Still hazy from my late night and early morning in Kiev, my plane touched down in Prague around 8:00am local time. The weather was stupendous and the airport much cleaner and more organized than in Kiev, there was even free WiFi for crying out loud. Taking much less time to compose myself and acclimate to my situation than my experience the previous day, I took a seat and allowed Google to educate me on the best way into the city. I quickly realized that it is incredibly easy to get around in this town. The buses, trams, subway and train all operate on the same universal ticket which you simply purchase for the amount of time you need (15 minutes-1 week). The electric buses ran right up to the baggage claim so I stepped out the double-doors and hopped on the #100 bus. I purchased a 15 min ticket to take me to the subway station at the end of the line, Zlicin (the airport is still quite a ways out of town). Upon arrival to the Zlicin subway station, it appeared that you could simply walk down and hop on the train, no gates, ticket stalls or security attendants. However, me being a good world citizen, I still proceeded to go to the nearest ticket kiosk and purchased a 30 minute pass so that I could get into downtown with time for mistakes. I would later find out that all Czech public transportation runs on the Honor System, a trusting bunch these Czechs are, which surprises me based on their history of being taken advantage of politically. Once on the train I popped in the earbuds and jammed out to my latest playlist until my train stop showed in glowing LED letters above the door. Out and up I went to surface in New Town, Prague.
It only took me a short walk to find my hotel, I was staying on the south end of New Town, in the Vysehrad area. Since I had just capped off 15 hours of travel, punctuated only by a short night in a Kiev hostel, I decided to spoil myself for some R&R at The King Charles Boutique Hotel (still only $40 a night).
Once I was, “Czech-ed”, into my hotel my next goal was to find sustenance. Upon a brief investigation of the establishments in my surrounding area, I thankfully found that Prague had all the things I had been missing in Asia: hearty meat dishes, good beer and gravy, ohhhh lord the delicious gravy. Czechs eat their largest meal at lunch and lucky for me it was about 1pm. I had a heaping plate of dumplings filled with chopped pork, smothered in onions and sauerkraut, along with half a liter of Budvar (the original Budweiser). It goes without saying that I ate myself sick. I like to think it was a situation similar to when someone is lost in the wilderness, facing starvation for a time, and you have to ease them back into normal eating habits or they eat themselves to death. Yeah…that’s it, except my wilderness was filled with rice and mangled bits of chicken. So I guess the 160 pound frame and svelt six pack I sculpted over the past 2 months is now going to waste, but I couldn’t care less this was comfort food to the max. Besides ruining my physique, the change of cuisine did wreak havoc on my GI system as well. I usually consider my tummy to be as durable as a leather saddle bag, but the instant transition from Asian food to heavy central European was a little intense even for me. I still enjoyed every kraut drenched dumpling I shoved down my gullet despite the frequent post-meal WC sessions.
After eating and recovering from the subsequent food coma, I decided it was time for a sightseeing walkabout. Walking only 100 feet down the road and tripping at least a half a dozen times I came to the following realization: Prague is a rollerbladers nightmare. To all you ladies out there, if considering a trip to Prague, don’t even think about packing heels, instead you should consider ankle braces. Almost every street is cobblestone; from large protruding blocks to carefully lain tiles, you are in constant danger of rolling an ankle. The good news is that it keeps those rascally skateboarders off the streets. My second home of Charleston SC is known around the southeast for its “romantic” cobblestone streets, but the roughly 100 meters of cobblestone in Chuck pales in comparison to the miles and miles of toe snagging goodness in Prague. Its also worth noting that in Prague you can get fined for jaywalking and cars appear to have no concern for pedestrians, so mind the tick-ticking of the crosswalks. So while Prague is a very walkable city, please walk at your own risk. As I continued, much more conscious of my footing, I was reminded that i’m a great big nerd about some things and Prague certainly brings out two of those: architecture and beer (blame college for both). As you walk around the city there are towers, statues, spires and friezes everywhere. You obsessively want to take pictures of everything (much like Angkor in Cambodia), but you know that will only lead to a laboring photo upload session later as well as killing your memory card. So I tried my best to hold that itchy trigger finger and try to let my brain just soak in the visual magnificence. A stunning mixture of Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Art Nouveau surprises you on every corner. There is even a spattering of the short-lived, “Cubist”, architecture inspired by Pablo Picasso.
