Barbara & Stu's Excellent Vacations Great trips we have taken

What better way to spend the long Memorial Day weekend than following in the footsteps of our veterans of foreign wars and conquering faraway lands? Of course we left our rifles and heavy artillery home. If Eastern Europe conjures images of drab, dreary cities with impoverished citizens waiting in interminable lines for meager supplies, then you haven’t seen Prague. While there are a fair share of buildings that could stand a new coat of paint and some grim concrete apartment blocks, the historic nucleus of the city is a knockout.

On the taxi ride in from the airport you’re treated to a tantalizing panorama of the old section as you wind down the hillside into town. Consistency of architecture, common to most truly lovely towns, is reflected in the broad expanse of charming red-tiled and slate roofs rising up the shores of the Vltava River. It was a glorious spring day and the city was glowing under the warm caress of the sun like a first-kissed schoolgirl.

We arrived at the brand-new Four Seasons hotel in no time flat and were swiftly whisked away to our room after an efficient and cheery check-in. The first thing we always check out when we enter a hotel room is the view and this one took our breath away. We were on the sixth floor overlooking the Vltava, Prague Castle, Petrin Hill and the Charles Bridge, which was just two short blocks from our door. Once we could tear ourselves away from the windows, we found that the room was perfect, spacious and beautifully appointed with lots of little luxuries, like CD and DVD players.

Nothing feels as good as a shower after a long overnight flight, but we didn’t linger very long because we couldn’t wait to get outside and explore. The hotel is in a section of town known as Stare Mesto (Old Town) so we decided to begin on this side of the river. Karlova (Charles) St. was jammed with tourists from many nations and we slowly picked our way through the crowd to Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti), snapping photos of interesting architectural details along the way. The centerpiece of the square is the old Town Hall with its fascinating astronomical clock. The striking of the hour is accompanied by a complex mechanical dance involving a diverse array of characters. A skeleton pulls a cord to chime the hour and turns an hourglass over, a grim reminder of life’s finite duration, while Christ and the twelve apostles promenade above a vain merchant checking himself out in a handheld mirror and various other colorful figures performing small tasks.

We continued around the square admiring all of the beautiful buildings, then took a peek in the baroque Church of St. Nicholas. On the other side of the square is the gothic Church of Our Lady before Tyn, a lovely cathedral that hosts the tomb of Tycho de Brahe, the Danish astronomer. An imposing modern monument to Jan Hus, a reformer from the Middle Ages, is smack in the middle of the square. We walked down Celetna Street, a busy shopping thoroughfare, to see the Powder Gate, an impressive Gothic stone tower. The gate opens onto another grand square graced by the highly decorative Art Nouveau Municipal House (Obneci Dum) which functions as a performing arts center. We hunted up the elegant Estates Theater and found the House of the Two Golden Bears before winding our way back to Old Town Square. To our delight troupes of young dancers arrayed in festive peasant costumes from different regions began filing into the square and performing lively folk dances. We watched until the last group arrived then headed over to the Clementinum, a former Jesuit college from the mid-17th Century that now houses the National Library. The 2pm tour was sold out so we bought tickets for the 4pm and visited the St. Agnes Convent in the interim. The highlight of this medieval cloister is a fine collection of religious paintings and wooden sculptures.

We had a few minutes to sit and relax while waiting to begin our tour of the Clementinum, which included an outstanding library featuring gorgeous antique globes and a tall observation tower topped by a weary Atlas shouldering the burden of the world. We climbed the tower for an expansive view of central Prague.

By this time, we were ready for a rest so we returned to the hotel and freshened up for dinner. The concierge had reserved a table for us at Bellevue, which is reputed to be one of the best restaurants in Prague.

We arrived early and found a bride and groom taking wedding photos in advance of the rest of the wedding party who joined them shortly afterwards. We raised a glass of champagne to their happiness. The Bellevue overlooks the river and is very posh. We found the food to be good, but overpriced for the quality, though the service was excellent. We were glad that we’d reserved early, between the lack of sleep on the flight, the 6 hour time difference and the hours of walking, we were pretty beat by the end of dinner and just headed back to the hotel to sleep.

