Trafalgar Tours – Prague, Vienna and Budapest: Chapter 3

A guided walk and music by candlelight

I had the best night’s sleep ever in a hotel and awoke greatly refreshed. The buffet breakfast was superb with a great choice of food, and it set us up good and proper for the first of our included guided walks with a local specialist. A golden sun, very hot at 9.30am, lifted our mood even more. A cloudless sky, flawless and blue.

Parizska Street, PragueParizska Street is Prague’s most prestigious address. Consumerism is big business and a large number of branded stores have opened here. It was just around the corner from our hotel. Gabbana, Prada, Gucci, TAG Heuer, Tiffany and many others. Tree-lined all the way to Staromestske Namesti, Old Town Square – one of Europe’s most touristy sites.

Josefov (Joseph’s Town) is Prague’s Jewish Quarter. Again it is very close to the hotel. In the old Jewish Cemetery, closed on Saturdays, 1000s of tombstones date back to the 15th century. Gravestones tilt at awkward and impossible angles. 12000 graves containing over 100000 people are piled on top of each other like a layered sponge cake.

Due to unrest in Europe, security checks had recently been introduced at Hradcany – the castle district. Queues were long, but the Czech guards were fast and efficient and soon we were inside the complex. It’s the largest ancient castle in the world, a city within a city. The views alone are worth the visit. It’s the residence of the Czech President – with the motto, ‘Truth wins’. The complex houses St Vitus cathedral, the Royal Palace, Royal Gardens and much more. Apparently it has a footprint of over 100 football fields, enough to cope with the 8 million visitors who peacefully invade each year. It’s free to enter too. Peter and Jan, our guides, were superb – just the right amount of history given peppered with humour at each turn.

St Vitus Cathedral, PragueThe Gothic cathedral of St Vitus is excellent. Climb the south tower and wobbly knees are guaranteed. It’s still a work in progress, as it was started in the 14th century and only finished in the 20th (and I thought our builder was slow!). The stained-glass windows are lovely and of great beauty, especially the large Rose window – 34 feet in diameter. The Alfonso Mucha window is a must-see. It was always a great honour to be allowed to design a window, it was never done for money. With the ever present sun flickering through the glass and casting haunting kaleidoscopic light on the walls it was truly a very special moment. It’s worth looking at the Gothic frescoes in St Wenceslas chapel too.

Golden Lane. As you would imagine from the name, goldsmiths did live here and ply their trade. Short, narrow and ever so sweet, it is a popular destination for tourists who flock here for souvenirs in the narrow converted houses, just behind the cathedral.

Gabor dropped us off in Republic Square. We strolled near the Czech Mint, the Czech equivalent to The Bank of England, then through Powder Tower and into Old Town Square. Powder Tower was formerly a gunpowder store and is still the starting point for the Coronation or Royal Route to the castle on the hill.

The square was brimming with history, architectural gems and people with the Old Town Hall (the view from the top is worth the £5 entry), Kinsky Palace and Tyn Church, to give it its full title, The Church of Our Lady before Tyn. Its turrets and spires reach high into the sky, closer to God. They could almost touch heaven.

Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock, PragueAt 12 noon we found ourselves looking and waiting at the famous Astronomical clock (known as Orloj) waiting for the March of The Apostles. The clock is fascinating and indicates the position in the sky of the Moon and Sun as well as telling the time. The bell rings on the hour every hour. At 600 years old, it’s putting many newer models to shame – our kitchen clock lasted less than 4 years.

Blink or sneeze and you will miss it. It starts with the skeleton ringing a bell and inverting an hour glass. Life is short. Life is finite. You are a long time dead so be happy in the short time you have to live – so sprinkle your life with humour.

Robotic figures traipse out, do their business and traipse back in. Job done for the delighted crowds below. A tip: don’t take photos, just stand and watch and enjoy the spectacle. 

Our guided tour over, Babs and I had lunch at the Grand Cafe Orient – situated in the House of the Black Madonna above the Cubist museum just off Old Town Square with impressive cubist furniture and lights. Oh, the fruit cup (peach, kiwi, strawberry and fabulous custard) was awarded 11/10 by this type 2 diabetic. And the main reason for our visit – the coffee, which was superb, give it a try in an elegant setting that was quite even on a Saturday lunchtime.

We had an early meal on Saturday night in Pasta Fresco. A memorable Maltagliati (square pasta) Lamb Ragout. Lovely staff, friendly and attentive. The experience was made even more memorable by the old couple on the next table. He was laughing so much that his top set of teeth fell into his spaghetti. Unforgettable. Almost as funny as the oh so camp Hollywood style uniforms the guards in the castle were wearing.

Vltava River, PragueAs the sun set the famous skyline reflected in the almost still Vltava river. Swans glided by with panache: stunning, beautiful and magical. At 8pm it was still humid, almost like sitting in a big oven. In the city, still masses of people, a multicultural melting pot. At night, Prague takes on another side. Streets and squares twinkle with lights and monuments cast shadows on cobbles below. It is raucous at night, that is to be expected. But we saw no trouble: just people of all ages enjoying life. Steamy and seamy but all in the best possible taste.

Pilsner is the only beer to drink. Try Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen or Budvar. Czech people consume more beer per head than anywhere else in the world. And looking at the antics of the stags and hens, they too had drunk plenty. Legs not in unison, arms even less so. Some staggered, many tottered – a sniper’s worst nightmare. A couple fell into a heap a shape reminiscent of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, which was great fun to watch. 

Trafalgar offered two excellent optional excursions. One of the best ways to see the city is from the water. The relaxing river cruise was enjoyed by all. The gigantic buffet and wine were well-received and enjoyed by all. Non-alcoholic drinks were available too. Our group enjoyed listening to the myths, legends and secrets of this amazing place, told by an excellent guide. Later, many went on a tram ride around the city supping wine again and Prague’s superb beer.   

View of Charles Bridge,PragueHaving done a river cruise and tram ride before, we decided to go to a classical concert. The city has always been a musical centre of excellence. Haydn, Mozart, Liszt and Beethoven all spent time here. It caters for modern tastes too. Sax appeal is evident at Jazz Dock, firmly anchored on the Vltava – a place to rock the boat.

So on Saturday night we were sat enjoying a candlelight concert in St Michael’s monastery, which was almost a private concert with only 13 in the audience. On the menu was Vivaldi’s superb The Four Seasons, Bach, Mozart and Dvorak’s ‘Largo from The New World’ – the Hovis advert with the lad in his flat cap climbing that steep hill pushing his bike. And much more. There were only three in the mini orchestra plus a soprano, who gave a great flamboyant rendition of Carmen by Bizet, alongside a harpist, a solo violinist and an organist. Frantisek Stratny had a small organ but what he did with it impressed us all!

Afterwards under a bright moon we walked, strolled, arm in arm along tree- lined streets the street lights casting haunting shadows. A perfect end to a perfect day.

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Dave Harcombe

Travelling pharmacist

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