Prague is truly blessed to have largely avoided the destruction of the World Wars, everything is so well preserved. Having visited several other European cities, I can honestly say I have never seen a more amazing and unpredictable mixture of architecture that melds together so beautifully. I was in constant danger of breaking my nose on lampposts as I walked around the city with my eyes drawn upward. Its no wonder why Prague is the 6th most visited European city, my only question is why isn’t it the first? Below are a few of the highlights of my first day walkabout:
Just behind my hotel was the Vysehrad castle, supposedly the location of the first settlement that later became Prague. Built in the 10th century, many of the original fortress walls still stand. The view above is from one such battlement. Situated within the castle walls is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, a great example of neo-Gothic.
The, “Dancing House”, one of the more extreme examples of modern architecture (Deconstructivist to be exact) in Prague. This building was built on top of one of the few sites that was destroyed in WWII bombing. A collaboration between, Canadian-American and Croatian-Czech architects, the building is supposed to resemble a pair of dancers (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).
Shots from Charles Bridge. The bridge is lined with statues and various street vendors catering to the tourists, everything from musical performers to caricatures. At each end of the bridge is a dominating gate tower.
After crossing the Charles bridge on your way to Prague Castle, you must first climb the hill. As steep and exhausting it may be, the panoramic views of the city are worth the ascent. From the walls of the castle you see rooftop after rooftop of Baroque red tile roofs.
From the castle vantage point (and with a long range zoom) you can capture almost every major landmark in Prague, including the infamous Zizkov television tower. Built by the Russian commies during the Cold War era, it was originally considered an eye-sore and a bad memory of the communist occupation, however it appears to have grown on the locals and it serves as a great tourist attraction for more panoramic views of the city. It now sports several statues of crawling babies which you can barely see in the photo.
Once inside the castle, after entering through the overly violent front gate, you are confronted by the towering gothic, St. Vitus Cathedral, the most important church in all of Czech Republic. This church houses the remains of Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors.
Back across the river and into the heart of Old Town, there is the famous Astronomical clock. Installed in 1410, it is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one that is still working.
This is the statue to commemorate famed Prague resident Franz Kafka. In the square surrounding the astronomical clock there is a cafe where Kafka and Einstein used to have coffee together. Kafka once famously quoted, “Prague never let’s you go…this dear little mother has sharp claws”. I can relate, ever since I’ve visited I want to go back.
Various artistic statues, with penises included. Some artists prefer to leave the male anatomy off or cover it with a fig leaf, it is apparent that the Czechs feel no such shame about the twig and berries. The statue of the boy was placed in front of a children’s museum and included a shining golden rod.
As for the Beer, or as the Czechs call it, Pivo, it is not served by the pint but by the liter. Half liter of the freshest pilsner being most common. On average, I was consuming 2-3 liters of beer a day (its recommended that you consume 1.9 liters of water a day), not because I wanted to be drunk, but because this beer was so incredibly fresh and refreshing and cheap that it was far superior to the conventional water. Being a homebrewer myself (and trying to reason my consumption), I can tell you that beer is mostly water anyway.
There is no sour or bitter taste, not even a lingering hint of alcoholic tang on your palette, unlike so many so called pilsner beers in the states. You can literally chug this stuff like mineral water, which I did, on the reg, anytime I was parched from walking around the city or needing to wash down some savory meat and dumplings. Which reminds me, it’s time for dinner! Aside from swilling their world famous Pilsner, every traveler to Czech Republic must also have the goulash. Obviously this was my go-to option for my very first dinner in Prague. Goulash differs in most European countries, the Czechs prefer theirs with slow cooked beef covered in a brown gravy with sliced raw onion and accompanied by a heavy dose of dumplings. The beef is tender, the gravy is savory and the dumplings are like a doughy half-cooked sliced bread.
After dinner my eyelids were heavy and my feet were sore, so made my way back to the King Charles Hotel for some much needed rest. Since Prague sits roughly on the same latitude as northern Canada, the sun refused to set until close to 10pm (and it rises around 4am), but my travel weary body was ready to hit the cushy comforts of a European bed before the sky had even darkened. As my head hit the pillow and drifted into semiconsciousness I dreamily recounted my first day in central Europe: a favorable currency, a clean city, great weather, scrumptious food, and stunning sights. I believe I fell asleep with an insatiable urge to shave the sides of my head, buy some loose fitting Capri pants and put on an extra extra small t-shirt in the attempt to make myself a local.