We awoke very early and were thrilled to see sun and blue skies. We had breakfast in our room so we could enjoy the marvelous view then set right out. There aren’t many people out so early on a Sunday morning and we enjoyed traversing the Charles Bridge and taking photos without crowds. The light at that hour is just magical. Magnificent stone towers enclose the bridge on each end and eloquent statues punctuate the long span. We passed through the main square in Mala Strana, the Little Town, and admired St. Nicholas Cathedral from outside. We took Nerudova Street, which is renowned for lovely houses adorned with colorful decorations, such as 3 fiddles, a red sheep, a green lobster and a tribute to the poet Jan Neruda. There’s also a handsome old apothecary museum with lots of interesting jars and implements. We saw Czechs walking their dogs and a couple of white-shirted waiters unfurling an awning over a café but the hordes of tourists were still sleeping.

It would take a jaded soul to be unimpressed by the Prague Castle complex and the magnificent square just outside the gates. The current castle was rebuilt under the reign of Charles IV in the 14th Century over the remains of a 9th Century castle and 12th Century Romanesque palace and renovated in the 15th Century. We had the place to ourselves except for the 2 stiff guards standing at attention in their stations. Two pairs of monumental heroes wrestle atop the gate over their heads. We entered the first courtyard, identifying the buildings with the help of our guidebook. The second courtyard is larger and grander, but it’s in the third where you find the splendid St. Vitus Cathedral, begun in 1344. As the carillon rang, a couple of stray parishioners rushed to mass. We took our time circling the church, admiring the soaring towers, the squadrons of grotesque gargoyles and the lithe flying buttresses. An iron gate, clearly added during the last century, depicts couples engaged in the dignity of manual labor.

We strolled through the compound enjoying the wonderful architecture and peaceful atmosphere. We found Golden Lane, a row of quaint 16th Century cottages where crafts and souvenirs are now sold. Kafka was supposed to have written some of his fantastical literature in his sister’s house on this street. When the hour turned, small clusters of guards in dark blue coats with scarlet trim ceremonially marched through the courtyards to take up their posts.

By the time we’d explored all of the nooks and crannies inside the castle walls, we saw a couple of tourist groups entering St. Vitus so we followed. The interior was just as wonderful as the exterior with splendid stained glass and marvelous vaulted ceilings. However, a priest informed us that the church was still only open for services so we slipped out and returned in the afternoon. Among the treasures is a gorgeous stained glass window by Mucha, the famous Czech art nouveau illustrator and the Chapel of St. Wenceslas with its gem-encrusted walls. We particularly liked a map of old Prague carved from wood.

Next stop was the Royal Palace with the Gothic-style Vladislav Hall. Knights rode their horses up a wide, shallow-stepped staircase into the Hall for jousting competitions. There’s a lovely chapel as well as balconies with panoramic views of Mala Strana and the river. The Palace was the site of an infamous protest that resulted in the defenestration of the governing party. They apparently survived the three-story drop by landing in a soft pile of dung. This incident might explain why the expression "landing in shit" denotes good luck.

We entered the Romanesque Basilica of St. George, founded in 920 AD, which contains an exquisite chapel and a terrific wooden staircase. Nearby is the Powder Tower, which served as a gunpowder storehouse and is now a small museum. On the wall opposite the tower is a fascinating clock that resembles an ancient astrological instrument.

We spent some time trying to locate the Chapel of the Holy Rood, where the Bohemian Crown Jewels reside, and the Castle Gallery. We finally stopped at a Tourist Info desk only to discover that the Chapel was closed for renovations and the Gallery was having a special exhibit that didn’t interest us much.

We doubled back outside the castle gates and located the National Gallery in the Sternberg Palace. The collection was much smaller than we’d expected, but it contains some lovely paintings, including a beautiful altarpiece by an early Czech artist. Schwarzenberg Palace, site of a military history museum, is covered with sgraffito, an intricate pattern of painting that produces a 3-dimensional effect. A collection of antique cannons is on display in the courtyard. The elegant Archbishop’s Palace opposite it completes the grandeur of the square.

We finished exploring the square and walked down charming Novy Svet Ulice (New World Street), where we discovered a gallery exhibiting the paintings of a modern Czech surrealist. Although we enjoyed all of the work, the one painting that we might have bought was not for sale so we settled for a catalog of the exhibit.

