Prague Trip Diary

Pictures and stories from our trip to Prague, from April 17 to May 4, 2013. Supplement to A Tale of Two Cities blog post.

After visiting Budapest for about a week, we headed to Prague.

Saturday / Sunday: Getting there

I basically covered the night train trip on the blog, so I won’t repeat it here. Despite the less-than-perfect sleep (exacerbated for Jean, since the electrical outlet was flaky and couldn’t keep his CPAP running), I would recommend it as a way to travel.

One challenge not covered there was that when we arrived, we had a bit of trouble figuring out how to get metro tickets. We had decided a three-day pass would make sense, but the machines didn’t seem to offer those, and the booths were not staffed at that early hour.

We got help from a nice woman at a newsstand. First, she did sell the passes, and second, she carefully explained to us that we were to get the pass validated on first use, at which point our three-day countdown began. Validating it twice would basically render it null and void.

After that, we just got on the metro (or tram or bus) with it on us, and only had to show it if an official asked for proof (which, in the end, didn’t happen).

Sunday: Orientation to Prague

The first day in Prague wasn’t cloudy, as we’d feared, but it was pretty chilly! Before heading out from our hotel, we added layers, but it was still a shock compared to the warmth of Budapest. There was quite a wind this first day.

But the city was very beautiful, with great architecture to look at everywhere. The main tourist area is quite compact, so we were able to cover a lot of it in the morning while getting oriented, though we had no plans to do any big visits on this first day. We did take the advice from Rick Steeve’s book and travelled Tram 22 to get a look at a number of the main tourist areas, including Charles Bridge in the distance, and the downhill view of Prague Castle.

Streets of Prague
The streets of Prague

For lunch, we tried to go to a vegetarian restaurant, but it was it was full. So we instead headed to a wine cellar kind of place. Jean had a good chicken soup, followed by chicken and mashed potatoes that were fine, except the potatoes had more onions than Jean cared for. I had a smoked salmon and beet appetizer, followed by a vegetarian curry that was more lemony and creamy than curries I’m used to. It wasn’t bad, though.

Service was not terribly attentive, but we did get our food in good time. We did have to chase them down to pay.

We then headed back to our hotel, as we could now check in. Our room was pretty nice; a bit more luxurious than the one in Budapest (the hotel did have an extra star). We had a bit of a nap at this point.

For dinner, we went to the same area that we’d had lunch in, but this time selected a Czech restaurant specifically. It had a pub atmosphere, with a lot of wood. We were told you had to try beer in Prague, so we each ordered one. We both wanted a small one, but only I got that; the assumption there tends to be that you want a large glass of beer. The beer was OK. Refreshing, anyway.

We just went with mains, as servings looked really big. Jean tried pork knee, which was indeed massive. It looked like he was eating something from a Fred Flintstone cartoon. He found it good, but couldn’t finish. I had a skewer of three meats with some side vegetables. Not bad, though a couple of the meats were a bit overdone. The whole thing was about $30. Cheap!

The wind had died down, so the evening felt warmer than it had been in the morning. We walked around some more; the castle and the main squares looked beautiful at night.

Wenceslas Square
Wenceslas Square at night

Monday: Gas explosion, Prague Castle, Lobkowicz Museum

This was the morning when our quest for opera tickets led us right to the site of a natural gas explosion, as described on the blog. So an unexpected start to the day. Good thing we dawdled in getting there!

This is also the morning we then ended up buying the wrong tickets (for puppet opera instead of opera), and having to return them.

But finally, we started touring, on the Prague Castle grounds. We had a bit of trouble figuring out the best way up to the sights, and by the time we got there, we were ready for lunch. So we ate in the Lobkowicz Museum. We found everything except dessert just too salty.

We then bought our tickets to the castle sights. They were out of audio guides, but we found we could manage with the notes in the Rick Steeves book. We first visited the cathedral, which had really impressive stained-glass windows.

St. Vitus Cathedral
In St Vitus Cathedral, part of Prague Castle

We then visited Royal Palace, which had rooms large enough for jousts to take place in. The building was characterized by thick walls, secret corners, and this weird set of bones under the altar.

Royal Palace altar
The bones under the altar

We ended up on the Golden aisle, which is a very narrow lane with shops, an exhibition of suits of armor and torture implements, and re-creations of houses people lived in. Franz Kafka was once a resident here; his former house is now a store.

We also walked around the grounds, and Jean took some pictures of the town from on high.

