Prague is one of those places in the world that I have a created for myself a wildly romantic notion about what it should be: cold, cloudy, atmospheric, full of cobbled streets and small dark bars with crackling fireplaces. A city where you spend time walking and thinking, growing colder with every step and revelation, then warming yourself up with mulled wine in a comfortable chair in a sparkling café.
What I found when I got there was not much different, as illustrated by my photo of Charles Bridge above, but was also much more complicated than my easy, self absorbed fantasy. I have a very long Polish surname with many consonants including 2 Z's, and the Czech immigration officer took one look at it and immediately demanded whether I was Polish, if my parents were Polish, just how Polish was I? And I thought "Shit. I have no idea what to say. Do the Czechs even LIKE the Poles? Is this an ISSUE?" I cleared immigration just fine, but from that moment I was acutely aware that this holiday was different from my previous ones; for the first time I was visiting a country and culture of which I had absolutely no prior knowledge or understanding.
But that didn't stop me from enjoying myself; I merely just went straight to our hotel in the Mala Strana neighborhood and read up on Czech history on Wikipedia. And then I went on to indulge myself in everything I dreamt Prague would be: beer, meat, dumplings, and cake. Oh, and beautiful architecture and design.
If you're really into architecture, Prague is the place for it. There is a beautiful and intriguing mix of ancient structures, Baroque monuments, and modern interventions that all come together to create a really fascinating cityscape. Highlights were the main square, with the astrological clock, and the Frank Gehry "Fred and Ginger" Dancing House building (above). We also took the subway out to the Zizkov TelevisionTower to see the panaroma of the city from what felt like a throwback to Soviet-era tourist attractions. It also reminded me of the old Tomorrow-Land at Disney World, the one that was made in the 1960s. Unfortunately the day we went a fog was settling over the city and we couldn't see very far, but I still thought it was amazing to go up the fast elevators and look out over Prague from up high.
Overall, Prague is definitely a city that has realized that tourism will lift it into the global economy. After our first full day, we actively sought to avoid the Old Town and stay on the left side of the river or in the New Town. I really found myself wanting know how native citizens lived, what they saw on a daily basis, and what Czech culture really was about beyond beer and castles.
But that doesn't mean we didn't do touristy things. This is me in an alcove on the stairway up to the castle.
In the cathedral within the castle walls, I saw this AMAZING stained glass window by Mucha.
And after the castle, we went to a brewery in a monastery overlooking the city.
That made us very happy.
We also ate quite a lot of meat, and drank quite a lot of beer. We also found a wine bar that served only Czech wines, which were surprisingly good. Below is our favorite beer hall, basically a hipster beer hall with very cool backlit carved walls, called Lokal.
And here is the Irishman in "our" wine bar, enjoying a nice glass of white.
On the day we left, the sun made an appearance and burnt off the haze. So we took what seemed like a rare opportunity to see the city in the sunshine.
But to be honest, we sort of preferred the overcast skies to the sun; clouds seemed to fit the character of the city and especially the cuisine. I seriously wonder whether people eat all of that meat and all of those dumplings at the height of summer – and if so, how do they manage it?!
Overall, we really enjoyed Prague; it is beautiful and the perfect city for low-key exploration. Four days was the perfect amount to get a feel for the city and find your favorite haunts without getting bored. It was also great for post-marathon recovery; with everything in short walkable distances, we were able to stretch our legs without overdoing it. We ended up, after all of the sightseeing and wandering, enjoying spending time together in cafés most; despite the omnipresent smoking in all establishments, we appreciated being able to relax, graze a bit, drink a bit, read a bit, and generally just hang out without being rushed. It was difficult to be in a country where I only knew how to say "Hello" and "Thank you", so The Irishman and I instituted a new rule: every time we go to a place where we don't know the language, we have to learn 10 useful phrases before we go. I guess that's our end sort of learning from Prague: there are vacations, and then there is going to a new place to learn about that place, and sometimes you have to accept that one is not the other. So for me, Prague was a vacation and a very lovely, restful, and atmospheric one at that.
If you go:
Flights are available on a few airlines; as we flew from Dublin, we took Aer Lingus there and used BA Airmiles on the return to Heathrow. In terms of hotels, we stayed at the hotel At The Three Storks in the Mala Strana district. It was nice – clean, affordable, helpful staff, great location – but frankly it was disappointing in the way that only design hotels that go wrong can. I'd say, if you want a basic hotel that's cheap and well located, this is your place but if you want more style or luxury, look elsewhere. The Czech Republic is in the EU but hasn't adopted the Euro; currently, the Czech crown exchanges at roughly 27kc = £1 and a cup of coffee is about 50kc, a beer was 75kc.