Pavel and Pilsner in Prague

For some bizarre reason I planned our first day in Prague to begin promptly at 9am. Early,really, after factoring in how long it takes for me to look presentable, sample everything on the breakfast buffet and chug 3 or 4 cups of coffee.  The Mister and I wandered down to breakfast and took a cozy table near the bar.  While waiting for our coffee, I was distracted by a loud honking voice from across the room. I knew it had to be….an American. Before you get your panties in a wad (knickers in a twist) I’m American, so I am entitled to make comments about my fellow countrymen.  We are a nation of loud people.  It isn’t intentional. We aren’t purposely loud, but We.. Are. Loud.

As we tucked into breakfast, we were treated to an in depth discussion of American Lady’s bladder infection.  The words bladder, pee, painful ureter and chafe were fired across the room much to the dismay of the staff and fellow diners.  Not to be outdone, American Man added his personal experiences with an enlarged prostrate and something about a neutered dog.  Hopefully, the two weren’t related.

We finished breakfast quickly and went to meet Pavel, from Personal Prague Guides. I usually do most  of the travel planning myself  but I don’t speak a word of Czech and wanted the perspective of a Prague native as we toured the city.  I did try to study a few necessary words from the guidebook but resigned myself to the fact I am linguistically retarded. I tried.  I really did.

We booked Pavel from 9 – 1 on Saturday and Sunday and left the afternoons free  to explore Prague on our own. Pavel met us in the lobby and spent about an hour going over our expectations for the tour, reviewing maps and highlighting some important sites on our list. He also gave us a timeline of Czech history which gave us a much better sense of the city and the people.

Anticipating bad weather on Sunday, Pavel advised we do most of the outside/walking on Saturday and leave the inside venues for Sunday. We set out from our hotel and wandered the ancient streets, past the castle to the Loreto.  Along the way, Pavel shared significant and fascinating bits of Czech history and culture which added context to the experience.

He told us the story of the 27 nobles who lost their heads at the hands of the Habsburgs, now represented by a row of modern sculpture…

and the heartbreaking story of the WWII airmen and the bells of the beautiful Loreto.  At this point, you may be asking yourself…why did this woman take some pictures in black and white and some in color?  I assure you it wasn’t intentional.  I have the photography skills of my 85 year old Nana with a polaroid and a few flash bulbs. After a few glasses of champagne at dinner, I ended up twisting a few too many dials on the camera.

We walked from the ministry building where KGB agents pushed Jan Masaryk from a window in 1948 (see?  good stories) to the Břevnov monastery, brewing excellent Czech beer once again.

We worked our way to Prague castle and through gates to the Cathedral.  It is possible to just view the front entrance of the cathedral by follow the herd of tourists into the viewing area, but it is well worth spending a few extra crowns to see the whole cathedral.

We left the rest of the castle tour until Sunday and headed out to explore the gardens beneath the castle walls.

We left Pavel at the gates and wandered off to find lunch and explore the city a bit on our own.  We found a small cafe adjacent to our hotel, stuffed our faces and walked over the Charles Bridge.

The bridge itself is beautiful but heavily trafficked and lined with craft dealers and vendors dealing in various forms of questionable “art.”   I shouldn’t judge.  The sculptures along the bridge and the views over the city made it picture postcard perfect.

We crossed the bridge and wandered along the water to the National Theatre, the “television building” and back over the bridge near Strelecky Ostrov park.  There was so much to see but, to be honest, we didn’t want to miss afternoon tea at the hotel.  It’s a weak excuse for not doing more tourist things, but one has to prioritize.  And we did take beautiful pictures and wandered the lovely cobbled streets of  Mala Strana.  Prague is truly a fairy tale city. From Romanesque to Renaissance to Art Nouveau and Post Modern, there is architectural eye candy for everyone.

