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Published: April 28th 2015
Eventually it had to happen. The third time is not always a charm. Good things come in threes…but not always. My initial reaction to our 3rd
city in Europe wasn’t very good. I just didn’t like Prague. After a dreamlike visit to Venice and a surprisingly excellent first trip behind the old Iron Curtain in Budapest, perhaps it was due to happen.
We left Budapest and enjoyed a comfortable train ride through northern Hungary, parts of Slovakia and a fairly large section of the Czech Republic. We arrived in the late afternoon at the main Prague train station. Our friendly enough AirBnb host helpfully met us at the station and after a quick look around our new neighborhood, dropped us a few minutes later at our new apartment for our month long stay. The apartment is nice enough and while slightly outside of the main tourist area it is close to a couple of large markets, the A-line metro station and a major tram junction that would provide many routes and could take us anywhere we wanted to go in town.
We stocked the fridge with a few days’ worth of groceries and got adjusted
to the new house before heading out the next morning to begin our explorations. We got up early and excitedly caught the metro. Prague’s Metro is not as nice as Budapest, but it was well marked and easy enough to use and within just a few minutes we were exiting the train in Staromestska station, the main gateway to the touristy downtown area of Prague.
Maybe we just got thrust into it too quickly, or were a little disoriented from the underground approach to town. Coming on to the sidewalk, it was obvious which way the Old Town Square was because there was a virtual wall of people going toward it. Fanny packed throngs following flag waving or umbrella toting guides filled the blocked off cobblestone road.
The Town Hall Tower, Our Lady of the Tyn Church and St. Nicholas Church tower above the Old Town Square. We did our best to dodge the Segway tour riders obviously riding for the first time and coming dangerously close to the hordes of unsuspecting gawkers. Our hands quickly became full of multi-language flyers for any number of touristy attractions.
Chocolate Museums, multiple Wax
Museums, Thai Massage, Sex Museums , Irish Pubs and genuine Italian gelato were all advertised. “Authentic” Czech restaurants where the first item on offer is pizza. A Torture Museum and Hall of Mirrors were advertised. Endless food carts, each selling the same thing. A heavily tattooed English accented fire performer yelled loudly at a restless audience. The buildings began to look like some pastel colored wedding cake palaces dreamed up by Disney Studios instead of the architectural masterpieces they are.
With just a few minutes left before the top of the hour the crowd seemed to jam up around the famous Astronomical Clock. Animated figures make an appearance each hour and most of the tour groups make their way here to await the display. Audible “that was it?” type comments were heard after the last bell rang to mark the hour. Many of the crowd continued to stare at the clock waiting for the rest of the show, not believing they had waited 15 minutes for the short presentation.
The restless crowds began to move away towards the narrow alley leading out of the square. It was difficult to do much except follow along
as they made their way along the so-called King’s Way toward the ancient Charles Bridge that crosses the Vltava River. Small shops sold every type of tourist souvenir imaginable. The bridge itself was beautiful with a large gothic towers anchoring each side. However the crowd was immense and somewhat territorial. At least 30 people waited in line to rub the brass king on one of the statues that line the bridge. The tour groups seemed to overwhelm the area and at times we felt like salmon swimming upstream.
It just wasn’t fun and I was somewhat regretting the decision to visit. A month long visit did not seem like a good idea. I am so glad my first impression turned out to be incorrect. It is one of the beauties of being able to spend more time in a city than a couple of days. You have a chance to correct first impressions.
After avoiding the downtown area for a few days we reluctantly returned. Spring was settling in and the trees were beginning to bloom. Flowers were being planted and many of the trees had colorful blossoms coming out. We had learned the
tram routes and began using it more frequently than the metro. The trams, while slower, provide street level views as they pass through the winding streets and narrow passages between the colorful buildings that line the cobblestone ways. The town is surprisingly hilly throughout and good views seemed to magically appear around each bend.
The immediate area around the Old Town Square is always quite crowded but within a few blocks it is easy to find small parks and green spaces that are much calmer and provide a better opportunity to enjoy the architectural beauty of the city. The Mala Strana (Lesser Town) area on the Prague Castle side of the river is one of the most stunning. Many embassies are located in ornate buildings and small parks are everywhere. A small canal runs parallel to the Vltava and forms an island that features huge trees, outdoor cafes and small museums. Musicians often can be found playing and the parks are filled with families peacefully enjoying the spring weather.
We found that taking a tram to the top of the hill behind the castle was a great way to avoid walking up the steep
hills. Several leisurely days have been spent walking down the hill, passing through the massive castle area or any of the other streets that go down the hill toward the river. Many of the attractions at the castle are not free, but we have found it is quite enjoyable to walk through the area and enjoy the unbelievable views over the steeple filled city. The views over the vineyards and budding cherry and apple trees are gorgeous. Parts of the towering St. Vitus Basilica in the castle area are free and you can enjoy the high ceilings and massive stained glass windows without paying.
The best views of the city are provided from the many gothic towers that are found throughout the city. The Town Hall tower in Old Town Square is the most famous and provides breathtaking views of the red roofed buildings that surround the square. The towers at each end of the Charles Bridge provide wonderful sunset views over Prague Castle and the river below. My favorite view spot is the so-called Powder Tower near Republic Square. It is not visited as much as the others mentioned and provides an enchanted view over the
Reflections of Prague Castle and Charles Bridge
Old Town area of town, especially as the sun sets and the lights come up throughout the town.
We enjoyed a tourist free day visiting Prague’s “second” castle at Vysehrad. Located just south of the downtown area the castle is less developed and has a more park like atmosphere than Prague Castle. The day we visited was quite warm and many local citizens were using the area to spend time with family or just get in some exercise. The views over the river were spectacular and the tree covered hills to the south were gorgeous after so much time spent in town.
We have had a few opportunities to enjoy the local cuisine. Czech food is very meat centric and would not be good for vegetarians. Large portions of sausage, pork or duck are paired with dumplings or potatoes and often covered with gravies or sauces. Our current most favorite is Czech Goulash with dumplings paired with some of the delicious lager styled beer that was invented here. Our favorite local restaurant has large quantities for a very inexpensive price. The beer flows rapidly and it is common for the wait staff to carry
10 or more beers at a time to the thirsty customers that fill the restaurant nightly.
The actual tourist area of town is quite small and I think that was what gave us the initial impression of Prague as an overcrowded tourist trap. The small size of the area is what makes Prague such a wonderful walking city. Everything is within a short walk and there is really no reason to use transportation in the city. After a short time you begin to find that by going just one block from the main streets gives you an intimate journey through a perfectly preserved, classically beautiful city that is as beautiful as anywhere we have been. Shortcuts through buildings and courtyards abound and should be taken at each opportunity. Art filled parks and squares that are not used by tourists are hidden just beyond the main squares and are easily found by the adventurous traveler. At times the sheer number of tourists can be overwhelming but I suppose the beauty of the city is what draws them and has made this such a tourist mecca. I hope that Prague can keep its culture as the central attraction and
not fall into becoming too much of a generic touristville
We still have a little over a week left in the Czech Republic and hope to venture out into the countryside a little bit before we move on.
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