All across Facebook, my friends are proclaiming that it’s their last day of Panto, and I take my hat off to all of you lovely folk who’ve enjoyed and endured it in equal measure. This Christmas I side-stepped slapping my thigh, as I’ve been away from home rather a lot this year and quite fancied being with the family in the run-up to the big day for a change.
Consequently, I don’t believe I’ve ever been so organised, my presents so beautifully wrapped or all my cards written and posted so early in all my adult life. And it was great to not have to worry about getting a sore-throat or cold whilst singing two (sometimes three) shows every day! I love Panto season, I really do, but for the first time in forever I decided to skip it, and couldn’t be more delighted that I did.
But as I’m so used to being away for the festive season, and with touring in my blood, after Christmas the Boy and I packed our bags and headed for a city break in Prague to bring in the New Year. The following is as much a diary for myself to remember the fantastic places we visited, as it is a blog for you to read. Enjoy.
First up – we got the currency wrong! D’oh! We had booked our hotel in Euros online and, the Czech Republic being an EU country, had foolishly assumed that was the currency needed. Thankfully, we realised our error in the cab from the airport and our driver happily accepted our Euros when he saw that he was getting a hefty tip to quell our embarrassment. For future reference – it’s Czech Crowns (the Republic being one of only nine of the EU’s twenty-eight member states not to use Euros, although they will often accept them from gormless tourists). So now you know.
Our hotel, The Kampa Garden, was minutes from the iconic Charles Bridge (yes, it’s the one featured in Mission Impossible) that crosses the Vltava River to the Old Town – perfect for a quiet night’s sleep and easy access to and from the packed bridge on New Year’s Eve. We were proudly amongst the hurly-burly crowd at midnight and it was incredible to have a 360 degree view of fireworks from our spot.
The scenery is not dissimilar to that of Edinburgh, with the castle high up on the hill and turrets and spires reaching skyward in all directions. The atmosphere was wonderful, with the fireworks starting at around ten-thirty and lasting right through until half twelve and beyond – and to think that their real celebratory fireworks are actually on the following evening of January 1st! It really was quite magical having a picturesque, Disney back-drop and we couldn’t believe our luck as it started lightly snowing just before the midnight chimes. The light dusting made the city, if it were possible, even more beautiful.
We ate like Kings and drank like fish- I daren’t step on the scales in the bathroom for at least another week! The huge breakfast on offer at our lovely hotel alone was enough to set us up for the day, but there was so much fine fare on offer the moment we stepped out the door, that for once my touring instinct to fill-up my handbag from the breakfast buffet was quashed.
Here are my top four eating and watering destinations:
Top of the list has to be Kampa Park Restaurant (not to be confused with our hotel). Set overlooking the Charles Bridge on its own little island (there is a canal on the other side that joins into the river), it was unbeatable for romance, location, quality of food and service. I had bumped into a friend before Christmas who had previously visited Prague with her husband and it was her recommendation. And boy- she did us proud – thanks Becky! It really was a find (and quite hard to find too). Had we not been told about it, we may well have turned back as the shady-looking archways leading up to it were under renovation and we weren’t sure if it was open as we walked around the bend to what looked like a work-site. Thank goodness we persevered just beyond this point as the restaurant was a delight.
Our romantic table on the Venetian balcony overlooked the twinkling Certovotka canal, known as the Devil’s Stream, and it was heavenly. Their cellar was so extensive and changed so often, each table had an iPad as a wine-list. Ingenious and great fun too. The service was particularly friendly and attentive without being intrusive – it’s little wonder it’s Prague’s discreet celebrity hangout of choice. After you’ve dined sumptuously at one of the city’s very finest restaurants, you can enjoy gawping at the likes of Johnny Depp and Bono (or their photographs on the wall by the cloakroom at least) whilst waiting to pick up your coats and head out to the river terrace for one last sigh at the stunning view of the illuminated Charles Bridge, green cupola churches and fairytale towers. Heaven!
