Gap Year Days 92 – 96
We had been sweltering in Brno, but as we arrived in Prague there was a welcome change in the weather. We where here for four days, and rain was forecast for all of them.
Prague was one of the “must-see” cities on our list before we left Australia. As the trip wore on, we kept thinking we would eventually get there. We then had a chance to catch up with our friends Caloling and Joe from Germany, and they chose a weekend in Prague to do that as they hadn’t been there either. So we had a little party of four checking out the sites and food and drinks.
We all arrived within minutes of each other on Friday afternoon. Soon we were in the cafe of our hotel catching up and going through all the things we wanted to do on the weekend. I’m not normally one to use a hop on hop off bus, but with all the rain forecast, we decided this would be a good way to get around the city. We chose this company as they covered all the attractions we wanted to see on two different routes, and also included a river cruise and commentary on the bus.
We also came across a night tour of the castle that looked interesting, so decided to pick up some tickets to that while we were out.
Our hotel was right in the Prague Old Town so we hit the streets to get our bearings and check out the sites. As we negotiated the cobbled streets following the confusing “Tourist Information” signs, we soon came to the popular Old Town Square. I was immediately captivated by the Church of Our Lady before Týn that dominates the skyline. It really is like a fairytale castle, but probably the one the wicked witch lives in! Perhaps though it was just the dark skies that gave it that slightly evil edge.
With little purpose we continued towards the river, learning our way and people watching as we went. I’m not sure if we picked a particularly busy weekend, but it seemed like this was THE place to be for stag parties! We saw so many groups of guys, drinking themselves silly. Usually on those beer bikes that cruise around the streets with loud music and even louder, off key singing. These groups were entertaining all weekend, with their costumes and antics. And we were lucky enough not to see any behaviour that was too bad!
The well-known Charles Bridge was crammed with tourists when we came to it. It really is lovely, but with so many people milling around it is hard to appreciate it fully. We weaved our way through the crowds, buskers and vendors on the bridge and as we came to the other side we noticed a small festival happening. It was a French festival, and showcased French food and wine. We just had to stop for a drink.
While we were there I realised it was THE perfect place to release a French Bookcrossing book I had been carrying for someone else to release for a special occasion this weekend. I don’t think I could have done much better for a French book in Prague! (Want to know what Bookcrossing is? Read what I have written about it here)
We all grabbed what was a forgettable dinner – none of us were all that thrilled by the food or the drinks. Yes, we are party-poopers. While the bucks party boys continued on, our early mornings and day off travel had now caught up with us. It was early to bed so we could be up early to take advantage of the hop on hop off bus.
By 10am the next morning we were in Old Town Square jumping on the first bus of the day to take us around the city. Our first stop was to be the Dancing House, named for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Built in 1996, it really stands out in Prague because most of its architecture is in a traditional style. We got to check a lot of that architecture out as we walked over the bridge and along the river.
Artwork was next on our list, but we weren’t expecting it to be these huge babies crawling around. Clearing the closest one regularly has his butt rubbed for good luck!
We were actually looking for John Lennon Wall. Ever since he died, this wall has been painted and repainted in tribute to him. From what I can gather, it is occasionally painted over (I believe by the city officials) but soon after the artworks comes back in a new format. We even overheard one of the guides on the bus telling people it was no longer there as it had been painted over – it was nice to be able to correct him. Funnily enough, by the time we found it, we worked out it was only about 100m from where we had been at the French Festival the night before.
We jumped back on the hop on hop off bus near Charles Bridge and continued up around the castle, to complete most of the loop and hear the commentary. The bus ticket also came with a one hour cruise on the river. We had hoped to get to that stop by 2pm but we didn’t get there in time. Instead we weaved our way back through the cobbled streets to our hotel, to rest for a while before our night walk.
We had timed our rest well, because as soon as we were inside, down came the rain. We donned our wet weather gear when it was time to head out for dinner, and made our way through the drizzle. By the time we had eaten, it had luckily stopped. As we met our guide for our walking tour of the castle, we all crossed our fingers and hoped the rain would stay away.
