Czech Mate: Prague.

Four days,

Three nights,

Two totally exhausted girls,

One memorable time (for all the right reasons!)

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Nestled in a natural fording place on the Vltava River, a tributary of the Elbe, Prague is a City like no other. Intertwining, deeply cobbled streets flanked by monstrous buildings whose bold architecture stands testament to the pride, conflict, and passion that Prague has witnessed through the centuries.

Not a trace of the action-packed, budget conscious, backpacking trips that Daughter number 2 is used to – this one was designed for Ease, Rest and Relaxation.

Having to balance my budget to some extent, I chose a top hotel that was situated outside the main town – in Phara 5 (5th District; just a short distance from the City centre).

After an efficient check in, and a reassuring introduction to our room, we ventured out and over the Vltava, keeping intentionally to the outskirts of the main City.

Crossing the first bridge we came to, we were drawn to an interestingly ramshackle collection of stalls on the Rasin Embankment.  It turned out to be a Farmers Market – what a find – buzzing with locals preparing for the festivities of the coming week.

There was a definite emphasis on ‘health’ and ‘natural’ products at the market.

Wonderfully fresh looking vegetables – their odd shapes and earthy presentation proudly clarifying their status as ‘low food miles’ and Organic foods.

Home crafted style honey, potted preserves, pickled vegetables and inedibly ‘healthy’ looking vegan, wheat free and vegetarian foods were being snapped up by trendy looking locals.

The market had a gritty atmosphere to it – making us feel at home, having left West Norwood just a few hours earlier… cosy beds traded for the crisp, grey wind on the banks of the broad River Vltava.

At one end, a motley bunch of musicians were playing –

clustered around an Amy Winehouse sounding singer…

Enjoyed by a crowd of Bohemians, who we were glad to join for some time.

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Then her lanky, shabby, middle-aged colleague took over.

Suspense – what would be his ‘turn’?

He jiggled about a little as his fellow musicians paved his way,

then gently began to join in, making increasingly audible ‘popping’ noises with his lips…

Weird, wonderful, boldly confident in an unassuming sort of way, and totally individual.

A happy and perfect finale to the ramshackle, somewhat bizarre market.

And a fitting introduction to Prague!

Wacky, Weird and Wonderful.

Wacky, Weird and Wonderful.

 The fact that the Vltava slices through the centre of Prague makes it a relatively easy city to navigate.

We followed its broad bank, admiring the military style rows of grand buildings either side.

Prague - River flanked by rows of grossly grand blocks.  Painted soft orange, deep yellow, soft green or cream - all sporting the uniform red-clay roof tiles.

Prague – River flanked by rows of grossly grand blocks. Painted soft orange, deep yellow, soft green or cream – all sporting the uniform red-clay roof tiles.

Visiting just four days before Christmas, the Christmas Market in the Old Town was a must.

But a somewhat disappointing one, it has to be said.  Stroppy stall holders, crowds, bustling without the joy.  Rows and rows of tacky souvenirs, over-priced cups of  poorly made tea, served without grace on dirty table cloths, all wrapped in a chill air.

Moving on, from desire to leave the area as well as to keep moving and a little warmer, we made our way to the castle… the only way was up  🙂

Despite having been advised to take a tram, nothing is too to walk in Prague – and doing so helps prevent frozen limbs in winter, I’m sure!  So we climbed the deeply cobbled streets; eyes set on the prize looking down at us from the hilltop.  On the way up to the Castle, we were able to stop and look over the river – breathtaking views of Prague, and the lines of buildings – blocks created through the ages, reflecting different social & political periods and architectural styles – like strata plotting timelines in an ancient mountainside.

‘The Castle’ turns out to be more of a town in itself.  Buildings & renovations dating back from the 13th century to the present day.  Originally home of Bohemia’s Kings and now housing Czech Republic’s presidents, architectural styles through the ages are represented in grand proportions: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classical.

The waxy glow of the street lamps lends a warmer glow to Prague, despite the fact that temperatures inevitably plummet even further once the daylight has left.  It must be simply stunning in the summer; vines on the hillside basking in sunshine, a sparkling Vltava sporting pretty tour boats, and cafes spilling over the cobbles with lazy lunches (and cheap beer??!).  But dark winter evenings, lit by the ivory light from wonderful old lamps, combines with the magical architecture, misty winter chill and cobbles to create a truly memorable atmosphere, too.

Prague by Night: Charles Bridge.

Prague by Night: Charles Bridge.

We briskly walked back over the river and to the suburbs of town, happy to slip into our pre-booked sauna and soak up some deep heat!

Day 2 called for a more positive return to Old Square.

Wonders to admire: fire char baked pork roasting on huge spikes, traditional potato pot in oversized paella pans to taste.  A good-looking, even better sounding singer crooning on a swiftly erected stage listen to, whilst roasting under plentiful gas heaters…

Mystical, charming, magical and bold.

Reportedly one of the largest festive markets in the Czech republic, and having risen to the heady heights of featuring in ‘The Archers’ as the seasonal short break destination for Jennifer & Brian, I have to admit to finding the market somewhat of a disappointment… Perhaps my standards are too high now that London’s local markets have developed to include such enthusiasm, interesting variety and inciting atmosphere… spoilt with our local West Norwood Feast, Crystal Palace Food Market & Herne Hill… bursting with character and passion that seemed to be missing in Prague’s tourist trap effort.

But we did enjoy a pop up concert, and tasting Christmas traditions – huge hams roasting over red coals, a mizture of potato gnocchi, saucerkraut and ham… soggy, slightly greasy and better in anticipation than reality!  Also a fascinating sweet, cylindrical pastry called a trdelnik.  Rolled around metal poles, stretched over hot coals and turned by chains at either end; sold hot, dusted with cinnamon, sugar, and nuts.

