Prague is So Much More Than Good Beer

Our visit to Prague was divided into two different visits. First, we had a two-day stay when we arrived by train from Leipzig. Then we made a short trip back to the states and returned to Prague two weeks later for another week-long stay. Our impressions of Prague were completely different between our two stays, owing to our choice of where to stay. We have found that we really prefer being able to walk out of our hotel into the town center where there are attractions and restaurants.

Getting to Prague

When I booked the train from Leipzig to Prague via Dresden, I hadn’t anticipated the eleven-minute connection would be a problem. I mean, don’t German trains always run on time? Apparently not. In fact, nearly every train we’ve been on in Europe this summer has been delayed. Live and learn.

Unfortunately, we missed our connection in Dresden and were put on the next available train, which was a pretty old Czech line. Our nice, 1st class reserved seats together morphed into crappy, overcrowded, middle seats in separate 2nd class compartments. At least we had seats, there were many people standing in the hall for the 3-hour ride to Prague. Worse, our train car lost AC for a couple of hours and the windows barely opened. So we sweltered amongst our new, too-close-for-comfort friends. Diana was relieved to disembark, but not in a great mood when we blundered into the Prague main train station.

A Hotel Too Far

Navigating the train station in Prague was confusing. There didn’t seem to be a clear exit or location to pick up a cab or rideshare. When we finally found a cab, the guy wanted 3x the price I was seeing for rideshare, so we passed. Eventually and after a fair amount of dragging our bags around from one side of the station to the other, we were able to get a car with the Bolt App and proceeded to our hotel.

We had booked the Don Giovanni Hotel for this two-night stay (more on that below). We knew it wasn’t in the city center, but the tram was just outside so we figured it was worth a shot. Still, it wound up being 30+ minutes to get anywhere in town since the trams don’t really go into town, just on the outskirts. We remembered the 100 Yards From The Slopes lesson and set out to find another place to stay for our second visit to the city.

The Hop-on Stay-On Bus

We had one day to check Prague out. The first order of business was to check out another hotel in the city center for our return. Once that was sorted, we got on the nearby Hop-On, Hop-Off bus to get a brief orientation, as we often do when first arriving in a big tourist town.

This time, since we didn’t have a lot of time to visit spots, we chose to pay less and simply make a single circuit on the route to note places to hit when we returned. In addition to downtown, we learned we really wanted to spend some time in the Prague Castle complex, which overlooks the old town from a hill across the river.

Pardon The Interruption

We return to the Bay Area periodically to visit family and scheduled a flight for the next day. When I booked the flight in January, roundtrip biz class airfare from Prague was the cheapest I found in Central Europe, so we just made it a point to be in Prague in time to catch the flight out. As a bonus, it was my first time on an A380, the massive double-decker Airbus airframe. We figured out upper deck window seats were especially good because they have a lot of extra storage due to the curvature of the hull. Note to self for future bookings…

We spent a total of a week in the Bay Area and a week with family in Scottsdale, Arizona. Much of the time was spent taking care of medical appointments and shopping to replace worn-out clothes, so I won’t mention any more details here other than to say Scottsdale continues to be a place we enjoy visiting.

Prague, Revisited

Upon our return to the Czech Republic (aka Czechia) capitol, we settled into our comfy room in Old Town Marriott. It was well located and well appointed. Diana’s rewards program status allowed us entry to the executive lounge, which had a nice breakfast and evening buffet in addition to snacks throughout the day. By the way, I periodically checked the room pricing and was able to save 25% as we got closer to check-in. Another reason to book cancellable reservations.

The Old Town is packed with places to visit. At least fourteen styles of architecture are represented, even a rare cubist building. There is a central clock tower that draws a large crowd for a parade of saints when it chimes on the hour. I found it to be entertaining, but not really worth waiting for. Diana thought the highlight was the skeleton ringing the bell. Also present is the only concert hall still standing where Mozart conducted. After getting a tepid reception for The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna, he chose to debut Don Giovanni in Prague and was overjoyed to get a 30-minute standing ovation.

Prague Castle

Our favorite attraction was Prague Castle. At 750,000 square feet, it is the largest ancient castle complex in the world. On the grounds are St. Vitus Cathedral, several other churches, museums, halls, palaces, gardens, towers, a vineyard, and a riding school. An area called Golden Lane was very interesting. Originally built as barracks for castle guards, the name came from numerous goldsmiths working there in the 17th century. Today, among the row of small abodes are tourist shops and displays of period furnishings.

From Charles IV to Kafka

The most important resident of Prague was arguably Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor 1355-1378. He greatly enhanced the stature of Prague in European politics and had the first stone bridge across the Vltava river built in 1357. He is considered to be the father of the country and many places and buildings are named after him.

Shy native son Franz Kafka spent most of his life in Prague but was barely noticed while alive. It wasn’t until close friend Max Brod posthumously published Kafka’s works against explicit instructions they be destroyed that he achieved notoriety. Generations of angst-ridden authors owe Max a debt, I guess.

Notable Artists

Alfonse Mucha gained much notoriety at the turn of the 20th century with art nouveau posters advertising Sarah Bernhardt’s plays in Paris. There is a small but good museum dedicated to him in town. The posters there evoke images of Coca-Cola ads from the same time. Beautiful.

