26 Jun 2018

Prague: Central Europe with a Touch of Vietnam

Prague is yet another romantic city nestled along a river. After Rome, Florence, Basel, Salzburg, and Budapest it is in good company in our heavily river-centric travels so far in Europe. After two days of scorching heat, Prague took a turn toward spring (or fall?) and we had to pull out our pants and coats to walk around in what felt like a brisk 60 degrees after weeks in the high 80s.

We had to take Prague nice and slow, mostly because I seemed to have developed quite the sleep debt while we were in North Carolina for my sister’s wedding and therefore needed not just 8-9 hours of sleep at night but usually an hour long nap in the afternoon as well. Even after all that, for the first two days I felt tired just walking around.

Luckily I bounced back in time for some hiking before we left for Germany!

What We Did in Prague

Tourist Sites

Our first stop was at a somewhat strange landmark, the metronome in Letná Park. It was located very close to our Airbnb for the week and can be seen sitting on top of the hill from across the river. It stands where there was once a statue to honor Stalin and is now a warning to balance the past with the future and of being wary to repeat the past.

Aside from its warnings, it is a lovely (and popular) spot for young people to enjoy a beer and watch the sunset over the city. Each time we walked past the seating around the metronome was packed with people enjoying a pleasant evening overlooking the city.

Our first full day we did a large circuit of the west side of the river. We walked first through a park that we thought would lead to an entrance to the Royal Gardens only to find it is no longer an open route. So, we returned to the street and made our way to the Prague Castle and the St. Vitus Cathedral. Waiting in line for security in the scorching sun before temperatures plummeted the following day was rough. On hot days I would highly recommend getting to the entrance before the tour groups start arriving or else bring yourself a hat and a fan because there is no shade and the morning sun direct and toasty.

Once inside we would our way around the buildings, through the courtyards, and into the gardens. After seeing so many cathedrals in Italy, I have to admit we felt tapped out of awe and admiration and couldn’t bring ourselves to pay the entry fee and wait in line to see the inside of the cathedral. This is one of the major drawback of a Euro-tour. Every city has lovely cathedrals but you (or at least I) can only handle visiting so many before my interest level is exhausted.

From there we wound our way down through the tourist heavy streets leading to the funicular that you can take to the top of Petrin Hill. The funicular is included as part of the Prague public transportation system so does not require a special ticket and is much nicer than walking up the hill in the heat.

We checked out the Petrin Tower, which looks like a little Eiffel Tower replica and then slowly wandered through the park back to the city below.

We visited the Charles Bridge multiple times and it is lovely for views of the city but packed with people. There were some pretty talented street performers when we were there at sunset though so as long as you are aware of your surroundings and don’t get too caught up in the view or the music and find yourself a spot along the railing to avoid too much of the necessary tourist dodging, it is a great place to see the city at sunrise or sunset in particular.

The people on and views from the Charles Bridge.

We also wandered through the Old Town Square, though I honestly almost skipped it when I found out that the famous astronomical clock I remember being impressed by during high school visits was under construction until the end of August. 😞

On our last day in the city, we visited the Royal Gardens and the “New World” neighborhood. The Royal Gardens are fairly small but free to walk through and have one of the best views of St. Vitus Cathedral, so it is worth a stop. We also overheard a tour guide telling his guests that if you put your head under the fountain in the middle you can hear singing but it seems to me that he just wanted to make them look at little silly. Still, almost all of them stuck their head under the bowl of the fountain.

View from the Royal Gardens. I included both so it was clear I didn't get my picture taken in front of a green screen, even though that's what it looks like.

The Nový Svět or “New World” neighborhood. Nový Svět is a tiny neighborhood just down the hill from the Prague Castle, which made it an easy stop after the Royal Gardens. It was built up in the 16th century for the artists, scientists, and magicians that the emperor at the time liked to have around, and it has been left mostly untouched as the city grew and developed. While it is a charming neighborhood, it is over before you know it and if you don’t stop for a coffee or something you’ll easily cover it with a 20 minute stroll.

Hike from Karlštejn to Beroun

After our guide on the food tour mentioned a nice hike from Karlštejn to Beroun, Nate looked at his maps.me app for trails in the area. We found one that looked promising and jumped on the regional train to Karlštejn and headed toward the castle following signs that clearly pointed the way.

We walked around the exterior of the castle but entrance was 12 USD for the cheapest tour and you have to take a tour, no self-guided exploration allowed. So, we enjoyed views of the town below over the wall and then headed down the trailhead that is right next to the entrance to the castle. It is a fairly flat and well marked path down to a road. Across the street looked like a clear marker for a trailhead and lined up with the map we had so we headed off in that direction. After just a few minutes of walking we found ourselves in fairly dense foliage but pushed on, thinking maybe it was just overgrown with this being the early part of the nice weather for the year?

Then we reached a hillside where the trail had clearly suffered from recent rains. It was muddy and the trail was more of a diagonal than a flat surface. Very carefully we picked our way across the hillside because just around the bend it looked like the trail should be more flat. It was but that’s because we found ourselves right in the middle of some fields of grain. To be fair, there was a small footpath that was only slightly overgrown but there were no signs of the trail markers our food tour guide had mentioned. Luckily we pretty easily made our way out of the field and onto a road that seemed made for tractors and dirt bikes. We were able to take this all the way back to the river where we could follow it to Beroun.

All said, it was a little over 9 miles of pretty easy walking. The fields we walked through were beautiful and the cool and overcast day made it very comfortable.

It turns out, had we done just slightly more research there is a clearly marked trail. After the fact, I looked at these directions for how to do a hike to Beroun and had we used them we wouldn’t have had to gingerly avoid falling down a muddy hill or walking through a field. We are rarely this ill-prepared for our excursions but hey, nothing wrong with a little spontaneity and adventure, right?

