Being our last full non-travel day, we had a leisurely start to the morning. Renata would meet a group in the hotel lobby around 09.30, and they would take a three hour tour (a three hour tour) of Little Town. Maybe half the group went, and the rest of us did our own thing. I opted for a full day at leisure in what was quickly becoming one of my favorite international cities.
One of the biggest Czech national icons is a very prominent classical composer of the last half of the 19th century named Antonín Dvořák, and I am quite the fan of his enormous body of work. Probably my favorite of all time. You can keep your Mozart and Beethoven. Not saying it’s bad, as I do enjoy some of their pieces as well, but Dvořák is the GOAT in my honest opinion. Just a short metro ride across, well, under, the Vltava in New Town is a museum dedicated to him. Debby was also a classical fan, which made sense with her being an organist, so we met up around 10.00 in the lobby and hopped on the train. We got totally lost once we exited the metro, as the street layout didn’t seem to match our map. Eventually, we were able to find the right street and head in the right direction. The museum is fairly small, but gorgeous from the outside, somewhat resembling St. George’s Convent with its red and cream facade. Flanking the main house (”Baroque palace”) are two smaller (what I suppose were) servants’ quarters. This is neither a palace nor is it a museum in the grandiose sense of the words. It does have a spacious interior with high ceilings and large open rooms, housing numerous artifacts from the composer’s life, including his writing desk, viola, violin, organ, piano, various surviving manuscripts, glasses, etc.
The whole museum took us maybe an hour or so, then we strolled around to the rear courtyard to snap some pictures of the spring foliage, which had just begun to bloom. The sky was having an indecisive morning, rapidly alternating between bright sunshine and big puffy clouds, and a little patience provided some pretty nice photo opportunities before we continued our morning adventure.
Only a short walk north was Wenceslas Square, which I guess you could say is sort of the Times Square of Prague. Contrary to its name, it is not actually a square, but rather a long boulevard running along either side of a narrow pedestrian area spanning maybe a half mile north to south. We began our tour of the Square from the south-eastern end, which begins at the National Museum at the top of a slight hill. On this end of the Square, facing north is the huge bronze Wenceslas Monument. The former walls of New Town stood here, with the Horse Gate opening to a large horse market during the era of Charles IV. From this location you can pretty much branch off in any direction and find countless shops, restaurants, offices, exchange offices, and hotels. If you walk far enough back to the west, you’ll run straight into the Vltava. The whole of New Town is about twice the size of Old Town, and although the youngest of the five small towns comprising the whole of Prague, it still dates to the time of Charles IV.
The Square has seen untold numbers of historical events over its 600+ year history, from its days as a horse market to the modern era, when many demonstrations have been held in the name of Czech independence. Wenceslas himself was a 10th century Duke of Bohemia. Legend has it that he was murdered on his way to church by mercenaries sent by his brother Boleslav (Boleslaus the Cruel). He was posthumously named King and is the subject of the carol “Good King Wenceslas.”
In 1969 an act of self-immolation occurred when a young student “demonstrated” against the Warsaw Pact, a treaty of 14 years prior, which was essentially the Soviets’ and Eastern Bloc countries’ answer to NATO. Member nations included Poland (obviously, since the treaty was signed in Warsaw), Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union. The treaty was supposed to guarantee that should any member nation come under attack from an outside force, other members would come to their aid, and it was, of course, controlled by the Soviets from Moscow. This act by the student came just a year after the beginning of Prague Spring, a large movement for Czech political liberalization, and was but one of numerous suicides for similar reasons. It just happens to be the most widely known, probably because it involved publicly burning oneself to death. That has always just seemed an absolutely horrific way to die to me. As much as I’d love to time travel back to the well over a millennium’s worth of Catholic crusades and experience the absurdity of it all, being witness (or perhaps likely subject) to that form of torture and punishment for my “heresy” is certainly a deterrent. That is, of course, aside from the fact that, as far as we know, time travel is not possible.
According to the Prague.cz website, the Square isn’t attractive to tourists on account of its modern appearance. It was in the 19th century that its old fortified walls were destroyed and the surroundings redeveloped into its modern appearance. Well, now my curiosity has been piqued. And again I find myself wishing I could time travel back to a time before that happened. Damn it. Nothing really stood out to me about the Square; it looked like a modern European shopping district. Modern shops lined the side streets, including McDonald’s and Starbucks. The Anthropological Museum was closed for renovation, so we had a leisurely stroll “down” the Square to the northeast, where we connected with Národní třída (National Avenue) and headed in a westerly direction toward the Vltava. This is one of the oldest roads in the city, referred to as Nové Aleje in the early 1900s, and subsequently renamed multiple times until arriving at its current moniker. In 1989 a student protest was apparently violently suppressed on this avenue by the police, which some say triggered the Velvet Revolution.
Národní třída is a fairly wide street, about half the width of Wenceslas Square, and it is lined with modern shops and restaurants, including one called Harmont & Blaine, whose mascot is a wiener dog. Awesome.
