Post 1 of a series – you can read my other Prague posts here.
The first thing you notice upon arriving in Prague’s Old Town centre is the buildings – the beautiful, colourful, incredibly grandiose buildings that seem to border the sky wherever you turn. My eyes were on stalks from the moment we exited the Staroměstská Metro station. I knew Prague would be beautiful, but I was awestruck to find that almost every street has architecture akin to a palace.
For now we passed by all this grandeur, necks craned, as we went to find our hotel. We found the Cloister Inn down a back street, just a minute or two from the river. Checking us in, the very pleasant receptionist noticed from my passport that we’d be here for my birthday, and said he’d find us an extra-nice room. It turned out to be huge, with the bedroom coming off a much larger antechamber.
Next on our to-do list was food, and we didn’t have to look far. Having walked through a couple of charming narrow streets to the beginning of Old Town Square, we were immediately faced by giant hunks of glistening pink meat, turning slowly and dripping with juices above a brightly burning wood fire. The unctuous smoke filled our nostrils and we had to have a taste. Called Prague Ham, this glorious rotisserie set up was to be found everywhere throughout the city’s Christmas markets. We also bought a bowl of the stodgefest being sold next door – a gooey mixture of gnocchi, cabbage, smoked bacon and cheese – as well as two beers. All of it was delicious, but unfortunately in too great supply because, due to failing to specify a portion size, we were given (and charged for) about 400g of each!
The Old Town Hall
Satiated, we continued into the square and spotted the famous astronomical clock of the Old Town Hall. It happened to be nearly 3pm, so we joined the large crowd gathered to watch the hourly display. Standing right at the front, we could just about see the marionette-like figures of men and skeletons on either side of the clock move, but the ’12 apostles’ appearing at the windows were just out of our vision. We decided to climb the clock tower to get an overview of the city.
And that we did – wow! The panoramic view from the top of Old Town Hall tower was made even better by the sunny weather, illuminating the city’s many spires and casting dramatic, angular shadows over the streets. We could look down upon the many people, some in horse-drawn carriages, milling about the square, and equally gaze across to the magnificent Prague Castle, across the river on the other side of town.
Having descended the many stairs back down, I had to stop to take some photos of the rest of the Old Town Hall building. Notable features included stunning mosaics on the ceilings, and intricate wood carvings around the doors.
Exploring the rest of Old Town
Back on solid ground, we went wandering through the square and beyond. Streets and streets of beautiful buildings kept drawing me forward, and it wasn’t long before we were lost. During our meanderings we found a strange, angular, silver statue of a pregnant woman – a taste of the city’s modern, rebellious streak hidden between its historic, elegant terraces.
Eventually we regained our bearings and found our way to the Powder Tower, the historic gate to the Old Town. It looked glorious in the twilight, but for me it was overshadowed by Municipal House – a magnificent art nouveau building housing a theatre and a restaurant. Our next destination was Wenceslas Square, where there were many more Christmas market stalls, along with a group of violinists playing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ in front of his statue (hmm, very original).
Cheap beer and a cosy dinner
It wasn’t quite time for dinner, but we wanted some respite from the dark and cold so decided to hole ourselves up in one of Prague’s many cheap beer dens. The Svejk Restaurant near our hotel fit the bill, and we nestled ourselves into a cosy corner. The rustic wooden tables all had stands hung with crunchy, salty pretzels, which became impossible to resist once we’d ordered our large glasses of Pilsner Urquell. We drank our beer and nibbled pretzels while browsing TripAdvisor for nearby restaurants, and in the end decided on one I’d had in mind from the start called Kotleta, on Old Town Square. We asked for the bill and were delighted to see that two beers and pretzels came to about £3!
With the restaurant being so central, we suspected that Kotleta might be a tourist trap. Thankfully, we couldn’t have been more wrong. While definitely very modern and accommodating to tourists, the restaurant didn’t disappoint in any way. We opened the doors and stepped into a warm, bustling atmosphere, yet despite the restaurant’s busyness we were led to a lovely cosy table in a corner by a window more-or-less immediately.
We were spoilt for choice with the menu – we wanted to order several dishes each. Yet after the stodge of lunch, I decided to go for a less traditional choice of ‘Crispy chicken with wing, served with roasted grenaille potatoes, blanched vegetable with butter and orange sauce flavoured with Grand Marnier liqueur’. It was utterly delicious! I’d been slightly dubious about the sauce, but the orange flavour turned out to be very subtle and it tasted similar to a red wine jus. The chicken was genuinely the most tender I’ve ever eaten, and the vegetables (mainly courgettes and carrots) were incredibly juicy and tasty.
Steve, on the other hand, went for the most traditional thing on the menu: ‘Roasted beef sirloin in a creamy vegetable sauce, served with homemade bread dumplings’. What it didn’t mention on the menu, but was noted by our waiter, is that this also came with cranberry sauce and whipped cream, and is traditionally eaten at Czech weddings. The combination of the sauces and the cream made it oddly sweet, and the bread dumplings (which came in slices) were very stodgy, but Steve enjoyed it!
Having drank nothing but beer all day, here we both opted for softies: deliciously fresh, homemade lemonade flavoured with different fruits. They came in jam jars – a hipster trend clearly not restricted to London, as I’d thought. We couldn’t decide what to have for dessert, so decided to share two between us: ‘Apple strudel with walnuts, served with cinnamon ice cream and fresh whipped cream’, and ‘Chocolate crème brûlée with caramel crust and strawberries macerated in orange liqueur’. The crème brûlée was a little runny, but I couldn’t complain. Both were too good not to devour completely, despite us being completely full by this point. The atmosphere was so nice that we were happy to linger, and we were two of the last to leave. We walked back to our hotel room to get some well-needed rest before our busy day of visiting Prague Castle tomorrow.
Read day 2 here.