and the Czechs acknowledge that fact fully, returning the favour by consuming more Beer than any other nation on this planet! So without much ado, we begin a long night of drinking in what is fittingly known as the Beer capital of the world!! First stop – Pivovarský klub – an institution in Central Prague, where I kick off with Nefiltrovany Sv Lezak or unfiltered pale Lager!

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The great thing about Czech Beer is that the morning after brings no hangovers whatsoever! [Not entirely true, but we’ll leave it at that!!] What it does warrant, however, as any self-respecting brew should, is to work off all those carbs! That’s where the city’s amazingly pedestrian friendly streets come in handy!

A short stroll northwest of the Old Town brings us to Josefov, the city’s Jewish Quarter. Jewish settlements in Prague began as early as the 10th-century and the area served as a Jewish ghetto till the 18th-century. The Nazi occupation of Prague was expected to wipe out all that remained of the area, but miraculously, the town hall, old cemetery and no less than six Synagogues – including Europe’s oldest, a 13th-century structure – survived!  Today, the area comprises the city’s smallest district, but the wealth of architecture contained within serves as a microcosm to everything Prague stands for, culturally and aesthetically!

Pařížská, the main drag in the Jewish Quarter, rivals Fifth Avenue with all its high end retail, and as a throng of tourists window shop, I point my attention skyward. For if you’ve managed to appreciate the city in crappy weather – like I have – God help you when the sun comes out 😉

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The great thing about travel – I’ve come to realise in my old age – is that it never takes too long to work off the excesses from the previous night, or for that matter, breakfast from the same morning. Before you know it, you’re ready for another big lunch!

From the Jewish Quarter, we make our way down to Křemencova, a pristine street in New Town measuring no more than two blocks. It’s claim to fame, U Fleků, a brewery that dates from 1499! To put things in perspective, Columbus discovered America 7 years prior!! U Fleků stills brews a handful of Beers – as it has been doing for over 500 years – but the focus for us here is more on Czech food, hoping to sample as much of it after two hugely gratifying meals at Cafe Louvre and Pivovarský klub.

Czech food has been something of a revelation for us thus far – everything from their Goulash, Dumplings, Schnitzels & Wurst – have been done just right! Surprisingly light on the stomach, simple, yet flavourful – a far cry from what one usually associates with German food – the cuisine that influences Czech cooking the most! Accompanied by the house brewed Dark Stout and some Becherovka (Herbal Bitters), we dig in to an absolutely delish serving of Roast Pork Knuckle and Roast Sausage (I told you it was light!) with a generous helping of boiled Potatoes, Cabbage and Peppers on the side.

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For all matters tourist, the city is broadly divided into 4 areas – Staré Město (Old Town) and Nové Město (New Town), which lie to the east of the Vltava River, and the Malá Strana (Lesser Town) and Hradčany (Castle District) which lie to its west. Prague’s city centre is extremely compact, and like every other European capital worth its salt, very walkable too!

But if walking isn’t your thing, getting around is still not a problem. The city has excellent public transit – a modern Metro, buses, and one of the largest Tram networks in the world! Trams (or Trolleys) are frequent, cheap and efficient, and quite easily the best way to see the city, if you decide against the pedestrian route! And for Tram lovers like me, the city operates a wide variety of equipment, including vintage trams on weekends and holidays 😉

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The Tram is as much a city icon as drinking Beer is a city essential! And the two cometh together in perfect harmony at the southern terminus of Tram route 11, adjacent to which, in a nondescript building, is Prvni Pivni Tramway or the ‘First Beer Tramway’!

Inside, you are rewarded for the trip out to the burbs (20-minutes is all it takes in Praha!) with an all-local crowd watching Football on the telly, a non-English speaking bartender, a fabulous selection of local brews, down-to-earth prices, and some über-cool decor!

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Tram-riders and walkers alike should take heed though, for when it comes to exploring the city, the Vltava River isn’t one to be disregarded! A cruise along the Vltava is, indeed, a splendid way of admiring the city, along its storied banks, past its many grand bridges, its system of locks and its river islands. The Vltava also sports a handful of boat restaurants, and at least a couple of boat hotels!

Botel Matylda is one such, and I decide – through some deft Googling beforehand – to make it my digs for my last day in the city! With the Vltava on one side and a 16th-century water tower setting the backdrop, the Botel is made up of 18 rooms, with a sister boat moored alongside, serving as an Italian Restaurant!

