Destination: Prague, Czech Republic
Where we stayed: Athena Palace Hotel - 39 Euros/night (including a hearty breakfast...the variety of cheeses & meat was staggering & they also had eggs, crepes, cake, yogurt, cereal, etc)
Best restaurant: U Samavy - Stepanska 3 (Praha 2) in the New Town had a local atmosphere, pleasant staff (a rarity for Pragus) & great food! Try the grilled sausage with spicy mustard and horseradish (45 CZK - just over $2 or the chicken breast with bacon & camembert cheese (145 CZK - about $7). Beers are 32 CZK each or about $1.50 for half a liter! We enjoyed their dark beer the most.
Best of: St. Charles bridge at night, stunning spires soaring above the city, unique Astronomical Clock design
Worst of: We forgot our camera battery charger. Luckily the battery held out until the last night but we had to cut our photo taking night trip short when it gave out.
Most Memorable: Viewing the St. Charles Bridge with the castle in the moonlight.
Useful tip: If coming here from Munich or anywhere in Bavaria, purchase the Bayern/Bohemia pass (33 euros, up to 5 people, valid after 9am) which will get you to Pilsen and then purchase a ticket from Pilsen to Prague (7.50 euros pp) from the conductor. The ticket can be purchased online as well if heading the other way, but you will have to muddle through the German part of the Bahn website.
Prague is arguably the most liberal city in all of Eastern Europe. One of the first cities behind the Iron Curtain to welcome tourists and the west, it has become somewhat cosmopolitan. The smoke covered buildings from the industry first, environment last communist era still remain but somehow add to the charm rather than detract. The days of dirt cheap beers and rooms are gone, but it's still a good value for Europe and an excellent start to a tromp through the rest of the Eastern Block countries.
The scenic St. Charles Bridge is Prague's top attraction. Set over the river separating the castle district from the Main Square area, St. Charles has stood here since the 14th century. Over the years statues have been added recognizing various saints and heroes. A Gothic style gateway was added completing the scene. The bridge's namesake comes from St. Charles, a 14th century bishop and protector of the city. Legend has it that the queen confessed to Charles all her sins. The King wanted to know what the queen was up to so he questioned Charles. When Charles refused to tell him, the King threw him off this bridge. As Charles hit the water, 5 stars arose from where he hit and Charles survived the fall. The reprieve was short lived as the King had Charles executed any ways. He was canonized as St. Charles, the bishop who stood up to the King. Today, millions rub his statue for good luck as they pass over the bridge.
Heading into the Old City, you eventually wind your way to the Main Square and the Astronomical Clock. The clock is a spiraling mess of gears and arms. The clock tells time, sunrise, sunset, day of the year, moon cycles, astrological signs and the saint of the day. If you can make out all of that, you are doing much better than us. On the hour, the clock chimes and death (the skeleton) rings his bell for a rather unimpressive one minute show. To witness the real show, stand underneath the clock and watch the tons of tourists that turn out for this "show" staring up with mouths all agape.
Elsewhere on the square lies a couple of churches including the Tynin church standing impressively with it's Gothic spirals and a dry fountain that is badly in need of a good cleaning.
As a tribute to the changing times in Prague, the Dancing building was built by the same architect that built the Met in New York. Modeled loosely after Fred and Ginger Astaire, It stands in stark contrast to the gothic medieval spires throughout town and symbolizes the cities modern times.
Beer also plays an integral part of life in Prague and the Czech Republic. The famed Budwiser (the original one, not the one from St. Louis) is widely available for a mere $1.50 a pint (up from .50 when Tracy visited here 10 years ago). The other variety of beer available allover is brewed in Pilsen and aptly named - Pilsen beer. We lean to Budwiser as the beer of choice, but both represent good value.
The best views in town are from the monastery just up the hill from the castle. We took the tram to the top and walked down passing through the gardens and down to the main gate of the castle.
We arrived at the castle just in time for the changing of the guard. With much pomp and circumstance, the changing of the guard happens at noon. The theme reminded me more of the A-team theme than a classical masterpiece, and it's not nearly as much of a show as Buckingham palace, but it is worth about 10 minutes...although the show lasts much longer than that. We left before it was over.
Just inside the main gate, the cathedral stands just in front of you. After the slightly long line, we snuck in and wandered around the entire church without the extra ticket (admission is free to the main part and no one was selling or checking for tickets at the top). The church boasts some beautiful stained glass windows and the altar piece is ringed with a couple of intricate wood carvings from the 15th century and, of course, the patron St. Charles stands to the right of the altar, 5 stars and all.
The Castle grounds, the largest in Europe, encompass the president's office and parliament offices. The Egyptian style column was brought here in honor of the creation of the now defunct Czechoslovakia, lasting from the end of WWI until the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Down from the castle, we passed through the neighborhood with symbols used for addresses instead of numbers. Using various animals, the homes would use these as identification for tax collection purposes.
At the bottom of the hill underneath the castle, we took in a classical music concert. All over town, they advertise concerts in various churches, concert halls, and just about anywhere you can fit a 5 piece orchestra. While the musical selection was excellent and the musicians played well, the venue was a practice room in the basement and the price was a little much for what you actually got but you can negotiate (advertised price was $20 and we paid about $13-$14, we probably could have gotten it for half price).
Across from the concert hall, sits another cathedral. While the church was ok, the paintings upstairs (which they charge admission for) won't make it high on our list and we don't really recommend wasting your money on them.
After the concert, we finished our downhill stroll by walking past the John Lennon wall. As the tide of anti-communism was rising, this wall became an outlet for disgruntled citizens. They would paint on the wall their discontent, and the wall would be painted over by the oppressive government. The wall is somewhat of a vigil to Lennon and the Beatles today as quotes and various lyrics are written all over the wall.
The most moving museums in Prague are the collection of Jewish museums. The five main synagogues along with the cemetery have been turned into museums and memorials to the atrocities of the Holocaust. The museums trace the history of Judaism in Prague from the creation of the ghettos all the way to the Holocaust. The museum starts with all the different ways they would mark Jews and other persecution methods. The Jews were only allowed to bury their dead in one small place leading to the cemetery "growing" over the years. Buried on top of one another, the cemetery itself rises into a small hill. The most stirring and emotional part of the museum is in the Pinkas Synagogue. All along the wall, organized by town and family, are the names of the victims of the Holocaust. As you walk around and notice the names, you can see where an entire family were all killed together on the same day. It's a sad reminder of what happened and hard to fathom how one group of humans could do this to another.
Moving on to a slightly lighter note, the Communist Museum, set between a McDonald's and a casino - how is that for irony, gives a glimpse of life behind the iron curtain as well as some interesting propaganda. Complete with a large statue of Stalin welcoming you, the museum leads you from the beginning of the Red Army's rule all the way to the bloodless Purple Revolution (the fall of communism in former Czechoslovakia). The museum also includes a small display on the RFA (Radio Free America). Broadcasting from Munich, the RFA would send a signal all across the eastern block playing Western music, giving news updates and serving as the only link to the outside world for most citizens. After the fall of communism, the RFA lost it's funding. The citizens of the Czech were so grateful for having the RFA, that they rent the tower that was made to block the signal to the RFA for $1 per year. Today, the signal continues, now broadcasting deep into the Middle East.
We spent our last night out at the St. Charles Bridge where the city is romantically set alight. The castle views, with the bridge in the mid-ground and the river in the foreground provide postcard quality views.