No matter how many places you have been to, Prague will still have something more to offer. In our first trip to Eastern Europe, we went knowing basically nothing about the area. So aside from a fun holiday, our trip to Prague gave us an education in regional history. I haven’t met a person who has been to Prague and disliked it. The geography, architecture and history ensured this city left an indelible mark on our memories.
Walking tours! They’re the best. They’re such a great way to see major sights and gain a little background on local history and daily life. Our local (bonus!) tour guide provided lively and entertaining commentary while also fitting in an astounding amount of historical knowledge into a couple of hours.
The first key take away: The Czech’s gave the world many things, and one of these is defenestration; throwing people out of windows. (Indeed.) There were two official defenestrations in Prague, the first of which occurred in 1419 at the New Town Hall. Seven members of the city council were killed after being thrown out window into the angry crowds outside. This sparked the Hussite Wars which lasted until 1436. Then, in 1618, two Catholic Lords were thrown from a window at Prague Castle. They survived but this was the beginning of the infamous 30 Years War. We were told on multiple occasions that if we were thinking of starting an argument with a Czech person, we should make sure we’re on the ground floor!
The iconic Old Town Square where we started the tour is overwhelmingly full of beautiful buildings. The Church of Our Lady stands on one side of the square with the unusual characteristic of having asymmetric towers – the larger one is affectionately called Adam and the other one, Eve. Across from the church is the Astronomical Clock which is a medieval clock made in 1410 – the first of it’s name (in Europe). We were astounded at the size of the crowd which gathered to see the performance when the clock struck – where pretty much NOTHING happened. So my second important titbit is that the Astronomical Clock is beautiful for sure, but don’t waste 30 minutes of your time vying for a good spot to see the little figures wriggle ever so slightly on the hour. Oddly, you can’t really tell the time from it either!
The final key take away we got from our Prague education is that there certainly is a very serious side of Czech history. With a matter-of-fact tone, our guide told us about how Prague was mostly spared during WWII because Hitler liked the city so much he wanted to be based there, and also that he intended to keep the Jewish quarter intact to turn it into a museum for an extinct race – possibly the most messed up thing I have ever heard! Following WWII came years of communism under the Soviet Union until 1989. In 1969 two young men, Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, set themselves on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet invasion. The city commemorates them in various memorials across the city. And during the communist regime the Lennon wall appeared; a place for young Czech’s to express their grievances, and write lyrics from Beatles songs on the wall. I’m glad we were able to learn about this side of Prague’s history as well, and not just the sunshine-lollipops-and-rainbows stuff.
After such a thorough and informative tour, we decided to sign up for another tour with the same company to cover Prague Castle. The castle has expansive grounds covering about 70,000m2 and includes pretty much every style of architecture (it did take over 1000 years to build!). We all know I have a soft spot for Gothic architecture so it’s no surprise that I particularly liked Saint Vitus Cathedral. It was ridiculously crowded inside but I was able to appreciate its beauty for a brief moment before being jostled out the door. The size of the castle complex makes it worthwhile having a tour guide. I imagine the experience wouldn’t be quite as enriching without the historical commentary. On our way back after the tour we crossed Charles Bridge, constructed in 1357, which is ridiculously popular and apparently, includes egg and wine in its cementing elements! True story.
There was a bit of rain during our afternoon Prague Castle tour so we were both very pleased when our last day in Prague dawned sunny and warm. It was brilliant weather for a walk down to Prague’s other fortress, Vyšehrad. At the top is a Basilica and Vyšehrad cemetery along with a series of garden spaces and excellent lookout points along the walls.
Back across the river is Petřínské sady; a large park on a hill with endless winding paths. Several garden areas make up the park, one which includes some 2100 fruit trees. The walk can be a little steep and in the warm weather, we worked up a sweat to get to the top. There, we caught sweeping views of the city below, saw a cute castle and also stumbled across a pretty rose garden where we stopped to relax before heading down.
The most relaxing activity we did was paddle boating on the river. On a hot day with glorious blue skies, it was really great to sit back and chill out with a light breeze. I’d highly recommend doing that, especially if you’d done as much walking as we had!
I know this has been a long post, but I couldn’t sign off without a note about food (of course!). The Czech Republic is one of those places where vegetarians don’t have it easy. A highlight was Čestr which is a modern restaurant centred around serving high quality beef. Their local beef is aged for 50-60 days before being served. The chefs cook your meat and also come out to serve it to you. Our steaks were cooked perfectly and had excellent flavour. We daringly tried their beer ice cream for dessert and were blown away by how delicious it was. I dislike all beers but thoroughly enjoyed the ice cream – it really is a must-try!
We had breakfast at Café Colore one day, and Café Savoy the other. The first was a more humble establishment serving huge breakfasts that were cheap and hearty – with a lot of bread! Café Savoy was a little more fancy and we felt slightly underdressed but were served courteously all the same. Despite being more flashy, it wasn’t expensive. Richard still reminisces over his truffle eggs!
And finally, the trdelník. This amazing treat is a kind of pastry that is local to the region. You can find it in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (and at one point in a red cart on Elliot Street in Auckland – not sure if this is still the case). The dough is wrapped around thick wooden sticks and then coated in sugar and cooked over white hot coals. Rotisserie dessert! There are stalls everywhere in Prague selling this treat and we had a delightful version filled with ice cream. It was the perfect treat for a hot day – I wish I could have had more!
Prague proved to be a city that has it all; beautiful architecture, friendly and cheerful people, and a rich history to appreciate. It has the added benefit of being affordable. Despite an often dark past filled with political turmoil and struggle, the people remain welcoming, making it an ideal tourist destination. We completely understand why people love it so much!