Including Karlštejn and Pilsen
08/13/2016 - 08/15/2016
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.
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.