Prague - May 2008
 

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The Mother of All Cities...or City of a Hundred (Thousand??) Spires?

 

Prague...the mother of all cities (as some say)..long has it been elusive, yet still on the wish list, but no more - the time has come to pay this city a visit, which harvests nothing but great reviews from visitors, as far as I have been able to notice and hear for myself. Since Czech Airlines fly directly from Oslo, and a very positive experience was had with them during the Rome trip, it was an easy choice to go for. As for seeking out a good hotel - this can be a challenge in popular tourist cities. Does one go for a centrally located hotel and try to rely less on public transport, or does one prefer a more remote, thus usually cheaper location? The latter option would demand easy access to public transport to avoid high taxi costs (which frankly are more attractive in e.g. Beijing than in Europe).

After a lot of browsing and reading on, among other sites, tripadvisor, the first choice was the Hotel Residence Lundborg. The rooms seemed large and the price attractive enough to warrant a stay - but one of the pics gave me an uneasy gut feeling (it seemed to be situated almost beneath the Karluv Most/Charles Bridge, and this looked a tad unattractive). Back to the drawing board, where in the end the decision fell upon the K+K Hotel Central, which out of the 600+ hotels in the city reviewed on the site was ranked as 9th. It is located just a stone's throw away from the gateway to the Staré Město (Old Town), and even better - just one and a half stone's throw away from the Cedaz shuttle bus transport (which stops outside Czech Airlines main office on Náměstí Republiky.


I will skip ahead in time already and comment on the choice of hotel - as it turned out, the location of the Lundborg did seem a tad unattractive, and matched the photo that made me skeptical. What was much worse - and of course difficult to plan ahead for - was that major restoration work was being made on the bridge right where the hotel was situated. Scaffolding, plastic coverings, the sounds of drills, chisels and even a strong smell of solvent was all there to potentially ruin a stay at that particular hotel. Fate has its turns and twists from time to time, which brings me directly over to my review of the K+K hotel Central:

This wonderful Art Noveau gem lies only a few metres' walk from the Powder Tower, which marks the entrance to the Old Town, yet the location is on a not-too-trafficked one-way street, Hybernska. The building, which dates from around 1905 and was once a concert hall, has had its exterior and interior beautifully restored only a few years ago, and feels like a mini castle when entering and walking along the hallway.
The rooms are fairly small, which is only natural due to the buildings' historical limits, but are very functional and well equipped, including super efficient air condition, an LCD TV, heated floor bathroom (although the heating knob is fairly well hidden), and comfortable beds.
The old elevator has only had its innermost parts exchanged, while the rest has been restored to its former glory, and is well worth a trip or two for the experience - there is a lot of wrought iron around here, as is true for the elegant staircase too.
During the stay, there was some restoration work being done on the neighbour building, although this was not noticed much, if at all - although I suspect a power outage during my stay was due to them.
Hotel staff is very professional, courteous and service minded - ranging from showing you to your room and helping with your luggage, to offering transport upon checking out.
There are several small public areas around, including a small salon with a 'looping waterfall screeensaver movie' on an integrated LCD wall screen.


The breakfast room deserves special mention - you feel like you are sitting in a stylish old concert hall indeed (which is exactly what it used to be), and the selection is wonderful, even including whole grain bread, which is often hard to find abroad for a picky Norwegian.
Transport to and from the airport can be arranged by the hotel, but the best option is to use the efficient Cedaz service which has just one official stop - near the Námęsti Republiky, which is less than 5 minutes' walk from the hotel and only costs 120 Kc - around 5 €. On the way, you may even notice there is a Billa supermarket in between these two locations - very convenient for stocking up on some water or other groceries - try the freshly vacuum packed sliced fruit selection there, e.g. pineapple - wonderful!
In all the hotel experience was so great that I need look no further if I should return to Prague (which is quite possible at some time).


Day 1

Flight - covered, apart from the usual fact that SAS still seems to be the only 'full price' airliner which doesn't serve anything for free (although they did on our national day...a whole free cup of coffee or tea!)
The airport itself is easy enough to get an overview over, including the ATMs, although they are at the far right of the main hall when facing the exit - thankfully I checked this beforehand. Buy a ticket for the Cedaz express at the booth here (120 CZK), or buy direct from the driver - any option seemed to be viable. The trip to the city centre was interesting enough - the driver seemed to be on some kind of paycheck system which rewarded him exponentially for his average speed (even inside the city limits) - going at 70 km/h past regular traffic and over cobblestones felt at times a bit uncomfortable, but the van had good suspension at least - maybe they change vans often ;)

A stone's throw away the hotel was indeed - fast and easy check-in with help from a porter, who disappeared before I even had time to think about fishing around for a tip. A welcome drink was supposed to be included in the package, but even though they forgot, I did too - I must admit that the initial impression probably helped that along. A room at the top floor, very well air conditioned, but with a view towards the back yard - no problem, since the plan wasn't to sit in the hotel room anyway!

