5 Days in Prague and Vienna – Part I
As I sit here, the sky in Glasgow is a steely gray, and the wind is picking up. Looks like another classic Scottish washout summer! Luckily, I received my yearly dose of sunshine during my wee summer break to Prague and Vienna – I’ve written a little about the highlights of the trip, so if you’re looking for the best things to do, see and eat in these fantastic capitals, read on for Part One – Prague!
Prague -To Do
The thing I loved most about Prague is that pretty much everything is in walking distance. We didn’t need to use any transport at all during our two days here apart from our own feet. As well as walking, we took full advantage of one of Prague’s outdoor fitness parks, where was a fantastic set of calisthenetic fitness equipment that we went a bit wild on. Our efforts definitely gave us an appetite for the Farmer’s Market at nám. J. z Poděbrad. This gorgeous, grassy square was encircled with cafes with outdoor seating to allow full enjoyment of the blazing summer sun.
During our stay, we were based in the Praha 3 area, which was away from the main tourist hub and city centre. But even in this sedate corner of Prague, the streets were full of smokey bars, local and international restaurants and little shops. A stand-out bar for us was Bukowski’s. This was a dark, intimate cocktail bar with an international crowd and animated bar-tenders who could take 4 drinks orders at once. I’d recommend their Pornstar martini – Nice, neat and pleasingly tart.
Of course, after a night if heavy drinking, the obvious activity to do with shaking limbs and a delicate heat is to go shooting. The Czech Republic has a long history of producing guns with an excellent reputation, such as the successful CZ 75 class pistols. However, possession of firearms by Czech citizens was heavily restricted during both German and Communist occupations of the country, so the post-revolution period saw a rise in gun ownership, which has continued today. This means there are many urban shooting galleries for residents to practice in – And these are also open to tourists, with prior booking. We found ourselves in the wonderfully, if a bit unsettlingly, laid-back Avim Praha range firing handguns for the first time ever. After being blown away from the recoil for the first few rounds, I turned out to be a surprisingly good shot. At about £30 for 50 rounds, it was definitely worth while – especially since I discovered my inner deadly assassin!
Having cured my hangover with heavy gunfire, we obviously had to “re-hydrate” ourselves. We found a tiny little beer bar on either Truhlářská or Soukenická street, which of course now I completely forget the name of. It turned out the barman was some kind of beer savaunt, and he was able to recommend us two perfect wheat beers, followed by what I can only describe as a liqueur beer – the infamous Gulden Draak. Sitting at a hefty 10% ABV, this was definitely a sipping beer.
Prague -To See
Prague is one of the few places I’d recommend doing some of the really cliched touristy stuff. We walked across the Charles Bridge, and to be honest, I was expecting the crowds to be unbearable. But even at the height if July, it was easy to weave in and out of groups gathered around wee stalls, semi-accomplished caricaturists and the many bronze statues lining the bridge edges.
As you walk across the bridge from the central district, Praha 1, you can see cluster of spires, towers and turrets – Prague’s castle district. Be warned, there are a lot of stairs. Emboldened by a few pints of cheap, but incredibly rich, Czech beer, we decided sprinting up these would be fun. It was not fun. I had to pretend to be really interested in the views at the top while trying to surreptitiously recover.
Once in the castle district, be prepared to be overwhelmed by historically significant buildings – a treasury, several palaces, a cathedral and even a basilica. The entrance to the main castle compound is free, but certain areas are ticketed. To be honest, you can see the majority of the sights without tickets, including getting into the cathedral, and as we had other things planned for the day, opted for the cheapskate option.
“The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create, to construct bridges, because we must live in the hope that humankind will draw together and that the better we understand “~ Alphonse Mucha
The museum is a huge, imposing brick and concrete block, not the prettiest, but it was a pleasantly cool, light and quiet sanctuary inside, away from the blazing sun and tourist crowds. I learned the Czech Republic used to be a major manufacturer of motorbikes, an industry which sadly collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union. The museum had a well, preserved collection spanning from the 1800s to modern day. I’m really not the biggest fan of motorbikes, but even I found myself coveting a few old, charming machines. There were also exhibitions on film and photography, and a frankly incredible temporary exhibition on the history of prosthetics and medical devices. As a contact lens wearer, let me just say I am very glad to be born into a time where glass lenses are obsolete.
