24 December 2016
We woke up early on Christmas Eve, as we had a train to catch to Prague from Kraków. Actually, it was a combination of bus and train, as the first part of the trip, from Kraków to Ostrava (just after the Czech border) was by bus and the rest of the trip to Prague was by train. It was going to be a long day commuting…
I did some research before the time, and as it is, the main Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, as most Czech people stay at home (read most restaurants and shops are closed) and have a traditional Czech Christmas dinner with the family. Apparently, in the days leading up to Christmas, the markets sell live carp everywhere which will be taken home to cook up a storm for Christmas dinner.
I was happy to have stumbled across this little tidbit of information, and decided that when in Rome, do as the Romans, so we had a booking for a traditional Christmas dinner at a restaurant in Prague Nove Mesto (New Town).
We arrived at the Praha-Libeň railway station after 3:00pm in the afternoon and it was immediately clear that the city was empty. A lonesome man at a ticket counter grumpily pointed us in the direction of the automatů to purchase tickets for the tram. Luckily, the tram ride was a short one and we arrived at the Luxury Family Hotel Bílá Labuť soon after with a bit of time to kill before we had to leave for dinner.
Another tram ride brought us to the Nove Mesto, where we had a short walk to the medieval Restaurace u Českých pánů, where we had a booking for dinner. The restaurant is set in Gothic cellars, restored to offer the feel of medieval times, and we booked for a traditional Czech Christmas dinner. The ambiance was pleasant, with live music and an explanation of the food on offer, with little extras to assist in mimicking a traditional Czech Christmas dinner.
We were welcomed with a complimentary drink of Becherovka, a herbal liquer, or a glass of Prosecco. Starters were Old Czech mushroom Cuba, a sort of barley risotto and was very delicious, followed by a creamy fish soup (made from carp, of course). The main course was breaded veal cutlet (don’t let the ‘let’ in cutlet fool you, it was a monster portion…) with homemade potato salad. Apparently, potato salad is also a very traditional addition to the Christmas dinner. Dessert was an apple strudel with ice cream, followed by coffee or tea and Christmas cookies. All this in a medieval cellar setting with Christmas music played by traditional folk musicians.
All and all, the food was good, and we dutifully followed the instructions for the Czech traditions, including coring an apple. If the inside of the apple is shaped as a star, it means that everyone will get together the next year in happiness and health. A four-pointed cross is a bad omen and means that someone at the table will fall ill or die within a year. In addition, we each had to crack a walnut by hand, and if it breaks clean, with the insides pretty much intact, it is meant to be a positive omen.
The only downside and disappointment was that the service was shoddy to say the least. After the starter drink the waiter never once came to ask if we wanted to order anything else… dishes were brought out in rapid succession, but not once did he stop and ask for further drinks orders. Our coffee was ordered from the manager who happened to clear a table next to us. We spent almost half an hour jokingly trying to get the waiters attention to get our bill, imagining there was an invisible wall around our table (with much amusement from fellow diners).
When we got outside, the girls joked about checking the newspaper for the year. I am thankful that we were all in good spirits and we didn’t let this poor service spoil our evening and actually good food. The set menu was CK850 pp (almost $35) which was not a cheap meal by any stretch of the imagination, but luckily we saved on wine or prosecco, because…erm…we weren’t offered anything…
Before heading back to our hotel, we walked down to the Wenceslas Square, a traditional setting for demonstrations and surrounded by shops and the business district. It was more a very large boulevard than a square, but the lights were pretty and it was a nice round off to a pleasant evening.
25 December 2016
We woke up on Christmas morning ready to explore the city. After a great breakfast, we set off towards the Old Town or Staré Město where we were to meet our guide for another walking tour. There was light rain forecast and we were not sure what would be open on Christmas day, but that didn’t put us off.
Upon recommendation from my friend Ingrid, we joined the Prague Tip Trip with Jana for a walking tour. The tour started off with a quick overview of one of the most amazing clocks in the whole world, the Prague Astronomical Clock dating back to 1410, the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still operating. Jana showed us how to read the months, the lunar phase and the approximate time. For an accurate time reading, there is a proper clock at the top of the tower…
We moved on to the old town square, which was starting to show signs of live as the Christmas market was starting up for the day. The huge Christmas tree on the square also features a small show of lights in the evenings (although we didn’t ever see this). We walked across the square to the statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer who was burnt at the stake for his beliefs.
