Prague

I'm back in Rome after an 8 day trip to both Prague and Budapest! (Did you miss me?!) This time, I traveled not only with my usual travel buddy, my sister Alexandra, but also our best friend Kelly. We met Kelly on the very first day of college already a decade ago, by now -- she too was awkwardly looking for someone to talk to at the Orientation Day barbecue -- and we've been friends ever since. Kelly is now living in Boston, MA, but we still make sure to see each other every time we're back in the U.S, and she makes a trip to Europe to visit us every year (Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype helps too). That being said, this was probably the most time the three of us had spent together since we graduated college in 2011, a whole solid week to hang out just like when we were all living in the same dorm. Here we are:
So! Kelly, my sister and I are no strangers to travelling together -- our past trips have also included Rome, Bologna, Berlin, London, Disney World, West Palm Beach, and New York City -- and now Prague and Budapest can be added to the list. Our decision to travel to these cities was mostly based on the fact that none of us had ever been to either one, both looked picturesque in Google image searches, and Prague, according to what we had all seen on Buzzfeed, possessed something called trdelník (I'll get to that later, and you'll understand how that could be a deciding factor). So, with no further ado, here's what we saw (and, of course, ate!) in Prague, our first destination -- post on Budapest to follow!

MAIN ATTRACTIONS

On our first full day in Prague, we took a 3 hour walking tour where our guide succinctly summed up the city: when you come to Prague, she said, you cannot leave without seeing the bridge, the castle, and the clock. Prague is one of those long-weekend sort of cities, pretty and relaxing with only a few main sites (unlike Rome or Paris, for example) so we were able to follow her advice. Here's what not to miss when you're in the Czech capital:

Charles Bridge
The Charles Bridge is named after, surprise surprise, King Charles IV, who ordered the construction of the bridge in 1357. After many a setback (floods, in particular) it was finally finished in the beginning of the 15th century -- slow and steady wins the race! -- and was incredibly important to the city as it was the only way to cross the Vltava river. The bridge is packed with tourists -- I don't think we saw one local -- but provided a beautiful view of  Prague nonetheless, especially at sunset.  There are also 30 or so baroque statues decorating the bridge, which were installed in the 17th and 18th centuries. I had the same thought here that I have in Rome, all the time -- how good were these architects and artists that this bridge (or Colosseum, or basilica, or synagogue, etc) is still standing and still so beautiful?! Mind blowing.  
Prague Astronomical Clock
On our walking tour of the city, we stopped to see Prague's medieval astronomical clock, (orloj, in Czech) which was built in 1410 (again: see my comment above about old stuff that is still functioning today). This makes it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world (giving it the bronze medal of astronomical clocks) and the oldest one still operating. It is located in the Old Town Square, and every hour, on the hour, puts on a little show where the various figures decorating the clock -- representing death, avarice, and vanity, among others -- come to life and move around, slightly. It lasts about 20 seconds and is a bit underwhelming -- I've seen it named on many a "Overrated Tourist Attraction" list -- until you consider the fact that the clock was, after all, constructed 617 years ago and is still working. You can see a video here and make up your own mind. Entertaining show or not, its a beautiful clock, don't you think?           

Prague Castle + St Vitus Cathedral
Ok, I'll be honest here. I was expecting a bit more out of the Prague Castle -- in my head, it looked somewhat like the Harry Potter, Hogwarts style castle -- and it turns out that we thought was the castle in the distance actually was St Vitus Cathedral, a gothic cathedral located within the castle grounds that interestingly enough, took six centuries to build (it was completed in only 1929 -- now that's perseverance!) On our guided Castle Tour we learned that some of what was the castle (built in the 9th century) was destroyed in 1541 by a fire, and then was further damaged during the Thirty Years War. It was mostly reconstructed by Empresa Maria Theresa in the second half of the 18th century, and has a more modern look to it, perhaps more Buckingham Palace than ancient castle. That being said, it has quite a history, having served as a base for the Nazis during their occupation of Prague during WWII, and then becoming the base of the Czech communist government. when they took power in 1948. Nowadays, it houses the office of the President of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman (also known as the Trump of the Czech Republic, according to our tour guide).
                                  

