travel

Everything you need to know about Prague

Old Town Square at Xmas

I was recently asked to be a guess blogger on SuperBreak, a UK travel website and blog, and write about Prague. This is the end result. Hope you enjoy it and let me know your opinion…

Prague is both east and west. Slavik and romantic. If London and Moscow had a baby, it would surely be Prague. I feel as though I’m describing it the way Dickens’ would, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s said to be Venice of the east, if you consider it to be east. It’s also said to be the city of 100 spires. To me, it’s all of these things, and also home. No, I’m not Czech. I’m Australian, but have been living here for the past four years and I’m also writing a blog called ‘People in Prague’ that talks to locals, expats and just about any character that passes through the Czech capital. From their experience and my own, here is a list of ‘musts’ that one should do to enjoy the Bohemian city to its fullest. From cuisines to castles, parks to pubs, these are the essentials.

Tourist attractions:

Like any decent tourist, you should start with the main sites that Prague has to offer. This list can be endless, especially for someone who’s a history or architecture buff. After all, Prague was one of the only major cities that didn’t feel the full wrath of World War II. Around Europe there are a number of great replicas of buildings that actually still remain in Prague. It’s originality is well-preserved.
My advice would be to start from the castle and work your way down. Prague castle is easily accessible by tram from most inner city locations and if you start there, it also means that you avoid walking up the countless staircases. There are a number of decent tours available for this area. It’s definitely worth taking a walking tour to hear some of the history. Even if history isn’t your thing, the enchanting legends of the place and its great kings certainly will be. I personally love the legends of King Rudolf II and his obsession with animals and alchemy.

From the castle, you can descend into Malá Strana, the cute and quirky castle town below which leads into Charles’ Bridge, another major tourist attraction. If you want to avoid the crowds, check out the bridge early in the morning for a picturesque sunrise. From Charles Bridge you will journey into Staré Město, the old town. I’ve never been one for maps. I find them embarrassing and annoying to carry, but really, get a map for this labyrinth. A map or Google is the only way you’re going to find the old town square and the astronomical clock which despite being full of tourists, and the occasional pickpocket, is a fairy tale scene. There’s nothing quite like it.

Charles Bridge and the river Vltava

Charles Bridge and the river Vltava

A short walk from there will bring you into the heart of the city, and the Main Street, Václavské náměstí, or Wenceslas Square. The street should be seen to take in the magnificent National Museum at the top of the square, and to witness the main place of celebration and protest for Czech people. The Velvet Revolution took place here and marked the end of communism for Czechoslovakia, but these days it’s littered with casinos and dodgy food vendors. I’d avoid those at all costs, unless gambling and food poisoning is your thing.

Of course, these are only guidelines. As I said before, the sightseeing opportunities are endless here. Play it by ear as you go along.

Off-beat attractions:

In my opinion, this is where the true beauty lies. A short metro ride on the C or red line will take you to Vyšehrad park. This area overlooks the city and makes for a splendid view as well as giving you access to an awe-inspiring cathedral and cemetery. There are also some very famous Czech composers buried there. The whole area is virtually untouched by tourists and you can even enjoy a well-deserved Czech beer or ‘pivo’ overlooking the river Vltava and Prague castle.

The inner city districts of Vinohrady and Žižkov are perfect for anyone seeking a decent cafe culture, not to mention glorious food. This part of the city is home to beautiful architecture and a host of expats and young Czech families. The young and trendy vibe is felt best in Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad on a Saturday morning with the farmers’ markets. Eat some fresh and delicious food and take in the atmosphere. There is usually some kind of festival happening in the square every second weekend. Like all great beer drinkers, the Czechs love a good party.

Žižkov tower

Žižkov tower

Art and culture:

Prague is a hub for classical music and always has been. From Bedřich Smetana to Antonín Dvořák, a lot of composers called this city home. Municipal House or Obecní Dům usually hosts well-known Czech orchestras which can be seen also every day. Towards the river is the National Theatre or Národní Divadlo, (talk about charity to rebuild it after the burning) even if opera isn’t your thing, the building’s interior is gold and a wonder to experience.

For some classic art, the National Gallery is worth a look. For those who like something a bit more modern or controversial, take a look at DOX, a modern art gallery in Holešovice. The Žižkov tower is a great example of modern Czech art. Controversial artist David Černý put faceless babies all over the large sputnik-like monolith to perhaps lighten up a once dreary reminder of the communist past. There have actually always been artists and writers a plenty in Prague. Many would recognise Alfons Mucha and his signature art nouveau style of painting and of course, writer Franz Kafka. Cafe Louvre on Národní street was an old hangout for Kafka and even Einstein – they also do a tasty breakfast.

