Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Prague - A Wonderful Place to Visit

After getting over the psychological barrier of a trip behind the former “Iron Curtain”, it seemed so simple to plan a trip to Prague and Budapest. That barrier is probably limited to all of us who grew up during the cold war, and until the last few years never expected that we would ever travel to the Czech Republic or Hungary. I was so far into the past that I did not even realize that the Czechs and the Slovaks had divided into two countries after the fall of communism.

Mary Ann and I became interested in such a trip, particularly after visiting with many travelers who were raving about Prague and its Old World charm, beautiful river and bridges, and favorable exchange rate. No one seemed to ever have anything bad to say about Prague. This was all that the “frugal judge” needed.

Thus we found an unusual travel package where we would stay for a week in an apartment in Prague and then another week in Budapest. More about that in a moment. We were scheduled to leave for this grand adventure on September 11, 2001. The suitcases were packed waiting to be put in the car, for transfer to the airport that afternoon. As I got up in the morning (usually after little or no sleep because of the excitement of another trip) I began seeing and hearing of the tragedies of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Needless to say, we did not depart on this trip. Fortunately, the travel company was terrific about honoring our purchase, and everything was rescheduled for September, 2002. About two weeks before our new departure date I started hearing news of the worst rains in 100 years in Eastern Europe. We got the news that the Vlatava River in Prague was flooding and many parts of historic Prague were threatened. Am I Jinxed? Will we again be thwarted in our effort to visit Prague?

I was anxiously checking daily the Czech English language newspaper (www.praguepost.com) for updates. Soon the travel company sent us information of what was really happening, as reported by their representatives in Prague, and it looked like we were going to make it with only some difficulties in our apartment neighborhood, and not being able to use the subways. So off we go. The jinx has been exorcised.

Arriving in Prague we find that the rains have ended, the sun is out, the river is receding, and the hordes of tourists are not there because of fear of the floods. How good could it be?

Prague is an entirely enchanting city to visit. It is extremely walkable and we never missed the use of the subway. For those times when we needed transportation we used the excellent tram system. Our “frugal deal” this time was from a company called Untours (www.untours.com or 1-888-868-6871). For a very reasonable price they provide airfare, airport transfers, a wonderful apartment in each city, a cultural event in each city, air transportation between Prague and Budapest, a briefing meeting to help you with all the things you want to explore on your own, and transportation passes for all the busses, trams, and subways (if working!). You are then on your own to create your own adventure. This company provides this kind of travel in many cities throughout Europe.

The heart of the Prague experience is the Charles Bridge. It is a pedestrian only bridge connecting the Stare Mesto (Old Town) on the east side of the Vlatava River with the Mala Strana (Lesser Town-dating from the 13th century) and Prague Castle on the west side of the river. The bridge is a happening all by itself. It is covered with local artists and entertainers (buskers) vying for sales and attention. At any time of the day and night something fun could be experienced on the bridge. The Royal Route of past kings goes from Old Town Square all the way to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. It is a delightful walk with baroque buildings, colorful craftspeople, cafes, shops and entertainers. You get a new perspective when enjoying 14th and 15th century architecture.

Our apartment was in the Lesser Town, about four blocks from the Charles Bridge and a block off the Royal Route. It was a wonderful huge apartment overlooking a UNESCO protected garden on the back side of the U.S. embassy. Our first experience of European apartment living was great. Seeing all of the permanent residents in our building, shopping for food in the grocery stores, buying bread in the bakery across the street, learning how to use three keys for the outer gate, inner gate, and apartment, all added to the learning fun. We walked our legs off, just to keep the calories away from eating lots of Czech food which emphasizes hearty meat and game dishes. We, of course checked out the other neighborhoods of Prague such as Wenceslas Square in New Town, Petrin Hill for its views, and the fortress of Vysehrad, the founding center of the Bohemian State. To get a flavor of other parts of the Czech Republic we used the train system to visit Karlstejn Castle and the hunting castle of Konopiste, the pleasure center of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Hmmm, you are probably wondering about Budapest, but that will just have to wait for the next Time Off The Bench, but maybe we should talk about traveling to Mexico. You will just have to read the next article. My apologies to any Czechs who read this article, as I just can’t figure out how to put in all those accent marks! For more in-depth information about Prague take a look at www.czechsite.com and www.aroundprague.cz.

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