Church of Our Lady before Tyn, Old Town square.

Church of Our Lady before Tyn;

an immense Gothic edifice whose 15th century towers rise  80 metres above the surrounding Medieval streets.

Despite the jostling and hustling of packed crowds visiting the pretty Christmas Market, you can still soak up the legions of tumultuous history… heresy, revolutions, plots, and reform.  Perhaps less has changed than you first think… more harmonious and settled now, but still a bustling market square at the heart of the town, a focus for locals and visitors alike.

Vltava River's many magnificent bridges.

Vltava River’s many magnificent bridges.

Next time, I’ll take a hike up the old clock tower in the Town Hall to take in an aerial view of the city… didn’t occur to us at the time, but the birds eye view would have been worth the climb, I’m sure.

Just North of the Old Town Square is the Jewish Quarter.  Yet another side of Prague – a more tranquil atmosphere, slower pace and greyer colours (trimmed with copious amounts of gold) to other parts of the city.

Jewish Quarter, Prague.

Jewish Quarter, Prague. Reminiscent of Paris’ grand, leafy boulevards with fine boutiques; gold encrusted, inside and out.

Walking along the main street felt like entering a Grimms Fairy Tale book… gothic towers looming eerily over grey skies, defining the road with strangely intimidating dark spires.

Having had a very high recommendation to visit a particular cafe, next stop was to find Wenceslas Square.  Another busy hub; the heart of the New Town, a business and cultural focus.  More Christmas market stalls in what was originally designed to be a horse market, the square was named after the patron saint of Bohemia.  Wide boulevards.  Literally stunning, edged as they were with fringes of trees sporting fairy lights.  Again, especially attractive in the dark haze of a winter’s night, marking out the twinkling bare branches engagingly.

View from Wenceslas Square, Prague.

View from Wenceslas Square, Prague – photo taken before the tree lights came on, but still pretty impressive!

We were so grateful for this tip from a local – Ovocny Svetoxor (literally translated ‘fruity cinema‘) would have remained an undiscovered gem without it.  There are apparently branches across Prague, but the one we visited in the passage Svetoxor is the spearhead, having been here since the 70s… the psychedelic, block decor remains shocking but totally on trend (just not the same trend as anything else within a fair distance!).  Bright, fast and fresh.  Outside is an array of multi-coloured, glossy ices – too watery to be ice cream (and too frozen to try, despite looking otherwise irresistible).  Fruit cakes, gateaux, sundaes, freshly made juices… I never knew that Heaven was based down this little alley in Prague!

Despite being small and packed, we found deep lime green seats to sink into, and enjoyed the freshest juices I have ever tasted.  Then back through icy streets, now veiled in darkness but glowing in a romantic haze of the ivory light of street lamps.

Our third day – packed with pottering.

We walked along the top ridge from our hotel towards the castle – breathtaking views of the city in the crescent of the hill below.  Stretching out on both sides of the broad icy river.

Back through streets, admiring the huge painted blocks; wondering what was going on inside.

Watching tourists being whooshed around in jolly cars or traps pulled by impatient horses.

We found a huge Tesco, and had to go in to ‘spot the differences’… there were as many surprising similarities with regard to products and packaging as differences – a whole isle (double-sided!) of chocolate – acres of pastries and breads and unbelievably cheap alcohol.   (Interestingly, no drunks though).

Walking around Prague in darkened streets felt safe – even as we stepped away from the centre of the city, making our way through graffiti littered streets to the outer district of our hotel.  It was interesting staying further afield – seeing the environmental changes as we crossed through the city zones.  Also watching more Czechs busy about their daily life, uninterrupted by mobs of tourists doing an impression of a couple of girls in IKEA  on a wet Sunday afternoon.

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One seasonal sight that we would have totally missed had we been staying in the more trendy centre of town was the local Christmas preparations… heaps of Christmas trees being sold and marched home. As they would be on the streets of London, but these had many fewer needles.  And those that were there, were longer and finer than those of the Norway Spruce or similar found at home.

The tradition of eating Carp is another that is not shared at home.  We were introduced to this on our first day, at the locals Farmers Market on the Rasin Embankment.  Large blue plastic bins filled with running water and tightly packed with huge, sad fish.  Jostling for space so that their fins often looked damaged.  Being prepared on stalls that were reminiscent of the mass executions held in past times in the old square.  Blood literally running down the street.  Fish heads, placed upright next to their decapitated bodies as the scales were vigorously scraped off.  Desperately, pathetically gasping their last airless breath as their mouths continued to open and close before realising that their lungs were no longer attached.

One morning, walking through the outer district, we saw an old lady ahead.  Looking forlorn – motionless on the pavement.  As we neared, we noticed the familiar smell and sight of the large blue buckets.  She had chosen her Carp and it was being prepared.  She stood further away and turned as we passed, holding her head in her hands.  Without looking, she gave a gasp as the clever cracked down.  Although it seemed in a way barbaric, the fish were always kept in running water, and killed swiftly and professionally.  Perhaps one day we will try fresh carp, to better understand the tradition which is clearly still so popular.

The observation Tower by night.

Back to the warmth of the sauna for the final time.

And another wonderful supper.

Top Tips:

If flying from Stanstead, book short-term car park –

well worth it, especially at that time in the morning!

Pre-book a private transfer from the airport –

great value and saves worrying about being ripped off!

If you’ve got them, take thermal trousers to go under jeans –

and waterproofs to go over them.  If you haven’t got them, do!

Just enjoy – it’s a wonderful city, I’m sure equally so for different reasons

all through the seasons…

:-)

🙂

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