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My single room is perfectly affordable and very well appointed, and while it doesn’t offer me river views, it does provide me a glimpse of Frank Gehry’s gravity-defying creation, the Dancing House!

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Known locally as Tančící dům, it pays homage to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, often nicknamed ‘Fred & Ginger building’! While Gehry is certainly the better known of the two, equal credit apparently goes to Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić.

Far removed from the Dancing House, and been around from well before Gehry and Milunić’s time, is Katedrála svatého Víta or St.Vitus Cathedral, which lies cradled within the walls of Prague Castle, across the Vltava River. Work on the Cathedral started in 1344 and took the better part of 6 centuries to complete! Today it is the seat of the Archbishop of Prague, and certainly looks the part!

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Commonly regarded as one of the best examples of Gothic architecture across Europe (take a bow Notre Dame!), St.Vitus, with its humongous rose window, towering pinnacles, staggering relief work, and gorgeous mosaics, is quite easily the cynosure of Prague Castle.

The Cathedral alone is justification enough to visit the Castle but Hradčany or Castle District has a lot else going for it – palaces (4 of them on last count!), half a dozen royal gardens, several smaller churches in varying architectural styles, galleries, museums and performance spaces, the office of the Czech President, and a tiny street (Golden Lane) lined with miniature 15th-century homes, to name a few! In short, it hasn’t just earned the distinction of being ‘the largest coherent castle complex in the world’ for nothing 😉

Prague Castle also happens to be the highest point in the city, higher even than Petřín Hill! So without the fuss of Bellavista, you get unhindered views of the city from several vantage points along the way. If you end up staring hard enough – as most people do – you begin to appreciate what must have inspired Kafka to write, Einstein to think and Mozart to compose. A city so beautiful, it was spared by Hitler!

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As stunning as the city is, it is also immaculately well kept and spotlessly clean! The buildings appear as if they were given a fresh coat of paint just yesterday, the plazas are always spic and span, but its the sidewalks and streets that stand out most of all! To have a significant portion of your city paved in cobblestone is one thing – to keep those cobblestones, and the grooves that separate them, clean, while pedestrians, automobiles and trams tread through, is quite another!

But the city of Prague manages so with aplomb – be it a large commercial square or tiny alleyway, a major thoroughfare or an insignificant side street!

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Relative to every other square in Prague, Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Sq), the city’s largest, is not nearly as charming. Capped on its east end by the grand neoclassical structure that houses the National Museum, it is more boulevard than square. But this busy commercial strip is not without its share of history – in fact, traditionally, it has been the venue of choice for demonstrations, celebrations and public gatherings. It is here that I decide to spend my last afternoon in the city.

As local youth mill around the statue of a mounted Saint Wenceslas, tourists gawk at ‘Calendarium of Totalitarianism‘, an exhibit depicting the post war history of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic. I join in for a while but realise soon enough that sadly, I have a flight to catch in a matter of hours!

Heading over to one of the food kiosks – there are many on the square, open all night, and serving everything from Wurst to Wine – I get myself a bavorská klobása (Bavarian Sausage) and a can of Pilsner Urquell, and then find myself a suitable bench from which to watch the world go by. I bite into the klobása and take a swig of the chilled Urquell, and in the same instance, almost spit it all out!!! Are my eyes deceiving me??

IMG_9363I look around but no one else seems perturbed by the fact that a perfectly respectable looking gent just walked into the Metro system with a glass of Beer in one hand!! A big fat smile replaces my look of disbelief, I continue eating, and remind myself yet again, you’ve got to love this city 😉

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A full set of pictures from the trip can be viewed here.

3 Responses to “Dobrý den Praha!”

  1. Deepa Grover September 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    What a delightful essay about an enchanting city…truly something out of a fairy tale…so glad that you enjoyed the food and drink and sights. Thank you for sharing your impressions…and for articulating them so eloquently. I missed reading about Charles Bridge and Prague’s amazing puppet tradition though…Oh and btw…I was told that one of the reasons that the Jewish Quarter survived the Nazis was that they brewed the best beer…the Nazis loved it too much to tamper with its producers!!
    Keep blogging!

  2. Mohan October 4, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Your blog is a must-read before every visit to anew city!

  3. Shruti November 1, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    Dream city…prettier than a picture postcard..even the cables look so aesthetic!!

    Super read and I felt less historically challenged in the end too:)

    Keep it going bro:)

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