Friday 5 December 2014

Last year we went to the Christmas markets in Munich. This year, we’re going to Prague! Out of Gatwick, on a 6pm flight ready for a weekend in the cold weather!

We landed at 9pm, on time and whizzed through the airport. It’s always so quick getting out of European airports! And our taxi driver was waiting for us. It was a 30 minute drive into the city, no traffic at all, until we drove past Prague castle.

All lit up, it was so pretty – the castle looking over the river, the lights on the bridges with dancing reflections in the water. And crowds of people. We are staying on Wenceslas Square and have part of the Christmas market right on our doorstep! After dropping our bags, we headed back outside, but it was now 10pm and the stalls were all closing up for the night. So time for bed!

Saturday 6 December 2014

Stepping out of the door and right into the markets again. And this time they were open! First thing on the agenda – breakfast. And what is more perfect than a trdelnik. This is a sweet dough, rolled around a metal pole. The metal pole then sits above hot coals and spins until cooked. Then it is rolled in sugar, cinnamon and almonds. Served warm – perfect for keeping your hands warm! And is sooo delicious!! I had never heard of them before – turns out they are a Czech specially (also found in Slovakia and actually originate in Slovakia). They are not just a Christmas delight, there were shops all over the city with ubiquitous spiral plastic models above their doors. Yum!!

We managed to locate some tram tickets at a newspaper kiosk and went to wait for the tram to take us up to the castle. We didn’t have to wait pretty long, but it was rather packed! Didn’t get to see much of the scenery due to the numbers of people – but we did pass over the river and back up the hill we drove down yesterday, with nice views back across the city.

We may as well have caught the metro – would have been quicker! Almost the entire tram emptied out when we reached the castle.

The castle looms over the city and has been the seat of the Czech monarchs since the 9th century and grew over the years to be what it is now – a large walled area, full of courtyards and lanes. We entered the castle grounds across the Stag Moat, over the Powder bridge and into the second courtyard, the entrance was flanked by guards in their uniforms.

After passing through a narrow walkway, we entered the third courtyard and joined a long queue to enter into the St Vitus Cathedral. This cathedral took over 600 years to build. Construction began in 1344 and was completed in 1681.

Inside the cathedral was huge. The walls were adorned with massive stained glass windows – they were incredibly detailed and so bright! Behind the cathedral, in St George square there was a large Christmas tree and a great view looking back at the domes of the cathedral. On this square is the bright orange Basilica of St George.

We wandered around some of the small lanes, past nativity scenes and lots of statues. At one of the cafes we stopped for some ‘hot wine’ – mulled wine. It was nice and warming out in the freezing air! And it had started drizzling with rain too, which was a tad annoying!

We left via the main gates, it was chaotic out here! So many people everywhere. But such great views across the city from just outside the gates. These gates were also flanked by guards. The guards change over every hour, but we just missed the 12pm change over.

We wandered through the streets, winding our way down the hill. We popped into some of the shops – chocolate, gingerbread, t shirts and magnets were the main attractions here!! I enjoyed the supermarket (!) and it was so cheap! Stocked up on a few snacks for the weekend and a few bits to take home!

Petrin hill, at 318m tall, sits over the western side of the city. There is a funicular running up the side, to the top. (Or we could have walked….). This funicular began its operations in 1891 and is still running today, albeit with rather newer trains! There was quite a queue to get into the funicular station, so we joined the queue to get in. But then realised that queue was just for the actual funicular. And we didn’t have a ticket. So by the time we had bought a ticket, we needed to wait for the next tram. And they only go every 15 minutes. So after nearly half an hour of waiting, we were finally heading upwards!

The view wasn’t that great from the tram – rather obstructed by the trees. At the top is a large park (but a bit bleak in the winter, with not much to look at!) and the Petrin lookout tower. Which of course, I had to go up! As you climbed, it became windier – and could feel the tower being blown side to side! It was all open and felt quite exposed! The top level was completely disappointing – made of glass panels and all fogged up! So I headed back down the stairs to where it was open and you could actually see out! Unfortunately today the views were not that great. It was raining (all day!) and foggy. You could still see across the city, with the bridges weaving across the river, but not quite the amazing city view that it could have been.

Prague is known as the ‘City of a hundred spires’. Many were visible – but it would have been better without the fog!! The 32 czk tram ticket allows you as much travel as you like within 90 minutes. As we were reaching our 90 minutes, we made our way back to the tram stop – much quieter this time!

