Prague has Our Hearts

I didn’t know if Prague would end up capturing our hearts and imaginations the same as the first time we went.

Our first time here was on our honeymoon and it was something so different than any city we had ever been to before. It was dark and gothic. It was bright and baroque. The interplay of pastels and gargoyles was something out of a fairytale, both the Disney princesses and the wicked villain.

Luckily lightening struck twice, as it often does actually, and the fire inside of us was rekindled for Prague just as deep as ever this time around too.

For my previous Prague post, check out the link below!

There is something so majestic and magical about the Charles Bridge. There hadn’t been another single spot that we yearned for before or after. The dark statues that line this 700 year old stone bridge are something to behold. The towers at either end harken back to the late Middle Ages when it was constructed as a fortified defense system for both land and sea.

Last time we were here we stayed near Wenceslas Square and only got over to the Mala Strana neighborhood, on opposite sides of the river from each other, for brief moments of exploration. Recalling how much we loved the Castle side of the city we were determined to find a stay nearby. This time around we found a great spot in Mala Strana.

Stepping off the tram we were both flooded back with memories. Jamie knew the exact locations of some cafes and resturants, and she even guided us back to our absolute favorite restaurant in the city. It was uncanny how quickly the map and layout of the city was immediately familiar again.

It was a great change of pace to revisit this city we love so much. It felt familiar even though we are thousands of miles and a twelve hour flight from home. The sense of stepping back into a place we know and love was a welcome respite from the constant change of travel. We had been on the road for two months now and were excited to slow our pace and take in Prague; like an old friend we hadn’t seen in years.

We could not have gotten luckier with our location. Basically in the shadow of Prague Castle, we were literally just steps away from this Baroque fortification.

Although most of the city is medieval, Prague Castle is actually a Baroque style construction and appears more as a palace and seat of a modern government than it does an old stone and moat fortification.

Prague Castle has underground quite a bit of change across the years. It was originally a wooden fortification atop the hill that commanded this side of the river.

America’s Western half is so modern that cities do not need to exist along a major river or lake to have fresh water. We pipe water in and create metropolises where none should ever exist, looking at you Phoenix and Vegas.

However in the medieval era any major population center had to be located on a large fresh water source. This is why so many European cities have a river running through them, and why fortified bridges and castles like the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle were so important. They ensured safe access to the first vital thing any human needs: water.

Prague Castle transformed from wooden hilltop fort to a stone castle across the middle ages. It was the center of power for the region of Bohemia, a major player in medieval era politics and war. The castle grew from a fortification to a small village, hosting a row of homes for the castle guards as well as adding the stunning gothic style St. Vitus Cathedral to supplant the older Romanesque church during the rule of the Holy Roman Empire.

It was used as one of the seats of power for the famous Hapsburg Empire and in the 1800s it was transformed into the palace complex we see today. In fact it is the largest ancient castle complex in all of Europe.

Infamously the 30 Years War started here, in Prague Castle, when a religious conflict escalated to violence between Protestants and Catholics. The representatives from the Catholic side were thrown out of a window in a castle tower in an incident referred to as “The Defenstration of Prague”. This lit the fuse for thirty years of conflict that devastated much of Central Europe.

We walked by memory to the Medieval Tavern, a themed restaurant that really takes you back to the olden days of medieval Bohemia. We even sat in the exact same seat and ordered almost the same thing we did two years ago on our honeymoon here. Honestly this is something we rarely do, even when revisiting places. We almost never copy the same experiences, preferring a new take on familiar spots. But Prague felt like home. It felt right to visit and revisit and get familiar with places to eat almost like we lived there.

We ordered a baked camembert cheese atop an arugula and cranberry salad, a meal I had been craving since we left this city last time. It was just as delicious as before. For our main course we split a huge plate of chili honey ribs. They were falling off the bone, the cartilage was fully melted and the tatse was out of this world. Topping the meal off with some deliciously sweet honey wine was the perfect start to our second round of Prague.

