Prague

By abbieredmon

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I find myself back in Europe for the second time this year. Several of my destinations this time are in Eastern Europe, and I expect them to differ somewhat from the sun-soaked, wine-drenched coastlines I enjoyed in southern Spain and Portugal earlier this year. But as the seasons change and autumn creeps in, I am quite ready anyway for brisk mornings, hot drinks, hats, and scarves.

Prague is the launchpad.

After landing, we oriented ourselves to the old city by stumbling around in a sleep-deprived haze, buying bananas and some things for breakfast.

We had "dinner" at 4 p.m., because jetlag, and because what? -- we were hungry.

After the shortest Google search ever for restaurants within a 5-block radius of our AirBnB (again, because jetlag), Jiná Krajina popped up, with some high reviews and a "globally inspired" menu.

We gave it a try, and we were not disappointed! Sadly, it caters to enough tourists to have a dedicated English-language menu, but when you've been awake for 30 hours, you don't really care about that. The presentation was nice, and everything tasted good, too. We sat outside and admired the architecture and the nice flower boxes on the building. Dad tried the Original Pilsner Urquell -- born and brewed in the Czech Republic -- and enjoyed it, though I have no idea how he could drink after all that travel.

We are all falling asleep here at 6:30 p.m., so we're aiming for an early bedtime, then off to see the Prague Castle and perhaps pop into the Strahov Monastary -- the library (Strahovský Klášter) is supposed to be vast and gorgeous and awe-inspiring, etc.

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For some reason, we decided to spend our first full day in Prague climbing up and down the hills of Malá Strana, "Lesser Town," still shaking off jetlag.

On our uphill walk to the castle, which we conquered slowly, we found the Gingerbread Museum on a street called Nerudova, which is packed full of the most intricately decorated gingerbread cookies I have ever seen. We gaped at lace icing designs, lederhosen-laden gingerbread boys, and pigtailed gingerbread girls.

And then of course we bought one, and shared it. The gingerbread was cake-like -- thick but soft -- with a nice flavor.

That seemed to give us enough energy to get up the rest of the hill to the entrance to the Prazsky Hrad (Prague Castle) -- which has a Starbucks (!) at the entrance. Sigh.

We made it in time to watch the changing of the guard, but really we just watched the hats of a few Czech military men march into and out of the first square of the castle -- it's all we could see over the crowd in front of us and their multitude of raised cameras.

The views from here were nice, and we paid $150 crowns each to climb the almost-300 stairs in the bell tower to see an even better (and panoramic) view of Prague and surrounds. From this bird's eye perch, we scouted the rest of the castle grounds, which we then explored by meandering slowly. The gardens are lovely, and the oldest vineyard in Prague is here.

This stroll dumped us out back near the river, so we climbed back up, past the castle, to the monastery to see the famed library (Strahovský Klášter), which actually ended up being two libraries.

You can't go inside the libraries; you can only view them from the doorway, but the space has some interesting exhibits to look at, too, like skeletons (?) of huge crabs and other underwater creatures, an abundance of sea shells, a wooden replica of an old sailing vessel, and -- really -- did I mention the sea shells? There are many. There are also some beautiful wooden writing desks and bookshelves with intricate inlays both on display and in use displaying other things.

The libraries themselves are impressive. It costs extra if you wish to take photographs, but I don't know how one would forget such lavishness. The first library boasts gorgeous wooden shelves, ladders, tables, and desks, with a narrow second-floor gallery curving around the perimeter to access the uppermost shelves. If allowed to go inside, I feel sure I would've simply walked to the middle and laid down, staring up at the painted ceiling and soaking in the voices inside all the volumes in the room.

The second library has a lower ceiling (also painted), wide wooden plank floors, and a series of globes of different sizes occupying the space down the center of the hall. Had I been allowed in this room, I likely would've spent most of my time studying these globes -- given the age of everything else in these spaces, I'm sure many of them are old enough to have the geography of the world depicted quite incorrectly, which would be fantastic to see.

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We wandered Prague again today, starting at the Astronomical Clock. We caught the hourly "chime" at 1 p.m., which consisted of some bells, and two windows opening above the clock face, through which you could see wooden figures representing the twelve apostles rotate by. It was a bit anticlimactic, I'll admit. Maybe the noon chime sees a bigger show. The clock faces are beautiful, though, and they're surprisingly low to the ground, all things considered, so you can actually get a decent look at them.

Old Town Square is huge, and there were tons of tour group, guides with red umbrellas sticking up into the air like spires in the City of a Hundred Spires. Some booths on one side of the square were selling beer and grog, and one was roasting a whole pig right there -- Old Prague Ham is a staple of the Czech diet, apparently.

We tried some traditional Czech fare at U Supa, a restaurant a few blocks off the square that got good reviews. I wasn't OVERLY impressed, but the goulash came in really tasty gravy, and it was pleasant to eat out on the sidewalk on the raised wooden platform, watching the street scene unfold. The inside of the restaurant is massive, but no one was in there. That's still one of my favorite things about Europe -- the obsession with dining al fresco.