We were very glad it did, as we walked through the Jewish quarter and received a general history of Prague. We crossed the bridge, then to save our legs, caught a tram from the bottom up to the top of the hill. The first part of the tour visits the Strahov Monastery Brewery. Yes, there are monks here who brew beer! It was completely renovated a few years ago, but the brewery dates back to the 13th century. By all accounts the beer is pretty good too, and the beer drinkers in our group stopped for a quick glass. After all, the Czech Republic is the worlds biggest beer drinking country, so they couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Just across the way is a library and a church, both of which were now closed in the evenings. It is worth pointing out that as we were walking around, there were only a handful of other tourists around. During the day this area is teeming with people. Many large tour groups can often make it difficult to navigate the small alleyways. The absolute best thing about doing this tour in the evening was having the place almost to ourselves. Remember we were here in July, the peak European tourist season.
We pass the “Gates to hell” and and some other rather impressive buildings while hearing about the more recent history of the Czech Republic. The small lanes eventually bring us to the castle itself. Prague Castle is the largest castle compound in the world, and it is still the official residence of the President (although he doesn’t actually live there). As such, we could easily walk through many of the areas, but as we got to the more important buildings there was a security point to go through and our our bags were checked.
Inside we came to what was the most awe inspiring part of the castle complex, St Vitus Cathedral. I just love these old gothic cathedrals, but in reality, much of this one was only completed in the 1900’s even though it looks much older.
Hidden somewhere in the castle are also the traditional Bohemian Crown Jewels. There is a old story that says that if you put the Bohemian crown on your head and you are not the rightful heir, you will soon die. Interestingly, when the Nazi’s invaded and took control of the Castle, Heydrich, one of their most evil officers laughed at these tales, and placed the crown on his head. He was dead within the year.
As we began to make our way down from the top of the castle we came to the Golden Lane. This looks like a street of miniature houses. While they are still small, they are not really as small as they look because they are built right back into the walls. The most famous resident here was Franz Kafka, who came here to get some solitude while he was writing. The lane has become so popular now, that during the day you need to pay for entry into the area. For us, it was almost deserted.
I cannot recommend an evening tour of Prague Castle strongly enough. I am really not a fan of crowds, and this avoided them completely. It was daylight for most of the tour, but I think this would also be nice if it was dark with all the castle lights on. Click here to book one for yourself.
Sunday morning was spent doing the other line of the hop on hop off bus trip. They took us to see “the second most ugliest building in the world”. It must have been pretty bad, because I have just scoured through all our photos and cannot find a single one! You can go here and see it “proudly” listed as number two!
We arrived back with plenty of time to spare until the next cruise, so again took the long way there through the streets of the old town. There is alway something new to see, or something crazy going on. Especially when it seems to be a particularly busy weekend and the streets are crowded.
We boarded the boat for the cruise up the river and nabbed one of the coveted upper deck seats. We were a little worried about the rain, but took the risk. In the end it was beautiful for the whole hour, as we sat back, had a glass of wine while listening to the commentary as the sights drifted past.
With our feet back on dry land, we searched for somewhere quick and easy for lunch. We ended up at a pizza place, again near the Charles Bridge. The pizza was good, but we ended up engrossed in the men’s final of the US Open tennis and had to drag ourselves out again to the next part of our day.
Back on the hop on hop off bus again, we again went to the top of the hill to the castle. This time our plan was to visit the Strahov Library. After all, we are book people! We had been warned during the walking tour the night before that it was expensive to enter. It was 120czk (€4.60) but there was also a fee of 50czk if you wanted to take photos. There really are just two rooms, and they are roped off so visitors can only stand at the rope and take photos. Yes, it’s nice, but possibly not worth the trip up the hill just see it.