Another notable character is provocative sculptor David Černý, whose installations all over Prague range from interesting to disturbing to very disturbing. One such piece, Piss, outside the Kafka museum, features two men urinating into a pond shaped in an outline of the Czech Republic. The mechanical penises are programmed to be able to spell out Czech literary quotes or even text messages. Beavis and Butthead would be stoked to try it out.

Religion and Defenestration

The people of Prague had an odd method of dealing with unloved leaders: defenestration (the act of throwing someone out a window). History notes three separate incidents where leaders and unlucky bystanders were tossed out the window like trash.

Yet, not all of the victims died. In 1618, Catholic King Ferdinand II angered Protestants by denying permission to build churches. In response, a group of Protestants defenestrated three burgraves, the king’s local representatives, from Prague Castle. The perpetrators didn’t plan very well, they chose a pair of windows just above a pile of manure. The burgraves survived and scurried back to the king, who then initiated what turned into the Thirty Years’ War. The war resulted in many political changes across Europe, including stamping out Protestantism in what is now the Czech Republic.

Currently, 80% of Czechia is atheist, far more than any other Central European country. It seems the impact of intolerance during the communist period and centuries of religious strife have driven most residents away from the church. Today’s arguments are more political in nature.

Jan Huss was an early protestant cleric who predated Luther by 100 years.

Enjoying Some Musical Interludes in Prague

Given the high degree of atheism, the Spanish Synagogue and several churches have resorted to daily or weekly concerts to earn enough to maintain the buildings. These events are targeted at tourists and typically feature strings, several woodwinds, brass, and/or a singer playing arrangements of classical and pop tunes. The $35 concert we attended in the Spanish Synagogue covered Verdi, Handel, Fiddler on The Roof, and Bohemian Rhapsody. Crucially, it avoided Diana’s least favorite classical piece, Pachelbel’s Canon.

Another night I scored tickets to see Ghalia Volt at Jazz Dock, a river barge cum intimate jazz club. She was totally on point with her delta blues tunes. At one point, Ghalia slugged some whiskey and used the glass to play slide guitar. It was really fun to be there.

Food And Champion Beer Drinkers

We enjoyed several popular regional food items during our stay. Chimney cakes are made with dough wrapped around a metal cylinder and then spit roasted until golden brown. Common fillings include soft serve ice cream, Nutella, and fruit. These were so good, we had them twice.

For savory choices, local favorites include goulash and dumplings. I found them not as good as a similar dish in Germany. In fact, the best goulash I’ve had this year was in a ski hut in France. Also, I often found I wanted something a little spicier, but that is not part of the regional palate, either.

Where the Czechs do excel is beer. In fact, they are proud that they have the highest daily per capita consumption in the world, roughly 1/2 liter. Yes, children are included in the count. That’s 30% more than the second-place country, which typically alternates between Austria and Germany. Pilsner Urquell is the original lager from which golden lagers everywhere are derived. Original Budweiser (not the US stuff) is also from Czechia. It’s a small wonder that beer is so popular.

What’s your go-to drink?

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for this post, you’ve given me several ideas of places to check out.

    Crazy stuff always happens in Prague. My first visit was a few years after the wall came down, back when you could get a full pub dinner for under $3, drinks included. I was there over the weekend with a colleague. We were due to show up for work at Siemens in Munich the next day so we booked berths on the direct night train to Munich. I glanced at the tickets and say that the train leaves at 20:00. I told my pal that would give us plenty of time to have dinner and a few beers before boarding the train at 10PM. So at about 6PM we checked our luggage at the main station and went to a brewpub called U Flek U (not recommended) and enjoyed a decent dinner. Before ordering the second round of beers, I checked the tickets again and realized that 20:00 was 8PM, not 10PM (Du-oh!). It was now 7:30 so we quickly paid our bill and took an overpriced taxi who drove like mad to get us to the station where we found a long line of people waiting to pick up luggage. Behind the counter were two Soviet era baggage handlers who had no concept or urgency. It seemed like eternity. Long story short we got our bags just in time to scramble to the platform and board the train with two minutes to spare. So much for a relaxing dinner!

    Second crazy thing happened years later when my wife and I spent about a month in the Czech Republic. We went to the Jewish cemetery in Ziskov to find Kafka’s grave. We searched for nearly an hour when the rain got too heavy for comfort, so we decided to abort the mission and go back home. Making a direct line towards the gate we stumbled across a grave with many stones and handwritten notes on it. Kafka of course!

  2. You brought back wonderful memories, Mike. When we were in Prague we had our Maltese with us, so had to take turns seeing the castle. While my husband toured it, I had lunch at a nearby café which had outdoor seating. About 30 meters down the cobblestoned street a violinist played Vivaldi while a carriage drawn by two enormous white steeds clip-clopped by. Happily I have it all on video. Great city.

  3. I have been to Prague twice. Each time was a part of a business trip. The first time was in the late 90s, where we walked up to the castle via a colorful row house street called Golden Lane. For some reason, that left more of an imprint on my memory than the castle itself. Perhaps because I have seen so many European castles (German mostly), that they’ve blurred together in my mind.

    I really like Moscow Mules, but do not remember seeing that offered in Prague. Great write up.

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