A Travellerspoint blog

Great cities of Central Europe: Prague part I

Including Karlštejn and Pilsen

Somehow in 47 years of extensive travel first with my parents, and then on my own, I had missed out on Prague. For some time it had been the number one city on my list of the unseen, so I had a hard time controlling my expectations. I would have been disappointed if it was anything less than the top experience of the trip. I had scheduled four nights in the city, a duration only equaled by Vienna on this journey. Thanks to our stop in Brno, we arrived in Prague after dark on Saturday and had to scramble to get dinner once we'd gone through the rigamarole of getting the kids and bags upstairs.

Sunday morning we set off on foot to explore the city. We were staying in the New Town but it was only a fifteen minute walk north to the famous Old Town Square. Even though the square was full of tourists, the buildings and views were breathtakingly beautiful. Most impressive was the 14th century Týn Church, which looked like a suitable home for the Wicked Witch of the West.

We explored a few of the Old Town's narrow alleys around the square but we were getting hungry and I had my heart set on lunch at Lokál Dlouhááá, a nearby pub that served Pilsner Urquell straight from the tanks as well as classic Czech dishes. The food turned out to be excellent and the portions huge, so that my stomach felt like it was halfway up my chest by the time we walked out.

South of Lokal we found more beautiful buildings to admire including the Powder Tower, one of the original gates to the city. Cleo and I climbed to the observation deck and were rewarded with great views of Old Town rooftops and the Týn Church. Afterwards we strolled the main pedestrian street in Prague, Wenceslas Square, which is more of a wide boulevard than a square.

One interesting thing we encountered on our walk was an enormous layered sculpture of a head with a reflecting surface and three levels that rotated independently in different directions. Later I learned that this was a new installation by Czech modern sculptor David Černý and that the head was a bust of Franz Kafka. I actually had a few of his sculptures on my list of things to see in Prague but I wasn't aware of this one.

At this point we were a little overdosed on sightseeing and very close to where our car was parked, so we decided this would be a good time to head to the Vietnamese community of Sapa. Prague apparently developed a sizable Vietnamese population during the Communist area, and their numbers have increased substantially over the last two decades. At first, I thought Sapa represented an ethnic Vietnamese neighborhood within the city of Prague but once we got on the road I realized that it was an entirely separate locale. It took more than half an hour to get there from central Prague, most of it highway driving. Despite being a rather unattractive place that resembled a chaotic, low end strip mall, Sapa had very authentic Vietnamese grocery stores and delicious Vietnamese food. I take this last on faith from Mei Ling because I was still too bloated from my pork knuckle lunch to try her pho. I also got an overdue and inexpensive haircut.

For more on Sapa check out the blogs here and here.

On our return to Prague I drove to the Zivkov TV tower to see David Černý's crawling babies. It's a testament to the spirit of Prague that Černý was actually requested by City Hall to perform an installation on the tower, although he had to obtain his own permits. The babies look tiny against the 709 foot tower but are actually about ten feet long. Most people who don't know about the sculptures don't even notice them when they look at the tower.

From the TV tower we drove to Malá Strana, the section of old Prague across the Vltava River from the Old Town. This seemed to be the closest location to see Prague Castle, the top attraction of the city. However, we had to carry the strollers up an enormous series of staircases to get to the castle gates. The views over Prague were spectacular. We decided against buying tickets to the castle, which would have been a major time sink, and walked for a while around the castle district of Hradčany. We realized ruefully we could have easily parked in that area and saved ourselves all the work we had done climbing up from Malá Strana.

Back down in Malá Strana, we took the obligatory walk over the Charles Bridge with its carnival of tourists, performers, and beggars. The famous baroque statues on the bridge are actually replicas, with the originals having been placed in the National Museum to protect them from tourists attempting to clamber on them.

We had dinner at the beer garden in Riegrovy Sady, a large park just west of the TV tower. The crowd seemed to be an even mix of locals and expats enjoying a cheesy American movie.

Monday morning we drove to the north side of the Vltava to check out the Holešovice daily market, the only real permanent outdoor market in Prague (the Havel Market in old town is more of a collection of souvenir stands and overpriced fruit for tourists). We're always happy to be in any kind of community market or farmers market, but Holešovice was a weak competitor to the main markets of Bratislava, Budapest, or Kraków. Prague is more like an American city where people prefer supermarkets. There was a short row of ethnic restaurants including a Vietnamese place, so I got my pho in the end.

