by Sean McAllen 10 months ago in europe

A weekend's journey

You could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the Iberian peninsula while walking through the sunny streets of Prague. Beautiful architecture and buildings covered in striking pastel shades sit proudly along the banks of the river Vltava, stretching on for miles in any direction.

We arrived from the early morning chill of England to what felt like the suns core. It was about 30 degrees and the sun was blaring down on us hardly a cloud in sight. We took the 119 bus from the airport and transferred onto the metro “A” line, stopping at Staroměstská. Climbing up the steps to the pavement we were both instantly blown away by the grandeur of the long symmetrical buildings lining the streets. The city looks as imperial and wealthy as any in Europe I’ve yet seen. Years spent as the seat of the kings of Bohemia and as a trading and cultural hub have left a permanent brush stroke on the canvas that is Prague. Additionally, having suffered little to no conflict the city has been left to grow and sprawl as its needs dictate.

With our eyes firmly fixed upon the buildings our feet were left to blindly lead us down to the riverside. Having arrived in the Old Town (Staré Město) we had the absolute privilege to be looking out across the river at Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, and the beautiful Charles Bridge. Neither of us said much, we just stood in awed silence letting our eyes drink up the beauty of what we were seeing. The bright red roofs dotted along the embankment and climbing up to the castle walls along with the many gothic and baroque spires command your gaze, while the sounds of the river and people milling about complete the assault on your senses.

Like the thousands of others we headed for the bridge to get a closer look. The narrow roads we followed opened up into a large square where the Old Town Bridge Tower looms imposingly in black brick and religious symbology. As you pass under the large archway the Bohemian imperial crests are emblazoned on the ceiling, welcoming and foreboding, they oversee your passage into their royal home.

The Charles Bridge construction began in 1357, and was completed in the early 1400s. It continues to impress masses every day, and I tried to imagine what it must have been like for a farmer or a peasant from outside the city to see it for the first time in the 15th century. Symmetrical statues of religious figures and local heroes guide and welcome you to the imperial centre of the city. The fine features of the black stone carvings are punctuated by gold crowns and swords that glinted in the sunshine. As we were there in the dead of summer you can well imagine the crowds were staggering, and so we strolled slowly across, moving with the flow of the people.

From afar the bride looks perfectly flat, however you come to a crest in the middle and slowly plunge down towards the Lesser Town Bridge Tower. As we walked underneath the ramparts we ducked into a small door to go up to the observation deck and get a panoramic view of both sides of the city. Tiny crooked alleyways revealed themselves and more spires and towers came into sight. People were swarming like ants all through the main streets and the river was chalk full of rowers, paddlers, and party boats. The gentle breeze was a welcomed treat after having conquered the multitude of staircases on the hottest day that has ever existed in the recorded history of mankind (jeans were a baaaad choice).

Back on the ground we meandered with the slow foot traffic and made our way down the sides streets to the John Lennon memorial, where since his death people have painted and drawn portraits, lyrics, and all other sorts of Lennon-inspired art. I’ll take any excuse to do anything Beatles related, and was glad to see that his influence and music is alive and well in Prague.

At this point in the day it had been about five hours since we last ate, and we fell victim to the Prague hot weather treat—ice cream in an edible churro cone. This was to become a regular purchase of ours during our short stay, and we agreed that this culinary masterpiece needs to be made available everywhere in the world. Freshly sugar induced and ready for more, our legs carried us across the bridge and the city to our Airbnb. We seriously needed to ditch the backpacks and I needed to lose the jeans (have I mentioned it was hot?).

We checked in only to be given our keys and told, “Your apartment is on the complete opposite end of this road. Just go ahead and walk until your legs and backs break and then you’ll be there.” We walked for what felt like a lifetime. The sun was just not giving a care and raining down the pain, ultra violet style. We found our flat, and walked into the foyer of what looked like Beatlejuice’s house. Paint chipping and peeling off the walls, lights flickering, and the smell of years of tobacco and poor ventilation. Not the most endearing entrance hall.

When we made it up to our flat however, all concerns we laid waste as it was clean, well presented, and fully equipped with all mod cons (we would later learn this isn’t uncommon in Czech tower blocks). We dropped the bags and (mercifully) changed into some shorts and turned right back around to go eat. My friend Karl (he’s from New Zealand) had recommended a restaurant to us called “Pivovarský Dům”. It just so happened to be located just around the corner from our flat, which also just so happened to be located just around the corner from the hotel Karl stayed in. Great success!

We ordered some Czech traditional foods for our lunch, and a sampler of eight beers to be shared evenly (jk Jaime went to town on them). There was a banana beer, a green nettle beer, and six other kinds. We did not like the banana beer, but both loved the green nettle beer! Karl had described Czech food as “for cavemen”and he was pretty accurate! The food was very basic but hearty and savoury. Finally fed and feeling alive again, we went back out to walk the city.

This time we got down on the waterfront. Once again, the sunlight was dancing on the ripples of the dark river, almost inviting you to take a dip. Along the boardwalk there were hoses pinned upright with the nozzles set to “mist” so passers by could briefly jump under and cool off. While a tremendous waste of good water, it was so nice to quickly duck under the cold spray and continue on our way. We continued to marvel at the beauty of the architecture and colours of Prague. We stopped several times just to soak in the views and even though we were surrounded by people it felt like we were in our own little world.

Coming up to street level from where we were on the waterfront you pass through a five storey super structure with shops and stands on the ground floor. Also conveniently located on this ground floor is a Heineken ice bar. The man at the door said you get 20 minutes in the pub because its -7 degrees inside. It was too good of an opportunity to not pony up the dough and head in. Once inside, it was instantly worth it to escape the heat outdoors. There was a group of Englishmen on a stag-do inside who were already switching to glide at 5 PM (legends). The bartender was a great sport and egged them on to do beer bongs that spun through the icy walls of the bar, to chug their drinks, and to do shots upon shots. The cups were all made of ice and would melt if you didn’t drink them fast enough anyway, but that didn’t stop him yelling at them to hurry up.

