DAY 1: Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) & Old Town (Staré město)
Central Europe. This is a place in Europe I have never experienced before. Rich in history and culture, very much different than the English we saw a couple days ago. People in Prague do not speak English fluently, and so communication was somewhat challenging. Fortunately, getting around to the main tourist attractions and popular shopping areas was very simple. We were also told to be very careful taking taxi rides. There have been many cases where tourists get conned or worse, harmed by the local taxi drivers. As long as the taxi driver is hired through the hotel or airport, it is fine. It definitely reminds me of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for this reason, only I think the situation isn’t as bad as in Prague.
Our first visit was to Prague Castle, which took probably almost half a day to see everything there. It is said to be the biggest castle in the world with its history dating all the way back to the 9th century. Also, it is where the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral is located. We took the Old Castle Steps, which start near the Malostranská metro station. As we walked up the steps into the castle grounds, we were rewarded with beautiful views of Prague. Little did we know that there were a couple of entrances into Prague Castle grounds. It seemed like we were entering the castle grounds from the back entrance. Perhaps that’s why we ended up viewing the back of the cathedral first! Silly me, I didn’t realize my first impression of the cathedral was based on its back view. I was ooh-ing and aah-ing, and snapping so many shots of this back view, only to find out later as we walked on … that that was the back of the cathedral in the third courtyard of the castle …. Still, the gothic architecture was magnificent to view.
Flawless. I can’t imagine the amount of work put into the design and construction of this building. The south facade of St Vitus Cathedral featured a 16th century clock and the Golden Door, which depitcts the “Last Judgement”. We wanted to go inside the cathedral to take a look, but there was a ceremony taking place, and so visitors were not allowed. Although, there was an option to climb some 250 over steps to the top to view the largest church bell in Europe. No one in my family was ready to take that challenge, and so we continued walking until we saw an entrance into the Old Royal Palace. We went in and was greeted by a magnificent hall, Vladislav Hall (Vladislavský sál). It was a huge hall, and I really liked the architecture all across the high ceiling.
I don’t think we really knew where we were walking. We just followed wherever the crowd went inside the Old Royal Palace. There was much to see in this historical building. We headed out of the Old Royal Palace and found ourselves in the third palace courtyard again, standing in awe of another facade of St Vitus Cathedral. This time, the west facade featured an enormous rose window over the central doorway of the cathedral. It was a real challenge to snap a full photo of the building from where we were standing, especially when trying to get a decent portrait shot with the cathedral in the background …
We arrived at the second courtyard of the castle, which had a fountain, a chapel and the remainder North Wings of the castle. This part of the castle is also known as the New Palace.
The Chapel of the Holy Cross is no longer a chapel, instead it is used as an information center. This courtyard was more quiet than the third courtyard as there were less visitors in the area. Then we made our way to the first courtyard of the castle, towards the main entrance of the castle gate. Yeap, we were definitely walking backwards. We continued on through the castle’s main gate entrance, more popularly known as the Gate of Giants or Giant’s Gate. The gate features a pair of giants, one raising a knife and the other raising a club, against defeated enemies. It was said that the original 18th century sculptures have since been replaced with more weather resilient copies.
And, that was the end of our Prague Castle adventure! A walk down the castle steps from the castle’s main entrance led us into the lower area of the castle district, the streets of Lesser Town (Malá Strana). There, we got some lunch and did some shopping before beginning our next adventure into the Old Town or Old Praha (Staré město). I love the cobblestone roads, and the narrow, windy streets. There is such rich character and personality in old town settlements. I could roam these streets for hours and not feel bored of its inner charm.
We walked along the path that would lead us into the historical Old Town. I believe it was a 20-30 minute leisure walk to one end of the famous historic Charles Bridge (Karlův most) which crosses the Vltava River. The views of adjacent Old Town areas from Charles Bridge were breathtaking. I had only wish there weren’t as many people there as well. It was a busy bridge with many musicians and painters alongside the tourists. We weren’t able to stay around the bridge until evening, where the night scene would have been more quiet, romantic, and beautiful.
The bridge is 621 meters long and nearly 10 meters wide, resting on 16 arches shielded by ice guards. It is protected by three bridge towers, two of them on the Lesser Quarter side and the third one on the Old Town side. The Old Town bridge tower is often considered to be one of the most astonishing civil gothic-style buildings in the world. The bridge is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues and statuaries, most of them baroque-style, originally erected around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas … [excerpt from Wikipedia]
And so, we crossed over the bridge and continued walking towards the Old Town Square. The streets again are similarly narrow and bustling with the daytime crowd amongst the colorful, historical Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings. There was much shopping to do. The streets were lined up with many souvenir shops. I felt most of them were selling the same items. Prague is known for their hand-blown Moser glass items, Bohemian crystals, and handmade wooden toys. My parents did not think very much of them, and thought it wasn’t worth spending the Euros on these items. I don’t think we got any souvenirs from Prague except a couple of postcards … and these photos! When we arrived at Old Town Square, we were greeted by the sight of the Astronomical Clock (Orloj), and in the distance Tyn Cathedral.
