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Everyone has either been to Prague, or is currently still in it. There is no down season for tourism there. You can select the crappiest time of year to go and there will still be hordes of people trying to get that selfie in front of Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge so they can show their friends “LOOK, I WAS THERE”. There is no winning. You will be drowned by the hordes.
Unless you’re an early riser.
We live in Warsaw now. (I haven’t written about that yet, because I want to get a fair sense of the city before I do from a ‘living there’ point of view.) This was our first chance to travel outward, and so we chose Prague because I had never been there and I’ve only ever heard good things about it. Mostly about the beer. So in our ongoing pursuit to be more eco-conscious, we booked the train, a 9-hour journey from Warsaw. We bought first class. We were going to live it up sipping champagne and laughing about how fabulous we are all the way to Prague. That didn’t happen.
It turns out first class on the Polish train system means you get… I’m not sure what you get for that. Second class was a bunch of slightly shoddier compartments, but at least they had compartments and were semi-private (even if they smelled a bit like cattle cars). In hindsight, I can’t actually pinpoint in any way why first class was better than second class, so if you ever go this route, save your money. There was no champagne. There wasn’t even a food car on the way back – for the nine hour journey we were able to buy a bag of potato chips from a cart. This was confusing because on the way down we’d had full meals in the restaurant car. I guess it’s karma that we expected to go down by train to Bohemia in first class and be totally awesome wayfarers, only to end up eating a bag of potato chips and drinking instant coffee (instant!) on the way back. It would be annoying if it wasn’t funny.
So we went to Prague and we stayed at the Four Trees which ended up being amazing. They advertise themselves as eco-friendly accommodation, and you can read more about that here. As one would hope, the bed was incredibly comfortable and the location was close to everything. There was a kitchenette with plates, cookware and silverware too, which is handy. I’m not getting anything for saying these things, it was just a very nice stay.
As expected, the city was rammed with tourists. I had been hoping that the cooling weather would keep some people away, but it didn’t seem to have an affect on anyone’s travel plans. Any place that can be instagrammed is crammed with people, and the craziest of all was the Old Town Square. It was stupid busy, especially at that astrological clock that people obsess over. I soon tried to avoid that town square but I always seemed to end up there when trying to get from one point to another.
You’ll see a lot of this in any part of the old city.
This is what they’re all going mental about. Sometimes those little figures move.
I get that if your’e going to go to Prague that you’re probably going to want to go to the castle. Unless you are really dying to, I would say just don’t.
I’m not bothered by the incline to get up there, unless it’s for nothing. The first day we went, I bought tickets to get into some of the sites. We visited St. Vitus Cathedral and the Golden Lane, but the Palace was closed. They didn’t mention that when I bought the ticket. There was actually more they didn’t mention, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The cathedral was packed, but not so much beyond the paid ticket area where you are treated to the spoils of Christian iconography. The architecture is the most impressive feature of all (which is viewed for free), though I couldn’t help but feel I saw a very similar cathedral in Cologne, Germany (which is *ahem* free).
You see that group of people… they didn’t have to pay to stand where they are standing.
I’m going to be totally honest. Walking through that church was one part awesome, and a lot of parts ridiculous. I still can’t get over the amount of wealth the church holds, and how it’s flaunted as though it was ordained by God. I wondered how much historical wealth was taken to build these places, and who exactly had to make the sacrifices to ensure the church got as wealthy as it has.
We got to the Golden Lane (a row of tiny historical houses) and were told we had five minutes to see it. It was 3:20 in the afternoon. We didn’t think anything of it and went in and could barely see anything through the hordes of people before we were told we had to leave. The tickets were good for two days, so I thought I would come back early the next day to get a proper look.
This is what I managed to see in the five minutes they gave us.
I got up early and hustled up the hill to the castle, only to be told upon my arrival that my ticket was good for one entry. The ticket itself was good for two days, but you only get to see each site once. I had paid for three sites, but only got to see two. (Don’t forget the Palace was closed for uncertain reasons). I went back to the ticket office and asked why the ticket is good for two days if it’s only valid for one visit. I also explained how I was hustled through the Golden Lane in five minutes the day before, and was quickly moved out before I could see anything. The ticket attendance took my ticket and looked on his computer. “You went into the cathedral at ___ time yesterday”. He was correct, I went into the cathedral for twenty minutes. “You entered the Golden Lane at 3:20 yesterday” Correct again. Five minutes later they told us we had to leave because closing time was 3:30. He used the computer to validate what I’d already told him, so he could shrug and say “you can only enter once.”
I asked “why doesn’t it say it on the ticket?” He said “it’s posted everywhere.” It in fact was not posted anywhere on the grounds except for the ticket counter, where none of these details were explained. They want to sell you a ticket quickly and get you out of the line. (The signage at the site was actually non-existent otherwise). So I said to the happy clerk “the ticket is what I am carrying around with me. It says it’s good for two days and nowhere does it say that it’s for a single admission to these areas. This information would have been helpful on the ticket.” He shrugged apathetically as you might expect someone who works in customer service to do.