On top of the amazing food the decor of the restaurant and dress of the staff really makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. We would highly recommend visiting the Castle nearby then heading here for a truly medieval experience.

Next up on our agenda we walked across the Charles Bridge towards the clock tower square.

Our major “we’re here” moment was of course the Charles Bridge itself. It truly is such a magical spot for us both. It is indescribable how much we love this place. There may be more beautiful views elsewhere, or more interesting bridges across other major rivers, but Charles Bridge forever holds our hearts.

After crossing the river and taking in the memorable walk, we saw the main square with the astronomical clock on one side and Our Lady Before Tyn church on the other.

Every hour the clock displays a cute “It’s a Small World” type show where some medieval figures rotate around the tower. If you miss it don’t be too upset, the actual demonstration is average. It may be that we are used to much larger spectacles in our modern times.

The true appeal of the clock to me is its history and longevity. It represents humans starting to understand the skies above them. To dream of a larger universe that could be understood, counted and studied.

Jamie and I then walked by memory over to the Black Angels Bar, our favorite establishment in Prague and maybe our favorite bar we have ever been to. Black Angels Bar is one of the top bars of the world, known for a fanciful menu and a memory stretching back in time. In fact you can order any drink they have ever had on their menu and they will make it for you. You just need to remember what it was called!

After this we needed to head home and rest. Along the walk through Prague, and many other cities in this region of Europe you will encounter Chimney Cakes. They are rolled up dough cones with cinnamon and sugar, sometimes with additional fillings or ice cream inside. Jamie tried the Nutella filled one, of course, and I got another cup of mulled wine.

Unfortunately the next day Jamie started to feel sick again. We are so fortunate to not have had any Covid scares or serious illness or injury along our journey. We knew we had to take it slow and let both of our bodies rest and relax after such a long time of exploring new cities, taking trains and planes and walking miles through cobblestone streets all across this continent.

Being under the weather forced us to slow down our itinerary and it was good to be in a familiar spot so we didn’t exhaust ourselves seeing every new sight.

I used the electric kettle to make some soothing tea and a cup or two or three of hot honey wine and we rested up for the next day.

The following morning Jamie slept in while I went out to breakfast at a spot just a block away. U Tri Jelinku was a fantastic spot for me, I ended up eating there several times while Jamie rested across our time here. The service was fantastic the prices reasonable and the food absolutely delicious. I would recommend the Full English Breakfast and an espresso to anyone who needs a morning meal before exploring the city.

Once we were both up and ready for the day the two of us went to a fancy lunch spot on a corner by the Charles Bridge. It was a French style café, which we absolutely love, and they served incredibly high end foods with a flair for presentation. I had my new favorite meal, duck confit, and Jamie ordered a delicious soup that was perfect for someone feeling under the weather.

We also ate here again on another day, making Prague a city of “second visits” to places we truly enjoyed.

The next day I went out exploring a bit on my own, I was still feeling energized and not as sick as Jamie was. I must have a strong immune system because of the three total times Jamie felt less than 100% across our three month trip I only had one real day of being sick, and even that wasn’t too bad.

Jamie and I had a mellow day otherwise, again making tea and resting in our hotel room.

I let Jamie rest while I planned a walking loop around the Mala Strana neighborhood we were staying in.

I started at the Jon Lennon memorial wall. It is covered in Beatles and Lennon quotes and severs as a memorial of Love and Hope. It is a ray of light that helped the city pull through darker days of Communist rule and general decline in the recent past.

Next were the Crawling Babies statues, a creepy modern art installation that features giant metal babies with no faces crawling across a lawn by a park. It was interesting and bizarre. Maybe because it was sandwiched between my stops at the Lennon Wall and the Communists Victims Memorial it struck me as a political statement of the facelessness and stolen youth that the Communist decades brought upon the Czech Republic. Of course I may be completely wrong!

Like previously stated, I then saw the Communists Victims Memorial, a haunting group of withering statues. They represent the life of the Republic under Communist rule. The drabness, the dull horror of bureaucracy and the destruction of the vibrant Bohemian way of life that occurred preceding and following World War Two was deeply reflected in this memorial.

