Landing in Prague means landing out in the middle of a field, away from the central city. It also means long queues at the passport control station, but hey, I got my Czech Republic stamp in my passport, and I was finally back in Europe after so many years. I was willing to wait as long as I needed to (with reason, of course!)
We had to find our airport transportation, which meant locating a parking garage across from the airport and identifying our driver. He was waiting for us there, and when I heard him say “Miss Levendovski,” I was like, wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard my last name pronounced in the real Eastern European way it’s meant to be said since my Polish 8th grade grammar teacher refused to say “Lewandowski” because that wasn’t the “correct” way to say it, merely the Americanized version.
It was a fairly boring drive into the city, fraught with all sorts of depressing places of modernity – McDonald’s, Chinese buffets, and KFC’s. Gagh. This happened when I first came into Oxford as well – my first image of the city was the McDonald’s, not the spires. Tons of graffiti on city and monastery walls as well, which was rather sad. I kept looking for the iconic images of Prague I’d come to expect over the last few months. Finally, when we drove up a twisting road to the Mala Strana (Lesser Town), finally, there it was.
Prague Castle and all the red roofs my eyes could possibly take in.
Prague is absolutely stunning. At noon time, with relatively few people on the streets, the pastel buildings with ancient facades sparkled in sunlight that came and went intermittently. Our hotel(s) were nearly at the top of the hill, and the van slowly crawled up the crowded, cobbled streets to the Hotel Residence Green Lobster. Yes, Green Lobster. Curious, indeed, and in a later post, I will explain more about the mythology in the Czech Republic surrounding, of all creatures, the lobster.
He dropped us off at the front, and I wearily went inside to check in. Since Julie and I had booked separately, one of us was in this hotel, the other was across the street in their sister hotel. Strange. Julie ended up with the two story Kafka Suite, and I had the cozy and comfortable Room 103, which opened up to a stone courtyard, which, had the weather been nicer or warmer (it was the coldest and snowiest winter in Europe since the 1960’s), I would have enjoyed more.
I wasn’t tired, despite the 10 hour flight to Moscow, 5 hour layover, and nearly 3 hour flight to Prague. And, after seeing the gorgeous neighborhood where we’d be staying, I didn’t feel like wasting the day when I could be out exploring the city.
Prague Castle – the largest castle complex in the world, according to Guinness Book of World Records – loomed dark and gothic right above us, the scion and protectorate of Prague. The spires of St. Vitus Cathedral beckoned me to come closer. Why not? I couldn’t justify taking a nap, not yet. Not when this beautiful city lay just outside my doorstep.
We finished our walk up the hill to the stairs, which led us past a place called Mystic Pizza (with sherpa-ish chairs outside) and around a large square lined with Renaissance-style buildings in various colors – coral, pink, green, purple, powdery blue – with white crown molding and religious frescos at the top.
From the square we turned right, which wound us around the outside of the castle. We pitied the uniformed guards who were good sports for the camera, much like the scarlet-coated Buckingham Palace guards, and took our photos from a distance instead of trying to buddy-up with them. But, there were plenty of Prague Castle guards around, and damn, they all looked good in their uniforms. Good thing I had my Lonely Planet: Czech and Slovak Republics guidebook to fan myself with!
We popped into the complex, which was free to visitors, unless you want to visit the individual churches, chapels, palaces, and museums on the grounds. Up close, St. Vitus Cathedral impressed people with its gothic spires, gargoyles, and brilliantly intricate stained glass windows. The Cathedral itself, while started many centuries ago, was formally finished in 1929. Its windows were taken out, apparently, during the two wars to make sure they weren’t destroyed. Prague was never formally bombed by the Germans in WWII, more history of which I’ll share later on.
We walked around the cathedral and just peeked about before going out of the palace complex once more to take panoramic shots of the entire red-roofed and spired city from the crest of the hill. Prague Castle sat at the very top of the highest peak in the city, and it glowered down on everything in its sight. In terms of being what people think was a “castle,” it’s not like Windsor or Warwick. It’s more of a series of buildings than a “castle” as one would imagine.