I had written down the name of a brew pub that was fairly conveniently located near the river, Old Town, and New Town, and we found it after another 10 or 15 minutes of leisurely strolling along, checking out the store fronts. We even stopped in a Lego store, where it took every ounce of my being to refrain from buying thousands of dollars in plastic for which I could pay extra baggage fees to transport back home, and which I could easily obtain stateside, but which would all be worth it once I got home and could spend dozens of hours putting it all together like the 10 year old that lives inside me wants to do. Pivovar Národní was the name of the pub, and it was maybe a block from the Vltava. The building it’s in is pretty nondescript on the outside, but the inside was pretty cool. I think they had outside seating, too, but the skies still looked a little uncertain, so we took a table in one of the interior rooms that had a little bit of old lodge mixed with modern simplicity; an interesting combination; not too noisy, and the servers took their time and let us enjoy our food and drinks. One thing I absolutely love about European dining is how casual and unhurried the experience is. I had bacon wrapped emmentaler cheese and one of their Czech Lion lagers. I don’t know how to describe that meal really. I think there was something else that came with it, but all I remember was bacon and cheese, and beer, and cheese wrapped in bacon. And bacon. And beer. It was delicious. For dessert I had the Czech Lion pilsner and probably some more food while I thought about the cheese and bacon.
Not long after finishing our meals, we settled up and walked the remaining block to the Vltava then headed north toward the Charles Bridge. We took the same path back toward Old Town Square that we had walked the prior two days, just a bit more slowly this time so we could stop in a few shops. Debby stopped for some cherry ice cream that looked absolutely delicious, but I didn’t have any. Looking back, if I had to say I regret one thing on that trip, it’s not trying the cherry ice cream. I’m serious. That pops in my head more as one of those, “Man, I should’ve tried that,” things than anything else on the trip. So I basically just said I’d choose ice cream over Schönbrunn Palace, but from what I’ve heard and seen, that Palace is a lot like Versailles. Well, I’ve been to Versailles, and it was incredible, so I don’t really need to see another smaller version of it. I’m good with the ice cream.
We decided to split up for an hour or so and do some shopping. I had a few little things I wanted to look for to bring back for family and friends, and Debby wanted to by some crystal china. Is crystal china really a thing? Or should it be crystal dinnerware? If china is typically made of porcelain and gets its name from being first produced in China, can we call something made of crystal and used for the same purpose “china?” I wonder where crystal dinnerware was first made. Whatever. We bought some cool stuff, and I ran into Mark and Chris, two of the gentlemen who joined us in Budapest, and we watched some police officers question and search a group of suspicious looking young men, likely suspected of pickpocketing. They had the men empty all of their pockets and proceeded to search through all of their contents item by item and question them on each. Mark was a police officer, or as he said in his thick Boston accent, “lawr enforcement,” and he provided commentary for Chris and me. I think a lot of Americans would have a shit fit in not only Prague, but many European cities, where police open carry “assault” rifles. It’s a trip, but I can’t say I’ve ever really felt uneasy about it in any of the instances it’s happened. The police eventually gave the young men back all of their things and sent them on their way.
I walked a few storefronts down to see if I could find Debby, and sure enough she was finishing up her purchase. As she did that, I looked at some of the items the store owner had in his cases, and I have to admit, for a moment I did kind of think about spending some serious cash on some really nice dinnerware that I’d never use.
We didn’t really have anything pressing until dinner, and it was only 14.30 – 15.00 by the time we finished up shopping, so we settled on heading back to Pipa Beer Story for some more tasty beverages on our last afternoon in the city. I believe it had started to drizzle a bit, so that made our decision easier since it was only a short walk around the corner from the Square. Our native Slovakian host was all smiles as we returned to the beer lair and didn’t hesitate to ask us what we wanted. After the salty lunch, I was craving something sweet, so I had to have a Kriek. Actually, I had two Krieks to start, which is a fruit (cherry) beer for the uninitiated, and ordered a delectable slice of cheese cake to go with the second. We nursed our beverages and continued sharing stories, and at some point we noticed two young ladies speaking English behind us. They had come from Australia and had been touring the same cities we’d visited, so we swapped some stories and recommendations, and I introduced them to this awesome social media beer app called Untappd and gave them a few beer suggestions. Later, as we were leaving, I overheard them discussing their trepidation at the thought of drinking an 11% ABV beer. Those are the best ones!
I had to have something special and aged before we left, so I stood at the beer wall and pondered what to do. The server stood and helped me make the decision for maybe 5 minutes. I had it narrowed down between two beers from 2013, and I decided on a bomber bottle Vintage Ale from Fuller, Smith, & Turner. It took me the better part of two hours to finish, at which point we paid up, thanked the server graciously for his attention and company over the two days we got to visit, and headed back out for a slightly buzzed evening stroll through Old Town. I must have drunk 40% of my nearly 50 unique beers specific to that trip in Prague alone. I can count something like 20 different beers in the 2.5 days we were there. Pretty delicious work, if I may say so! Now remember…some of them were only two- to three-ounce pours, which is why I wasn’t walking around plastered the entire time and can remember everything from those days. Please drink responsibly.
We got back to the hotel with a bit of time to clean up before our last group dinner, then met in the lobby and headed into the hotel restaurant and proceeded to order more booze. I think everyone stuffed their faces that night as we enjoyed our last evening with Renata, who would be leaving us at the airport the next day as we departed for Helsinki and she flew back to Krakow. She was a fantastic guide, and I would be thrilled to have her again on a future trip.
We slowly finished our dinner time conversation as our eyelids grew heavier and heavier, then we all headed back to our rooms to pack everything up for the return home…almost. We had two primarily travel days ahead of us with about 24 hours in Helsinki as a final experience. I had everything I needed situated in a convenient spot in my luggage so as to avoid too much packing frustration over the last few days, so I settled in to do some reading before I dozed off into a great night of sleep in an amazing city.
Seriously, go to Prague.