Nearly two decades ago, an English girl I briefly dated suggested a trip to Prague would be a worthwhile adventure the next time I crossed “The Pond.” The relationship didn’t last, but the desire to visit Prague did. Its old world architecture and charm, bridges over the Vltava River…even the still sinister nature of its Communist past as featured in movies like “Chasing Liberty” and “XXX” drew me in. So when Judy suggested a side trip to Prague as part of our “N is for Nuremberg” trip, I said yes before she even finished the sentence!
Judy visited a few years so knew where to stay, Malá Strana, just across the legendary Charles Bridge from the Staré Město, or Old Town. Through SkyAuction.com, she found an incredible deal at the Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa, a Michelin-rated boutique hotel across the street from the U.S. Embassy and just a few minutes’ walk to everything we wanted to see.
Allow me to gush about the hotel for a minute. The staff was fabulous, sitting us down at an antique desk while we filled out paperwork and they explained the features of the hotel, spa and restaurant. They also provided us with a list of available personalized tours. We immediately booked a three-hour walking tour of Prague’s historic castle. The room was very large by European standards, with gilt-edged baroque furniture, a comfortable queen-sized bed, and a sumptuous bathroom. Each evening, we joined an eclectic group of guests from around the world in the parlor to celebrate the day while enjoying some surprisingly lush wines from the Czech Republic’s Moravia region.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After checking in, we donned warmed coats, gloves, and scarves (this WAS December in Eastern Europe, after all) and headed across the Charles Bridge to Staré Město. Unlike the other bridges that cross the Vltava, the iconic Charles Bridge is for pedestrians only. Anchored at both ends by black gothic towers, the bridge allows your imagination to take you back in time hundreds of years when horse-mounted knights in chain mail would have terrorized peasants as they thundered past on cobblestone streets. Along the way, we stopped to admire the art of street vendors camped-out on the cold stone, hawking their wares. We didn’t buy anything at this point…there was still too much to see.
In Staré Město, we made our way to the Old Town Square, where hundreds gathered to watch its famous Astronomical Clock at the top of the hour, while hundreds more poured-in at the end of the day to buy gifts and local sausages at the Christmas market stalls (yes, it seems every large city in Europe has a “Kristkindl Markt”). We window-shopped but mostly we just wanted to get the lay of the land. Famished (we had left Nuremberg at 6 a.m.), we headed back to the hotel for the wine reception, then on to dinner at a small restaurant near the hotel Judy had remembered from her previous trip. We gorged on rabbit and goulash and headed home for a hot soak in our room’s large tub.
We woke up late the next day and just made it downstairs for breakfast, an amazing buffet of far more than the traditional continental breakfast (there were at least four kinds of butter to enjoy with the freshly-made bread…my favorite), English bangers and mash, American eggs and bacon, and even organic and vegan options! Despite the layout, we ate light, as we were scheduled to participate in a four-hour long foodie tour of Prague that afternoon.
If you do nothing else in Prague, take one of the foodie tours offered by Prague Food Tour. We met co-owner and guide George at the beautiful old Prague National Theatre, right next to The New Stage, which typified the brutalist architecture of the Communist era. Throughout our tour, George pointed out the strange juxtapositions between old and new, Communist and Republic. We would learn that both George and our next day’s tour guide, Eva, were born under the Communist regime to parents who worked – as all did – for the state…a stark reality that the wall fell less than a generation ago.
But this tour was about food and drink. Our first stop was for a traditional lunch of finger sandwiches and sweets. Next stop: a small bar called Bonvivant’s. It was one of the highlights of the trip. Our group included John and Fran, a typically American middle-aged couple from Houston; Phil and Gareth from Manchester, England, (who next to us were the funniest, most randy couple on the tour), and Anthony, a retired gentleman from Victoria, Australia, spending three-months traveling Europe on his own. We watched and marveled as our young, talented bartender (and bar owner) first prepared Absinthe the traditional way, which involved dripping ice cold water over a sugar cube into the green liquid incorrectly known for being a hallucinogen. Drink number two was…quite literally…a fiery concoction of five liquors set aflame and slowly poured between two metal containers several times at ever-increasing intervals. The finished product was spicy and warm…the perfect antidote for the frigid, damp day that awaited us outside. Drink number three (THREE!) was an Apricot Schnapps version of a Pisco Sour that was simply delicious. We toasted the day and gave a little thank you to George that we were walking. It was off through the maze of cobblestone streets and alleys as we made our way to stop number three, a large beer hall that served, well, beer (and classic Czech beer food). Czechs love their beer and we learned several ways draft beer is served in Prague. Who knew? Stop four was the Imperial Cafe, located in a centuries-old hotel near the train station. Featuring tiled ceilings and walls that were as old as the hotel, the restaurant was simply beautiful. We dined on beef and duck in true Czech style, enjoying George’s stories about Czech Christmas traditions and the drunken adventures of the Czech President. The tour over, we bid goodbye to George and our tour companions and headed back to our hotel, ready from some much-needed rest.
In part two: castles, crystal, and enjoying the spa lifestyle … including a beer spa. Yep, you heard that right. Stay tuned!