Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Prague in Plain Sight #4 - Most Legií (Legion Bridge) and Střelecký Ostrov (Sharpshooter's Island)

I recently posted a well-received piece about Čechův most (Čech Bridge), and I wanted to continue that theme with this follow-up about Most Legií or Bridge of the Legions. In that particular post, I claimed that Čechův most was my favourite of the Prague bridges because of its unique Art Nouveau style. On reflection, I'd now like to change my mind. Although not as artistically impressive, Most Legií has even more going for it, as I think you'll discover as you read on.

Most Legií from the West bank of the Vltava
Linking Národní Třída on the east bank of the Vltava with Újezd on the west, Most legií sounds like it has a Roman connection. In fact, it derives its name from the Czechoslovakia Legion that formed during World War I. Although still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the onset of the war, many thousands of Czech and Slovak soldiers deserted the Austrian Army to join the Western Allies in the hope of creating an independent Czech state. The plan was largely orchestrated by T. G. Masaryk and the objective was finally achieved with the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918. It's therefore quite fitting to be writing this piece, 100 years later, in the era of the new Czech Republic.

Looking back towards the National Theatre with the tollgate towers

The current granite bridge, formerly known as Francis I Bridge, was built between 1899 and 1901 to replace a chain bridge. It was designed by Antonín Balšánek and the chief engineer was Jiří Soukup. The bridge is a combination of neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. The two towers on both sides of the bridge which were once used as toll gates. Most Legií measures 343 metres in length and 16 metres in width.

 

Halfway across the bridge, a staircase leads onto Střelecký Ostrov (Sharpshooter's Island) which, in the Middle Ages, was used by archers for practice and competitions. In the summer, the island becomes a hive of activity with festivals and other cultural activities taking place throughout the season. For the less active, there is elevator access down to the island on the other side of the road.

Access to Shooter's Island via the lift
In the colder months, the foliage dies away leaving wonderful views along the river towards the castle, the Charles Bridge and Smetanovo nábřeží. This is one of my favourite places in the whole of Prague. Even when it's busy and surrounded by hundreds of little peddle boats, there is a certain serenity about the place. Out of season, I find it's bleakness strangely comforting.

View across the Vltava towards Prague Castle
A terraced restaurant and bar are housed in the neo-Classical community hall on the island. In the middle of the ground floor, there is a passageway to allow flood waters to dissipate without endangering the structure of the building. However, in 2002 even that measure was inadequate as Střelecký Ostrov was completely flooded and had all but disappeared under the river waters.

In the autumn, as you cross the bridge from the Old Town towards Petrin Hill, you can see the trees running up the hill alongside the Hunger Wall in their autumn reds, olive greens and browns - just about the last vestige of colour until the following spring. It's a lovely sight, but a warning of the onset of winter.

One of my favourite places

Yup, I'm sure now - Most Legií is my favourite of Prague's bridges!









Friday, 6 April 2018

Prague - Top Tips For Travellers

In June this year, my fiancée’s sister, Cheryl, and niece, Kathy, will be visiting Prague for the first time and we’re all going to meet up. I’ve rebooked my old apartment on Ostrovni for a month and everyone’s getting really excited about getting together. For me, there will be an element of sadness, as it’s likely to be my final visit for some time as my contract has now ended. I’ve been thinking about writing this post for quite a while but kept putting it off as there were so many other things I wanted to share. In anticipation of the family reunion, now seems to be as good a time as any to finally post my Top Tips For Travellers to Prague.


On Arrival At The Airport


On arrival at Prague airport, the only thing to think about is how to get into town. If you're smart, the best thing is to pre-order a taxi. I usually use Prague Airport Transfers who are extremely reliable and professional. They might not be quite the cheapest ride in town, but you can pre-pay by card and it saves arguing about prices when you get to your destination. The drivers will meet you in the arrivals area, and you can easily find your driver who will be holding up an orange board with your name on it (or whatever identity you choose to provide when you book online). Prague Airport Transfers charge about 600 CZK (about £22) for a personal car, but you can share a car if cost is an issue.

Arriving at Vaclav Havel Airport
If your budget doesn’t extend to a taxi, the cheapest method of travelling into Prague city centre is by bus and metro. Take the 119 from outside the arrivals building to Nádraží Veleslavín, and then transfer on to the ‘A’ Line metro which will take you to Malostranská, Staroměstská, Můstek or Muzeum. Total travelling time is about 30-40 minutes and a 90-minute ticket will cost 32 CZK. You can get tickets from machines around the airport or from the information booth in Terminal 2. Remember to validate your ticket on the bus at the little yellow box inside the door!

In all the above scenarios, I’m assuming you are arriving at Terminal 1 - but it’s not much different for Terminal 2. I’m also assuming normal traffic conditions (and no taxi strikes because of Uber! -  not an uncommon situation over the last year). The only thing you shouldn’t do is pick up a taxi on spec at the airport. Use one of the booths in the terminal building if you haven’t pre-booked. Prague taxis are notorious for overcharging unsuspecting tourists and visitors.