After lunch we drove to Karlštejn Castle. This 14th century Gothic repository of the royal treasures is one of the best-known castles in Czechia. Despite being only a short distance from Prague, the small roads around Karlštejn were so bereft of vehicles that I began to wonder if I was in the right area at all. Then we suddenly came upon an enormous parking lot full of cars and it was clear we'd arrived at our destination.

My research indicated that we should get transportation from the parking lot to the castle, but the taxis were asking exorbitant prices and the carriage driver wouldn't take us without more passengers. We waited around a while, but everyone seemed to be walking so we decided to follow suit. At first the walk was level and relaxed, and the castle soon became visible on a hilltop overlooking the small village. However, a steep incline soon appeared and eventually the walk became an exhausting, sweaty slog pushing the two strollers with Spenser on my back. Once we finally made it to the top of the hill, we saw that tours of the castle weren't going to be feasible since they were lengthy and required a lot of climbing. Instead we took turns taking the older kids around the parts of the ramparts that were open without a guide. From the gaps in the walls we had pleasant views of the surrounding forest.

Here's some more about Karlštejn Castle .

It was still relatively early so we decided to keep heading southeast to the town of Pilsen for dinner rather than returning to Prague. Once we arrived we found a festival in progress in the main square. There was a music pavilion, a tent where performers taught circus tricks, plenty of food, and of course lots of Pilsner beer. We never did find out what the festival was celebrating, but we had a great time celebrating it with a very local crowd under the watchful presence of the enormous cathedral of St. Bartholomew. The colorful Baroque townhouses that lined the square reminded us that the classical was never far from the modern in central Europe. After the festival, the kids played in one of the gilded Ondřej Císler fountains in the square.

Here's more about Republic Square and Pilsen. Thanks to the festival, we didn't have to worry about finding a restaurant for dinner and drove directly back to Prague and our comfortable beds.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:18 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged prague pilsner kutna_hora karlstejn Comments (0)

Great cities of Central Europe: Western Czechia:

Olomouc and Brno

I had found Olomouc hunting for a stop between Kraków and Prague, which would otherwise have been an unpleasant six hour drive. My other option was Wroclaw in Poland, but ultimately I went with Olomouc because it bothered me to exclude the western Moravian region of Czechia from the trip. We'll gather Wroclaw into a Germany-Poland road trip one day, but probably won't pass by Moravia again.

After a late afternoon arrival at our Airbnb in a dull apartment complex in the neighboring town of Prostějov, we headed to Olomouc's old town for dinner. The food at the most highly recommended restaurant was average but the main square Horní náměstí was pretty in the fading light. The major landmarks are the Holy Trinity Column, an imposing sculpture with a small chapel nestled within its hollow base, and the Town Hall.

Saturday morning we returned to the main square for Olomouc's small but atmospheric weekly market, which offered an array of sausages and cheeses along with produce and crafts.

We explored the chapel at the base of the Holy Trinity Column as well as the Astronomical Clock on the facade of the Town Hall. We were right on time to watch the figurines at the top put on their noon performance.

We spent another hour or so exploring the old town's small network of cobblestone streets and discovered the surprisingly large and ornate Cathedral of St. Wenceslas. Unfortunately the area outside the cathedral has become a gathering place for the town's itinerant tipplers. The lower square, Dolní náměstí, has its own column that was built to celebrate the ending of a plague.

We were excited to get to Prague, but since there was no way we'd arrive in time to check out any markets we decided to stop at a well-known vegetable market in the Moravian capital of Brno. Unfortunately, once we had worked out the parking and navigated our way uphill to the central square of the old town it was clear that the last of the vendors was packing away their produce for the day. We consoled ourselves with a heavy lunch at a nearby restaurant where the star attraction was a shrimp shish kebab on a devil's pitchfork.

Having already done the work to get to the top of Petrov Hill, we found that old Brno was quite a beautiful place. At the very top of the hill is the Baroque Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul. The cathedral is surrounded by a pleasant park called Denisovy Sady. The picture of Cleo standing among the shaded columns of the park pavilion is one of my favorites of the trip.

