Euroadventure 2014: Blackout Curtains and Beer

I woke up on our first official morning in Prague to Dave saying, “Shit!”

“What?”

“It’s noon!”

Confused, I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s just midnight in DC and he forget to change his watch?” and said, “But it’s still dark out.”

“Um, I closed the curtains last night before we went to bed.” And thats how we found out they were blackout curtains. Womp, womp.

We jumped out of bed, showered and got ready as fast as humanly possible (well, as fast as possible for these humans). Even though we slept for close to twelve hours, my body ached with that haven’t-slept-in-days feeling and my head was so foggy. Dave was pretty agitated at having lost half of a day, so I tried to assure him that we had plenty of time and we could be flexible with our departure train for Vienna.

My plan was for us to walk through Charles Square (Karlovo Náměstí) to Wenceslas Square, then follow Rick Steves’ self-guided walk, which would take us from the National Museum, past the statue of Wenceslas and other notable spots. From there we would go to the Old Town Square, but with the huge loss of time slight disruption to our schedule, we decided to head straight for the Old Town Square instead.

A few blocks from the hotel, I saw a cafe with iced coffee to-go and we made a pit stop. It was honestly one of the best iced coffees I’ve ever had! Since it was almost 1 p.m., we figured we should eat lunch in an attempt to get our bodies on track.  We both had restaurants picked out, so we went to Dave’s choice, Mlejnice, and it actually turned out to be the same restaurant with traditional Czech fare I had in mind. (I kept referring to the nickname “The Mill” that Rick Steves uses so we didn’t realize it was the same place until we got there.) The Mill had the best goulash out of any place we tried, and we tried a lot! I added a side of spinach (still looking for those greens!) and Dave had a side of potato fritter balls.

Even though The Mill is tucked down a narrow alley, it’s only a block or two off the Old Town Square. My top priority was to visit the St. James church to see the legendary “thief’s hand.” The story goes that late one night a jewel thief tried to steal from the statue of the Virgin Mary on the altar. She grabbed his hand and would not let go. In the morning he was found by a group of monks who could not pry his arm from the statue’s grip and eventually were forced to cut off his hand. As a warning to other thieves, the hand was hung about 15 feet up from the ground to the left of the door before you exit the church, where it hundreds of years later it remains today.

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missing something?

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St. James Church

Our next stops were the Church of Our Lady before Týn and the Jan Hus Memorial in the square’s center. We weren’t allowed photos inside the church, but I snuck one in. (Shhh!) The memorial is dedicated to the reformist, Jan Hus, who eventually was burned at the stake when he refused to renounce his beliefs. This led to the Hussite Wars, a Protestant uprising against the Catholic Church. (Photo of the memorial is in the panoramic below.)

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Church of Our Lady before Týn

At this point, the skies were about to open so we made a game time decision to buy tickets to the Astronomical Clock. An elevator took us up to the top and a narrow platform led us clockwise around for stunning views of the city. I thought it was much better than Petřín Tower.

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panoramic of Prague from the Astronomical Clock looking toward the Church of Our Lady before Týn

On the way down, we winded around on a slow sloping walkway stopping periodically to read the  historical placards lining the walls. I also noticed some odd repetitive graffiti; in several places people had written, “Cake is a lie!” I’m still not sure what that means … Back at the bottom the downpour had subsided, and the square was practically empty, which gave us a great view of the “twenty-seven crosses.” It is the location in the square where in 1621, 27 Protestants were beheaded for rebelling against the Catholic Church.

From the square, we walked north along the ritzy, tree-lined Pařížská Street, featuring Prada, Louis Vuitton and a fancier version of the WCs we usually encountered. The street leads to the Jewish Quarter where our next stop was the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe circa 1270. We bought our tickets and Dave donned the required (but complimentary) kippah. Like the Týn Church, pictures were not allowed, and this time I felt more obligated to follow the rules – maybe because I’m not Jewish? Back outside we passed by the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Ceremonial Hall. (We had been by there the night before on our walking tour, but since we slept through half of it, we were more than happy to see it again.)

After all the sightseeing, it was time to enjoy a different side of Prague – the Czech Beer Festival! We continued walking north and crossed the Vltava River to Letná Park, where we caught some cool views before making it to the festival. We paid the equivalent of $15 total, which covered both our entrance fees and five beers to share. It was a steal! Multiple tents housed hundreds of beers, food and music. It wasn’t yet Dave’s birthday, but he thought this was the best way to celebrate.

To continue the beer tour, we returned to the Jewish Quarter and went to the Prague Beer Museum. No, we were not doing more sightseeing. Despite its name, the Prague Beer Museum is actually a brewpub. We tasted a few  different beers and shared a sausages plate before heading out to our next stop – dinner, finally! We hadn’t eaten since The Mill and had covered a lot of ground.

