Our first train of the day had us in Vienna by late morning, a short 3-hour trip from Budapest. When we arrived in the Westbahnhof Train Station we quickly realized that our connection to Prague was at the Sudbahnhof Train Station, conveniently located on the opposite side of town.
Fortunately we had traveled to Vienna a few months prior and were quite comfortable with the tram and subway system. We found our way to the Sudbahnhof station easily but missed our connection by only minutes. It was actually a blessing in disguise because it gave us a few hours to hang out in Vienna, one of our favourite cities in Europe.
When we purchased our EuroRail pass we were forced to buy First Class seats because we are over the age of 26. At first this annoyed us because we're on a tight budget and didn't like being forced into spending more than we had to.
Traveling from Bucharest to Budapest in our "first class" seats had us a little disappointed. Although we lucked out and had nobody else in our cart, the seats didn't appear any different from second class. However, we soon realized that the first class seats on Western European trains are the real deal. We're now very happy to have spent the extra cash for the luxury of comfort. It's amazing how quickly our opinions changed!
Prior to our arrival Nicole did some research on hotel accommodations in Prague. Prague was to be our first major European city that we needed to sleep in a hostel. Not only is Europe expensive but the Euro is much stronger than the Canadian dollar. We were extremely fortunate to have stayed with friends up to this point.
After researching countless hostels we found a great deal - a boutique hotel for CDN $40 per night including hot breakfast. The next best option was a shared dorm with shared bathroom facilities and no breakfast for CDN $36. We figured the $4 extra was worth it.
We couldn't have been more right. The hotel was one of the best that we'd stayed at throughout our trip. The television had internet access, the bathroom was all marble with a deep Jacuzzi tub, the bed was as comfortable as a Westin bed, and we had all of the unnecessary accessories you'd expect from a 4-5 star hotel. It was a HUGE score!
Our goal for Europe is simple - to explore and experience its finest cities.
Prague is a brilliant city. It's certainly one of the most picturesque and photogenic cities in Europe, competing with Santorini and Venice for top honors (in our opinion anyways). It's one the best walking cities we've encountered and had us walking for hours each day, uncovering amazing gothic architecture complete with gargoyles and tall pointy pillars.
We hit all of the standard tourist spots like Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral, St Wenceslas Chapel, Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square with its dominate gothic twin steeples of Tyn Church and the celebrated astronomical clock. There is an insane amount of tourism in Prague and the hot attractions were jammed packed with eager, camera-happy tourists. After our first afternoon of sightseeing we could see why!
St Vitus Cathedral, the incredible gothic cathedral that dominates Prague's magical setting, is overwhelming and is arguably one of Europe's most stunning Roman Catholic churches. The detailed stained-glass windows, extravagant crypts, giant religious statues, gothic architecture and overall grandeur made our visit to the ancient landmark unforgettable. It's one of those special places that you have to experience firsthand to fully appreciate its glory and size.
The Old Town Square was festively decorated for the Christmas season. The gigantic blinking Christmas tree in the center of the plaza was the focal point for the hundreds of jolly onlookers. Czechs, and Europeans for that matter, know how to do Christmas properly.
The outdoor Christmas Markets are the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit. Who doesn't like hot and sweet wine, grilled sausage and pig roasts, fresh sweet and hallow dough breads (called Trdlo), homemade chocolates and truffles, live festive music and cheerful people?
We are happy to be back in Europe. It's much different from the rugged wilderness of the Wadi Rum in Jordan or the lush Amazon Rainforest in Peru. It's nice being back in civilization. We forgot how much we liked being left alone and standing in lines that actually serve a purpose. Although our budget isn't as happy as it was in India or Egypt!
We noticed that Prague, as well as the other Eastern European cities we've visited in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, were not as multicultural as other major western European cities. Although there's a lot of tourism, the majority of people are Caucasian and the primary religion is Catholicism. Having spent the past 10 months sticking out like a sore thumb, it's strange being in a country where we now blend right into the crowd.
Interesting story - The Czechs, specifically the people of a city named Pilsen, are said to be the originators of lager. Beer used to be cloudy and dark with little consistency until a man named Josef Groll made the first golden, clear beer. 'Pilsner' became the common phrase used for bottom-fermented beer, but the inhabitants of Pilsen didn't like that and changed the name of its prized lager to Pilsner Urquell. 'Pilsner Urquell' literally translates into "The pilsner from the original source".
Therefore, it's argued that the Czechs are the innovators of modern day pilsner and lager - with Pilsner Urquell being the first brand. Though we are only messengers and obviously are just relaying the info that was given to us. Interesting never the less!
Of course we couldn't leave Prague without sampling the cherished brew, though we couldn't find a bar, pub or restaurant in the city that wasn't filled with a suffocating cloud of blue smoke. It's amazing how many people smoke in Europe and even more amazing how many establishments allow smoking indoors. It would appear that Eastern Europe is falling behind the times in this respect, although I still remember smoking in Canadian McDonalds restaurants not too long ago.
We were keen to watch a live Czech League ice hockey game but, like many European cities, nothing was open on the Sunday. We didn't know where to go or even how to find a schedule. Our plan was to leave for Berlin on the Tuesday morning, so our only chance was to catch a Monday evening game. Naturally the next games weren't until Tuesday night so we unfrotunately missed the opportunity to watch a hockey game on European ice - but it wasn't for lack of effort! Maybe on our next visit.
We loved our time in Prague. It's one of our favourite cities and is definitely a place that one must experience to fully appreciate.
December 1st, 2009