Back down on street level, we made our way back up the road to the Charles Bridge. This bridge was commissioned in 1357 to replace a previous bridge that was washed away in floods in 1342. Today it is a 500m long circus of people. Street sellers lining both sides and so many people that you cannot even see the bridge. Wow it was chaotic. At each end of the bridge are look-out towers, and lining the bridge are black statues. It was pretty. But far too busy!

As we made our way to the eastern side, the views back up to the castle were really pretty. The streets from the bridge to the main square were packed with people and souvenir shops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many souvenir shops – and all the same – t shirts, scarves, fur hats, glass items, magnets and absinthe. By now it was 4pm and already getting dark.

By about 4.15pm it was dark. So early! We finally made it (slowly!) out into the main square. And it didn’t get any better. One one side, the town hall with its 60m tall tower, on the other side the Church of our lady of Tyn with its two huge black ornate towers. And in the middle of the square – the Christmas market. You couldn’t move!! Let alone get anywhere near any of the Christmas market.

We managed to squeeze around the edges, but it was pointless. So we nipped down some back streets and headed back to the hotel for a rest and to dry off. Food in Prague is typically meat – goulash and lumps of meat. I did a bit of research beforehand and booked a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. And I’m so glad I did – it was packed! We shared some pumpkin hummus, then I had a green Thai, aubergine curry and it was so delicious!! And a massive portion, so I was disappointed that I couldn’t order dessert!

Once back at the markets, it was suddenly so quiet! And we were actually able to walk around and look at things! The stalls weren’t that varied, just trdelnik (the rolls of dough), crisps, small wooden magnets, iron bells and wooden Angels. That was about it! Not as good as the Munich markets. Obviously it’s more of a German thing. I’ve never had chestnuts before! So I bought a bag from one of the stalls, 50 czk for a small bag. They were nice and warm to hold, out in the freezing night air. Not so nice to eat, they were ok. Not desperate to have them again.

We happened to be wandering past the clock on the side of the town hall just before 9pm and joined the crowds of people waiting for the clock to chime. The clock was surprisingly low down – almost at street level! It is called the Astronomical clock as it tells sunrise, sunset, months, seasons and the time. When 9pm arrived, a small bell was ringing – pulled by a skeleton. Small windows opened at the top and small figures passed by. Within 45 seconds it was all over…well that was worth waiting for….! The stalls were closing up again for the night, so time to head back and warm up!!

Sunday 7 December 2014

I was so tired this morning and was nearly 10am by the time I got up. First stop this morning, back to the old square and up the town hall tower! We passed through the beginning of the crowds and bought tickets – 110 each, then made our way to the actual entrance. And stood in the next queue. It took nearly 40 minutes until we reached the front – lucky we weren’t in a rush!

This tower, unlike basically all others, is not a narrow, stone, spiralling staircase. Instead, it’s a light, airy, wide, spiralling walkway around the inside of the rectangular tower. However, once we got to the stop, it was another queue until we could get out into the open! The view was great – much better than yesterday, the fog had cleared. The orange roofs of the buildings, interspersed by green turrets of churches, the castle upon the hill and the large open space of the main square.

It was just turning 12pm and the crowds in front of the astrological clock was ridiculous. It looked like you wouldn’t even be able to move down there! What was quite worrying, was that the tower had no barrier. There was a small, waist-high barrier, but that was it. Anyone could have thrown something off the top, or even jumped off! Quite unusual!

We headed back down and back outside. Took us just over an hour to go up the tower! I just cannot believe the numbers of people around. It’s so cold and wintery and yet it totally packed everywhere. To the point that it was impossible to just walk down the street!!

We wandered around for a while, before making our way to the river. The walk along the river was much nicer – quiet, amazing views and just a lot less chaotic! Back at Wenceslas Square we stopped for lunch at an Asian noodle bar. I had some vegetable sushi, which was really good! Then we walked up to the other end of the square.

This square is 1km long (didn’t look that long!) with the national museum at one end. Infront of the museum is a statue of Wenceslas and several memorials. This square has been the site of many historic protests, including the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering around the huge square and enjoying one last trdelnik.

Back to London. This year, despite being back to ‘normal’ life, I’ve managed to spent 86 days out of England. That’s 24% of the year abroad. Not too bad!! Wonder if I can beat that next year…!


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