Teems of tourists – it was Easter Saturday, anyway – thronged up and down the two main routes to the castle, taking pictures and looking with wonder at Prague’s medieval and Renaissance beauty. It was a truly breathtaking sight from the castle, and I was happy to have chosen Prague for my spring break holiday. It was a city not to be missed.
|Locks on the bridge. Couples “lock up”
their commitment to each other and toss
the key into the river. Also seen in Paris
along the Seine.
From the top of the hill, we strolled down over the old castle steps and past a hillside vineyard. The winding passage took us to the very bottom of the hill, near the closest tram stop, and there we located the closest Starbucks. Bingo!
Then we moved toward the iconic Charles Bridge, taking in the statues of saints and the various craft vendors along the way.
Since it was a bit chilly – and we were tired – we didn’t go all the way over the bridge to Stare Mesto (Old Town) but instead roamed past a few alleys by the bridge and finally back to the street where our hotel resided. Now we were hungry as well, and I was hankering for a good old Czech meal, the sort of hearty meal that would stick to my ribs.
There are plenty of old-style pubs, breweries, and restaurants in Mala Strana, so we just shot for one of them in the basement of one of the old buildings, U Laury. There we met the charismatic and best waiter in the world.
Czech meals were heavy and hearty, usually with loads of dumplings, potatoes, and dark meats. We decided to order the Bohemian Feast for Two, and since Julie likes French fries wit dat, she ordered fries too. The waiter said, “No, I think you have enough food.” We both laughed over our Czech beers, and he was really that endearing. You’d never hear a waiter in the US say “You have enough food.” In fact, most of the time, they want you to order more food!
You know you’re going to get a lot of food when the waiter has to put another table next to yours to accommodate the dish! With some dark rye bread, butter, and the beers, we looked over the arched doorways of the restaurant and the homely decorations. The older Czech couples left, and we were by ourselves in the quaint little place playing really strange Czech(?) music.
|“I think that’s enough food!”
Bohemian Feast at U Laury
The feast was truly a feast and certainly needed a second table. He brought out this huge platter with flour and potato dumplings, sausage, sauerkraut, ham, duck legs, pork, and gravy. We cleaned most of the platter – we hadn’t eaten since the odd meal on the plane several hours ago – and when the waiter came back, he asked, “Do you still want fries? Or that enough food?” We agreed that we were full, and he said, “See – I said enough.”
He was a hoot!
We finished our beers and got the check, which then resulted in a “do we leave a tip or not?” discussion. This led to our checking of Lonely Planet to see what its take was. Since service was not included, leaving a 5-10% tip is customary, which helped us a lot. It’s always awkward when you don’t know when to tip. I didn’t when I got to China, and I found out the first night that it’s not customary here – after I asked about two waitresses. Cool. But then I have to remember when I’m in the States TO TIP or I get the angry taxi-driver stare.
Once we were filled up with dumplings and dark meat, we waddled up the hill, back toward the hotel. It’s a pretty steep hill, but it’s filled with all sorts of fun shops like the Gingerbread Museum and, scarily enough, the Museum of Ghosts. Now, when I passed by the door to that museum, something caught me out of the corner of my eye.
A black, cloaked figure floated above the floor, turning menacingly toward us. That done freaked me out, no lie. I snapped a picture of the figure now known as “Creeper” and ran off before it decided to chase me.
Crepe shops, gingerbread shops, tourist shops, hotels, and restaurants all came into view the further up we walked. The creepiest shops, however, were the ones with windows filled with marionette puppets. I would never want to work in one of those shops (I mean, have you seen the horror trilogy Puppetmaster with murdering puppets?!), let alone buy one of those puppets, even if it was fluffy like the Easter bunny. Oh, hell no! That thing would give me nightmares for years!
I flipped on CNN for background noise and got my WiFi working in the room so I could update everyone on Prague and get on Skype.
Prague is one of those cities were the possibilities for exploration are endless. Tomorrow we planned on visiting the Easter Markets in Old Town Square and simply roaming around to check out some of the local sites.
Finally, jet lag was setting in, and I snuggled up under the warm, down covers and flipped off the lights.