Our second day in Prague was as promised, 10 degrees and pouring rain.  Pavel felt sorry for us and brought his car to keep us dry for at least part of the day.  He also brought some homemade cakes from his lovely wife.  Private tour+cake = perfection. We started our day in Old Town, parking near the University buildings and walking to the bridge beneath the castle.  It is a injustice to call Prague Castle a castle as it is really a number of buildings within castle walls that date back to the 9th century and is the largest castle complex in the world.

The Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace is a stunning room that dates back to the 16th century.  It is also the place where I embarrassed myself.   There are signs throughout the palace that say no pictures unless you have a “photo+license.”  I assumed this was for security reasons as the Palace is still used for state events.  I was happily snapping away when I was approached by a terrifying woman who asked to see my photo license.  Patting myself on the back for remembering to bring my photo id, I pulled out my driver’s license.  She snorted, rolled her eyes and had a short discussion with Pavel about my transgression. It seems you have to purchase a license to take photos in the castle.  Oops.  I promised to pay the additional 50 crowns on the way out. Maybe.

In the lower part of the Palace is The Story of Prague Castle (where I didn’t take pictures).  It holds a stunning collection of items and artifacts from one thousand years of castle history.  I could easily spend hours with this collection, but The Mister wasn’t as enamored with ancient walls and burial garments stripped off decaying 9th century bodies as I am.  I have to come back here without him or leave him in a pub with a pint of Pilsner.

A sculptural commentary on the Czech Republic/Slovakia split and are pissing into the outline of the Czech Republic.  Update:  A kind note from a reader made some corrections re: my understanding of the sculpture “Piss.”  “Jaroslav” informed me that the statues actually have nothing to do with the split of Czechoslovakia!  He also said that if you text a message to a number next to the statues, the statues will move around and spell the text out in urine.  Now I really do have to go back.  Thank you, Jaroslav!  Do you want to be my guide for an art walk when I return?!

Our time with Pavel was running out and we wanted to see part of the Old Town and Jewish Quarter before the end of the day.  We walked over the Charles Bridge and through the Old Town square precisely at noon (well done, Pavel) to see the astronomical clock…

and continued through the square and the surrounding streets to the Jewish Quarter.  We said our goodbyes to Pavel after purchasing our tickets to the synagogue, cemetery and museum and set off to find some lunch.

 The Mister saw a sign promising Pilsner beer across from the Spanish synagogue and the choice was made.  The restaurant was called Kolkovna and served traditional Czech dishes.  The Mister and I ordered the goulash and pretzel as a starter and then ordered something that translated as a meat platter for 2.  I ordered the mulled wine and The Mister ordered a few Pilsners.  The servings were enormous, delicious and perfect for a cold autumn afternoon.

We finished our afternoon in the Jewish Quarter touring the many synangogues, the museum (an absolute heartbreaker) and the cemetery.  It was getting dark, things were starting to close and it was time to head back to the hotel.

As we talked about our time in Prague over dinner, we concluded the following:

Prague is under-rated by the traveling community.  It has incredible architecture and art, music and beer, a complex and interesting history and wonderful people.  What more could you ask?

Having a private guide added significantly to our experience. There is something special about seeing a city through the eyes of a native.  Pavel’s personal, cultural and historical narrative helped us understand and appreciate the Czech culture and history.

We didn’t have enough time to see everything we wanted to see. I would like to see more art and experience the music scene…and of course spend more time in the castle.  The Mister would like to have more Pilsner and learn more about the transition from communism to republic.

We absolutely loved our time in Prague and plan on a return trip in the near future.  Maybe we’ll bring the kids this time.

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Away For the Weekend / Romantic Prague

I have an embarrassing confession.  The Mister and I were alarmingly young when we married (that’s not the embarrassing confession) and didn’t have the time or money for a traditional honeymoon getaway.  The Mister graduated and became the property of the US Navy Submarine Service, reporting immediately for his first duty station.  Fourteen moves, endless deployments, work and 3 children put any thought of romantic weekends on the back burner for…26 years.  Yes.  It’s true.  We never had a weekend away without children in 26 years.  That is my embarrassing confession.  That said, I love traveling with my children, but they are off at university and graduate school and we are now empty nesters in our 40s.  Hehe.  🙂  If my children are reading this, I miss you…I truly do.