After our twenty minutes in the frosty paradise were over it was time to hit the streets again. My thought on travelling is to try and combine living in the moment and not sitting still for too long. You don’t want to miss out on what else the place has to offer, but you also need to make the most out of the opportunities that present themselves. Jaime and I debated on whether or not we should go into the Ice Pub at all. Was it worth the money and the time? Should we crack on and go somewhere else? Thankfully we decided to do it, and looking back now it's one of the highlights of the trip. The atmosphere was great, and really set the tempo for the rest of our evening. It has ended up being one of the stories we’ve shared the most (thanks in no small part to the outrageous antics of the chaps we met inside).

We stayed out all evening to see the sunset over the castle and bridge, and then shuffled back to our flat. Prague by night is even more pretty than by day. The streets are beautifully lit up and the mixture of style in the architecture means that in almost every street you look down you could be standing between 300-500 years ago. Especially on streets where there are no cars or tram lines, you truly feel transported back in time. There was loads of people passing by laughing and speaking in all different languages, the moon was out and the temperature was just right, making it quite the romantic scene and I was glad to be with Jaime and be sharing it with her.

The next day we made a light breakfast and headed out to tour the castle and cathedral. Part of our original plan was to hire a car and drive south to a small city called Český Krumlov, but the hidden rental fees were way too high for us to follow through on it. Recalling how we wished we could have made it, we decided to take another kick at the can and found a local hire company within a three minute walk, so we headed over to see what fate held in store for us. 30 minutes and 40 euros later I was behind the wheel and Jaime was navigating our way out of the city and south bound. (Cheers to Royal Rent A Car). A stroke of luck put us in the only automatic car they had left that day, meaning Jaime could drive home that evening. The view on the way down was full of forestry, farmers fields, church spires poking up through the trees, and rolling mountains. The southern Bohemian landscape is very green and lush, and driving at the speed limit of 130km/h (whewwww) it whirred by as we chatted and tried to decipher what the radio hosts were saying.

We got to our destination in good time, and parked just outside of the city centre. The man working the parking gate spoke no English, but we managed to communicate enough to pay for a days parking, and headed to what would be an equally mind blowing set of sights in Český Krumlov. A medieval walled down set on an island in the river Vltava, and atop the small cliff face surrounding the river. This city boasts an incredible palace and castle complex (complete with a moat full of bears) and lovely cobblestone streets that wind up and down the river bed. Again we strolled about the city in silence. Holding hands and craning our necks upwards to take in the impressive views.

We popped into a restaurant in a medieval house with a patio on the river, and had a traditional farmers lunch with in-season veggies and a lovely local pilsner to wash it down. After our meal there was only enough time to walk through the castle complex and tour the medieval underground tunnels. We really short-changed ourselves by only allowing a few hours in this city because it is every bit as beautiful as Prague, but on a smaller scale. Regretfully, our time was up and we headed back to the car to begin the journey back to Prague.

Jaime drove on the way back and we instantly got caught in a torrential downpour. The one time the poor gal gets behind the wheel, and this is what she gets. Luckily, her Florida driving experience kicked in and she handled the hail and rain storm like a pro. I was glad I wasn’t driving as we could barely see the car ahead of us, and the windscreen wipers on this hire car must have come off of the original Ford Model-T. I was proud and impressed, quite a start to her first time driving in Europe! Fortunately before long the rain let up, and before we knew it we were back in the city. Throughout the day Jaime had been talking to her friend Jan who was from Prague and had been an exchange student in Liverpool during high school. He agreed to meet us and come for a drink even though he had to work the next day (legend), and so we went out to the city centre to wait for him. Whilst on our way we stopped for a quick snack and overheard a distinctly American accent, and saw a man wearing a University of Florida hat yelling talking back at him. It turned out to be another high school connection for Jaime, and an even more unexpected one. This young lad went to school with Jaime in Florida and was out travelling on his own. The chances of us all being in the same place at the same time, and the circumstances leading up to that event are part of what makes travelling so rewarding. Even though we are miles away from home, its moments like those that make the big wide world seem smaller and more connected.

Parting ways with our trans-Atlantic neighbour, we went to the rendezvous point to meet Jan. He was already there when we arrived, and after quick pleasantries we headed off to get some food and drink. Having a local to show you around and speak with people makes things so easy, and is also a small luxury that helps to make strange places feel more like home. Jan ordered us a traditional Czech meal and beers. We chatted and Jaime caught him up on all things Liverpool and Canada. When our food arrived, we were both slightly taken back, as it was a single pig leg on a spit with four dipping sauces. “Dig in” he said, and off we went. We continued to eat and drink and share stories, laugh, and learn about Prague and Czech life. When it was time to pay the bill, Jan said that as we were guests in his city, he would pay. We tried to stop him, but he would not have any of it. I was very moved by this as I had only just met the man that night. We told Jan he now had to come to London to stay with us so we could repay his hospitality and kindness. Sad to see our friendly Czech leave, we parted ways with the promise to do it again soon with better planning laid out.

It was our last night in Prague, and so we headed back down to the bridge one more time to look at the lights of the city and the castle walls. We stood there in the warm air, slightly drunk, and repeated our first actions of the trip. Soaking it all up, and eating ice cream in a churro cone. The bridge is pedestrianized, and when there are no cars passing by on the road behind and no trams dinging, it truly feels like you are frozen in time. Prague has left a big impact on both of us, and it will be a long time before we forget the beauty and charm of this city.

Sean McAllen
Sean McAllen
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Sean McAllen
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