Bohemian Bliss! The Hemingway Bar was a cosmopolitan melting pot with a bubbling atmosphere and we were lucky enough to be squeezed in – you have to book well in advance for this place but we took our chances and got lucky with a cancellation. It’s worth knowing it’s cash only, but it’s reasonably priced so no nasty surprises. After starting with a decadent champagne cocktail named Swan Lake (whatever could have attracted a Dolly Dancer like me to a drink like that, I hear you cry), I greedily picked another so as not to miss out on the vast array of temptations on offer. I could always abstain in boring January and Prague is the heart of Bohemia after all 😉 I had an aptly named Eau de Cocktail for women (there was a man’s version too) that came on its own vanity mirror tray, with a boxed cologne bottle containing my drink. The Boy had a creamy, after-dinner concoction served in a tiny teacup and saucer with an amaretti biscuit balanced on the spoon. Sheer class!
Oysters & Champagne! Zdenek’s Oyster Bar Now, Seafood may not be your most obvious choice when visiting Prague (we certainly had more than our fair share of meaty meat on our trip), and we only stumbled across this gem because the church we were visiting happened to be closed for lunch, and this pearl of a restaurant was directly opposite. The St. James Church listed among its many attractions a medieval shrivelled arm dangling on display, so we decided to pop back after lunch to see it – just the kind of gory spectacle to witness on a full stomach of potentially volatile seafood!
Zdenek’s was divine – we had a glass of Prosecco, but the full champagne list went on for pages and pages. From the tasty Amuse Bouche to the velvet chocolate gateau, plum ganache and poppy seed ice-cream with an espresso on the side, the meal was a triumph. We shared the monstrously-sized deluxe platter which boasted dressed crab, mussels, razor clams, a sea urchin, three types of oyster, sea snails, king prawns and wakame, on mountains of ice and a never-ending supply chain of little buckets for the shells and lemon-water bowls for our fingers, provided busily by the cheery staff. A gastronomic feast!
Beer! U Zlateho Tygra (or Golden Tiger) is where Vaclav Havel took Bill Clinton in 1994 to show him a real Czech Pub. There’s only one beer served and it’s cheap, with everyone seated at long tables squished together – in true Beer Hall style they just keep bringing you beer until you plead with them to stop before you pop. We got chatting to a Canadian and his Colombian girlfriend (Matt and Maria) and had great fun swapping Prague places to visit in between surreptitious sips of absinthe from their New Year’s Eve hip-flask!
Il Tri Ruzi (The Three Roses) across the road from the Tiger, should also get a mention. It’s the last brewpub in Prague and as well as drinking a delicious pale ale made on-site I ate a rather yummy Beef Goulash served in a dug-out round loaf as a bowl and The Boy had a Rabbit stew washed down with a nine-percent monastic ale which came with the warning that it was suitable only for “durable and experienced beer lovers” – yep, that’s him.
And whilst we’re on the subject of beer, the Prague Beer Museum Pub is a must, if only to sample small tasting glasses of a greater range and variety of beers than you’d ever imagine you could swig back in one sitting.
This hearty fare kept us fortified all around the cobbled streets, as we ticked off pretty much every stunning sight on our list…
There are a great many churches (not to mention the synagogues in the Josefov quarter), all of them unbelievably opulent and well worth a look. Special mention has to go to St. Vitus Cathedral in the grounds of the Prague Castle atop a hill (this 14th century gothic Cathedral was imposing and magnificent in style, juxtaposed with the brightly-coloured stained-glass art nouveau windows) and St. Nicholas Church with its stunning baroque (and Europe’s largest) fresco ceiling, which seamlessly melds into the stonework. Both totally different in style but breathtaking. And every church has some of the shiniest gold and most polished brass you’re every likely to see outside of a Brasso testing laboratory. Plus – it’s good to go to church at Christmas, right?!