Following one of the exits from the square, we walked to the Tyn Courtyard, founded in the 12th century where merchants came to pay customs for their goods. The courtyard features the Granovsky Palace, a Renaissance palace with the walls decorated in sgraffitoes and wall paintings. Unfortunately many of the paintings are faded badly, and in need of restoration. We stopped briefly at St Jacob’s church or the Basilica of St James, where we were able to view the inside of the church through a one way window. Jana shared the story of the mummified arm which, according to legend, belongs to a thief who tried to steal from the bejeweled altar when the statue of the Virgin Mary came alive and grabbed his arm, where he was found in the morning. His arm had to be amputated to rescue him and the arm was put on display in the church as a grim warning. Moments later the grumpy priest slammed open the door of the church and Jana sneered at him. Clearly not a lot of love lost there!
We made our way past the Grevin Praha, or the Madame Tussaud’s of Prague, which was closed for the day, to the House of the Black Madonna, a Cubist building that houses the Cafe Orient, which according to Jana served delicious cakes and sandwiches. We did peek into the building to see the awesome staircase, which is apparently often missed.
Next, we made our way to Municipal House, next to the impressive Powder Gate, one of the original 13 gates of Prague. The Municipal House is a civic building that houses the Smetana Hall, a concert venue, where classic music concerts are held daily. The residents of Prague claim to have first discovered a young Mozart after his opera The Marriage of Figaro was performed there with tremendous success. The next year, Mozart visited himself and apparently he “counted this day as one of the happiest of his life”. His opera Don Giovanni debuted in Prague later that year to very appreciative audiences. Apparently Mozart famously said “Meine Prager verstehen mich” (My Praguers understand me). Jana told us the story of Mozart with some scorn and highlighted the fact that the Viennese today does not know where Mozart is buried as he died very poor and was buried in a mass grave.
After this we moved to the other side of the Old Town square to the Jewish Quarter or Josefov and the impressive Spanish Synagogue, with the bizarre Franz Kafka statue next to it. The statue is inspired by the short story written by Kafka called “Popis Jednoho Zápasu” (Description of a Match). By now it was raining but we managed to get a peek at the Old New Synagogue, the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Maisel Synagogue. Jana also shared the story of the legend of the monster Golem, in the 16th century by the Rabbi Loew, to defend the ghetto from antisemitic attacks. The monster was created from clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought to life through Hebrew incantations. The rabbi deactivated the Golem every Friday night by removing the shem, but legend has it that one Friday he forgot, and some reason the Golem went on a rampage. The rabbi finally caught up with him and removed the shem and he fell to pieces. Legend has it that the body of the Golem was stored in the attic of the Old New Synagogue and still lies there today.
This concluded our walking tour and we were happy to make our way to a small little restaurant, Paneria, on Jana’s recommendation to warm up and dry out a bit.
After lunch we made our way to the Klementinum, a historical complex of buildings which once housed one of the largest Jesuit colleges in the world. And of course, it houses one of the most impressive libraries in the world, the Baroque library hall, which I was dying to see. We booked a tour and was not disappointed with the library (which we unfortunately was not allowed to photograph), but the building also contained an observatory with wonderful equipment. And finally, the view from the tower was definitely worth the claustrophobic climb to the top.
After the visit to the Klementinum, we started making our way back to the hotel as we had a boat cruise on the Vltava river planned for the evening.
I originally wanted to book the Jazz Boat, but by the time I came around to making a booking, the seats were all booked out. So we settled on another boat cruise with a buffet style dinner and live music, through Viator. The cruise was pleasant and the food was reasonable and in the end we had a fun evening. We made turns to brave the cold to go up to the deck for pictures as it was difficult to see anything from insude the boat.
After dinner, we went back to the hotel to recharge our batteries overnight!
26 December 2016
After a very busy Christmas day, I relented and we had a bit of a sleep in the next morning. We wanted to visit the Castle district and the Charles bridge on our last full day in Prague. We initially thought we would join Jana again on a visit to the Castle district in the afternoon, but I wanted to go and visit the castle itself, so we decided to do it on our own steam.