Eating and Drinking


There are hundreds of bars and restaurants in the city, catering for just about every whim and desire. Naturally, places differ widely in price and quality. Steer clear of the bars and restaurants in the major tourist spots like the Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square and around the Charles Bridge. They are much more expensive than in the streets nearby and although many of them are quite good in quality, they will often try to take advantage of unwary travellers. Walk down some of the back streets nearby, and you’ll find the same types of places with much more reasonable prices. Best to stay away from the big name bars like Hooters, Coyote Ugly and many of the "Irish" or “British" pubs which are total rip-offs.

Unless there is someone in the front of house who is there to take you to a table, most places just expect you to find a table yourself. Find a good spot and sit down and wait for someone to come to you. Don’t wave your hands around and gesticulate to try and get a server’s attention. They will ignore you. Neither should you go up to the bar and try and order - they’ll just tell you to go and sit down. Be patient. The staff are busy but they know exactly who’s come in and when, and they’ll get to you in due course.

Vykorky Dum 99 - sadly now closed down
In most places, it is quite acceptable to just order a drink, even at lunchtime or dinner time. But if you do that, you’re going to miss out on some of the snacks that are often available to help soak up the beer. When you’ve finished, you should receive an itemised bill which won’t usually include a service charge. Remember that wages in Prague are low compared to most of Europe, and for staff in the hospitality business they are very low for very long hours. Unless you’ve received really bad service (very rare in my experience) try and leave a decent tip - at least 10% but I usually leave more like 15-20%. If you’re going back somewhere, it’ll act as an ice-breaker and they will remember you!


Getting Around


Make sure you have some sensible shoes with you. Prague is best seen by foot, even though the transport system is incredibly cheap and very efficient. Shoes or boots with a good sole and grip are vital. Prague pavements are beautiful, but the marble finish becomes really slippery in the wet. Converse trainers do not fare well in these conditions I can assure you. Trekking trainers are about the best for support, grip and for dealing with cobblestoned roads which are abundant around town.

As I’ve said before in these posts, go out and don’t be afraid to get lost. Prague is relatively small and it’s relatively easy to get back to where you need or want to be. Don’t be one of those people who walk around with their heads buried in a map or on their phones. You’ll miss out on all the little things that I’ve been writing about for the last four years! Look up, down and all around - constantly.

Strictly speaking, jaywalking is illegal in Prague, and Czech drivers do not necessarily obey the letter of the law when it comes to pedestrians - so jaywalking is not recommended, unless you really know where you are, and can understand exactly where traffic could be coming from. Also, remember that trams have the right of way and probably can’t stop even if they want to except at designated stopping places. A tram will really hurt you if you pick a fight with one - and you will never win (unless you’re a bigger tram!).

Beware of Trams and Pedestrian Crossings!
Wherever there are big crowds, there will also be opportunists. In the four years that I've lived in the city, I've never had any problems - but use a bit of common sense. Don't put a wallet in your back pocket, keep your bags and pockets fastened up and hang on to your cameras. I'm not convinced that pickpocketing is any worse in Prague than it is in any other major city, but be careful! Small backstreets may be a bit spooky at night, but there aren't any dangerous parts of town, and Prague is one of the safest places I've ever lived.

If you want to take a guidebook with you, my favourite is the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Guide. I would also suggest getting a map app that you can use off-line on your phone (for emergency use only!).


Shopping and Currency


Don't panic if you've forgotten to pack something. These days, it's not too difficult to find a replacement somewhere in town, and I've found that, generally, prices are a bit lower than in the UK, especially if you hunt around a bit.

Even in larger department stores, assistants will generally say "dobrý den" (good day) to you as you walk in. They aren't attempting a hard sell, it's just polite and it won't hurt you to respond with your own attempt! Try and learn a few little phrases before you arrive - Thank You (děkuji - deek-wi) and Please (prosím - pr-o-seem) go a long way...and by the way...the Czech for beer is "Pivo"!

Havelska Street Market
Regarding currency, don't exchange money on the street or at any of the Exchange Booths that scatter the city. Most ATMs will accept foreign cards, but if you have problems go to a bank. 99% of the Exchange Booths are rip-offs. The unit of currency in the Czech Republic is the Czech koruna - not Euros. Many places will accept Euros but they will give you a crappy rate of exchange.

One thing to remember about prices - they are often marked in crowns and fractions of crowns. So a bottle of pop in a little store may be marked as 14.7 CZK but when you pay it'll actually be rounded up (or down when appropriate) to 15 CZK. Over time the rounding differences cancel each other out. Unlike the US, the price you see marked includes sales (VAT) tax.


Leaving Prague


Getting back to the airport is simply a matter of reversing the method of arriving. Prague Airport Transfers will allow you to book a return trip at the same time as the outward trip and pre-pay for both.

