Last month Wendy and I embarked on a whirlwind tour of Budapest, Vienna, and Prague in celebration of our 10th wedding anniversary. If you missed the first two posts on Budapest or Vienna, you should jump back to take a look at the wonderfully enjoyable time we were having. The vacation wasn't free of stresses and confusion, but I'd say we were doing pretty well given the language barrier and unfamiliarity with our surroundings. As we pushed off from Vienna, we were excited to see what lay ahead.
I'm not sure what it is about train travel, but Wendy and I love it in spite of our many apparent trials and tribulations with this mode of transportation. We already outlined our near miss of being stranded on the Hungary/Austria border on our way to Vienna, so we made sure to allow ourselves plenty of time to get to the final city on our anniversary tour of Europe. Though we attempted to completely prepare and thoroughly researched all of our various stops and where we were headed, we still ended up with issues.
When the train pulled into the station we were standing near the rear car, but we has first class tickets and assumed the first class car was up near the engine. (Riding first class on a train is WAY more affordable than air travel, so we usually splurge for the extra comfort.) So we hurriedly pulled all of our massive bags up to the front of the train, passing a meal car and probably four other passenger cars along the way.
We boarded the train and noticed the first class car didn't seem very...first class. It was dirty, old, and cramped. We went ahead and grabbed seats in a cabin area and closed the door. As the train pulled away, something just didn't sit right with me. This is Wendy's head whipping around when I said "I think we're in the wrong part of the train."
I started looking around on the Internet and found a website that has the layout of many European trains that run on specific routes, including the very train we were on. That's when I noticed that we were in the absolute worst and oldest car, as far from first class as we could be. So we picked up all of our luggage and carried (yes carried, the halls were too narrow to pull the luggage) it all to the first class cabin.
By the time we got to our intended seats, we were once again the sweaty Americans. At least that was the extent of the drama for that leg of the trip. The train ride was actually quite beautiful. Traveling through Austria and into the Czech Republic allowed us to take a few glimpses of small towns along the way. I know we were headed to Prague, but I couldn't help but think we were missing out by passing these places by.
When we pulled into the station we were relieved that we had pre-arranged for a car to take us from the train station to the hotel. The problem was, the driver was nowhere in sight. After waiting thirty minutes, we were finally able to get in touch with our hotel, and they uncovered that the driver was stuck in traffic.
While waiting we struck up conversation with a retired couple from California. They were on a month long trip around Europe and were also waiting for their driver. It was fun to sit and talk with them about the importance of experiencing places that are sometimes out of your immediate comfort zone. They were concluding their trip in Munich for Oktoberfest, and it sounded like they'd really have a good time.
By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was already getting late in the day, but we were treated to this rather stunning view from our room.
Our first full day in Prague we decided to venture out and do what tourists do best, tour. As I've mentioned before, we enjoy walking just about everywhere to get an idea of the city, but we were warned ahead of time to make use of Prague's extensive transit system. The bus and rail system within Prague is all state funded and operates on a single ticket system. The hotel supplied a great three day pass on the system, so we decided to take the street trolley up to the castle.
As a side note, one of the things I absolutely loved about Prague were the stone streets and sidewalks. You can see what I'm talking about in the photo above. The street area was paved with cut stones, while the sidewalks were laid in patterns of white and black stone, resembling mosaics. Some were checkerboard, others herringbone, but each was intricate and very unique.
When we exiting the trolley we found ourselves in the royal garden portion of the castle.
We were quite lucky to stumble on a wine festival that happened to be taking place on the palace grounds that day. There were vendors galore...
...and entertainers/dancers all over the grounds, including these adorable kids. It was quite a bit of fun to take in the local culture.
By the time we worked our way around to the cathedral, we had purchased a few handmade Czech items, and were having a great time.
All I have to say is that the Czechs know how to have a good time on a Sunday afternoon.
The Prague castle is recognized as the largest castle in the world and dates back as far as the 9th century (870). However, the truly stunning element on the grounds is actually the St. Vitus Cathedral.
Its magnitude was impressive and all of the various details were so beautifully intact. It was fun just to pick out little items, like the rain gutters that exited from the mouths of gargoyles.
We also watched as a few soldiers marched through the area (since this whole area is still the official offices of the Czech Republic government), always a treat when in another country. Can you spot Wendy?
From the castle/cathedral, our long walk of the day began. It took us on a winding journey through the streets of Prague.
The views of the city from the castle are spectacular.
On our walk we covered the areas of Lesser Town, Old Town, Jewish Quarter, and New Town. Though we were told about the beautiful architecture prior to our vacation, I still ended up in awe of almost everything we came across.
From the leftover remnants of the city's medieval past, such as the tower entrances to the Charles Bridge...
...to the narrow and winding streets lined with buildings constructed 100, 200, 300, or 400 plus years ago.