Prague is indeed the city of a hundred spires (they seem to be more numerous than that, even), and the city proper houses around 1.2 million people, thus making it a fairly small capital, which in turn makes it ideal for sightseeing on foot, since most of the sights are within walking distance of one another. Just don't expect to cover the entire city on foot in a day!

One could write a lot about Prague, but to shorten the text somewhat, I would instead recommend people with special interests to start with Wikipedia's article about it, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prague - from here, several other links are included. Let's go for some sightseeing instead ;)

2 minutes walk and you are there..the beginning of the part known as Staré Město (Old Town).

Getting around the city is easy to do on foot - several of the major sights including the highlight of it all - Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) - is very close. And if you are headed for the castle area, the metro is efficient and comfortable, the nearest station being Námęsti Republiky.

After a short walk past the Powder Tower (Prašná brána) and the lavishly decorated Municipal Hall, the old town square - Staroměstské náměstí, opens up, and it is indeed a marvellous view. I have over a few years seen a fair share of town squares in various places, but nothing as wonderful as this one so far. The square is large and airy, yet is surrounded by a heap of buildings of various architectural styles. Everything is marvellously preserved, thankfully in part that Prague was spared during the second world war, but they also seem to have been very good at maintaining their buildings over the years. In the middle of the square stands a memorial statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer who was burned at the stake for his beliefs nearly 600 years ago. The marvellous twin-spired gothic style Tyn church (Týnský chrám, raised during the 14th century) dominates one side, towering above buildings which include the Kinsky Palace, a Salvador Dali gallery, the Church of St Nicolas, and of course the Old Town Hall (Starometska Radnice) which draws a pack of tourists on every full hour, as its famous astronomical clock strikes the hour, and animated figures appear in windows. According to legend (thus probably not true), the clock's maker was blinded on the order of the city council, to prevent him from making another such masterpiece anywhere else, yet he had his revenge in sabotaging the clockwork by touching it and dying, so that no repairs were successful until several hundred years later.

Legend or no, it is a fascinating piece of architecture to watch. It has four moving components, which represent the zodiacal ring, an outer rotating ring, and two icons representing the sun and the moon respectively. The blue circle in the centre represents the earth, while the upper blue portion is the sky, and the red and black areas below are pieces of the sky below the horizon. The moving sun icon then passes these two during day and night time respectively. Roman numbers on the second outer ring represent local time (= CET) Additionally, the innermost circle with the zodiac symbols shows the location of the sun on the ecliptic (the path the sun moves across the sky throughout the year). The outermost ring has numerals 1-24, where 24 represents the time of sunset, which varies throughout the year, but the ring moves to coincide with the sunset..fascinating :)
The written words on the dial are as follows: aurora (dawn), ortus (rising/sunrise), occasus (sunset), and crepusculum (twilight).

The four constantly visible figures at the sides represent Vanity - a figure admiring himself in a mirror, Greed - a Jewish moneylender, Death - a skeleton which strikes the time on the full hour, and finally a turban-wearing Turk.

The sides of the square is occupied by various restaurants, and I would agree that a finer view is difficult to match. As for prices...that would leave something to be desired.

 

                              

 

In the evening, it is at least as lively, and maybe a bit too lively for comforts - as some seem to come to this part of Europe to hurl down a lot of beer, which was obvious from various shouting. Still, a relatively quick round of night photography had to be made - it was easy enough to find the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) - just follow the throng of people along the narrow streets. The various buildings, in particular the Tyn church and the Prague Castle atop Hradčany look marvellous by night.

After such an extensive first day, it is good to have a good standard hotel to retreat to, and thanks to air conditioning, not have to worry about street level noise.