So I was kind of pissed off that I had just hustled an hour across town and up the hill at a pace to find out that I was out of luck. I guess that’s how they manage the throngs of people that go through there every day, but in hindsight, I can’t see how any of this was worth the money. It was a total grab on their part. 10 euros to see very little, and you’re stuck in there with thousands of other tourists. So if you must see the castle, go early. However my recommendation is don’t bother. The best view is from across the river. The staff is unhelpful (borderline rude) and your money doesn’t show you much of anything that you can’t see on the grounds for free outside of a gate anyway. The cathedral is accessible for free, and all you are paying for is to witness the excess the church has hidden in its corners. I left feeling pretty gross about it. Clearly they are not short of wealth, and there I was, paying to observe it. Live and learn. Make your own decision but I’m going to go ahead and call it a tourist trap.
Food and Drink
I’m more of the ‘drink’ of the ‘food and drink’ kind of guy, though in recent years my wife has had an effect on me and I’m starting to look at what I eat before I inhale it. She hasn’t quite convinced me why a giant plate is necessary for a sprinkle of food, but I guess I’m getting there. I do enjoy good spirits, however. Not in great volume, but like food, it’s about quality over quantity (isn’t it?)
I’m also a huge fan of art deco, so I was mainly searching for places that met both of these aesthetics. I went on the recommendations of a colleague, and of course “the Google”. Here’s what we came up with:
Just around the corner from where we stayed. Definitely worth checking out, though I felt a bit blinded by all of the ceramic. When the Nazis occupied, they claimed this hangout as their own. We had breakfast, which was great.
If you leave the madness of Charles Bridge behind and head south along the river, you will be rewarded by finding Café Slavia, this place has a great art deco diner feel to it. Apparently it was a little fancier than my first impression – the food took quite some time but when it came it was top notch. Highly recommended.
I figured I should try the absinthe while in the Czech Republic. The server heated the sugar to caramelise it, then put it into the drink. This stuff is strong at 80%. Watered down it’s much nicer.
Francouzska restaurant Art Nouveau
We walked by this place a dozen times before I realized I should go inside. What a mistake it was to not go sooner. I found the decor to be the most impressive on the trip (the only place that I think could top it is Café Central in Vienna). I didn’t eat here but enjoyed a nice dram. Not at all a busy place, and absolutely worth the visit. The decor is stunning.
We went here for lunch but it was overcrowded. We took a pass until next time. Clearly they’re doing something right.
Grande Café Orient (House of the Black Madonna)
A great diner/café at the first floor of the Cubist Museum. Nice place if not a bit pricey (it’s right in tourist central). I would recommend a coffee and one of their beautiful desserts.
No images of the interior, but check out this sweet dessert:
Traditional Czech restaurant. Charming place, a bit loud when the place is full. I’m pretty sure we didn’t ask for that second beer but we didn’t complain when it came either. Accordionists floating around the room, murals on the walls… don’t kill me for saying it but it reminded me a bit of Bavaria. Same region! Just as lovely.
This place is also in tourist central but damn it was good. There seemed to be mostly Mexican people on staff (because it’s a Mexican restaurant), and everything we ordered was perfect. I found myself thinking about it still the next day. This place is the real deal and the frozen margaritas are legit.
Fun interior. Made me want to play a French Funk House set on a Saturday night. Lunch special was great (if not a bit slow – they weren’t even that busy) and the decor was somewhere between David Lynch and John Waters. Apparently there’s a club but I didn’t see that.
It would only be fair to mention the place where I snuck away at night to work on my novel. The Banker’s Bar had very nice and helpful staff, and a great selection of whisky. Not busy. (I didn’t take any images, I was there to write).
I get that everyone has seen a million photos of Prague. My wife asked me “why are you taking photos of this stuff? Everyone has seen these before”. Because they’re MY photos! I wasn’t just going to go to Prague and not take the photo. At least I didn’t stick my stupid face in front of Prague Castle so I could say “LOOK I WAS THERE IT’S MY FACE AND THAT’S THE CASTLE.”
Anyway here’s the pics.
A lot of people hate the communist-era TV tower in the background because it clashes with the look of the skyline, but just look at it. It’s a slice of dystopian dreamscape.
There it is, Charles Bridge. Might as well photograph the damned thing. Five times.
Trdlo. Delicious cinnamon roll.
Some images from the Cubist Museum at the House of the Black Madonna:
Admittedly we weren’t quite sure what this was supposed to work out…
DAMMIT I WISH I HAD WENT TO PRAGUE TWENTY YEARS AGO. (Or even just after 1989 revolution). I can only imagine what it might have been like then. Now it’s overrun by group tours and pub crawls, so you know how that goes. But the city is so damned beautiful it is still worth it. I recommend that if you go, spend one day doing the same things everyone else is doing. The Old Town Square, the clock everyone obsesses over, the castle (only if you must but good luck not getting clotheslined by a selfie stick.) It’s nice but the hordes really make it less enjoyable. The city has enough that if you just wander away from where everyone is standing, you’re going to find many incredible things. Burn your Lonely Planet book, everyone is reading that and doing the same damned things. Get lost. Wander. Step into restaurants and bars that look interesting. They are and no one will be in them. Walk south along the river away from Charles Bridge. You’ll find things.
If you want to see the popular sites, get up early (before dawn) and go there. You’ll enjoy the square, the bridges, the streets almost nearly to yourself. It feels like a much different city, and is definitely more enjoyable.
Touristy Prague at night (when it’s easier to blur the hordes).
Oh look, a perfectly lovely place and it’s empty.
And in the early morning hours, when you should really see Prague. I didn’t take many images then, as I was trying to just see as much as possible.