After our late lunch, we crossed the Čechuv most ("most" means bridge) and climbed the stairs (yes, more stairs!) to Letna Park to see the huge Metronome, but sadly, it wasn't even ticking! There's also a "Shoe Monument" up here -- a bunch of shoes tossed over a wire. The views of Prague are nice, too. It was good to see the city from a different angle than from the castle and the monastery.

From here, we realized how close we were to the castle grounds, so we wandered from the bottom up (east to west, technically, but it is a gradual incline), seeing the sections we didn't see yesterday.

We came out at the top of the street called Uvoz again, the street we spent most of our time on yesterday, so we went into a small restaurant called hOST for a drink and a dessert to relax before heading back to our AirBnB to rest a bit before dinner.

I'm told I'm "batting 1,000" on restaurants. My choice for dinner tonight was in line with such success. Restaurant R.M. Rilke is halfway between the Charles Bridge and the bridge right below it, close to the river. The entrance takes you down a few steps from street level, and it's appropriately cozy inside. The ceilings are curved, cave-like, and a bit low, but it's not uncomfortable. The tables are old and don't all match, some seating looks like old church pews, some tables have settees and matching upholstered chairs. Of course, portraits of Rainer Marie Rilke, the Bohemian poet, were scattered around on the walls, along with a photo of a pope (John Paul II?), other old portraits, and pin-up girls from the 30s(ish).

It was a charming spot, and the waiter was friendly and patient. We all ordered salmon in different preparations -- smoked and stuffed in chicken, grilled over veggies, and cubed over salad -- and it was all very delicious.

I'd chosen a bar one block up for an after-dinner drink, and given how full we all were, it was nice to simply roll ourselves up the street and in the door.

Hemingway Bar seems like a little local gem. Though this place is on the map, literally and figuratively, it feels like some speakeasies I've been to in the states: a host seats you instead of there being open seating, and once every seat is taken, the bar is full, and you are turned away. No standing room here. (Though they do take reservations.) There are "rules" on the first page of the menu, which include "no vulgar language," "don't speak to other guests unless you know them; respect others' privacy," and "don't buy drinks for other people unless you have asked the bartender first to find out if it's okay."

It was the first food and beverage establishment we tried that I think is actually frequented by locals on a regular basis. We saw people coming out with briefcases, suggesting they had come straight from work to have a drink, and the crowd was generally young professionals, maybe the hipsters of Prague.

The bar is advertised as offering "fine mixology and luxury spirits," and the suspender-clad bartenders do take their drinks quite seriously. I ordered an English Mustard, a gin drink that came with a slice of bacon, and Dad ordered an Orange Mandarin, which came with a toasted marshmallow! Both were fantastic, and I would love to try more things off the menu.

If I ever come back to Prague, I'll be returning to Hemingway Bar, I think!

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Prague has definitely grown on me.

Today we explored on Petrin Hill (we took the funicular up), tried trdelnik, which is a spiraled pastry coated in cinnamon and sugar, then wandered through the Jewish Quarter, Josefov. The facades of the buildings in this neighborhood are beautiful and ornate. Just walking the streets is a pleasure for the eyes.

We had another fantastic dinner at Klub Architektu, a well-reviewed restaurant well deserving of its reputation.

The restaurant is underground, underneath Bethlehem Chapel, built in the 1390s as the first preacher’s temple in Europe, but which is now the ceremonious hall of the Czech Technical University after the institution assumed responsibility for it around 1990.

The space is cool.

Cavernous, dark, arch-roofed dining rooms with very low-hung and strangely modern orange-tinted lamps over each table, giving the whole place a bit of a spooky feel. The food was fantastic -- pumpkin seems to be a very popular flavor to base dishes around in this area, and I am not complaining.

We are a family that requires chocolate on a regular basis, but rather than getting dessert at Klub Architektu, we headed to Choco Cafe, a relaxed space that serves chocolate in many forms, so as to have an opportunity to try one more Prague establishment before we had to leave the city.

My parents ordered a truly divine chocolate cake with mousse layers, and I got hot "drinking chocolate" with bananas and strawberries. This was sinful, people. Truly. It was almost too rich to finish the whole thing, but I persevered.

For our last night, we got some tickets to see jazz at Agharta, which is just a block or two off of Old Town Square, and thus caters to tourists (the musicians even introduced themselves and their songs in English -- ONLY), which is always a bit of a bummer, but it was a neat space and a great band.

The club, like the Klub, is underground. In another small cavernous space, the band was set up: piano, double bass, tenor sax, and drums -- one of the better jazz combos, in my opinion. We had a table right up front, so it was really fun to watch the solos and really get into the music.

The club had a few things for sale, one of which was a huge poster of the history of jazz and blues, which little photographs of tons of musicians and some details about them all arranged in a sort of family tree of music. I wanted to buy one for my brother, who plays piano -- and lots of jazz -- but I wasn't sure I could trust myself to keep up with a poster as I traipse through Europe for the next two months. Perhaps I will regret it.

A fantastic end to a wonderful three(ish) days in Prague.

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