OLD NEW SYNAGOGUE + PINKAS SYNAGOGUE

The Old New Synagogue -- built in 1270 -- is the oldest preserved synagogue in Europe, the oldest active synagogue in Europe, and the oldest monument in what was once Prague's Jewish Ghetto. On our tour, we learned that its name derives the name from the Hebrew עַל תְּנַאי (al tnay), which means "on condition" and sounds identical to the Yiddish "alt-nay," or old-new. Again -- hats off to the architects and builders who constructed this still-standing synagogue!
We also visited Prague's Pinkas Synagogue, which acts as an active synagogue for Prague's Jewish community as well as a Holocaust memorial; in the late 1950s, the inner walls of the synagogue were inscribed with the names of the 78,000 Czech and Moravian Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. Upstairs, there's a collection of exhibition of pictures drawn by children held in the concentration camp in Theresienstadt. We learned that the drawings were made by the children during lessons led by a woman named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a painter. She encouraged the children in the camp to express themselves through their drawings, as a way to deal with the difficult life in the camp as well as to capture their memories from home and dreams about the future. Their pictures therefore offer a sort of testimony to the daily reality of the camp and who the individual children were. Most of the children, as well as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis,  were deported and died in Auschwitz. Their drawings survived as Dicker-Brandeis hid them in a suitcase in Theresienstadt before the deportation. The drawings didn't look so different from something I'd have drawn as a kid at that age -- one in particular was decorated large with butterflies like the kind I used to always draw when I was in second grade. It was moving and poignant and sad all at once, and while it might not be the first site that comes to mind when you think "vacation," I'd recommend visiting the synagogue if you find yourself in Prague -- of all the things we saw during our stay, this one will stay with me the most.

THE FOOD
We found that while much of Czech food is highly un-photogenic (meat, potatoes, and brown sauces aren't the prettiest) it was downright delicious. Don't judge a book (or goulash, for that matter) by its cover, I guess. Here were a few gastronomic highlights for us, all from places I wholeheartedly recommend for anyone traveling to Prague.

Bistro Sisters
Sisters specialty is chlebíčky, or rather, open-faced sandwiches. I'll keep this short and to the point and say this: THEY. WERE. SO. GOOD. Simple, yes, but these sandwiches were elevated from your usual turkey or ham, with excellent ingredient and flavor combinations. The photo below is of our first round; we ordered a few more after that, but were so excited to eat them didn't photograph them (whoops). Pictured below: goat cheese, beet, and walnut; feta, and chili; herring, radish, wasabi mayo, dill; salami and cheese; roast beef, fried onion, and celery root. My favorite was ham, potato salad, and egg, which I didn't get a shot of. Take me baaaack!

Lokál Dlouhááá 
Lokál was so good, we went there for lunch and then came back the next day for dinner. This, even though the service here was not the best -- a slightly rude staff, a seemingly endlessly long wait -- but the food made it all worth it, and then some. During our two visits, we sampled a few Czech specialties: goulash, which in Hungary is more of a soup, and in Prague beef served with sauce and bread dumplings; fried cheese called syr smazeny; braised beef served in a pan sauce with a side of cranberry compote, called svíčková; and sautéed asparagus with steamed potatoes, butter, and mayonnaise (not sure this was typical Czech food, in hindsight, but it was delicious). Kelly, the only beer enthusiast among us, also sampled one of the wide selection of Czech beers at Lokál. 

The standout dish for me was braised pork belly served with potato dumplings and cabbage; the combination of the sweetness of the braised caramelized, cabbage, the richness and saltiness of the pork, and the mild, potato dumplings - the calm in a sea of strong flavors - was superb. A note on the dumplings: Czech dumplings, called knedliky are made of bread or potato. They are fluffy, light, and the perfect vehicle for whatever gravy or pan sauce your meat is served with. See below!

   Perníčkův sen + Chococafe
Naturally, we tempered the savory with a little sweet during our trip. We visited Perníčkův sen, a little bakery specializing in gingerbread, and  walked away happy with three gingerbread cookies: one with a lemon glaze, one filled with jam, and one plain. They were the soft and cake-y sort of gingerbread cookie, perfectly spicy, with a hint of licorice-y anise. We also visited Chococafe, specializing in hot chocolate and a pastry called horicke trubicky, light, airy, and crispy cylinders filled with clouds of whipped cream, to be dipped in the hot chocolate, of course.

Trdelník
Trdelník -- one of the factors in our decision to visit Prague! -- are pastries made by wrapping dough around a cylinder, basting the dough with butter, and roasting it over coals until it is golden brown. The resulting cake is then then dipped in sugar and cinnamon, and they're sort of like donuts crossed with cinnamon buns. The trdelník is then filled with ice cream (!!!) We discovered that actually these originally come from Hungary, where they're called kürtőskalács, and I'll get to that in the next post. This was the first thing Kelly ate when she arrived in Prague.
And just like that,  our three days in Prague were up and we were off to Hungary! Here are a few more photos of the beautiful city of Prague to close the post -- check back in a few days to read about  Budapest!




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