Communism was terrible for this region. The Soviet style system sucked out the vibrancy and color from life. It was a soulless reimagining of what society should be. Thousands were killed for having different opinions or being accused of speaking ill against the government. Many more are missing still. Knowing how Baroque and beautiful and historical Bohemia was, one could always take a step back and see the gray hued windowless world of Communism would never succeed here.

The Prague Spring, an anti communist movement in 1968, was almost a turning point in Czech history. At the time, the county was combined with the Slovak Republic into one state called Czechoslovakia. Many of our parents still know this region by that name and some today are unaware that the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic are two complete separate countries now.

A sense of hope, the silver lining of peace and the forces of love coincided with the peak of Beatles music, giving the Lennon Wall even more depth and history and meaning when one knows that their music helped inspire a democratic push away from the Soviets.

Alas, not every story is a fairytale. The Prague Spring movement failed in it’s time and Czechoslovakia remained communist up until the collapsing days of the USSR in 1990.

The resurgence of this entire section of Europe is absolutely astounding. Today there is hope and life and beauty everywhere, no longer hidden in the cracks. Baroque opulence and the magnificence of the Churches along with Bohemian medieval history are celebrated. Every time we visit a nation once under Communist rule we are playing a small role in keeping this legacy alive, not the dark days of authoritarianism that once stalked these streets.

After this art tour reflecting on Prague’s complicated history I went back to our room to pick up Jamie and we walked around our immediate area some more, taking in the shops, the chimney cake stores and the hot wine stands with even greater appreciation.

The dark history of this area is not just confined to the World War and Cold War eras, we visited a medieval torture museum the next day.

Torture museums pop up on almost any Prague vacation to do list. The gothic architecture and the ancient castle both add to the mystique of the medieval era and conjur up images of heavily armored knights, princesses in towers and the brutal torture methods we associate with that time.

The museum we saw had wax figures set up in horrifying positions, depicted hanging in metal cages or about to be beheaded. Actually of all the methods we saw, beheading was the least barbaric.

However, most torture devices really come from the period right after the medieval one, at the start of the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment eras of the 1600s and 1700s. Those living in medieval times had different punishments that were brutal but not as sadistic. You might have your hand cut off for stealing or your tongue removed for blasphemy for example, but there are not many reliable records for humans being tortured alive with devious devices in medieval times.

This is mainly due to the “Victorian” era. People living in the 1700s and 1800s really wanted to emphasize how far they had come from their medieval ancestors. They believed they lived in a “civilized” era and had made progress on the human condition. In some cases they invented torture devices that never existed, and exaggerated how much torture was really used.

Despite that, torture chambers are still very real and were absolutely used. In the middle ages they were likely just jail cells, but by the 1600s torture was frequently employed. By the 1700s the same cultures who built and used torture only a hundred years prior tried to distance themselves from those barbaric ways by artificially extending the use of torture back in time. Torture chambers are real, they just may not be as ancient as we like to imagine.

Torture chambers directly inspired the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, written in 1791 prohibiting “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”

Following that disrturbing visit we cleansed our pallets by once again seeing the astronomical clock square and we even got to see the clock display it’s charming hourly show.

Even after traversing a good chunk of the continent, Prague still has one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe. We deeply appreciate the combination of gothic spires and baroque beauty.

The delicious smell of an open fire roasting meat drew us in. We ordered a chunk of Prague Ham, roasted over a wood fire, alongside with a potato and cabbage side that was so hearty and warming as the temperature dropped for the night.

Following a good night’s sleep, the next day we finally went to see the Prague Castle.

Although the castle has existed since the 800s CE, today it is more of a Baroque style palace than a gray stone walled medieval castle.

St. Vitus Cathedral once again stunned us into silence, it is incredible from both the outside and inside. It is the best example of Gothic architecture we have seen in person with sweeping stained glass windows supported by flying buttresses. The multitude of spires draws your eyes upwards towards the heavens.