Towering Views & Astronomical Sights
Another recommendation from a lovely friend (thanks Nina) led us to the Prague Library. Now, I love reading (mainly on my Kindle) but it wouldn’t have been top of my list. However, the Klementinum was spectacular. The baroque library was straight out of Harry Potter (or Young Sherlock Holmes, if you prefer) and the Astronomical Tower proved highly educational on the way up through its galleries containing artefacts from Kepler’s time with sextants and telescopes and all the enticing gadgets you are told as a child not to touch when walking around a museum.
It was particularly rewarding when we stepped outside to see some of the best views of Prague. The Astronomical Tower should not be confused with The Astronomical Clock. Same name, different tower.
The Astronomical Clock, which is mounted near the base of the Old Town Hall Clock Tower, has an hourly chime that displays an assortment of bizarre characters, from rich men that shake their heads, a skeleton that rings a bell and Apostles that pop out from windows at the top – similar to a Swiss cuckoo clock – and that corner of the Old Town Square gets quite jammed up every hour on the hour with fascinated gawkers.
Both towers have viewing galleries you can climb out on, with your life (and cameras) in your hands. We thought the view was better from the library Tower but it’s all down to personal preference. In the same way that in New York I preferred being at the Top Of The Rock and looking down on the The Empire State Building, here I preferred being up The Astrological Tower and being able to view The Town hall tower and the huge double-spired Old Tyn church on the other side of the square.
Plus, our guide at the Klementinum library was so surly and like a spooky character out of Tim Burton film, he was hilarious. We weren’t 100% sure if he really did hate his job or if he had a very dry sense of humour. We were hoping the latter. And the line for going up The Old Town Hall Clock Tower took over an hour – lots of tourists not all necessarily speaking the same language trying to form an orderly queue with no assistance… hmmm… not good! Do I sound incredibly British? haha- I do like a well choreographed line 😉
We also visited The Franz Kafka Museum, which took me back to my A-Level Theatre Studies days of reading Metamorphosis. Kafka (surely Prague’s most famous son) may have had a tough life but the museum showcases it powerfully, as well us opening up the fascinating turn-of-the-century era he lived in, huddled in reading groups with the likes of Einstein, Hegel and Neitzsche discussing everything from Expressionism and Surrealism to Quantum Physics and moaning about how their (publishing) agents aren’t getting them enough work. The entire space is staged as an elaborate Kafka-esque maze of eerie burrowing moles, piles of ominous filing cabinets and the distant echoes of buzzing bugs. Ingenious.
Hot Wine & Even Hotter Sausages
The Christmas Markets were still in full swing and we topped up on hot wine at every corner and sampled many different sausages (!!) There was live music and, although childish, I had my photo taken beside a Czech porter-loo. Let me explain. Before Christmas, I finished working with Opera North playing Lois in Kiss Me Kate. Before the performance ‘the Opera way’ is to lean into a fellow performer and almost spit the words, “Toi! Toi! Toi!” over each shoulder in the same manner as a Continental kiss. As a musical theatre performer, I tend to use the slightly less refined good luck phrase of “Don’t be shit” accompanied by a wry smile before the show. So, imagine my glee to spot a loo with the words “Toi,Toi” written on them?! Our two worlds collide! Made me giggle.
And so there you have it. A glorious trip to Prague.
Similar to Edinburgh during the Festival – a beautiful city dominated by a towering castle, its cobblestoned streets alive with people enthusiastically flyering for concerts here, there and everywhere and yet totally unique with its Cubism, Mozart Theatre (Don Giovanni premiered there and it’s supposedly the only theatre still operating where the great man himself actually performed), Rococo architecture and delicious cheap beer. Did I mention the beer already? 😉
Ladies – I would ditch the heels for this trip; the cobbles are not conducive to striding out and you’ll thank me when you have space in your case to squeeze in another jumper, ‘cos it’s cold. However, the weather was kind to us with clear blue skies, so it was crisp and fresh and the only change was when we landed back in Blighty to be greeted by drizzle. Typical.
It was a truly memorable way to start 2016, with the only Christmas thigh-slapping being to keep warm. I highly recommend this wonderful city as a city break. Go on- Don’t be shit – treat yourself!