After a short tram ride, we made it to the other side of the river, and made it in time for the ceremonial changing of the guards at noon. The queues at the castle were horrific. I can only imagine how busy it must be in summer. We had to queue at every entrance and the crowds were crazy. In the end, it made the whole experience of the castle very tiring, but it was still worth it. There are various tickets giving you entrance to certain sections of the castle. We bought tickets that gave us access to St Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica and the Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower which was as much as i thought our tiresome feet could withstand.
St Vitus Cathedral was very impressive, once we managed to get inside (another half an hour queue). Construction on the Gothic Cathedral started in the 14th century, but construction was halted in 1419 because of the Hussite wars and remained uncompleted for centuries. Only in the late 19th century was construction resumed and repairs to the original section undertaken. The cathedral was completed in Neo-Gothic style and solemnly consecrated only in 1929.
St Wenceslas chapel is next to St Vitus chapel and is meant to be a cult center for St Vitus. The value of the decorations of St Wenceslas Chapel is incalculable. The lower parts of the walls are decorated with more than 1300 gems, made in Bohemia. The joints between them are covered with gold.
St George’s Basilica was originally meant to be a second church for Prague castle in the 10th century. The current Romanesque appearance of the church dates back to the time of the reconstruction carried out in the 12th century. The interior of the basilica is austere and monumental. There are tombs and skeletons visible, one of whom apparently belongs to Prince Vratislav, father of St. Wenceslas.
The origins of Old Royal Palace dates back to the 9th and 10th century. In the 12th century it was replaced with a stone castle, remains of which is still preserved. In the 14th century, the king and emperor Charles IV enlarged the Romanesque building and so a Gothic palace with a vaulted interior for state purposes and a band of arcades on its northern side came to be. After a period of 80 years where the castle was empty, the King Vladislav Jagiello commenced a large scale reconstruction, adding the magnificent Vladislav Hall.
Our last stop of the Prague Castle was the Golden Lane. The modest dwelling, in small scale architecture, were inhabited by defenders of the Castle, servants or for example goldsmiths and the Castle marksmen. The tiny houses were occupied until World War II, but already during the period of the First Republic, care was taken to ensure that the picturesque character of the Lane was not changed in the course of modifications. From 1916 to 1917 house No. 22 was inhabited by the writer Franz Kafka.
After the castle visit, we walked down towards the river, sharing a traditional trdelnik covered with chocolate. You can buy trdelnik everywhere in Prague and they resemble the Kürtőskalács or chimney cake we had in Budapest. The cake is rolled around a wooden stick and then grilled and topped with sugar and walnut mix. Decadent and delicious! Something I would love to try at home.
We strolled back over the magnificent Charles bridge as the sun was setting and despite my feet being so tired, that I could not stand still, I could not get enough of the bridge!
Afterwards, we took a short walk to Restaurace Sedm Konšelů, another one of Jana’s recommendations. where I had the tradiční českou svíčkovou, which is fillet of beef in cream sauce and cranberries, served with traditional bread dumplings. It was good, and I ate the cranberries like Jana directed, a little bit at a time with the sauce.
After this late lunch, early dinner, we returned to the hotel, as we had tickets for the ballet at the National Theatre that evening! Knowing how much Bianca loves the ballet, I thought it would be a real treat to go and see the Nutcracker in the National Theatre, which dates back to the 19th century. Unfortunately I didn’t realise that it was a modern day adaption of the Nutcracker and actually had very little resemblance to the original ballet, other than the music, but it was still a fun evening out! The theatre is magnificent and it was a real treat to see a show there.
27 December 2016
This was our last morning in Prague, and we decided to go and do some shopping. Bianca’s suitcase broke when we arrived in Prague, and we needed to get something else. We also wanted to get some souvenirs and gifts. After some shopping, including the cutest Bohemian glasses, we returned to the Old Town Square to view the hourly show of the Astronomical clock, which we have missed until then. It was extremely busy, with people shoving and pushing, but it was worth it. Afterwards, we did a final visit to the Old Town Square, a last Trdelnik and a couple of last pictures before we headed back to the hotel.
I absolutely loved Prague. The crowds were quite something and I really wished I could have had at least one sunny day for some nicer pictures, which will give me an excuse to return again one day in summer!
Finally, at 2:30pm, we boarded the bus for the semi last leg of our trip, to Vienna. I was glad to put my feet up but sad to leave this beautiful city behind.