The astronomical clock in Prague is one of the big tourist attractions. Just before the hour the crowds build to watch the show it puts on. For the first day or so we where here, we saw scaffolding and shade cloth all over the building, and assumed we could not see the clock. We did not realise that instead of facing the square, it faced to the side. When we realised, we stood to wait and watch. The clock struck the hour, played a little tune and went quiet again. We all looked at each other – was that it? Yes, it was. While the clock itself is quite attractive and worth a look, the show is a real fizzer. For Australians, the clock in Melbourne Central puts on a way better show!
Later in the evening, after dinner, I did possibly the craziest thing I have done in quite a few years. As we were walking back across Old Town Square, there was a crowd surrounding a busking act. The buskers were doing cheerleading stunts by lifting people from the crowd! Both of my daughters have done competitive cheerleading for the last few years, and I have watched hours and hours of them training and competing. I have travels to Nationals with them for the last four years.
Mostly the people having a go at being lifted were young kids or teenage girls, but I thought “why not?” The only thing holding me back was my own fears. The guys lifting were big strong guys, and if they were even half as good as they looked, they would catch me if I fell. So I did it! I was lifted up to full extension! There is a very dodgy video of it, but no photos, so the best I can do is show you a photo of my youngest daughter MacKenzie in full extension with her competition team (she’s the one on top making it look easy!). Being held right up high by only your feet and ankles and nothing to hold onto or grab for balance is, well, NOT easy!
When I came down my adrenalin was really pumping. What a buzz! Even Simon said he could not believe I had done it! As a reminder to those who don’t know me, I am in my forties and have never done anything like cheerleading in my life! I just had to. I may never get another chance! But still – there is no way I am bungy jumping!
A few more drinks at the bar ensued, enjoying the warm evening and the crazy bucks nights antics still going on around us. It was Sunday night, surely they would have been worm out by now? The group dressed in dalmatian costumes proved that was not the case. We were worn out though, so called it a night.
Joe and Caloling were leaving the next day, so we had breakfast with them, then we were off on a mission. In Austria, my cousin Emma had given me some Vegemite. I had not realised how much I was missing it until I had it again. The tube we had was already half gone, and we knew from Prague we were heading deeper into Eastern Europe. So when Google told us that there was a store in Prague who stocks it, we just had to make the 45 minute each way walk happen.
On the way there we walked through Wenceslas Square – yes, THAT Wenceslas that the song is about – to pay homage to the home of the revolution against the Soviet Union. Here a student killed himself in protest, and started a long running series of demonstrations. Really there is not a lot to see in the square today. It is a centre of business, and at night time it is the hub of late night entertainment in the city. At the top of the square is a huge statue of St Wenceslas, and across the road is the national museum. During our visit it was under major renovations, but the building appeared to be simply awesome, and well worthy of the place of prominence.
After acquiring the precious jar of Vegemite (paying at least twice the price we would pay at home) we stopped in at the train station to pick up our train ticket for the next day. Oh boy were we in a for a shock! Our trip was going to take 14 hours, and cost us over $160AUD (€110) each! Ouch.
Our time in Prague was almost over, but there was still one thing left to do – visit the Prague Hard Rock Cafe for Simon. We had a less-than-stellar visit to the HRC in Vienna, which Simon had contacted them about, and so they had asked when he was next visiting. We were to get priority treatment. And we did. Almost every staff member came over to chat to us at some point during the meal, including the manager. We also got a discount on our order, so service recovery well done!
Now all that was left was a few hours sleep before being on that 7am train in the morning.
We had a lot of fun in Prague, but the company we had was at least part of that. The city itself was really lovely. I definitely have to get back here in winter because it seems like it would be really beautiful with a light covering of snow!
We used the hop on hop off bus so had no need for public transport through the city. There seemed to be a good network, particularly the trams. We also saw a lot of buses too.
I had access to data while we were in Prague, so wifi was not something I was looking for specifically when we were out and about. It did seem to be readily available when others in my group were wanting to use it.
Ibis Praha Old Town
Na Porici 5, Prague, 110 00, Czech Republic
€65 per night including breakfast
Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.