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Prague

Author: Judith A.
Date of Trip: July 2006

We arrived in Prague exhausted and ready to lie down and rest in our hotel. We took a shuttle bus to the center of town and walked to our hotel (not as easy as it sounds, since it involved a half hour wait and a bit of wandering about dragging our luggage looking for the right street).

We finally found it, checked in, and when we opened the door to our home for the next 7 nights we both sighed in disappointment. The room was a tiny, tiny box. A box without air conditioning, in July. It was like a stuffy closet, and it was not comfortable. But I washed my face and took a nap while Robb went out to explore the town a little and find an ATM.

I was a little refreshed after my nap and we decided to eat (what else?) Czech food for dinner. We explored old town Prague a bit on our way, however. Old town Prague is really gorgeous. It was never bombed in WWII, so many of its old buildings remain intact. It is a mixture of architectural styles and is quite large and festive, with outdoor cafes, music, and people everywhere.

We lucked out on the timing of our visit to Europe, and we arrived during the semifinals of the World Cup. There was a huge television screen broadcasting the games in a corner of the main square and all kinds of sausage and beer stands all around, and excited soccer fans chanting soccer fight songs. It was like a big outdoor European party. That night Germany was playing Italy (Italy won).

The Czech restaurant we ate at had quite good food (potato pancakes!) and we both found that it’s true: Czech beer IS the best beer in the world. And I don’t even really like beer all that much, but Czech beer is delicious. We also tried another Czech favorite, pickled brie. That we didn’t like so much.

After dinner we walked through the old town and over the famous Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is famous as one of the oldest (because most of them got bombed in WWII) and most beautiful bridges in Europe. It is lined with 30 statues of saints. Some of which have interesting stories behind them. It seems to me that you can’t become a saint unless you die in some horribly gruesome manner (i.e. being boiled alive, etc..).

Also lining the bridge are all kinds of merchants, artists, & musicians. Very festive, and from the bridge you can see Prague castle all lit up. Very atmospheric.

Prague is a city made up of 4 quarters. The Old Town, the Little Quarter, the New Town, the Castle Quarter and the Jewish Quarter. Ok, well that’s really 5, but the Jewish Quarter isn’t really there any more. But all these areas are very close together and easy to get around. We never even took the subway. We walked all over the old town, crossed the Charles Bridge to the Little Quarter to see the Lenin wall (artistic graffiti wall dedicated to John Lenin, in defiance of the communists who kept trying to paint over it), and had a couple more beers and lunch at a little café on the banks of the Vltava River. Then we walked to the New Town and Wenceslas Square (where the Velvet Revolution that eventually overthrew the Communists occurred). Then I took a late afternoon nap while Robb went to have a Thai massage.

That night for dinner, I wanted to eat at a restaurant on the main square. We knew it would cost more than to eat somewhere else, but it was so scenic and fun, it was worth being overcharged. And we also had an interesting experience with watching the wait staff at the restaurant we chose. Right before we were seated, one of the waiters started yelling and threatening one of the patrons. I don’t know what they were arguing about (since it wasn’t in English), but boy were they going at it. So I looked at Robb and said: “OK – we know what kind of service to expect!” and that is what we got. Our waiter refused flat out to bring me butter for the bread and forgot to bring Robb’s beer to him, and we watched some of the other wait staff bully and be impolite to other patrons also. . .So we had two types of entertainment to choose from that evening. People watching on the main square of Prague, and/or watch the wait staff intimidate fellow diners. Rude waiters in Paris can’t hold a candle to the rude waiters in Prague.

After our amusing dinner we sat in the main square to watch Portugal play France (France won). It was fun because the Portuguese fans and the French fans were having little chant battles. First the Portuguese started it up, chanting their soccer fight song, and as soon as they stopped to take a breath, the French would start in with their chant. You could also hear plenty of “Vive Le France!” and “Ronhaldino sucks!” calls.

The next day was our arranged excursion to Cesky Krumlov. A small medieval town in the Southern Bohemia region of the Czech Republic. Our driver came to pick us up very promptly from our horrible, hot hotel and we were off! The countryside of the Czech Republic looks a lot like Minnesota. Cornfields, same types of trees, etc. (Except Minnesota doesn’t have any mountains and the Czech Republic does).

It took us about two hours to get to Cesky Krumlov and I was so tired I slept most of the way. A downpour started just when we were about there, and we were both not exactly enthused about the idea of walking around for hours in the rain. But before we got there it cleared up and turned into a beautiful day! We were very lucky.

We had arranged for a local guide (Jiri) to meet us, and he took us around the town he loves for about 90 minutes. Very interesting tour. Cesky Krumlov is almost perfectly preserved (well, restored anyway) from the Renaissance period. It is DARLING. The castle is set on a cliff above the little town, which is surrounded on three sides by the Vltava River (it curves through the town). So it was easily defended. The river is a big draw for rafters and they were out in force.

After our tour with Jiri we walked around a bit and settled on a place for a leisurely lunch by the river.

We could have spent another day here, not only is there rafting, but hiking in the area is supposed to be nice, too. But we had to go back to our horrible, hot hotel in Prague. So we met our very prompt driver and headed back to the city.