When we were there, it seemed the Old Town Hall was under construction, but the side tower of the building, which housed the Astronomical Clock, was still in view. This clock was built in 15th century, an invention that projected high technological advancement during that era. The main dial mechanism not only shows the current time, but also the placement of the Sun and Moon in the Zodiac, moon phases, time of sunrise and sunset, the length of astronomical night, time in old Bohemian hours, and other unknown data. Below the clock, there is a slow-moving calendar with very delicate, small-figure paintings. There are four moving figures, two on each side of the clock. As explained by Wikipedia, these four figures represent four things that were despised at the time of the clock’s making:
The four figures flanking the clock are set in motion at the hour… the first is Vanity, represented by a figure admiring himself in a mirror. Next, the miser holding a bag of gold represents greed or usury. Across the clock stands Death, a skeleton that strikes the time upon the hour. Finally, the Turk tells pleasure and entertainment. There is also a presentation of statues of the Apostles at the doorways above the clock, with all twelve presented every hour … [Excerpt from Wikipedia]
There was also a legend which told of the original master builder of the interior clockworks. It was said the mechanic was blinded by the King who commissioned the clock after it was completed so that no other wonderful clock can be built for someone else. Before every hour of the clock, there is always a crowd gathered in front of the clock to watch the moving figures. My family decided to witness the event from afar since there was a huge crowd that had gathered. It was best not to get in the way of everyone else! We spent the rest of the day shopping and resting with drinks and food in the area. As we were exhausted from the day’s adventure, we decided to take the metro line back instead of walking.
Day 2: Museums & the New Town (Nové Město)
Since we had a tiring day yesterday, we decided to take Day 2 leisurely. We slept in for a bit before heading out to breakfast. After breakfast, we took the Metro Line A from Staroměstská to Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) in the New Town of Prague. Similarly, it was bustling with the daytime crowd. Here, urban shopping is prime. Everything from bars and modern malls to casinos and big chains can be found in this central Prague. The National Museum (Národní muzeum) is located at the upper part of Wenceslas Square. We made our way to the museum, and as we approached the main entrance, we were impressed by its facade. The museum has various exhibits such as minerals and gems, fossils, animal skeletons and stuffed animals. The newer part of the museum has exhibits on Communism. After the museum, we spent the rest of the day shopping at Wenceslas Square. It was also here that we bought tour tickets to nearby suburb cities, Karlovy Vary & Kutna Hora. On our way back to the hotel, we decided to make a brief stop close to Vltava River. We took a nice evening walk alongside the river and the New Town buildings. Dinner was at a shopping mall across from our hotel. We decided to have a simple dinner at the food court at the top floor. In general, I would say the people of Prague are not as friendly. Perhaps, they pick their visitors to shower their amiability.
Day 3: Kutna Hora
Our first day tour brought us on a one-hour bus ride to Sedlec, a suburb of the city Kutna Hora. My mother wasn’t too excited for this tour as we were headed towards an ossuary, a building or a site made to serve as a final resting place for human skeletal remains. The Sedlec Ossuary (Kostnice v Sedlci) ia a Roman Catholic church, which contains skeletons of about 70,000 people, whose bones are artistically used to decorate the chapel. It is also known as the Bone Church. I have to say, it was quite the sight … very bizarre … profoundly eerie. There was even a chandelier made out of bones hanging from the center of the ceiling.
It was a weird situation as I wasn’t sure if it was alright to get that close to the bones … I just felt awkward snapping all these photos of real skeletal remains. My mother didn’t stay long inside the building. I could tell it was a very disturbing sight to her.
After the ossuary, we visited the Cathedral of St Barbara, one of the most famous Gothic churches in central Europe. Kutna Hora was a town whose wealth was based entirely of its silver ore mines, and so the church was erected in the name of St Barbara, a patron saint of miners. I was very impressed with its architecture and magnificent facade. At least, this part of the trip lifted my mother’s spirits. She was happier taking photos and enjoying the scenic view.