It's hard to see in the photo above, but can you spot the sculpture of a man hanging from a pipe projecting from the top of a building above the center of the street? That's actually a sculpture by David Cerny of Siegmund Freud dangling from a pipe, and he's moved around to various installations in Prague. We stumbled on him and were glad to say that we did.
David Cerny is responsible for many of the various outlandish and crazy sculptures and art installations throughout prague. Some are simply strange, while others border on the juvenile yet hysterical topic of men peeing. If you're interested, here's a great blog post on some of his craziest creations.
One of my favorite parts of Prague was our stop at Old Town Square. Though it is a tremendously touristy area, and seemed to be more or less packed with people at all time, it also included my single most favorite element of the city, the Astronomical clock.
I've heard of this clock before and have always wanted to see it in person. Installed in 1410 by Mikuláš of Kadan and Jan Šindel, the elaborate hands and dials on the clock simultaneously tell phases of the moon, position of the sun and moon in the sky, old Czech time, present day time, a 24 hour clock, sun rise and set, and a modern calendar on the lower dial.
Beyond its function, the clock is also beautiful and interesting. It is surrounded by several figures, including the apostles and death (a skeleton) that represent various aspects of time, and these figures come to life every hour on the hour and begin moving ever so slightly as the bell rings.
The astronomical clock actually celebrated its 600th birthday back in 2010, and I found this amazing video of the high tech effects Prague went to in order to commemorate the occasion. The clock stands as it always has, but an HD projector and intense light animation made the whole clock and tower almost come to life.
On our second day in Prague we took a guided walking tour around some of the less commonly traveled areas of the city. It was a nice change and took us through several of the nearby parks that we wouldn't have otherwise known about or necessarily been comfortable enough to venture off to.
Much of our walk included spectacular city views from border walls of old palaces. Apparently, when the city of Prague was divided between several rulers, each would build their fortified homes on the various hilled sections of the city. Today, many of these territories are now parkland where visitors can have a leisurely walk and enjoy some of the historic structures that still dot the landscape, such as this 1000 year old powder magazine.
The number of medieval structures, such as this gate to the old city, that are integrated with newer architecture is stunning, and I've never seen anything quite like it. It's truly a sight.
The center of Old Town Prague feels like what you would expect a city of many hundreds of years to feel like.
One of the questions we've been asked is about the food in Prague. More specifically, since I don't eat land meat, and since Prague is known for their large amount of pork and other meats in their typical restaurants, people have been asking what I ate. The answer to that is simple. Beer...
...And a various assortment of fried potatoes and dumplings.
Beer, or pivo (pronounced bevo) is the drink of choice. A beer will set you back about $1.25, while a water costs in the neighborhood of $2.50, so the choice is easy. The two photos above and below feature our trip to a beer hall called U Fleku, a well known hall, and the oldest in Prague from 1499.
The atmosphere is simple, down to earth, and fun. When you sit down you're given a mug of beer and they will continue to fill it until you tell them you've had enough. During the meal an accordion player even came into our room to give us a bit of entertainment.
Wendy tried some the sausage on our last night, but after many years of not eating any pork, let's just say the experience didn't end well. But as far as food goes, neither of us had any issues finding things on the menu that sounded and tasted pretty great.
We even sampled sweet dumplings our last night in Prague. I thought it was delicious, but Wendy was already full by that point.
Overall, we had a wonderful time in Prague. However, we were a bit leery from time to time given what we read about the tendency of locals to try to rip off tourists, either through overcharging and quickly showing you a total bill on a calculator rather than an itemized bill, or by simply taking your credit card number. I think our tour guide actually summed it up quite nicely. She said "violent crimes in Prague are quite low, but our president is known for stealing a pen during a treaty signing in Chile, and that is sort of the same way it is in Prague. You won't get hurt, but there may be some small dishonesty."
As we packed our bags and headed to the airport, we were both a bit anxious to get home. It was a long trip of nine days, and we like our house and our routine, but that sure doesn't mean that we didn't have a ton of fun on the vacation. The cities were more than I could have expected, and we were able to experience a new part of the world that we had never seen. Trips like these are such simple reminders of how much is out there, how much there is to see, and how much we might miss out on if we don't explore the world at every opportunity.
On our flight home I was reminded of this fact even more as we flew over the southern top of Greenland. The ice caps, expansive frozen land, and glaciers were all clearly visible. It was the end to a great vacation, and it was also one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen from the sky.
If you're considering a vacation to any of the three destinations we chose, we'd absolutely say to go for it. Each is so distinct and individual, and each has experiences that you can't find elsewhere.
Have you ever been to Prague, or this area of Europe? Maybe you have a favorite vacation destination that you'd like to share? Are there any other cities around the world where beer is cheaper than water? If so, we might need to add them to the bucket list!