On the way back to Prague we stopped at a 13th century castle called Hluboka. It looked brand new. I think because it had a fresh coat of white paint on it. Robb & I didn’t want to take the time to tour the interior, so we just walked around the nice gardens and took some photos.

That night for dinner we found a cute little Czech restaurant in a little alleyway and Robb had Gulas (goulash to you & me). The food was very good there.

The next day was Sunday, and the official start of our tour. We slept in, walked around Prague some more, did some shopping and just strolled around until it was time to meet our guide at 5pm.

We met in the bar/lobby area of our horrible, hot hotel. Our guide’s name was Honza and he spoke a little about what we were going to do on the tour and we all sweated buckets until it was time for dinner. Honza had arranged a dinner in the little quarter and as we walked to the restaurant, he told us a little about Prague.

After dinner, we walked over to a spot by the river (right underneath the Charles Bridge) where we could be seated and we were serenaded by two Czech musicians, one flute player and one accordion player who played (and sang) some classic Czech tunes for us (along with a little Mozart) as the sun set. People on the top of the bridge heard the music and stopped to listen also. A waitress at a nearby café started to dance a little jig to one of the songs, and the cook came out of the kitchen to listen. It was fun.

After our musical interlude we walked back over the Charles Bridge and Honza told us a little of its history. He was a very good tour guide, told us lots of interesting stuff. Not just names & dates. Then Robb & I raced off back to the main square to watch the end of the final world cup game between Italy and France.

This night the square was so crowded that we couldn’t see the screen, so we went to an outside bar by our horrible, hot hotel to watch the end of the game. It was tied, so they had to penalty kick to decide the winner. Besides the extremely controversial Zidane head-butt to an Italian player, this was the most exciting part of the game. Italy wins!

The next day we met our group in the morning for our tour of the Castle Quarter (the only part of Prague Robb and I had not yet been to, since we knew it would be covered as part of our tour).

Prague’s castle complex is extremely huge. I think Honza said it is the biggest castle complex in Europe. (Or maybe the 2nd biggest).

After our tour of the Castle Quarter, Honza took us to a little fountain by the Bethlehem church and as we sat ourselves down he darted around the corner to garb himself in the vestments of a Priest. He came back out to us as the Czech hero, Jan Hus. Who was a Catholic dissenter about a century before Martin Luther. Jan Hus preached that the pope had no moral authority over his congregation, as each man’s relationship with God was personal and he had to live by his own conscience. You can imagine how heretical this type of belief was back in 1410, so of course he was burned at the stake. (There is a big memorial statue to him in the main square in the old town of Prague). To the Czech today he is a big hero, as the Czech people pride themselves on their history of dissent.

So it turns out our guide Honza is a bit of a ham. He should maybe be an actor, he did so well preaching to us as Jan Hus.

Our group split up for free time in the afternoon, and Robb and I decided to walk over to Petrin Hill, which has a little Eiffel Tower on it that you can climb up to get good views of Prague. We did this, and boy did the breeze up at the top feel good. We walked back down the hill through a lovely park.

The next day our tour group did a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, and we saw the oldest synagogue in Europe, and heard about the Jewish experience during WWII. Then our group broke up for free time, and I think Robb & I just strolled around the open air market and had lunch. But in the evening we again met up with Honza, so our tour group could walk the same path the protesters took during the Velvet Revolution in November of 1989. This was extremely interesting, as Honza told us about it from the perspective of someone who was there. He was 14 years old, and there with his older sister. The protestors were marching towards Wenceslas Square, chanting demands that the “old dinosaurs” leaders of the Czech Communist party be fired, when they suddenly realized they were trapped by the Communist police. There were hemmed in by buildings on both sides, and military vehicles and military police in front and behind. The protestors sat down and started singing “We Shall Overcome” as the night came on and it got colder and darker. Honza said everyone was very scared – and very aware of what had happened to protestors at Tiananmen Square a few months previously.

Then he and his sister and some other protestors managed to get out somehow by going through a building and getting access to a side street, and they ran home as quickly as they could and his father told him: “Never tell anyone you were there”. His family turned on America Free Radio and listened while the Communist police started beating and shooting the remaining protestors. (There was a secret radio reporter inside one of the buildings overlooking the street where the protestors were trapped, and he was reporting everything live on the radio). The official version is that 2 people were killed. But Honza said they don’t really know how many people were killed because the Communists might have suppressed that information. But many, many people were injured. However, the theory is that Gorbachev directed that there not be another mass killing. Over the next few days, things were very tense in the city and no one knew what was going to happen, but every single night protestors filled Wenceslas Square, demanding new leadership. The Communists did fire the old leaders, in an attempt to placate the demands of the crowd, but now they had a taste of their own power and that wasn’t good enough any more. They wanted political freedom. Vaclav Havel came out onto a balcony overlooking the square and spoke to the crowd, and two weeks later, they had a new system of government. Which was the beginning of a wave in Eastern Europe.

That night was our last night in Prague. The next morning we got up, packed and left our horrible, hot hotel and got on the air-conditioned bus to head towards Trojanovice!

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