Food and beer:

Speaking of fresh food. It’s worth ‘czeching’ (a cheesy pun still on every souvenir) out the local cuisine. Czech food is delicious, but heavy, very heavy. Like a lot of central and Eastern Europe, the cuisine is mainly meat and potatoes. In saying that though, they do meat pretty well. Try svíčková, the most typical dish consisting of beef marinated in a light brown sauce with some cream and cranberry jam on the side. Soak it all up with a few bread dumplings and enjoy that spongy goodness. There are countless Czech restaurants littered all around the city, but for a decent meal and beer in one, I would recommend any of the ‘Lokal’ restaurants which have a great selection of Czech beer, and a fresh rotating menu. My personal favorite restaurant is ‘U Houdku’ on Bořivojova street in the heart of the Žižkov pub scene. A lot of locals eat here because the portions are HUGE, tasty and medieval; the only thing missing is a hungry dog in the corner. They also offer a range of delicious vegetarian options. In summer, take a seat outside in the beer garden.

Czech Republic is also known for their huge Vietnamese community. Pho restaurants are now starting to spring up all over Prague and provide addictive soups, noodles and other rice dishes that will fill you up, and also cure any lingering beer hangovers. There is a particularly good one in Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad near the farmers’ markets.

Vinohrady district

Vinohrady

Shopping:

Prague has all the usual European shops that you can expect to find in any major city, rather than walking around Vaclavske namesti in the cold, take a short walk to Palladium shopping centre in Náměstí Republiky – everything under one roof. If you’re into handmade things, ‘DeafMessanger‘ provides handmade diaries, notebooks and postcards with unique stencil art and other clippings (pictured), all available in ‘Luxor’ bookstore.

For those looking for something authentically Czech, you might want to check out the range of handmade souvenirs and skin products in ‘Manufaktura’, everything here is made in the Czech Republic. If you visit the national theatre, be sure to pop round the corner to the giant ‘antikvariat’ shop. Get yourself lost in a maze of old communist trinkets, furniture, art, old records and books.

Where fashion is concerned, I’d recommend having a look at ‘Pietro Filipi’, a homegrown men’s and women’s fashion store with a unique style. For those who want something a little more custom, check out the custom denim and fashion design studio at ‘Chatty‘. The label has met with a lot of success and prides itself on original designs that are authentically Czech.

Drinks:

As mentioned before, the beer is an absolute must. Pilsner Urquel is considered to be the best, but there are a lot of smaller breweries that are better. I personally love Svijany and Bernard, both of these you can find in most bars and pubs around the centre of town.

If you’re keen on cocktails, there are two great bars in town that will no doubt tickle your tastebuds, and liver. ‘Anonymous bar‘ is a classy and fascinating place based around the hacker group and the book/film V for Vendetta. It sounds cheesy, but this bar is a work of art and is well worth a visit just to taste some of their old cocktail recipes. ‘Hemingway bar‘ is also a classy cocktail joint and recently made it into the top 50 bars in the world. Be sure to make a reservation at both.

For clubbing, Dlouha street is in the heart of town and provides you with a number of options. Both ‘Roxy’ and ‘Druhy Patro’ thrive on the electronic music culture in Prague, whereas Harley’s can be more of a rock’n’pop club. In the Žižkov and Vinohrady area there is also ‘Palac Akropolis’ where you can see some of the local DJ and music talent. Try to stay away from the typical tourist clubs like Karlové Lázně, unless you want to be ripped off.

Accommodation:

For backpackers, both the Czech Inn and Mosaic House hostels are reasonably inner city and host a number of fun events including parties, theatre and comedy. They also have reasonable prices and outstanding service.

However your budget, Prague has a great variety of hotels on offer. For those who want something a little more luxurious, typical hotels like the Hilton, the Intercontinental and more are all there. But for a real treat, take a look at the Emblem Hotel. It’s still quite new, but extremely modern and luxurious and boasts a number of great services, not to mention an excellent restaurant and bar too.

If you’re traveling in a group, it might be worth getting an apartment on air b’n’b. A lot of Czechs inherited apartments from their ancestors once communism came to an end, so there are a surprising amount of unbelievably beautiful flats available for a few nights in the heart of the city.

Transport:

From the airport, I would recommend ordering a taxi or getting the bus to Dejvická followed by the metro. Prague has a decent underground metro system which I still find to be a novelty because of how retro it looks. Trams go almost everywhere and also run all night, as do the buses. There are plenty of taxi companies, but I would always call before just getting in. Prague taxi drivers have a reputation for ripping tourists off.

Things to be careful of:

– Czech is an extremely difficult language to learn, but even if you just say Dobrý den (Good day) and Dík (thanks), it will make them happy that you’re trying. However, majority of Prague residents do speak English.

– High percentage absinthe is also legal in the Czech Republic and can be a very interesting experience, but try to go to a proper absinthe bar for the real thing. Souvenir shops sell terrible stuff.