On the way back down Petrov Hill we found a solitary sorbet vendor in the empty main square, so all was not lost regarding our market after all. We got back onto the road to Prague quite pleased with our stop in Brno.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:22 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged brno olomouc czechia Comments (0)

Great cities of Central Europe: Kraków

It was still raining when we arrived in Kraków. Our Airbnb was a cozy place on Dietla, a wide boulevard that coursed directly between the two old neighborhoods of Stare Miasto and Kazimierz. After dropping our bags, we hurriedly consulted TripAdvisor and soon found ourselves hunting for parking in the central square of Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. We wedged ourselves in eventually but our targeted restaurant was booked up. We made a reservation for the next night and discovered an outdoor grill in the square. We consulted the friendly proprietor about where we should eat and he directed us to the restaurant immediately behind him with which he was affiliated. We got to enjoy a restaurant dinner as well as meat hot off the outdoor grill.

Thursday morning we made a beeline for the largest market in Kraków, Plac Imbramowski. This warehouse-like produce market is far from the touristic center and is a very local scene. Vendors were exceptionally friendly, which we found to be typical of the Krakovians in general. Some of the highlights were a coffee shop operating out of the back of a Smart Car, complete heads of sunflower seeds, and enormous bags of puffed corn. We had a typical Polish lunch at a cafeteria-style restaurant adjacent to the market before heading back to the center to explore the old neighborhoods.

Wawel Castle is the defining landmark of Kraków, nestled between a sharp bend of the River Vistula and Stare Miasto old town. We took the winding path up Wawel Hill to the Castle but as usual decided against any of the guided tours. The exteriors of the castle and the cathedral within gave us plenty to marvel at.

Stare Miasto is definitely the place to hang out for tourists in Kraków. There were so many people there, I found myself wondering where they came from and what kind of trips they were on. Kraków is hundreds of miles from the well-known tourist cities of Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Were people flying here from other countries just to visit Kraków, or were they mostly coming by train? I doubted there were many people on long road trips like us. I also didn't think there were many Americans there, because Kraków is largely unknown to us compared to the cities I mentioned before. I was very glad I'd made the decision to extend the road trip all the way here because the city was truly unique and beautiful, even though I'd heard so little about it before. The old town was immaculately clean despite the presence of horse-drawn carriages everywhere. At the heart of the old town are the open plaza Rynek Główny and the 14th century St. Mary's Basilica. The plaza was filled with vendors selling grilled meat, pierogis, and souvenirs.

We had some time before dinner so we walked over to Kazimierz, which had a more Bohemian, lived-in feel than Stare Miasto. The remnants of the daily market at Plac Nowy were making their last sales.

Dinner in the popular restaurant in Kazimierz where we had reserved a table ended up being nothing special, but it's always good to try a new country's local lager.

Friday we decided to visit as many markets as we could in central Krakow before leaving for Czech. First up was Hala Targowa, a gritty outdoor market just east of the old town with good produce and a tiny little restaurant in the back.

On the way back through the old town we encountered the annual pierogi festival where every conceivable variety of the little bland dumpling was being made and sold. At one booth Mei Ling and the kids got a pierogi cooking lesson. It was fun, but I think I'll stick with dim sum.

The last two markets were Nowy Kleparz and Stary Kleparz, slightly north of the old town. These were both good-sized markets and each had their individual character and specialties. I can't remember if we've ever been able to walk to three separate farmer's markets in one city before. We could have made it four if we had decided to go to Plac Nowy in Kazimierz as well, but we had already been there at the end of the previous day. None of the individual markets was quite as much fun as Trhovisko Miletičova in Bratislava, but with all the venues together we concluded that Kraków was one of the better market cities we had visited.

We spent another hour or so in Kraków having lunch and checking out the interesting strip of park called Planty that surrounds the old town. After a two-day stay that passed far too quickly, it was time to move on to the Czech Republic, the last country of our road trip.

