Finding peace in Prague

After my brief stopover in Leipzig, I caught the train by way of Dresden, to Prague, the attractive Czech capital just as desirable to holidaying couples as it is to rowdy men on stag dos. Since my return, the go-to question on everyone’s lips is ‘what was your favourite place?’ and it’s hard to single out one city as encompassing everything. But Prague comes closest. It’s easily walkable (you’ve been warned, I’m a reluctant customer of public transport, take easily with a pinch of salt) and feels inherently more ‘manageable’ or at least, negotiable than the vastness of Berlin. It also felt like the most ‘holiday’ destination of the pack, what with the extraordinarily good weather, alfresco dining and majestic ambience of the French riviera. Surrounded by castles, operas and fin de siècle cafes, extravagance turned out to be the name of the game.

On my first night I walked from Můstek, where I was staying (on the cusp of the main high street effectively, the central location comes part-and-parcel with the percussive disquiet of late night revellers and general congregations), along part of the River Vltava and towards Old Town. There were clusters of beer-clutching people sat along the river, feet dangling towards the water that immediately evoked those lazy halcyon summer days that it feels increasingly likely we’re going to miss out on in Britain this year. I made a mental note of my route as I passed the Charles Bridge (along with the Old Town Square, the place you’ll trap the most snap-happy tourists. Selfie sticks galore), which I planned to return to in the morning. From there, with my Vitamin D quota quenched, I relaxed into an outdoor seat at Mistral Café.

20160607_192300This modern, minimalist cafe offers a more refined menu than most of your traditional Czech eateries and I definitely recommend it if you’re in the market for something lighter. I had the tofu in coconut milk, red curry and coriander sauce and with vegetable and jasmine rice, which provided a sublime and gently fragranced respite from the pasta-based vegetarian offerings I had grown accustomed to. With an accompanying glass of wine, a mascarpone dessert and a shot of Baileys for good measure, it was here I discovered what good value Prague is. The meal came to 425czk which I promptly discovered equates to 12 whole British pounds. 12 quid! You’d pay that for an alright burger in London, let alone a fancy pants curry with a side of alcohol and dessert. I was so elated I immediately rang my mother. “I’m going to eat SO well” I declared.

Surrounded by castles, operas and fin de siècle cafes, extravagance turned out to be the name of the game.

I wandered home via Old Town Square, a thriving historical site, deemed to be the heart and soul of the city, whereupon iconic buildings such at St. Nicholas’ Church and monuments such as the Astronomical Clock fringe the cobble-stone interior; a venue for markets circa the middle ages. Milling around the square these days, you’ll find large groups of tourists and holidaymakers, soaking up the sunshine and eclectic architecture whilst sipping on some Pilsner Urquell.

I stayed in an Airbnb not far from the main railway station; a spacious private room that allowed me all the luxuries of living alone (5pm bath-time became a thing) for 4 nights for just £75. Plus (or minus, depending on your taste for risk) the complex where the flat was located had continually rotating lifts – no stopping, no starting, no doors, no floors – just hop in (be quick about it) and hop out at your desired destination. It became a game for me to launch myself into said lift and not wait for the ‘box’ to reach my level. Such are the lengths one has to go to for amusement when travelling by oneself.

My first proper day in Prague consisted of an early start, grabbing a Czech pastry (something in the shape of a stick, with a sweet-cheese filling) and a coffee to go, and walking across the Charles Bridges as the city stretched itself awake. I couldn’t recommend visiting the bridge before the crowds beat you to it enough. It’s distinctly less stressful and allows more time to luxuriate in the staggering views.

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Another advantage to the early start is that hiking up towards Prague castle becomes a much more pleasant endeavour when not done in the heat of the day. Prague Castle is a medieval fortress marketed as the largest in the world and potentially the basis for the Disney logo considering the fairytale comparisons it inspires. It’s no wonder you see handfuls of couples using the backdrop for their wedding photos. A ‘long tour’ ticket will set you back 350czk (a tenner), and includes access to St Vitus’ Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, Story of Prague Castle, Basilica of St George, Powder Tower, Golden Lane and Rosenberg Palace. The gardens were unequivocally my favourite aspect of the vast complex, offering unparalleled views over the city and a tranquil destination for some post-breakfast ponderings.

Once completing the circuit of the castle, I headed up towards the Strahov Monastery, which considering my disinterest in religion might appear a strange choice, but this Premonstratensian abbey also lays claim to a library housing 16k+ books, a stucco-panelled theological hall and generally just some very pristine interiors which deserve appreciation. I was one of about four people wandering around at the time, which made for a serene and slightly uncanny experience.

The other main attraction in Hradčany (the Castle District) is the Petrin Observation Tower, which is purportedly taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You have to pay 100czk and climb 299 steps (up a spiral staircase) for the privilege of panoramic views, but consider it your work-out for the day and it’s also located within a rather charming park, so unless you suffer vertigo, or have an aversion to awe-inspiring scenery, definitely check it out.