– Although I’ve never been pickpocketed, I’d advise to watch your belongings, especially around old town square when waiting for the astronomical clock to ring.

– A lot of bars and restaurants don’t take card, so have plenty of cash handy.

– Remember that the Czech Republic is NOT on the euro. Check your exchange rates to see how many crowns you’ll need to get by.

All and all, Prague is one of the safest cities I have ever lived in. It’s also very tourist friendly, and has an addictive charm about it. Once you’ve been, you’ll more than likely return. For more information on the quirks and adventures of people in Prague, be sure to subscribe to my blog.

Written by Ryan Keating-Lambert. Photos by Ryan Keating-Lambert.

National Museum at Wenceslas Square

The National Museum at Wenceslas Square

 

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American bartender Christian on mixing mojitos and crossing Turkish borders

American traveller Christian was recently in Prague for the second time round and sat down for a chat with me about dealing with drunks in San Jose as well as a very close call with the Turkish Border police. Christian’s relaxing charm and spontaneous attitude made for an interesting interview. Check it out below.

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So you were born in California, right? Tell us about it.

I was born and raised in San Jose which is 40 minutes south of San Francisco. California is cool, very sunny. I’ve spent most of my time in San Francisco or in the South bay area.

Why did you decide to take this big Eurotrip?

Multiple reasons… The first thing – I was transferring to a different school, so I had about a year of free time to kill and also my lease was up, so I figured what the hell. I’ll go travel!

Cool, and where have you been so far?

I’ve been to Germany, Hungary, Poland, England, Scotland, France,  Greece, Romania, Turkey… and Iceland is coming up soon 🙂

Iceland is one of my favourite countries, you’re going to love it! Why did you come to Prague? Did you know anything about it before you came?

I wasn’t really planning on going to Prague until a friend of mine went there from Berlin and said it was a blast!

What were your first impressions of the city?

Ohhhh girl! It was very different to what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a huge industrial city. California is a big place for industry, whereas Prague felt a little more homely – like a small town.

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The John Lennon Wall in Prague’s Malá Strana

What has been your favourite part of the trip so far?

In general, just making friends in different areas from all over the world. If I ever come back to Europe, I have a place to stay and they have a place to stay if they come to California. You kinda get a different perspective on people.

So what do you usually do in the US?

I study and work a lot. I work as a bartender in a gay bar in San Jose. Well, currently the ONLY gay bar in San Jose.. We had three but the others closed. It’s alright, but it’s not quite Berlin unfortunately!

What’s your favourite drink to mix?

It really depends, if I only have to make one. Mojitos. But in summer I have to make 25 at a time – so then they suck! I have a regular who literally doesn’t care what we give him – so we experiment with creating new things for him, which is fun.

What’s your favourite drink?

Añejo tequila on the rocks.

Nice, and how are you at dealing with drunk people?

Errrm, I mean they’re not pleasant to deal with, but I usually get them out quickly.

Got any crazy stories?

Yeah! A few actually! I think one of the best ones would be… There was this family with all young kids getting trashed at the bar. They were being loud and I had already warned them twice. Eventually we told them to leave, then they started pushing us so we threatened to call the cops. We walked them out then I went to the other side of the building to grab something and one of the girls ran back in, into the closet and pissed! He was like “What the fuck?!”. So he walked her out to her family and complained and they said that we deserved it! So we called the cops and I think they actually got arrested.

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In the bar

I’ve always wanted to try bartending, but I don’t know if I could handle these crazy drunks.

That was an extreme one definitely.

What has been the biggest challenge during your travels?

Getting into Turkey. I didn’t realise that I needed a visa and I didn’t have one when we crossed the Bulgarian border. So I had to get off the train and no one spoke English and I had to wait there for 45 minutes while the train was gearing up to go. Then I got driven off into the middle of nowhere in this van! It was pretty fucking scary, but finally I got back to the Bulgarian border and it took a while to get a visa, but I got one. It was really sketchy.

I see you have a little notebook there. What kind of stuff do you write about?

It’s mainly just a kind of journal – trying to write about adventures of the day, where I’m going next. Also doing budgeting and stuff. It’s nice to look back on – good memories for later. And also some quotes of things that people have said – actually I think the Prague ones are the best.

(Opens book) Oh here’s a good one from London. This is from Chris, an eccentric really funny guy. He referred to this gay bar as being “laced with sodomy” which cracked us all up!

And also a guy in Prague talking about Meryl Streep – he said that she could even play other actors. He said “Meryl Streep is… Leonardo DiCaprio in… The Wolf of Wall Street”! (laughs).

(Laughs) That is golden. What adjectives would you use to describe Prague?

Crazy, awesome, fun, surprising.

Why surprising?