The next day, in the mood for the Arts over the Sciences, we searched out the Mucha Museum. I have been a huge admirer of Alphonse Mucha’s work for some time now. His gorgeous semi-stylised women and detailed natural motifs are pure, decorative perfection, and I haven’t yet come across any of his work I haven’t immediately loved. The Mucha museum had a great collection of his work, but the highlight for me was the video documentary describing Mucha’s life and achievements. I had no idea just how integral Mucha’s work was to the identity of the fledgling Czech Republic after it won its independence following World War I, as he designed postage stamps, banknotes and other important paraphenalia for the new country.
We tried to locate Mucha’s masterpiece series, The Slav Epic, at the National Gallery on the old town square, but to no avail. I believe they went on a tour to Asia, much to the chagrin of Mucha’s grandson, who was worried about damage to the epics. Since the National Gallery was displaying works by Gehard Richter, a fantastic German artist, we decided to stick with Prague culture, and headed to the National Museum.
The National Museum was a strange experience to say the least. It was very weirdly Soviet, from the architecture of the building to the way you were guided to and from exhibits by museum attendants. There was a very interactive exhibition on everyday items from the 1800s to the 1990s, all lumped together under the title “Retro”. However, the real treat was upstairs, in the Noahs Ark exhibition. As far as I understood, the museum was trying to encourage ethical thinking and conservation. But this meant it had sourced a frankly fucking hilarious collection of badly stuffed animals from defunct private collections and other shady sources. It was so funny it was endearing – spaced-out leopards with mumps, wretched rodents and lumpy, bug eyed sea mammals. If you’re ever in Prague and need a bit of light hearted fun after a day of serious touring, I would highly recommend it.
Overall though, the best thing to see in Prague is the architecture. The suburban areas are full of beautiful, well kept townhouses, each with an individual personality and style. Rows of decorative, pastel facades as far as you can see.
Prague -To Eat
Where to even start with the food in Prague? I guess chronologically. After our stint in the fitness park, we were keen for breakfast. And Prague provided. Lining the nám. J. z Poděbrad square, with the farmers market, were a number of inviting cafes and coffee shops. We opted for Le Caveau Bakery, and were rewarded with rich, golden scrambled eggs with soft fried onions throughout, and croissants with creamy curd and jam.
As we are absolute mavericks with no sense of planning, on our first evening we dived into Lokál Dlouhááá without even thinking of making reservations. It was stowed out. The restaurant is basically one long hall with tables, which were packed with people eating, drinking and having fun. We waited at the bar for a table and enjoyed a few pints of their beer – along with the bartender! We were offered to sit at a table of 4 with another couple, and we leapt at the offer. I’d recommend you do the same – even sitting next to folk, with the hubbub in the background you could barely hear your own conversation, let alone that of your neighbours. The food was hearty beyond words – fried cheese and bread, rich steak tartare with sharp pickles and of course, more beer. They also had a great assortment of liqueurs, so we indulged in an after dinner mead.
Breakfast on the second day was in the Jewish Quarter at a modern cafe called NOSTRESS. This was a little pricier, being in the more touristy and high end shopping district, but still enjoyable. Their freshly squeezed juices were a hangover saviour, and their eggs Benedict were poached perfectly.
Dinner on our last night was at Cafe Imperial, a long standing Prague restaurant, with roots in the 14th century. Currently, the interior is decorated with intricate ceramic tiles in white and rich ochre-yellow. The dining expereince was a complete contrast to Lokal. We arrived early, around 6pm, and the restaurant was around half full, with gently tinkling music in the background and warm evening light streaming through the high windows. I opted for rabbit in a mustard sauce with bread dumpling, and it was beautiful. The rabbit was falling off the bone, and the dumplings were just the right side of stodgy. Dessert was a chocolate bomb surprise with a bit if theatre; There was a tense moment where glossy chocolate sphere where it looked like it might hold steady as the waiter poured a river of molten chocolate over it, but it did eventually give way to a lovely berry sorbet.
Hope you enjoyed this quick and dirty tour of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – Keep posted for Part 2, Vienna!