After the cathedral we walked down Golden Lane, originally built as housing for the castle guards, it transformed into a mini village for people associated with the castle. We saw a large collection of armor and weapons as well as the humble dwellings of medieval and Renaissance peasants.

After our castle tour it felt right to head back to the medieval tavern, that’s how much we loved it. We even ordered the same exact meal, baked camembert and honey chili ribs. Honestly we never do this!

All throughout the days we kept drinking hot honey wine and mulled wine to keep our spirits warm. Jamie tried a pistachio chimney cake that had a delicious pistachio spread, like Nutella. We discovered a love for pistachio this trip for sure. To be honest the chimney cakes aren’t the best desserts ever but they are ubiquitous and cheap. The hot wine, that was also everywhere, was delicious and cheap.

Following our castle day we went to Petrin hill, a new spot for us in familiar Prague. This hill overlooks the city and features a monastary, gardens, a mirror maze as well as a small replica of the Eiffel tower.

We took the funicular to the top of the hill then climbed Petrin tower for a fantastic view. We could see the city spread out below us like a living map. We spotted the Charles Bridge, the massive Castle complex and some other spots.

Trekking down the hill on foot we built up an appetite and went to Restaurace Pod Petrinem. We walked by the day before but it was too busy and we were not able to get a table, so we were delighted to walk right in today and be seated immediately.

We had a goose feast for the first time. It was roasted to perfection, succulent meat with crispy skin. Jamie also had a goose soup that was a fantastic compliment to the meal.

That night we were both feeling more energetic so we visited the wine bar almost next door to our hotel, called Nerudovka Vinoteka.

We were fortunate to have talked with the sommelier there the night before. We went over our travel plans and stories and he shared some of his favorite areas with us as well. He then let us know that the next day they were having a newly released wine party and we needed to come back for a unique Czech experience.

The new wine release featured costumed singers, both men and women in traditional dress, singing old Czech songs while sampling wines from 2021. The new wine was very fruity and sweet, I definitely prefer the old wines, but it was an amazing atmosphere to experience.

The bars in Prague are very popular on the weekends, so much so that we strangely needed to make reservations which caught us off guard. I personally have never heard of needing a bar reservation for drinking! They usually just line people up outside and wait for an opening. Not in Prague, not that night.

We did get to experience Tretters New York Bar which was reccomended to us by our sommolier friend. We had great drinks with vermouth and chartreuse, classic flavors. Unfortunately we were not able to visit any other bars that night due to our lack of reservations.

During our last day we walked around Pariska street, the “Paris street” of Prague. It features fabulous architecture and high end designer stores. We tried to go to the Jewish quarter, located nearby but it was a Saturday. Big mistake! The synagogues and cemetery were closed for shabbat. It was still a very beautiful area to walk around and see.

That evening we were finally able to get into the high end cocktail bars we craved.

Our first stop was The Alchemist Bar, a second story bar with mysterious and enticing drinks. This was once the start of a bar hopping game shared by many of the high end establishments, handing out clues and riddles as you drank your way across Prague, however Covid had shuttered that game for awhile. Some day we hope to try our hand at it again.

Next was Hemingway Bar. We waited in line in a light drizzle for a seat at this popular establishment. In the end it was worth it. We got to watch talented bartenders make tasty drinks flavored with Christmas spices.

Our second time in Prague was fantastic. We loved all the new foods we got to try and it was wonderful seeing the city that we loved so much again. We both cannot wait for our third time to come some day soon. Prague will always have our hearts

P.S. We arrived home on December 15th just in time for Christmas with our families. Our journey was unreal, it all feels like a dream.

I’ll continue updating the blog, I still have Budapest, Istanbul, Munich, Strasbourg and more to go over

We are so lucky to have had such a smooth trip, we had nothing stolen and no major sicknesses or injuries. Nothing was changed or cancelled due to Covid either. The toughest travel days were already behind us, our flat tire in France and the cancelled ferry in Greece, and even those were ultimately so manageable.

Thank you all for following along, there is plenty more to come!

Wishing you the best,

Austin & Jamie

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