Prague from the Castle grounds
Stairs up to Prague Castle

We felt we had time to visit the Lobkowicz Museum as well, so we did that, which is good, as it turned out to be maybe the best museum of the trip, as described on the blog.

We wanted to visit the Strahov Monastery after this, but couldn’t really, as a mass was on. But we did get to hear some of the terrific music.

We then headed back to the hotel to find out a bit more about the explosion, relax, and pick a dinner spot, which turned out to be a French restaurant, Brasserie la Gare. It was quite pleasant (though they didn’t speak French). We had a carafe of house red, which was perfectly fine, sparkling water, and appetizers of duck millefeuilles for me (duck pate, melba toast, nice relish) and of garlic escargot for Jean. He had to dig them out more than we’re used to, but they were good.

Escargot from Brasserie la Gare

As a main, he had duck à l’orange with a side of mashed potatoes and carrots. He found it all good except for the potatoes being a bit salty. I ordered what was called gnochi with veal and morels, but turned out to be veal meatballs in mushroom sauce. (Sorry, baby cows.) Not as expected, but not bad (and not too salty). I also had a side salad that was very good.

We then had another evening walk before heading back. The day was warmer than previous, mostly cloudy, but only a very brief period of light rain.

Tuesday: Walking tour of Old Town, Mucha Museum, Charles Bridge

We’d had tours of Budapest on our previous visit there, but with Prague, it was our first time, so we thought a tour might not be a bad idea. A lot were available, but we decided to go with a “tip-only” option by Discover Walks, focusing on the Old Town, called Trendy Prague.

The meeting point was the Estates Theatre. We were the first there, around 10:15, on our relatively sunny morning. Our guide was named Markita; she was a pretty little university student. We were joined by a couple from Austria, then a Russian guy, then a couple of other Canadians, from Calgary. They were starting vacation in Prague, still jet-lagged, but were to be continuing to Turkey and Barcelona.

Jean had some issues with Markita’s accent throughout, but I was able to follow. We started learning a bit about Charles University, which doesn’t have a campus as such (apparently a more North American concept), but various buildings around the city. Students don’t pay tuition, but as a result, the universities lack money, so they sometimes rent space for things like cabarets.

We walked down the street we had noticed earlier, which was full of designer shops. Markita said that was just for tourists. She talked about their fashion weekend, which took place outside, making it difficult for the models in their high shoes.

She described the powder tower, the covered window in a bridge that was now low because the street had been raised due to flood. We went into the Jewish quarter, and saw the outside of the Old New synagogue, the oldest still operating synagogue in the world. (It was new at one time; hence, the name.) She mentioned that most of the old ghetto buildings in that area were torn down in favor of better buildings. She did go over some of the Jewish history, talked about nearby Terezin, showed the street marker that indicated where Jewish people lived. We saw the old cemetery from afar, as well.

We did see the famous astrological clock, and she showed the damage it suffered during the war and the need to rebuild the building around it. She talked about the Communist occupation. Earlier in the tour, by the Estates Theatre, she had mentioned that was where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni. But he returned to Vienna, even though the people of Prague loved him, because the musicians were better there. She also talked about Milos Formann and his movie Amadeus.

Famous astrological clock
Famous astrological clock

The tour ended by the Rudenium, another concert hall. We paid our tip and got some coupons in return. Though Jean was a little underwhelmed by the tour, I think it gave us a good grounding on the city.

It was about lunch time, so we headed to another French restaurant, Marcel’s. It had a non-smoking section (Prague, unlike Budapest, hadn’t gone fully non-smoking yet). The specials were a very good deal, but we went à la carte anyway. I had the moules et frites, Jean the simmered pork and mashed potatoes. As beverages, we had the house red wine, flat mineral water, and lattes. Everything was quite good, and Jean found our waitress quite striking.

After this was when we met our second, more mysterious police barricade on an attempt to buy opera tickets, so instead went to the Mucha Museum. He’s an artist best known for posters in softer palettes. The museum was small, but had a number of posters, some painting, and photos of his models. They also played a video about him.

Afterward, we finally got opera tickets!

We then walked the Charles Bridge, as we hadn’t yet. Of course there were a lot of people, but I found it manageable. (It bothered Jean a bit more.) I found quite the contrast between the somber statues along the bridge and all the salesmen and music along the way. Party-time among the sad symbols.

Charles Bridge statues
Tourists and statues on Charles Bridge

And this was the rainy night that we had a heck of a time finding a restaurant for dinner, but finally managed with a better-than-it-looked Chinese / Japanese Restaurant. (As mentioned on the blog.)