The Loreto is built around a replica of Mary’s house and displays a collection of liturgical artifacts that includes a monstrance encrusted with more than 6,000 diamonds. There is a baroque church on the grounds as well as numerous religious paintings and frescoes. The bell tower is stunning.

Since it was approaching midday, we decided to stop for lunch in an outdoor café next door to the Loreto. We didn’t expect much but were pleasantly surprised, as the food was quite good. We both ate fish accompanied by pickled cabbage and delicious fried balls of something - we never figured out what they were.

On our way to the Strahov Monastery we took a peek in a store selling antique stringed instruments. The highlight of monastery was the Strahov Library with its Baroque Theological Hall and Classical Philosophical Hall where we found stacks of leather-bound books and handsome antique globes.

We headed back to the castle to finish our exploration of St. Vitus and relax awhile in the Royal Gardens. Since we had time and were passing that way again, we decided to visit St. Nicholas Church in Mala Strana. Afterwards we headed over to Wallenstein Palace and Gardens in hopes of viewing the paintings in the Riding School. Unfortunately, both the gardens and gallery were closed for renovations but we took a look at the open rooms in the palace.

We took a different route back to the hotel, crossing the river via Manesuv Most, which afforded us a new view of the Charles Bridge and took us to the Rudolfinum, a grandiose concert hall on the banks of the Vltava. We had lots of time to listen to music and relax in a hot bath before changing for dinner. We walked back to Mala Strana to the Blue Duckling Restaurant (U Modre Kachnicky). It has the cozy wood-beamed ambience of an old inn and excellent roasted duck dishes for an extremely reasonable price. This evening we weren’t as tired and could enjoy a walk after dinner to view the city illuminated.

We arose early again and though it was cloudy, some sunshine was peeking through. We had breakfast with a view again then headed over the Charles Bridge to Kampa Island. It’s always a pleasure to explore a city in the early hours of a workday as fathers walk their small daughters to school, people run their dogs in the park and backpack-toting students giggle with their friends.

If we lived in Prague, we’d want to live on Kampa Island. It’s a serene oasis smack in the bustling center of activity. There’s not a lot to see, a clean attractive square, a verdant park, picturesque houses and a restored mill, but a leisurely walk on it is a perfect way to start the day. There are some terrific views of the river, the bridge and the town monuments from there also.

Today we planned to visit the Jewish Museum and were disappointed to find that it would be closed for a holiday. Hitler had planned to turn the whole Jewish section into a museum of an extinct species, so the area was well preserved despite the war. We walked around the Josefov section to see as much as we could from the outside, then walked over to Wenceslas Square, which is more of a long boulevard with a narrow park down the middle than a traditional square. There are some fine decorative flourishes on the buildings bordering the square with the imposing National Museum looming at the far end, a backdrop to a striking statue of St. Wenceslas on horseback. We decided to skip the museum and wandered over for a photo of the neoclassical State Opera House.

It started to drizzle so we ducked into the Mucha Museum and browsed through the collection. In the gift shop we found exquisite champagne flutes etched with one of the artist’s designs and picked up a pair.

By now we were hungry so we started prowling around for a restaurant, ending up in a café at the Municipal House. The room was lovely and the food was fine but nothing special. It started raining harder and because we had visited all of the sights on our list that we could, we decided to return to the hotel and wait out the weather. We popped a DVD in the machine and enjoyed a movie while it poured outside.

The rain began tapering off around dusk and was fortunately gone by the time we walked over to Kampa Island for our dinner at Kampa Park Restaurant. The restaurant has a covered patio right on the water with great views of Stare Mesto. This was our favorite restaurant of the trip, specializing in seafood that was creatively prepared and very delicious. The clientele was a mix of tourists and locals and the joint was packed, clearly a favorite both for the smart ambience and the food.

On our last morning in Prague, we savored a final breakfast with a view from our room. It was clear that the few lingering clouds would soon disperse revealing another sunny day. We took advantage of the early hour to walk down Karlova (Charles) St., such a different experience without the mass of tourists. The Old Town Square was quiet, the first time we’d been able to fully appreciate it. We spent about an hour and a half wandering around and taking photos blessedly free of crowds before we had to return to the hotel to grab our belongings and get to the airport. The trip home was long but mercifully uneventful and well worth the effort.