The people were way better than I thought they were going to be, it was a great experience – which is why I’m back again this time!

How would you describe San Jose in adjectives?

Monotonous, big, unoriginal, but it’s home.

Random question time! If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?

1920s New York.

You didn’t even hesitate, you’ve had this planned?

Yeah, it’s a conversation I’ve had recently. Because that is where Jay Gatsby lived and his life was fucking amazing!

I LOVE Gatsby. Good answer. Will you come back to Europe soon?

I’m planning on moving here as soon as I can!

Great! So hopefully see you again soon.

Thank you! I hope to come back to Prague again soon too!

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Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating

Photos: Christian Neff

Dawn talks about life on the sea and building a ‘hurdy gurdy’!

Last Friday afternoon, Petr and I spent some time with English expat Dawn, who stole our hearts with adventurous tales and photos of a life on the sea and a very quirky medieval musical instrument that has captured her curiosity recently… Dawn, it was an absolute pleasure.

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What brought you to Prague originally?

Well,  I didn’t want to go to Asia or Western Europe. I’d never been here before and I had some Czech sailing friends too. But the bottom line is, they gave me a job here.

Great, so you used to sail? Tell us about that.

Yes! For 20 plus years… We lived on a boat for 20 years and travelled around the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

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I heard a funny story about a cat on your boat once? Tell us about that.

Yes, well that was in Spain, Cabo de Gata I think. It was a tomcat that we rescued from some other cats. It would sit on my lap on the boat and just knead and claw at my legs. And you know, do cats do that horny thing that dogs do? You know when they hump your leg?

I don’t know actually. I thought they just sprayed everything!

Anyway, it seemed to be humping my lap. That was the impression I got, so I told it to bugger off! And then it spat at me, scratched me and then pissed on my bed! (laughs)

Sounds like he did it on purpose! (laughs) Ok, and who were you travelling with?

My ex and later on the dog too – a Pyrenean sheep dog. Very cute.

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What do you miss most about this kind of life?

Just little things really, I suppose… The community spirit and constantly meeting new people was nice. And little things like rummaging through the bins, doing your dishes over the side of the boat (laughs).

So you teach English in Prague then?

I do and I like it a lot.

What would you say your favourite English word is? You are actually English so I’m curious to know.

Well I know what it is in French, but not in English. And in French it’s ‘ronron’ which is an onomatopoeia for a cat purring. But in English? Hmmm.

I prefer words that are nastier actually.. Like ‘insidious’!

Ohhh yeah, that’s a nice word.

‘Vilify’! (laughs)

How would you describe Prague in adjectives?

Hmmm, ok gothic, magnificent, clean, quite clean, cozy. Ummm, I always think of dogs too (laughs). Dogs in coats during winter.

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So tell us about this interesting little project you’ve got going at the moment. You’re making a ‘hurdy gurdy’?

Yes! I first heard it from the hurdy gurdy man who was a bit of a travelling troubadour. So I went to his website and found that it is actually an old medieval musical instrument. Then I saw some clips on YouTube of all different sorts playing all different sorts of music and then of course I came across Jimmy Page playing one!

Great! And are you a Led Zeppelin fan?

I was yeah, absolutely!

And then I found that people were making them from scratch or making them from a kit. So I bit the bullet and ordered the kit!

Thatll be fun. And what about Summer? You usually go away, but you have stayed once, haven’t you?

Yes, the first year I stayed and worked on a farm in the country, but it was so bloody cold there! I also worked on a pig farm when I finished school years ago. Just for three months, I studied agriculture, you see.

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Wow! A pig farm! Ok, now it’s time for a bit of a random question, Dawn. If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?

I would’ve liked to have seen the volcano Mount Pelee erupt. The whole town was destroyed, and only one man survived, and that was a prisoner – poetic justice.

That’s fascinating.

NOT the Titanic though (laughs)

Yes, that’s a common one. What about celebrities or icons from history? Who would you love to meet?

My immediate thought would be someone like Darwin… but I’m not sure how interesting he would actually be. All of his observations and stuff were just so fucking boring! (laughs) Maybe the writer Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. And maybe for fun, Isadora Duncan. We could dance together! She was an actress/dancer and used to wear this long scarf and she went for a ride on a bucatti and her scarf got caught in the wheel and she died!

That’s a bit of an ironic death!

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And tell me are you going to stay in Prague or will you travel some more?

I don’t think I’ll go back to England. The pension is terrible there. If worst comes to worst – a caravan or a canal boat would be nice for the future.

That sounds like a nice plan, best of luck Dawn! Thank you so much for your time.

Check out incredibly open-minded blog: Random Tales and Stray Thoughts, which also includes a hilarious article on a new ‘female urinary device’. Read more about it here.

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Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating and photos by Petr Kurečka