Wednesday: Jewish museums, Prague Castle at night

This day, with the help of our transit map, we took the tram into town, which was a nice change from the metro, as you could see some of the city on the way, obviously.

The blog covers the main highlights of the Jewish museum sights we visited. The other parts we went to were:

  • Ceremonial Hall, which features exhibitions and paintings on Jewish medicine, death, and burial traditions.
  • Klaus Synagogue, which explains the various Jewish holidays and other religious observances.
  • Maisel Synagogue, which served as a warehouse for stolen treasure during the war. The exhibits showed some of that along with other Jewish history tidbits, like the history of discrimination and the creation of the Ghetto.
  • The Spanish Synagogue, the most impressive interior we saw, since we didn’t pay the extra to see the Old New Synagogue. The upstairs had particularly interesting exhibits on Jewish artists and writers, the Holocaust times, and the improvements since the war. It also had a room full of silver items. (The crowns are especially impressive.)

Lunch was in between there, at the Kafka cafe. Cool place, and the food was generally good, if a bit salty (a theme!).

The rest of the afternoon was more ambling around. We took a pause at our hotel, then headed back to the Castle for some night shots.

Prague Castle district
Prague Castle district at night

And this is the night we had our very good dinner at Maly Buddha, per blog.

Thursday: Museum of Communism, Cubist Cafe

We thought it would be more rainy today and planned more indoor activities; in the end, the weather was better than that. Before leaving, we arranged our Terezin tour. We had booked one online, then were puzzled by no reply, so we booked with another company through our hotel. We emailed the first company to explain, and they said they had responded hours before. Only then did we think to check the Spam folder. Dang! That’s where the reply was. Felt a bit bad about that, but what can you do.

Our first stop of the day after all that was the Museum of Communism, where they proved reluctant to take our discount coupon (they’re pretty fussy about coupons here). Otherwise, this was as described on the blog.

We had lunch at our sushi place again, then while awaiting the 3:00 tour time of Municipal House, we got distracted by some of the art being sold down there. Though in the end we didn’t buy anything, it had delayed us enough that we missed the tour. (We arrived right at 3:00, but they weren’t taking such latecomers.)

I was annoyed at myself for a while after that (I was the one pondering the art), but I got over it. That’s when we decided to stop in at the Cubist Cafe. We decided against the museum, but did visit the shop. (Didn’t buy anything here, either. We weren’t very good consumers on this trip.)

This evening, we had dinner at Marcel’s, where they actually did speak French, so we decided to practice that for a change. We shared a plate of cheese and cold cuts to start, then I had coq au vin with mashed potatoes and a side of roasted vegetables, while Jean had the special of boeuf sous vide with white asparagus. And we had a 1/2 L of the house red. It was a nice evening.

Friday: Terezin concentration camp memorial, La Traviata opera

This was quite the packed day, and I cover both events on the blog.

For the Terezin trip, I will add that it was a Spanish / English tour, though once at the site, we were split into two unilingual groups. Also have to mention, though it seems petty, that we had our worst meal of the trip here, because they only give us the opportunity to eat at this little cafe in the Ghetto Museum (itself not that interesting), which has nothing but terrible options. BYOL would be wise for these tours.

Visiting Terrezin
Visiting a cell at Terezin

Our dinner was much better, though, at the vegetarian restaurant we hadn’t been able to get into the first day. (I can never figure out how to make phone calls in Europe—though I had activated my phone for it—so we didn’t have a reservation.)

And then we had our night at the opera, which was fantastic. I’ll add that I did like having the English supertitles, even though it strained my neck a bit to look up at them.

Saturday: Heading home

Our flight was around 2:00, not really leaving time to do much but get ourselves to the airport, though we didn’t have to especially rush for it, which was nice. We decided to just take a cab, which we booked through the hotel. The only minor drama was the hotel wanting our “voucher” to prove payment, which I had almost thrown out. But I hadn’t, so I retrieved it from our room.

It was pouring rain, but that didn’t especially matter.

We hadn’t been able to prebook both parts of the flight, but they did that for us when we checked in to the first one.

We went through Amsterdam again, but it was all on time. The second flight had to change plane types, so some people had to get their seats reassigned, but we retained ours.

Our stewardess wasn’t quite as good as the guy we’d had on the way over, but overall the flight was all right. Our little TV worked, and the food wasn’t too bad. We had a slight delay taking off when someone didn’t show and had their luggage removed, but it didn’t make much difference in the long run.