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At this point, I was deserving of lunch. I walked back towards Old Town via the Lennon Wall, a bohemian, peace-espousing mural inspired by the famously iconoclastic Beatle, which has become a prime spot for millennials to snap cute Instagram pictures of themselves. It was painted over in 2014, but has since been reborn with another generation of artists, resistant or otherwise, making their mark on the city.

I had lunch at Kafka Snob Food a darkly lit cafe-bistro with turquoise interiors, tan leather booths, eclectically-coloured chairs, exposed steel-ducts and brick walls. It wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch. The menu consists of Italian pasta dishes and a delectable array of pastries to satiate the appetite you’ve worked up after some hefty touristing.

Milling around the square these days, you’ll find large groups of tourists and holidaymakers, soaking up the sunshine and eclectic architecture whilst sipping on some Pilsner Urquell.

I then walked back towards Old Town Square and popped into the Prague City Gallery where they were hosting a retrospective of the works of David Cronenberg. Random, perhaps, but a dynamic and insightful overview of the Canadian director’s oeuvre nevertheless. The exhibition also included a cinema where they showed two of his films a day. I caught a middle section of Fast Company, a lovably hokey drag-racing movie that feels more Linklater than Cronenberg. There are plenty of other galleries in Prague to seek out if contemporary art is your thing.

That night I sampled a taste of extravagance at the opera. I booked a last minute ticket to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Estates Theatre or Stavovské divadlo, Prague’s oldest theatre and where Mozart premiered his magnum opus Don Giovanni. The surroundings are plush and as when entering a library you feel compelled to be on your best behaviour; spine straight, shoulders back, no yawning or rustling. Not that distractions or boredom are likely when the entertainment is this extraordinary. Classical music and operatic singing are unfathomable talents; otherworldly and transcendent. Even if I didn’t always understand what was going (a German opera being translated into Czech with additional English subtitles) the music was always there to elevate the simplistic plot – kidnap, love, betrayal e.t.c – into something enchanting. Even though I only forked out for gallery seats, the venue is intimate enough that you don’t require binoculars or too much strenuous craning to appreciate the onstage happenings. It was a pretty magical setting to experience the opera for the first time.

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The next day in Prague I visited Vysehrad, another castle on a hill. If historical buildings and ruins aren’t really your thing, I’d say do Prague castle and maybe skip this one. It’s slightly further out and not quite as extraordinary. That being said, the cemetery and basilica provide a beautiful spot for some vacation-induced contemplation; tackling life’s big existential questions etcetera and because of its subsidiary status in Prague’s castle-off is much more subdued place in which to do so.

Also factor the Dancing House into your strolls. I happened upon it after Vysehrad and it’s contemporary, jutting structures provided a striking contrast to the historical architecture in the city. Its avant-garde, deconstructivist style is the brainchild of local architect Vlado Milunic and US import Frank Gehry. Whilst fairly inconsistent with the rest of the city’s more traditional aesthetic, it makes for a diverting (in a good way) addition.

I then retreated to Cafe Savoy for an afternoon spent perusing English newspapers and reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Housed in a fin de siècle building with tall, light-beckoning windows, reflective chandeliers, and marble-topped tables spanning a fluid split-level seating arrangement, its glittering interior harkens back to the belle epoque. A.k.a. It’s well posh, innit. For food I had the foamy pea soup, a vibrant, almost offensive shade of green, which was divine if a little on the airy side, (and a side of fries) followed up with the guide-book recommended apple strudel (or Štrůdl, as it’s known in Czech), which is so well-renowned it takes pride of place on the counter – freshly baked – and is sliced upon request. Customers frequently popped in just to order that. The waiters were crisply-dressed and suitably attentive and fellow customers gave off an air of rarefied gentry. I felt a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio eating with 1st class guests aboard the Titanic, without the slicked back hair and tailcoat.

 

 

The next day I decided to take a brief respite from the city and catch a tram to Divoká Šárka, a nature reserve on the outskirts of the capital and trekked around the gorge. It was reminiscent of Slovenia, though not quite as breathtaking. Still, the cool air, bird calls and trickle of the stream that runs through the valley was an agreeable divergence from the sonorous city.

It being my last night I decided to sample even more of Prague’s ritzy cuisine and opted for Cafe Slavia, situated opposite the National Opera and overlooking the banks of the river Vlatva. In it’s heyday the cafe was said to the haunt of Kafka and his bohemian cronies, including Václav Havel, a play of who’s (The Garden Party) I was reading during my meal. It was a sprawling, resplendent affair, from the moment I spontaneously splashed out on a bottle of expensive Italian wine all to myself, to the three course extravaganza I proceeded to languidly devour. Considering its 300-seat capacity and penchant for being crammed, it was remarkably quiet, punctuated only by chit-chat and the piano player in the far corner. If good food and a little romance are what you’re after, Cafe Slavia isn’t to be overlooked.

Prague was sort of a like a lavish love affair that wined and dined me, but that I knew wouldn’t last. It was 3.5 days of picturesque idyll and kaleidoscopic sunsets, and Munich was the rainy reality that set in afterwards. However cursory, it became a symbol of my victory over solo travel. I never once thought about the oddness or awkwardness of my self-enforced solitude, I simply luxuriated in it. And for that Prague will be dearly cherished.

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