Day 2

A shorter visit to the Jewish part of town (Josefov) turned out shorter than originally planned - seeing a couple of synagogues and planning to visit the old cemetary with its hundreds of gravestones literally stacked on top of each other ended up as a surprise..this is so far the first cemetery I have (not) seen where it costs a large sum of money to walk on the ground - it will actually set you back the price of a full dinner. Perhaps greed was well represented on the astronomical clock after all.

Via the Rudolfinum, the journey continued to the east side Gate Tower of the Charles Bridge, from where there was a great view around the river and towards the castle area. Next to this bridge tower stands an older tower, which is the only remains of the 12th century Judith bridge. The present bridge is packed full of artists, entertainers and tourists, and passes over Kampa Island before reaching the west side, in all 520 metres in length. Kampa Island is a wonderful retreat and a chance to get away from the throngs in the more central areas, passing an old water pump tower, before reaching a bridge to the mainland on the west side of the Vltava river. Crossing a more modern (and trafficked) bridge leads to the most bizarre building in the city, a definite contrast to the old buildings - the Dancing House. Lunchtime - and a new recipe to bring back home: Balkan salad! Cut tomatoes, cuecumber and bell pepper into bite-size pieces, add squares of feta cheese and salt/pepper to taste - simple and very tasty.


Also, not too far a walk from the hotel was the Wenceslas Square, which is not as much an open square as it is a long four-lane road separated by a walkable area with greeneries, and a memorial over Jan Palach and Jan Zaich (who along with Jan Hus might convince some to believe all male Czech residents are named Jan) who set themselves on fire as a protest against the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1968. The southern end of the square is dominated by the imposing National Museum, in front of which the patron saint Wenceslas (Vaclav) sits on a horse.


Day 3

Summer had indeed come to Prague, on a day with 6 hours of sightseeing/walking, it turned out to be a hefty 28°C of sunshine, which was a lot more than expected, and a lot better than the somewhat dreary forecast I had found on a website which showed around 20°C and rain...


Nevertheless, the Petřín hill would be the start for today's walk, and after a short subway ride, then a walk back and forth before finding the actual lower station of the funicular, Petřín Hill was reached, and proved to be an oasis of green and gardens - very pleasant, and the whole city and surroundings looked great from the top of the 'local Eiffel tower', Petřínská rozhledna, 60 metres above ground. City of a hundred (or more) spires, and lots of red roofs..and all the bridges crossing the Vltava river.
The tower was built in 1891, and has some narrow sets of stairs leading up and down. Thankfully, ascending and descending traffic is kept separate.

From the tower, it was a fair walk in order to reach the part where the castle sits - Hradčany, which may or may not be the biggest castle in the world - it is fairly impressive with a length of 570 metres.
While the castle itself may not be architecturally spectacular, the area itself is a joy to walk around in, and the Vitus cathedral, built from 1344 - 1929, is quite impressive - including its stained glass windows, and is a lot more decorated than the average gothic church. While the history of the castle itself dates back to year 870, the oldest remaining parts are from 14th century.

One attractive place to visit is the so called 'Golden Lane' - a short road stub of charming, tiny wooden houses - but again a hefty entrance fee put a stop to that. In my eyes, something is amiss when you are charged an entrance fee to see the outside of a house or two.

Time for lunch..and another surprise..or maybe not too much. For the price of a regular dinner, you get a couple of sandwiches and half a litre of bottled water in this area...too bad lunch was a necessity at this point. At some point it would be very interesting to see where all the excess money from the overpriced-tourist-trap-items/food-but-we-charge-whatever-we-want-because-you-come-here-anyway end up.

Following the castle tour, a warm descent into the Little Quarter (Malá Strana) and a short stroll around here, which I would have liked to be a little longer, as it also seemed to have some cozy restaurants scattered around, the hours had passed by..a hopefully well-deserved rest was coming up!

One extra visit was paid to the main square, just to sit down and enjoy the surroundings and suck in the atmosphere and beautiful architecture..I don't think I would grow tired of this anytime soon, and just this fact alone is enough reason to re-visit this amazing city at some point, not to mention all the other positive experiences!

Shopping? There are of course lots of souvenirs..everything from artists on the Charles bridge to super expensive crystalware in various shops..there's also a fictive address '221b Baker Street' just on the inside of the Powder Tower. And lots of shops offer the Matryoshka - described as 'the art of the Slavonic', which is true of course - I just picture this as more of a Russian souvenir than in any east European country...so no Matryoshka for me until e.g. St Petersburg is visited :)


 

UNESCO sites visited on the journey:

Historic Centre of Prague


 

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