Post 2 of a series – you can read my other Prague posts here.
Today we had tickets for the hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus tour of Prague, which would take us to Prague Castle and its spectacular cathedral, then leave us stranded on Petrin Hill. Our journey back took us through the rest of Lesser Town, to a glorious restaurant and across the spectacular Charles Bridge, with a stop-off in the Middle Ages along the way…
Wanting to catch the castle tour included in our City Sightseeing tickets, we ate breakfast at the hotel and set off early into town. The bus tour began with a short guided walk from the Grévin wax museum, past shop windows filled with creepy marionettes and Prague’s cubist café Grand Café Orient, to a large road east of Old Town where the bus was parked. We were greeted by a lovely woman who became our funny, chatty guide whenever we weren’t listening to the audio guide transmitted through the provided earphones. Like other pre-recorded city guides we’ve experienced, this consisted of a hilariously cheesy and unconvincing conversation between two people, supposedly a tourist and a local. We loved it!
Exploring the castle
Alighting at Prague Castle, we realised that it is better described as a wall around several buildings and courtyards – its fairytale spires, as seen from a distance, in fact belong to the St. Vitus Cathedral contained within. As suggested by the bus guide, we attempted to catch the midday changing of the guard ceremony. Unfortunately, due to not knowing where it would happen, we missed the beginning and found it only by following the sound of trumpets once it began. We managed to catch glimpses of the ceremony (basically a lot of soldiers playing trumpets) through the crowds of people already gathered, and later witnessed the simpler hourly ceremony.
After the ceremony we rushed back to the bus stop to meet our guide for the castle tour. He was a young, studenty guy with round glasses and flicky hair, which made him look rather like ‘Where’s Wally’ (or Waldo, if you’re American). We couldn’t have asked for a friendlier or more engaging guide. As well as telling us all about the various sections of the castle, he filled us in on the Czech Republic’s interesting history and political structure, inserting his own opinions and pop culture references along the way. This really gave us a well-rounded impression of what it’s like living in Prague today. He even recommended buying Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as a souvenir – and I resolved to do just that.
The highlight of the castle is unquestionably the cathedral. What’s most intriguing about St. Vitus is that a small section of it was built as far back as 1344, and the larger part between 1873 and 1929. This is clear in the incredible detail and array of colours displayed in the stained glass windows – made possible only by modern technology – as well as in the men wearing suits carved into the exterior stone, which we learnt is a portrait of the architects.
Another highlight of Prague Castle is the stunning panoramic view of the city provided at the top of the stairs leading down past the castle garden. From this vantage point it’s clearer than anywhere else why Prague is called ‘The City of a Hundred Spires’, as it rolls out in front of you like a spiked terracotta and turquoise blanket.
We explored the beautiful castle area a little more, wandering past Golden Lane and to the grand Loreta church, before returning to the cathedral to buy some sustenance from the Christmas markets arranged around it. I took my chance to finally sample a traditional Trdelník, or ‘chimney cake’. I’d seen these tubes of warm, sweet, cinnamon-flavoured pastry being cooked on rotisseries over hot coals all over town, and couldn’t wait any longer to try one. I devoured it alongside a steaming cup of mulled apple cider, and the combination was just perfect.
As the sky began to darken, we got back on the bus and rode it to the derelict Strahov Stadium, which was the stop nearest Petrin Hill. From here, we walked up deserted paths to the Observation Tower at Petrin Hill’s peak. This tower resembles the Eiffel Tower of Paris, and despite being just a fifth of its size actually reaches a greater height due to its hill-top position. We paid the small entrance fee and climbed the 299 steps to the top. The twilight provided the perfect conditions for the city’s lights to sparkle, and so we were treated to another spectacular view of the hundred spires.
Our dilemma now was how to get back to our hotel – as time had flown by and we’d missed the last City Sightseeing bus. There was nothing for it but to find our way back on foot, so we proceeded to gingerly walk down the hill in street-lamp-punctuated darkness, just about managing not to slip on the frosty pavements. We were relieved to find our way into Lesser Town and back onto the map. Shivering but not quite hungry yet, we decided it was time for another pub stop. Fortunately, I was prepared with a perfectly cosy and kitschy option that I’d found on TripAdvisor previously…
A trip back in time
Středověká krčma U krále Brabantského, translating as ‘Medieval Tavern’, was quite tricky to find but 100% worth the effort. The hilarity began as soon as we arrived, with a paper sign stuck to the front door reading: ‘YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE MIDDLE AGES’. Inside we found a cave of a pub, lit with glowing candles, furnished with heavy, rustic furniture and decorated with skulls. We found a table just across from a creepy mannequin sat in the window (see if you can spot him in the photo of me) and were quickly greeted by a server dressed like a Medieval peasant. He handed us large menus that included a written history of the pub, as well as an imperfectly translated disclaimer along the lines of: ‘Remember, you have gone back in time. Do not be alarmed if your server is rough and shouts about, it is just the Middle Ages way.’ We were thoroughly amused, and while our server didn’t ‘shout about’, he was very funny and friendly. Keen to play along, Steve ordered the pub’s ‘Homemade dark beer of love’ and I ordered a glass of hot honey mead. Both were delicious!
The tavern’s traditional food menu was tempting, but we felt like a change of scene. Online we found a nice-looking nearby restaurant and decided to give it a try. Tri Stoleti was very quiet when we walked in – I think we were the first people there – but it filled up over the course of the evening to create a warm, relaxed ambience. The service was impeccable right from the beginning, where the waiter led us past a pool filled with koi fish, took our coats, seated us at a table lit by fairylights and handed us iPads with menus on. This sounded like a huge gimmick initially, but it turned out to be a genius move; the iPad provided detailed descriptions and photos for everything on the menu, and this made it much easier for an indecisive person such as myself to make a decision. Having made our selections, we were brought complimentary bread and a tasty olive paste, which I enjoyed while sipping a lovely Czech rosé wine.
Steve ordered a starter of warm goats cheese on toast with honey, which was lovely but very small! Fortunately, our main courses – duck breast with beetroot and potato pancakes, and rabbit leg with spinach and potato gratin, shallots and chanterelles – were sized generously, and incredibly tasty. My spinach and potato gratin was possibly the best potato-based thing I’ve ever eaten. Despite being almost full by the end, we couldn’t resist ordering dessert too; Steve chose a raspberry cheesecake from the dessert cabinet, while I had a traditional plum yeast dumpling with cinnamon sugar. The latter was possibly the stodgiest thing yet experienced on this holiday, but the plum jam and flavoursome dusting were glorious.
After paying the very reasonable bill, we walked back to Old Town across the famous Charles Bridge. In the darkness, the magnificent gothic statues lining the walkway loomed above us as thrillingly foreboding silhouettes. The street lamps and distant city lights shimmered in the dark waters below, and the frosty atmosphere seemed somewhat enchanted.
We decided to have a nightcap before going to bed and, on the way back to our hotel, stumbled upon a cosy locals’ bar on Betlehemska namesti. We nestled ourselves in a snug corner in an area called ‘the library’ and ordered measures of Jack Daniel’s and Baileys to sip while discussing our plans for tomorrow – our final full day in this beautiful city.