The Mister and I decided that we would absolutely make the most of our London location to travel as much as possible in the next 2 years. An extended honeymoon period per se to make up for lost time. To do this, of course, requires a keen eye for bargains or deep pockets.  I subscribe to a stunning number of travel sites that offer flash travel sales and auctions.  A personal favorite is Luxury Link  which offers a changing selection of high-end hotels and packages through either a “buy now” or “auction” model.  I purchased our Prague weekend through Luxury Link, which included a 3 night stay at the Aria Hotel (you can read my review here), car service to and from the airport, 3 course dinner in the hotel, welcome drinks, champagne and strawberries, daily breakfast and daily afternoon tea , free internet, tax inclusive for an outstanding auction rate. I always check ratings and amenities independently before considering a purchase.  Aria Hotel was highly rated. Booked. Done. We’re going to Prague.

One of the nice things about living in London (and there are many) is the proximity to a number of airports.  I’m a hot mess when I fly.  No question.  My family can’t stand to be around me pre-flight and The Mister does his best to talk me off the ledge of my flight anxiety.  I can’t even stand myself.  Sadly, flying is the only way to get to all the places I want to go, so I just torture myself and others for 24 hours pre-flight and deal. We found good value flights with Easy Jet out of Stansted and an express train from downtown London, leaving at a civilized 1:00 pm. That gave me plenty of time to work myself into a hot mess before noon.

The flight was uneventful, immigration a breeze, and we were through the gates and into Prague Airport in 20 minutes. Jacob, a Prague native, was waiting with a car and whisked us away from the airport and to our hotel in 25 minutes.  Jacob was full of local knowledge and proud of his city, as he should be. He also offered excellent advice about restaurants in Prague.

Our hotel, The Aria, is located on a quiet street below Prague Castle and a short walk from the Charles Bridge.  Merek was waiting at the desk, greeted us warmly, wished us a happy honeymoon and walked us to our room.

The hotel has a musical theme and we booked into the Kansas City suite, complete with blues playlist on the ipod dock.  The bell staff arrived shortly after we did, with strawberries and chilled champagne in hand.  Bless them.

We ditched the luggage and wandered back downstairs for Merek’s tour of the hotel and our welcome drinks (champagne for me, Czech beer for the Mister). The public spaces of the hotel have a lovely, classy art deco vibe. It has an incredible art collection (originals!), a music library, spectacular gardens, a rooftop terrace, reading library and a lovely area for breakfast, afternoon tea and lounging about.  We sat in the atrium dining area to enjoy our drinks with Merek as he gave us an overview of the city, a nice walking map and a few ideas for the evening.

My idea for the evening, as usual, involved eating.  The Aria has an excellent restaurant,Coda, frequented by locals and guests alike. We had early reservations and had our choice of tables in the cozy, romantic seating area adjacent to the piano bar.  The atmosphere was sublime, the menu was innovative, the service impeccable.  Honestly, the whole experience brought me to tears. It was perfection. The Mister and I both chose the lobster ravioli as a starter…velvety, subtle, sweet, fabulous.  I chose the pork tenderloin whilst The Mister enjoyed the beef shank goulash.  Flawless.  I was particularly interested in the Sous Vide method of cooking and asked the manager about it when he stopped to check on our meal.  He kindly explained the method and allowed me a peek into the kitchen to see for myself while dinner service was in full swing.  Thank you, Zoran Juric, for indulging me.

We finished the meal with a lovely and thoughtful surprise from the kitchen…

and an evening walk in the gardens, complete with fireworks over the river.

Part Two of our trip tomorrow.  Thanks for reading!