Prague

Jenny Handley touched down in Prague for three days, and found the Czech cuisine hearty and wholesome enough to provide sustenance for the rest of her whistle-stop tour of Eastern Europe.

Arriving at our spacious apartment in the heart of the Old Town, my 20-something travelling companions were delighted that it held court to a beer garden in the centre, while I, more vintage and circumspect, immediately thought of the late-night noise. I needn’t have worried as the locals in the Czech Republic capital are courteous and considerate, and outside revellers are sent inside before midnight. Looking down on the busy lunchtime trade from the window of our airy apartment, we caught sight of a succulent baby pig on a spit, accompanied by pretzels and potatoes.
We immediately fell in love with this city that offers something for everyone’s appetite, from gothic, baroque, Romanesque and modern architecture, to history and heritage, shopping and colourful cuisine. Broken into five areas (Old Town, Jewish Quarter, Prague Castle, Little Quarter and New Town), the compact city of Prague is unique, with its square cobbles laid in narrow one-way streets, plentiful Pilsner signage and the Vltava River.

Our abode was in a side alley neighboured by an erotica supermarket, antiques, boutiques and a plethora of stores that sell the famous Czech garnets and Bohemia crystal. It is a beer drinking nation, yet shops and restaurants are interspersed with absintheries (absinthe is alcohol reputed to cause memory lapses) and wine outlets. Looking above the quaint street signage you are inspired by the steeples of beautiful churches and, from most viewpoints in the city, the imposing vista of Prague Castle. We chose to walk for 40 minutes in the searing midday heat across Charles Bridge to make the noontime Changing of the Guards. Getting side-tracked along the way by the sights of the pretty artisans’ cottages in Gardeners’ Lane meant that we missed the fanfare.

However, it didn’t matter as there was plenty to enthral within the castle walls. We summited St Vitus Cathedral, the soul of the castle, by climbing a narrow circle of 287 cement steps, to enjoy a breathtaking panoramic view of this majestic city. Stopping at a pavement café in the Little Quarter for a late lunch, we soaked up the charm and architecture of the old houses in the area, famous for its Church of St Nicholas. Other street treats included the sausage stands and persuasive ice-cream sellers. Gyro (kebabs) and pastries also hit the spot when we wanted a snack on the move.

Absintherie and ice cream

The following day we managed to witness the noon bells pealing on the pedestrianised Old Square, a melodious rendition that brings everyone out into the sunshine to see the trumpeter as he blasts from each side of the turret. The striking Old Town Hall houses the tower and a gallery that gives a memorable and sweeping city view. The astronomical clock is a favourite with tourists – the mechanical figures perform their ritual above the zodiac signs with a calendar forming the lower section. A row of baroque façades of houses on the south side are as impressive as the imposing Church of Our Lady before Týn, which dominates the east.

On this bustling square we were prepared to pay premium prices for eating average fare against a dramatic backdrop of activity and architecture in a carnival atmosphere. Lunch of pork rolls and goulash soup (served in hollowed-out bread), washed down with thirst-quenching beer, gave us strength for an afternoon of pedalling on the Vltava River, an ideal and relaxing way of seeing the sights. As our three-seater boat only had pedals for two, I pulled rank and reclined in the deck chair at the back while the youth pedalled us forward!

Church of Our Lady before Týn on the Old Town Square

An outdoor dinner on Charles Bridge (which joins the Old Town and Little Quarter) was aborted when we were drenched by an unexpected early evening summer thunderstorm. It gave us a good excuse to indulge in a(nother) hearty meal, so we wound our way home after the downpour past the souvenir sellers and musicians on the bridge. We settled at ‘our’ beer garden for a delicious and substantial feast of roasted pork knee with a variety of mustards, chilli sauce and horseradish, chicken wings, chilli salsa, beer and wine. The meal cost 620 Czech koruna before a tip (approximately R240). Main courses are always accompanied by potatoes, rice or dumplings. Pork is prince on most menus, roasted on the bone and often served with red cabbage.

On our final day we walked to Wenceslas Square where the communist regime was overthrown during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. This area also forms the heart of the shopping district. Prague boasts many of the European high fashion brands, so we did our bit for the European economy by making the most of the summer sales. It has become one perform their ritual above the zodiac signs with a calendar forming the lower section. A row of baroque façades of houses on the south side are as impressive as the imposing Church of Our Lady before Týn, which dominates the east.

Restaurants spill out onto the cobbled streets

On this bustling square we were prepared to pay premium prices for eating average fare against a dramatic backdrop of activity and architecture in a carnival atmosphere. Lunch of pork rolls and goulash soup (served in hollowed-out bread), washed down with thirst-quenching beer, gave us strength for an afternoon of pedalling on the Vltava River, an ideal and relaxing way of seeing the sights. As our three-seater boat only had pedals for two, I pulled rank and reclined in the deck chair at the back while the youth pedalled us forward!

An outdoor dinner on Charles Bridge (which joins the Old Town and Little Quarter) was aborted when we were drenched by an unexpected early evening summer thunderstorm. It gave us a good excuse to indulge in of the most visited European cities with good reason – offering great value in addition to museums, galleries, churches, synagogues, palaces and gardens. By now a habit of stopping for beer and ice cream after sightseeing or meals had become a happy holiday habit, so we chose from one of the countless cafés on the outskirts of the square for sustenance.

Trams, taxis and the metro make getting around easy and affordable, but we opted to walk off our hearty Czech no-frills fare and beer on foot. A two-hour bicycle tour is a good way to familiarise yourself with Prague, as is the brewery tour. A walking tour of the local microbreweries and pubs, it starts at the oldest brewery near the Old Town Square and gives insight into the famous Czech beer culture and brewing traditions. A certificate rating your beer-drinking abilities is a fun memento. Three days of feasting on the sights of this fabulous city had whetted our appetites for experiencing more of the flavours of Eastern Europe.

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