For more on Kraków, here are links to a great summary of ways to spend time in the city and to a list of the markets with good descriptions.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:25 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Great cities of Central Europe: Rustic Slovakia

I had chosen an unusual stop for the first night of our return to Slovakia. It was either a farm, or a B&B, or a retreat. I couldn't quite tell. But there was a pool, and animals, and I hoped it would be fun for the kids. The farm was just over the border from Hungary, close to the tiny village of Hrušov. We had some trouble finding it, so our host Jan instructed us to drive into town and immediately found us there. He led us about a mile down a bumpy dirt road to the farm, which was set on a grassy hillside with no other sign of civilization in sight. Jan had designed and built the farm himself just a short while earlier and we were among the first guests. Our villa was beautiful and modern, and there were fruits and plants growing everywhere. There was a very modern pool, a sauna, a little playground, and lots of pets and farm animals for the kids to feed and play with. It was a tiny paradise in the middle of rural Slovakia. Jan lived there with his girlfriend and the two of them worked tirelessly around the clock to manage the plants and animals, as well as cater to their guests and socialize. I have no idea how they did it.

Our only mistake was in not loading up on food before we arrived. There was only a pizza restaurant in the village and they weren't delivering. Fortunately we had some fruits and vegetables and snacks, and Jan provided us with a hunk of meat and some other supplies so Mei Ling was able to put together a satisfying dinner.

The kids swam in the pool and played with the dogs and fed the animals. Breakfast the next morning came courtesy of Jan. Unfortunately I had to decline his offer to show us around hidden castles and other secrets of the Slovakian countryside as we had an important stop on the way to our next overnight destination. The kids had a couple of hours to play and all too soon we were bidding goodbye to Jan, Tina, and the farm.

My Lonely Planet devoted considerably less space to Slovakia than to its neighbors, but I was determined to have some experiences that would allow us to see what made the country unique. The medieval town of Banská Štiavnica was an obvious choice, offering preserved 16th century buildings and castles. We enjoyed our walk there, although the castles didn't seem to be worth the trouble of an internal viewing.

The best part of the stop in Banská Štiavnica ended up being lunch at 4sochy Cafe, which we found on TripAdvisor. Despite appearing to be a cafe or wine bar with a limited menu at first glance, it turned out to be a very high end gourmet restaurant with delicious and complex French cuisine. It proved to be the best restaurant meal of the entire road trip.

Our overnight stop was Trenčín, a larger city near the Czech border with a good-sized pedestrian old town and a fortress-like castle perched on a steep hill above everything. We arrived too late to do anything except walk into the old town and grab dinner at a Japanese restaurant. In the morning it was raining briskly so we had lunch in a restaurant that was almost entirely underground with a very local vibe. When we got out it was still raining and it was clearly not going to be possible to make the climb up to the castle. We decided to drive on to Krakow with our tails between our legs. Trenčín was the only stop of the trip that ended up being a near-complete loss.

Slovakia had one last pleasant experience for us on the way out, the relatively modern Bojnice Castle. Slovakia's answer to Neuschwanstein has been rebuilt and renovated numerous times over the last thousand years, and is surrounded by a lush park. It was still raining, but not oppressively, and the moisture seemed to enhance the fairytale quality of the castle and its verdant surroundings.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:28 Archived in Slovakia Comments (0)

Great cities of Central Europe: Budapest

Just over the Hungarian border, we stopped off in the pleasant town of Gyor. Figuring out parking proved to be problematic as all instructions on meters were written in Hungarian only. I can pick out the meaning of a few words in virtually any unfamiliar European language, but Hungarian is an exception. It has nothing in common with Latin, Germanic, or Slavic languages, not being derived from the Indo-European tree at all. It's more closely related to central Asian languages, along with Finnish and Estonian. The bottom line was I might as well have been looking at signs in Klingon.

I found a bank and was able to withdraw some forints, the local currency, without too much difficulty. I broke a bill buying some drinks and returned to the SUV, where with the help of my offline Hungarian dictionary app I managed to put some time on the meter. I wasn't exactly sure where we stood with the time, so I spent most of our stay in Gyor with the uneasy feeling the SUV was going to get ticketed or worse.

We got through the touristy old town fairly quickly. The buildings and streets were very well kept, although there wasn't much particularly memorable about the place. The most impressive structure was the 17th century Basilica with its imposing triple apse.

I might have forgotten Gyor entirely if we hadn't encountered a wide open square in the center with a group of burbling water fountains that was a great spot for the kids to cool down in the summer heat. Lots of other families with kids had the same idea.