Our walk to the restaurant took us past the Powder Tower, which was the gate of the town wall in the 1400s, and then toward the New Town area. We picked another restaurant that served traditional Czech food, Restaurace U Pinkasů. It has an interesting history and was originally founded in 1843. Dave had schnitzel with potato salad and I ordered the meat roll, which according to the menu was the favorite course of brewer Josef Groll and first cooked October 5, 1842.

Since we were somewhat close to the train station, I insisted that we go there to buy our tickets for the trip to Vienna, even though it was pouring and the clock was nearing midnight. It was quite a trek and we were both happy once we landed back in bed! This time we set an alarm … to be continued.

Euroadventure 2014: Sleeping All Over Old Town Prague

The drive from the airport to our hotel, Eurostars David, was quick and took us through some very nice neighborhoods then over one of the bridges that crosses the Vltava River. We were a bit early, but still able to check in, change and freshen up. Our room had a view of the “Dancing House,” which is a more modern building completed in 1996 and said to resemble famous dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

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our hotel room

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view of the Dancing House from our room

David in front of the Eurostars David

David in front of the Eurostars David

Even though we were exhausted, we forced ourselves to get out into the city. I was determined to make the most of our time, and that did not include naps. First we walked past the “Dancing House” and over to the river in search of a place to grab lunch. This little restaurant boat looks touristy, but many customers spoke Czech and one table was a group of guys who actually pulled their boat up to dock alongside the restaurant! I was already craving greens after #OMVBach (Olivia’s bachelorette party the previous weekend) – her recap over here – so I had a goat cheese salad (my favorite chèvre chaud from France as seen here and here … surprised I didn’t mention it more actually) and Dave got chicken risotto. Both were quite good, especially for just picking a random place!

Continuing along the river and marveling at all the paddle boats, we walked past beautiful gardens to the Petřín Hill funicular, where we bought tickets and rode to the top for a sweeping view of the city. At the top we were both in need of a restroom and quickly learned that they are not easy to come by, and it is nearly impossible to find a free WC. (I experienced the pay-to-pee situation both in France and Italy, but it was nothing compared to Eastern Europe. Dave was in shock though, “You have to pay to go?”) This bathroom – if you could even call it that – was really a run down hut guarded by a man who took your money before allowing you to enter into the dark and stinky cesspit. We were both a bit desperate though, and it did the trick.

From there, we bought our tickets for Petřín Tower and began to make our way up the steps, but only made it to the first observation platform. The second platform is almost 300 steps up, we were exhausted already and the view was pretty great at that level anyway.  (It is supposed to be a mini Eiffel Tower, but I prefer the real deal!)

view from Petřín Tower

view of Prague Castle from Petřín Tower

Walking back down the hill, we found the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the base. It’s a series of statues that represent the diminishing effects the regime had on its many political prisoners between 1948 and 1989. As time passes, the body continues to decay and eventually the person disappears almost completely. The bronze ribbon running along the stairs between the statues is etched with powerful numbers estimating those who were victimized during the Communist era: 205,486 arrested, 170,938 forced into exile, 4,500 died in prison, 327 shot trying to escape, 248 executed.

Before evening we stopped at the hotel to change and then headed back out toward the Old Town Square for dinner and our walking tour. The streets all over Prague are cobbled, winding and narrow, giving it a very “Old World” feel. As we rounded another corner, we saw the Astronomical Clock and caught a glimpse of the square with the Týn Church peeking out at us. Dave was in awe; he’d never seen anything like it. To be honest it was pretty amazing, even compared to Place du Tertre or Piazza Navona.

After looking around at several of the square’s tourist trap restaurants, we settled on one that seemed to be the least touristy – Cafe Bílý koníček. (One restaurant directly next to ours wanted to charge 50% more just to be seated outside!) I had a white wine cocktail, Dave had a beer and we both had traditional Czech dinners – I chose beef, cranberries and dumplings and Dave had pork, cabbage and dumplings. (Their dumplings are not like ours, but look like slices of bread instead.) We ate and drank into the sunset and watched the people in the square – tourists, artists, musicians and a variety of interesting performances.

Soon enough it was time for our ghost tour. At this point, we had pretty much been up for over 24 hours, since we left PA for the airport the morning before. It was 8:30pm and the tour was expected to last two hours. We agreed that we may not make it through to the end and might slip away from the group to return to our hotel if necessary. When we met the group though, we found there was only one other couple so we realized that was not really an option.

Our guide was very knowledgeable,  enthusiastic and even dressed the part. He led us from site to site, recounting in his thick Slavic accent old tales of scandal and mystery that had been passed down through generations. As interesting as it all was, the two of us were struggling just to stay awake. During one story, Dave told me he fell asleep six different times with his eyes open! At the end of the tour, we took a picture in front of the Astronomical Clock with Peter and made a bee line for our hotel room.

Note to self: don’t schedule a nighttime walking tour on the first day of a trip! More to come …

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