Our last visit of the day tour is the Kutna Hora city itself. It was a very charming stroll through the central town. We also visited the Valachian courtyards (Vlašský dvůr), or more popularly known as the Italian Court. Originally built as an ordinary fort, it was converted into a king’s mansion and later on became a place of the Royal Bohemian mints. It was named the Italian Court because of the Italian experts of that time who were the forefront in the minting business. The tour guide brought us round and explained a whole lot of the history to us … clearly, I wasn’t really paying attention. I think I was just too tired from all the walking in the scorching heat. I do remember the last part of the tour where she showed us the mint workers’ tools and equipment. I think we missed the last demonstration/show where a man would sit on the equipment, stamp and hammer the coins as souvenirs for tourists.
Day 4: Karlovy Vary & The Moser Glass Factory
We were looking forward to this day tour as we had heard Karlovy Vary is a beautiful city, which is also known as a “spa city”. How exciting! The bus ride was longer than yesterday’s. It took us close to two hours to reach the city from Prague. We also had more people on the bus, which made it seem more like a touristy outing.
Our first stop was the Moser Museum, or better known as the Moser Glass Factory. The glass company, Moser, is a luxury, high-quality glass manufacturer based in this city. They produce very fine and intricate glassware, everything from ash trays and serving trays to candle stands and dishware. At the museum, we watched a short video clip regarding the history, growth and present day influence of the company. Then, we were brought to the glass factory; the work site of sweaty, topless men …
I don’t know if I was really paying attention to the glass or the sweaty, topless men … haha. But of course, once the tour guide started educating us on the glassblowing process, we all paid full attention to how the molten glass was blown and shaped into its base design. It was very warm in the building, and I can see why these glassblowers do opt to be shirtless if necessary. They work very close to the hot furnaces, which can reach up to temperatures of 1000C. The tour guide mentioned that the company supplies the workers with plenty of water … and beer. Well, I guess that is a handsome reward for working under these extreme conditions. I would imagine it is similar to working under the hot sun for the entire day!
Glassblowing is a glassforming technique that involves inflating molten glass into a bubble, or parison, with the aid of a blowpipe, or blow tube. A person who blows glass is called a glassblower, glassmith, or gaffer – [excerpt from Wikipedia]
It was a fun and educational experience. Moreover, it was refreshing to see that in this day and age, there are still manufacturing sites which still depend on men/women’s skill and labor. I don’t think something like this can ever turn into a mass-production site using solely equipment and robots. It’s like art. It comes from within mankind, to produce beauty and a sense of luxury. Impressive, very impressive … As usual, after the tour we were led into the shop where people can buy these glassware as souvenirs. I wish I had more money to own more of these pieces. The more complicated part of the purchase would be how to pack this safely for my travel back to North America. And so, we walked out of the store empty-handed.
Next up, we visited the streets of Karlovy Vary city. It was so pretty … how nice it would be to live in a place like this! It was a walking tour, and so we got to see a lot of the historic buildings up close. We passed by the Grandpupp Hotel, a very famous five-star hotel in the city. The hotel served as “Hotel Splendide” in the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale. We continued our walk to the Hot Spring and Hot Spring Colonnade. It wasn’t located outdoors, there was an enclosure built around. The esplanade hall features not only the main hot spring fountain, which is known to be the richest in nutrients and the warmest at 72C, but also five other spring outputs at cooler temperatures. The main hot spring can spurt up to a height of ~12m. The other spring fountains were less intense, pouring gently from spouts surrounding its main column. We each bought ourselves a unique cup, which is said to be ideal for drinking hot spring water. Not sure what the ideal concept behind it was, but it looked pretty and so it would serve as a nice souvenir for ourselves 🙂 I was so excited to take a sip at this fancy water. Apparently, the hotter the water, the richer in nutrients, and so the more healing properties it has. The tour guide mentioned that it is better if we drink the water at its natural temperature. I thought she was insane … how could one drink water at 70C? It’s enough to burn one’s skin, let alone one’s throats! Logically, it did not make sense … and so we chose the hot spring at 50C. It was hot, but comforting to drink. Then again, I’m used to drinking hot beverages so perhaps it was easier for me to handle. I know my husband would squeal and squirm with it.
After that, we continued to stroll along towards the Thermal Hotel. We passed through the Mill Colonnade, which is another magnificent facade of classical architecture. In front of the colonnade, there were six, free-standing mini hot spring fountains where one can take a drink from. A colonnade, as I came to learn, is a long sequence of columns joined together to be either free-standing or part of a building. Karlovy Vary is known to be a town of colonnades, and it was developed that way to provide spa patients with high-quality comfort during their treatments with this curative hot springs. Perhaps, if we had more time we could have indulged in the spa experience here! Although, I’m not sure how expensive it would be …
That’s the end of my European holiday with my family! Perhaps, someday we will return to Europe again. While it is a more pricey vacation, experiencing Europe’s charm is worth it. Until next time, adios!