Saturday, June 7, 2014

Travels to Prague, Czech Republic

Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. It is the fourteenth-largest city in the European Union.  It is also the historical capital of Bohemia. Situated in the northwest of the country on the Vltava River, the city is home to about 1.3 million people, while its larger urban zone is estimated to have a population of nearly 2 million.  The city has a temperate climate, with warm summers and chilly winters. Prague boasts more than ten major museums, along with numerous theaters, galleries, cinemas, and other historical exhibits.

Keith and I recently visited Prague in May.   We flew over night from IAD to PRG via London.  It was raining and cool the first two days we were there, but then the skies cleared and sun came out. We saw many main attractions and used the convenient modern public tram system that connects the city.

We visited  Petřín Tower, located at the top of a hill in the center of Prague. The hill, almost entirely covered with parks, is a favorite recreational area for the inhabitants of Prague. The summit of the hill is linked to Prague's Malá Strana district by the Petřín funicular, a funicular railway that first operated in 1891.

The Prague Castle is the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic. Located in the Hradčany district of Prague and dating back to the ninth century, the castle has been a seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. A distinct feature is Vladislav Hall.  The Bohemian Crown Jewels are also kept within a hidden room inside it.

St. Vitus Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral in Prague, and the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. This cathedral is an excellent example of Gothic architecture and is the biggest and most important church in the country. Located within Prague Castle and containing the tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the cathedral is under the ownership of the Czech government as part of the Prague Castle complex.  The opulent St. Wenceslas Chapel is located in St. Vitus Cathedral.

The Charles Bridge is a famous historic bridge that crosses the Vltava River.  Its construction started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished in the beginning of the 15th century.   It is protected by three bridge towers, two of them on the Lesser Quarter side and the third one on the Old Town side. The Old Town bridge tower is often considered to be one of the most astonishing civil Gothic-style buildings in the world. The bridge is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues and statuaries, most of them baroque-style, originally erected around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas.

Old Town Square is a historic square located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge and features various architectural styles including the Gothic Týn Church and baroque St. Nicholas Church.

Among many churches, tourists may find the Prague Astronomical Clock on this square, while the tower at the Old Town Hall offers a panoramic view of Old Town shop. The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working.  Crowds gather on the hour to see the "show" where the old mechanical pieces move around.

Amongst all the old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, lies the Old Jewish Cemetery. It was in use from the early 15th century (the oldest preserved tombstone, the one of Avigdor Kara, dates back to 1439) until 1787. The numbers of grave stones and numbers of people buried there are uncertain, because there are layers of tombs. However, it has been estimated that there are approximately 12,000 tombstones presently visible, and there may be as many as 100,000 burials in all. According to halakhah, Jews must not destroy Jewish graves and in particular it is not allowed to remove the tombstone. This meant that when the cemetery ran out of space and purchasing extra land was impossible, more layers of soil were placed on the existing graves, the old tombstones taken out and placed upon the new layer of soil. This explains why the tombstones in the cemetery are placed so closely to each other. This resulted in the cemetery having 12 layers of graves.

Once a normal wall, since the 1980s, the now named Lennon Wall has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles songs. In 1988, the wall was a source of irritation for the communist regime of Gustáv Husák. Young Czechs would write grievances on the wall and in a report of the time this led to a clash between hundreds of students and security police on the nearby Charles Bridge. The movement these students followed was described ironically as "Lennonism" and Czech authorities described these people variously as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism. The wall continuously undergoes change and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of new paint. Even when the wall was repainted by some authorities, on the second day it was again full of poems and flowers. Today, the wall represents a symbol of global ideals such as love and peace.

The Dancing House, also known as "Fred and Ginger", was designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić in co-operation with the renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry on a vacant riverfront plot. The building was designed in 1992 and completed in 1996. The very non-traditional design was controversial at the time because the house stands out among the Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau buildings for which Prague is famous and in the opinion of some it does not accord well with these architectural styles.

We even stumbled upon the Czech Beer Festival featuring over 100 brands of Czech beer.  It was held in a large field with numerous tents, and I was expecting something similar to the beer halls of Munich, Germany, but the atmosphere was lacking any folk music or lederhosen.  Swarms of young college hipsters mixed in with other tourists crowded the tables.

Most of the beer tasted the same to me, but I especially enjoyed the Permon Summer with hints of watermelon, strawberry, citrus. The fruitiness was perfect for summer.

On our last day, we took advantage of the sunny weather and took a boat tour along the Vltava River.  It was very relaxing, and an excellent recap to see all the main buildings and bridges of Prague.

While in Prague, we snacked and drank all kinds of Czech beer and wine. There were spectacular wines from the southern part of Czech republic, called Moravia.   Pilsner, and specifically Pilsner Urquell, is the most common type of beer in Prague.

The original Budweiser, or Budvar, is also from Prague. We saw the Budvar floating restaurant during our boat tour, and Keith insisted he find the beer and have one before we left.

One can also find absinthe in Prague, which is illegal in the States. The highly alcoholic anise-flavored spirit is derived from botanicals, and was vilified in the early 1900s for being a dangerous and addictive psychoactive drug.  Recent studies have shown this claim was exaggerated, and absinthe is not any more dangerous than ordinary spirits.  Though, we didn't get a chance to sample any ourselves, we were tempted to buy a bottle.

From Prague, we continued our European adventure and took an over night train towards Krakow, Poland.  Here is what our 'first class' sleeper room looked like.  The bunk beds were a bit uncomfortable, but at least we were in a private room and had our own little sink area to freshen up in the morning.  We did not get the best night's sleep, because we were unsure of how many stops were along the way.  And each time the train stopped throughout the night, we'd perk our ears up to listen for an announcement (which were all in Czech - no English spoken at all), or try to peek out the window but it was pitch black at night.  Needless to say, we made it to Krakow okay.  Stay tuned for the next chapter, after we arrive in Poland.

Here is a map of the stops we made in Prague - feel free to use it to build your own itinerary:

For more Prague eats check out my restaurant reviews. We really enjoyed the mix of old and modern in Prague.  Have you visited Prague before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!

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