Thursday, June 09, 2005

Knowing Me, Knowing You, Pra-ha!

Hi everyone,

Today is the last night of our stop in Prague, having come here from Berlin via Dresden. Dresden itself was a very strange city, everything seemed to be compartmentalised - the historical, reconstructed area, shopping area, residential areas and a nightlife area (where our hostel was situated, which meant there was noise outside right through the night! As for the city itself, there wasn't a huge amount to see - a quick wander around the reconstructed buildings was about all there was to it, although if you were taking a longer trip there it is not too far from some wonderful countryside. That said, except for the fact we got into the centre too late to get a guided tour of theFrauenkirche (recently rebuilt, which in itself makes it very odd - old-fashioned architecture but largely very clean new stone), we didn't really feel there was anything we had missed in our brief wander around the city centre.

Then we came to Prague, which I must confess I find one of the more overrated cities in Europe. The architecture and the Old Town are very pleasant to walk around, but the place is absolutely packed with tourists and there isn't an awful lot of great interest to see. On the positive side, it is cheaper than most other places we have visited (although prices are gradually rising to reflect the number of tourists), and this particularly manifests itself in beer prices, where you will never have to pay more than a pound a pint (and if you look around you will get it much cheaper than that). The downside of this, particularly if you visit at a weekend, is that the city fills up with lots of Englishmen who arrive only to get drunk - not a wonderful advertisement for our country.

One of the other problems in Prague is that it gets rather hot, especially for people used to cold climates like the North-East of England. When we first arrived (having been stopped three times by the same woman asking if we were looking for accommodation!) it wasn't too bad, but the last couple of days have been more humid, and it can be difficult given that many of the interesting sites (ie the castle and the buildings contained within the giant complex) require a large amount of walking uphill. That said, a trip to the castle complex certainly is worth it. The cathedral itself is stunning in size, although fairly typically Catholic in design (for those of you who know, quite like Cologne Cathedral) but some of the tombs are very elaborate - one of a Czech king I had never heard of before, but a wonderful tomb made of out silver, and then the tomb of St Wenceslas, national hero, whose 1000th year anniversary provided the (belated) completion of the cathedral itself.

You also get to see part of the Old Royal Palace - not brilliant, but some of the balconies there give you fantastic views of the rest of the city, and it was nice to find out that the main hall was designed so that a) jousting competitions could be held indoors and b) a market stall could be held there so that nobles didn't have to take the trip down to the town to buy their food (or maybe they preferred to avoid the walk back uphill!). After that, there was a video presentation about some of the history of the castle, which was characterised to me more by the jaunty camera work than much of the information that was given to you (my favourite line was: "no-one predicted this would start off the 30 Year's War" - it would have been quite a precise prediction!).

Other than that there isn't really an awful lot more to see in Prague other than to walk around - and even then a lot of the famous areas are quite disappointing, in particular Wenceslas Square. Added to that, negotiating zebra crossings involves a fair amount of bravery, as Czech drivers are not inclined to czech whether you are crossing the road or not. However, some amusement is provided by inaccurate translations of English, such as the restaurant menu which offers a special deal for "dishes and soap" - I was also tempted to work out what "American potatoes" were. That said, Czech food is hearty and usually pretty cheap, so I shouldn't be too unfair.
Besides, the opportunity to enjoy drinks outside of places like St Nicholas's church or the Old Town Square is something well worth doing, and in a trip like this it is nice not to feel under pressure to be bombing round seeing everything. So much so, in fact, that my brother has spent much of today watching the European Bridge Junior Championships and even I was tempted to go along to see how these things are organised (the commentary they provide is easy to follow even for a novice like me, and full of amusingly sarcastic comments - at least it appeals to my sense of humour!). Tomorrow we go to visit Cesky Krumlov - supposedly the most beautiful town in the Czech Republic - and then after a long journey on Wednesday we spend a bit of time in Vienna (although getting a hostel to accept a reservation made for arrival at 7pm is proving a novel challenge!).

Best wishes,