Nov 17

Exploring Prague, Czech Republic

We had one full day in Prague both to explore the city and have fun. When I planned the European portion of our adventure I made sure that all our lodgings were within walking distance of the most important sights. In older European cities most of the activity swirls around the city center where there’s usually a public square, a church or cathedral, and a castle. In Prague the historic district straddles the Vitava River with a hilltop castle on one side and the vibrant city center with it’s town square, shops and neighborhoods on the other. The two sides were connected by a series of bridges, the most important being the 14th century Charles Bridge named after it’s builder, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.

Vitava River. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

We were staying on the castle side of the river and since we had spent our time in Budapest in the old hilltop castle district of Buda, we decided in Prague we would focus our attention on long walks through the city center. Setting out we wound our way through cobble stone streets and found ourselves in a beautiful neighborhood riverside park. Yellow fall leaves remained and added a splash of color to the lush palette of greens. As we walked a path along the Vitava we could see gothic spires in the distance and the many stone bridges fording the river.  We crossed over and found ourselves in the bustling city center with wide modern streets criss crossed by cobblestoned ones. (Cobblestones are hard on the feet so wear good walking shoes if you are not accustomed to them.)

The city center was large and would take several hours to explore. The first area we walked through was fairly modern with electric trolleys, large stores, smaller shops, back alleys, and bistros. Christy wanted to find the local camera pro shop, we had directions and a map but the maze of streets were still confusing. While studying the map, a man walked up to us and in perfect english said “are those Leicas?” No they’re not, we’re using Fuji’s  and a big Nikon DLSR. I showed him my little Xpro-2 and Christy her XT-2.

He introduced himself as Misha and we began talking. He had lived in the US for 40 years but returned to his native Prague because he objected to his tax dollars being used for US wars in the middle east. We talked some more and he insisted the camera store we were looking for was in an opposite direction than we had been told. He even asked us to walk with him over to another street and around the corner and pointed down an alley. Christy and I looked at each other. Then Misha smiled, said he had to catch a trolley, kissed our hands and hurried away.

Cyclist. Prague, Czech Republic. 2016

We did explore the alley, just a little, then walked into a shop and asked questions. There was no camera shop in that neighborhood. Returning to the map we went back to way we had been headed and after several minutes found the correct shop. Unfortunately they didn’t have what we were looking for but I did see some great books including several by and about Josef Koudelka who had witnessed and photographed the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

We continued to criss cross and explore the city center and worked our way over to a little Italian restaurant that had been recommended to us for lunch. It was cold so I ordered Minestrone soup and a salad. Christy had ravioli. The soup was light, warm and wonderful, just what was needed. We took the opportunity to rest our feet for a few minutes and I pulled out my journal to write for a bit. Happy and warm we ventured back outside. There was a torture museum nearby with a mannequin in a torture device in the window. Christy wanted to go in, I refused. I had made the mistake of going through a torture museum in London several years ago and I will never do it again. Man’s inhumanity to man has been horrific and grotesque, I wanted no part of it.

Christmas Market. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

Have I mentioned that cobblestones are hard on the feet? They are. We walked and walked and some more. They city was beautiful and soot covered bits of ancient gothic architecture would poke out at various locations reminding me of its long history. As we headed back toward the river we found the town square and the Christmas market had begun. Food stands selling local treats, meats and hot wine were thronging with people. The hot wine looked and smelled so good! Christmas Markets are one of my favorite things about Europe this time of year.

Charles Bridge. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

We crossed back over the Vtiava, this time on the Charles Bridge. The Charles was a beautiful gothic stone bridge, probably the most beautiful I’ve seen. There were several religious statues lining the bridge, one in particular with panels rubbed smooth by centuries of devotees.

It wasn’t far back to our lodgings and we found ourselves doubling back through the pretty little park we had passed through in the morning. It hadn’t lost any of it’s charm.

John Lennon Wall. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

I think Prague may have become my favorite new European city, excluding Venice which is a world unto itself.

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Nov 17

Langos and Driving from Budapest to Prague

Budapest was beautiful and interesting, and the river views from the hills of Buda were spectacular. We had a nice breakfast at the hotel. I sat and wrote in my Traveler’s Notebook and made a drawing using the handle of my fork as a stylus and my cup of coffee as ink. Drawing in my journal with coffee has been a funny little ritual I began a few years ago as a way to capture my time in a new place.

Speaking of food, Christy had to have real Hungarian langos. Langos is a street food, deep fried bread traditionally topped with sour cream and cheese. There was a shop that sold langos not far away, about a kilometer or so. It was time for us to check out anyway so we gathered up our things, hopped in the car and drove to the store. The directions seemed easy and in hindsight they were but driving in traffic when you don’t speak the language can sometimes be nerve wracking and you tend to second guess yourself. It wasn’t too hard but we managed to find the store and thankfully there was a parking lot next door, it was a paid indoor garage. The garage was kind of cool because it had a car wash on one side, a tire shop on another and seemingly more shops the further and deeper you went. Picking a spot not far from the entrance we hopped out and headed up the ramp toward the sunlight coming in from the street above. A man walked out a doorway to my left and started talking to me in Hungarian. I replied “I’m sorry I don’t understand” to which he started walking toward me gesturing in different directions and talking more earnestly. To this I smiled, nodded my head and said “yes it is a lovely day isn’t it” and headed for the exit.

Butcher. Budapest, Hungary.2017

The shopping center turned out to be a grocery store of sorts, with three levels of small outdoor shops, each selling meats or fruits or vegetables with the locals strolling through buying their supplies for the week. I’ve been to outdoor markets all over the world and they range from horrible and frightening to homey and clean. I’ll never forget the platter of roasted rats in Laos. This market was neat and well kept, clearly falling into the homey and clean category. That’s something I noticed about Budapest in general, for a historic city, it was very clean. We walked up three levels and found the Langos vendor, success! Wandering back toward the parking lot I was a little nervous I might run into my new friend but he was nowhere to be seen.

Getting out of Budapest by car on a weekday morning was a traffic nightmare. We made a few wrong turns and it felt like we were stuck in a labyrinth, nearly an hour later we finally emerged onto the highway and plotted a course for Bratislava, Slovakia. Bratislava was on the way to Prague and would allow us to check another country off our list, and it was beautiful to drive through.

The countryside in this part of Europe was rolling hills and fertile farmland, you didn’t see many towns or houses, at least not from the highway but there were many signs for historic places to visit along the way. Ordinarily I would have loved nothing more than to stop and explore but it was such a long travel day we just kept moving.

As we got closer to Bratislava, we could see boxy rectangular buildings stacked up in the distance. We’d seen these before, the concrete high density housing known as “Stalins”. You read that right, “Stalins.” These buildings were named after the Soviet Dictator because he was the one that promoted their construction for the proletariat all across the USSR. We had learned about them in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks were resentful of these buildings and considered them blight. We weren’t surprised to see “Stalins” in former Czechoslovakia but were happy to see the construction of newer more beautiful buildings going up around them.

The rest of the drive to Prague was even more beautiful with rolling hills, pine forests, and cool crisp clean air. Prague itself was a revelation, with Onion domes and old world charm.

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