Eating in Prague

We enjoyed the food in Prague a lot, partially because we splurged on our first European food tour (really a splurge compared to the price of food tours in SE Asia) and partially because we were very pleasantly surprised at the thriving Vietnamese food scene in the city.

Lunch at U Pinkasu where we enjoyed our very gravy heavy Czech food. U Pinkasu also claims to be the first place to serve a Pilsner Urquell, the ubiquitous Czech beer. Finally, "beer paper" for waitresses to track consumption. This one is supposed to be sufficient for 6 Czech men.

Prague Food Tour

After foregoing food tours for all our time in Europe so far, mostly unenthusiastic about the price tags that came with them. We decided to use a little of our surplus funds to splurge on a Czech food tour called Prague Food Tour. They have two guides, George and Leona, and we were with George for our afternoon tour along with one other tourist from London. Our small group was great compared with the 9-person group that was scheduled for the evening tour.

Unlike our food tour in Brazil, which I still believe cannot be matched and I will never stop gushing about, the tour with George stopped at only 4 places and created a circle around about 4 city blocks. For instance, our first stop was literally next door to our second stop. While we didn’t see a lot of the city, we did eat a lot of food.

We made four stops, first for pastries called koláče at Antonínovo Pekařství. I loved the poppyseed version of this danish like treat but Nate was unimpressed. Apparently the Czech diaspora in Texas has taken this traditional food and switched the fruits and poppy seeds for cheese and sausages. Maybe he would have enjoyed that version more. We also had a Czech open faced egg salad sandwich called Chlébs pomazánkou. It was exactly what you would expect of an egg salad sandwich.

From there we went next door to the local pub called Lokál for pub food and beer. We tried a few dishes including: tatarák (steak tartar), Pražská šunka (Prague ham with a horseradish and cream sauce), and smaženy syr (fried cheese with tartar sauce). The tartar was the best Nate has ever tasted, heavy on mixed-in seasoning and well blended. Food in Prague is heavy on meat and it would be nearly impossible for a vegetarian or vegan to really dig into Czech food.

Our third stop was at a trendy restaurant where Czech celebrities can occasionally be spotted called Eska. It was probably about 4 blocks from the bar and bakery where we started. This is where we had my favorite dish of the tour though, Brambory v popelu or potatoes in ash. It was covered in a sauce made with kefir, dried egg yolk, and smoked fish for a rich and wonderful flavor that left me disappointed that I was so full already because I would have loved to eat another helping and luxuriate in the flavors.

Our final stop was at Mozaika Krystal for meruňkový knedlík, a fruit dumpling with ricotta. For a dessert, I as surprised how faintly sweet the dumpling was. The fruit filling does all the work of sweetening the dish, leaving it much more mild than any version an American would have come up with.

Throughout our tour, we drank beer. Beer is everywhere in Prague and it is often as cheap as water (or cheaper!). If our tour guide (and the internet) are to be believed Czech beer consumption is just over 142 liters per year per capita. That includes all the minors and people who don’t drink at all, so there is a lot of beer being enjoyed in Prague. At Lokál we learned about the importance of foam on a beer to indicate that it is fresh and for protecting the beer from oxidation. No self-respecting Czech would drink a beer with less than two fingers of foam. Some might drink with significantly more foam than that though. When you need something a little lighter but you’re obviously not going to stop drinking beer, you can have Šnyt or Mlíko. Šnyt is half foam and Mlíko is full foam. That’s right folks, a refreshing glass of foam to take a break from drinking beer because you wouldn’t want to switch to water, that’s ridiculous.

Like Being Back in Hanoi

If you remember my all the gushing I did about the food in Hanoi, Hoi An, or Saigon; then you should not be surprised when I say I was thrilled with the abundance of relatively inexpensive Vietnamese food in Prague. According to the guide on our food tour, Prague became a popular destination for immigration for Vietnamese families when both countries were under a Communist government in the 1970s and 80s. The readily available pho, bun cha, and bahn mi are a lasting testament to this immigration and there is even a Little Hanoi neighborhood we didn’t get a chance to visit.

After eating bread dumplings, meats drenched in gravy, potatoes, cabbage, and more dumplings for dessert; the lighter fare of Vietnamese cuisine offered a welcome relief for our bellies as well as our tastebuds.

So much Vietnamese food!

We had delicious varieties of bahn mi at Bahn Mi Makers, so good that we ordered seconds to take home with us for dinner. Bun cha and pho at Remember and Thanh Ha. Nate was so jealous of my bun cha, which really tasted like the pork was prepared on a sidewalk grill out back, after our first meal at Remember that we had to make a second trip back on our last night so he could have a serving of it all to himself.

While it certainly wasn’t traditional Czech food, we really enjoyed getting to indulge in some of our new favorite foods again.

How We Did with Our Budget in Prague

For our time in Prague, we had budgeted as much as 60 USD a night for accommodations, the lower prices of everything in the Czech Republic made it a cheaper destination than many of its Euro-zone neighbors. Our conveniently located Airbnb ended up coming in just under budget at 59 USD per night and it was a quick walk to Letná Park and accessible to at least half a dozen trams that could take us anywhere we wanted to go.

We had also budgeted 15 USD per day per person for food and 15 USD per day per person for entertainment. Out of that planned 60 USD daily total, we ended up spending 42 USD per day on average but then spent almost 200 USD on our food tour so the savings we had went straight into this splurge (plus a little from our surplus from Budapest). Overall we ended up being about 70 USD over budget total for our time in Prague.