Driving into Budapest was particularly fun because unlike our arrival in Vienna it was still light and we could see the majestic boulevards and beautiful architecture that the city is famous for. We met the Irish property manager at our Airbnb a block away from the Central Market Hall on the Pest side of the Danube. As in Vienna, our apartment was atmospheric and spacious.

After we settled in, our host directed us to a restaurant street a couple of blocks away where we had a decent dinner of goulash, duck, and grilled vegetables. I also discovered a dark local beer called Arany Ászok Félbarna that I liked. It turned out to be impossible to find in supermarkets, so I had to be content with drinking it in restaurants.

We began the next day in the Central Market Hall. This is the largest covered market in Budapest but also the most popular with tourists, and on Saturday morning it was a mob scene. The selection of produce and other goods on the first floor was excellent. On the second floor were stalls containing various kitsch catering to tourists and also food stalls that were mostly too crowded to try. We eventually opted for a sit down buffet restaurant inside the market which was mediocre, but we got to try a lot of local specialties like stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut.

We launched into the best part of every visit to a new European city, the day-long exploration by foot. We crossed the green Liberty Bridge over the Danube to Buda, with great views of Gellért Hill and the Cave Church carved into its side.

It was a long walk to Castle Hill but there was plenty to see on both the land and the river sides.

There was a long line for the funicular at Castle Hill so we decided to take the inclined path instead. There wasn't much to see outside the castle except for the views over the Danube. Inside of the castle are the art and history museums, which aren't for us.

There was more eye candy a ten minute walk to the north, where the majestic Matthias church rules over a small square at the apex of the Castle District. Close by is Fisherman's Bastion, a spacious terrace with neo-Gothic towers and parapets. Cleo was thrilled to see a wedding taking place in one alcove of the terrace.

On the way back down we ate dozens of tiny plums that grew on trees at the side of the road. We took one last look at Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church from the lower level, then crossed Chain Bridge over the Danube to Parliament. I thought this was the most beautiful of all the buildings we'd seen that day.

We took a long walk up central Pest's main boulevard, Andrássy út, to City Park where we took the kids on a pedal boat and admired Vajdahunyad Castle from the water.

The park was obviously a major gathering and relaxation spot for locals. We took the kids to the playground and the trampoline to bounce around. Here's the sign with the trampoline rules. Feel like learning Hungarian?

We ate at Városliget Café on the side of the lake, with a great view of Vajdahunyad Castle.

On Sunday the covered markets were closed but I had an ace in the hole, the Szimpla Farmers' Market, which is held weekly inside the oldest of Budapest's famous ruin pubs. There was an eclectic mix of elderly Hungarian farmers manning stands laden with baked goods and cheeses, young local urbanites, and expats. The pub was a labyrinth of small rooms, staircases and terraces with the market at its center. It was much smaller than the Central Market Hall, but we found much more that was to our taste and we had a large lunch of fresh, natural food. At one small cafe, a group of people were making pasta by hand and dishing out plates of it doused in delicious homemade tomato sauce.

We'd covered so much ground the previous day, I couldn't think of anything else to do in Budapest so we headed north to the Danube bend, where several pretty and historic villages are nestled. Szentendre, the most visited of all of these, abuts the narrower of two branches of the Danube formed by a temporary split in the sharp bend of the river. I missed the parking lot and nearly drove into the heart of the crowded pedestrian zone before a local thankfully waved me off. There was one main street mainly occupied with outdoor cafes and touristy boutiques, and we found lunch at a busy barbecue stall in the middle of everything.

One block down was a promenade along the river, which was busy with boaters and paddleboarders. Back at the main square, Cleo discovered a narrow alley that led upstairs to the solitary Church of St. John the Baptist on Szentendre's miniature version of Castle Hill.

Despite the short distances between the towns on the map, the one lane roads were very curvy and slow so it was almost dusk when we arrived at Esztergom. We only had time to walk around the enormous Renaissance Basilica before racing back to Budapest to make our dinner reservation.

Monday morning we stopped off at a couple more covered markets, had lunch, and loaded up on fruit for the drive back to Slovakia.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:35 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest szentendre esztergom gyor Comments (0)

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