Finally, for travellers bound for non-Shengen destinations (UK and US especially), the security arrangements may be different from what you're used to. The final security check is performed at the gate before you board the plane. You can take liquids into the airport, and you can buy them inside the airport even after you've been through the border (passport) control. However, these will be confiscated when you go through the gate security - where they will do the hand baggage checks and X-rays. If you buy drinks for the journey at the airport, make sure they go into sealed bags. The best thing to do is to make sure you keep some change and buy your drinks from the vending machine inside the gate. A bottle of soft drink will cost about 35-45 CZK.


These are some of the most useful things I can think of right now. If I come up with any more I'll add to the post later on. Most important though...have a great time!!






Saturday, 31 March 2018

Prague Moments #15 - Easter and the Easter Markets

It feels like it was only a few weeks ago that I was writing about Christmas in Prague and the wonderful Christmas markets. The reality is that it was fourteen weeks ago, and I'm currently back in Prague, this time enjoying the Easter Markets!

This is my fourth Easter in the Czech Republic and it has been the coldest and wettest by a long shot. I'm only here for a week to sort out a few business things, like my tax, and when I arrived there was still a fair amount of snow around the airport. I had been monitoring the weather from the UK (which was itself under the influence of the so-called Beast from the East) hoping that the conditions would improve before I arrived. Luckily they did, but only marginally, and the clock changes have helped lift spirits as sunset is now about 19:30 so there are about 13 hours of daylight to look forward to.

Easter Markets generally follow the same pattern as the Christmas Markets. They start a few weeks before Easter and end just after and are found in mostly the same locations; Old Town Square, Prague Castle, and Wenceslas Square are the most popular.

                               
Easter not Chritmas - Staromestska
Old Town Square

Just as with Christmas, there are loads of stalls selling food and drink, and instead of Christmas trinkets, there are wonderful hand-painted, wooden Easter eggs. The Christmas atmosphere gives way to one of freshness and you can feel Spring is in the air. Pastel colours and spring flowers are all around - some places have a small petting zoo where kids can feed the animals, and where there aren't real animals, there are straw ones in their place.

                        

Straw farm at Hradcanska

Easter in the Czech Republic is considered a time associated with birth and fertility and there are a number of traditions and customs followed. Although Prague is known as the city of 100 spires, over 40% of the modern population considers themselves atheist, and although much of the religious symbolism is still evident at Easter, the holiday has become more commercial and fun oriented than perhaps it is in other parts of the world.

                       

The festivities start with Ugly Wednesday (Škaredá středa - named for the day of Judas' betrayal) which is used to spend time cleaning up in preparation for Easter. This is followed by Green Thursday (Zelený čtvrtek) when the church bells ring for the last time (in Catholic churches) and priests officiate at rites in green vestments - hence the name. This is a day when you should make sure you eat something green to ensure your health for the coming year. Specially made green beer apparently works just as well!

There are Good Friday (Velký pátek) processions to mark the journey of Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and on White Saturday (Bilá sobota) the bells start to ring again to mark the start of the Resurrection.

Finally, on Easter Monday (Velikonocni Pondeli) there are street parties and traditionally is a time when women get whipped with a willow rod (pomlázka). This is a fertility rite, and is supposed to make women younger and ensure a year of health and beauty. These days, although you can still buy the pomlázka in the markets, it's not an activity to be practised with strangers or without consent!!!

Pomlázka - Don't do this at home

I've always enjoyed Easter in Prague especially as it about the only time of year that you can find plentiful amounts of young lamb in the supermarkets. As a Brit who enjoys a Sunday roast, I usually take the opportunity to stock up the freezer with lamb joints.


Veselé Velikonoce! (Happy Easter!)























Sunday, 18 March 2018

Prague in Plain Sight #3 - Čechův most (Čech Bridge)

Even someone who has never set foot in Prague is probably familiar with the Charles Bridge either from postcards or photos, but if not, from its starting role in a number of films, most famously Mission:Impossible, but also Yentl, Van Helsing and The Omen. Of course, its iconic status and fame mean it is often almost impassable except early in the morning or late at night.

Prague boasts eight other bridges across the Vltava between Florenc in the North-east of the city and Vyšehrad to the South, and of these three are more suitable crossing places for someone on a mission or in a hurry. My personal favourite is Čechův most (Čech Bridge) which provides a link between Pařížská třída and the embankment running under the Letná hill and the steps leading up to the metronome.
View across the Vltava with the metronome in the background
Čechův most was built between 1905 and 1908 based on plans by the architect Jan Koula along with designers George Soukup, Vaclav Trča, Francis Mencl. At 169m in length and 16m wide, it is the shortest bridge in Prague.


It also has a protected status as the only Art Nouveau style bridge in the Czech Republic. It is constructed on stone pillars and the arches are made of iron. The original roadway was wooden but this was replaced in 1961 because it became very slippery in the wet. There have been a number of reconstructions, including a major one in 1971/5. Between 1984 and 87 all the sculptures on the bridge were repaired.

Torchbearer on the west side of the bridge

There are a large number of wonderful ornamental features in bronze and iron including torchbearers, six-headed hydras and at each end of the bridge, a pair of 17.5m tall columns support bronze figures of Victory designed by Antonín Popp.

        
One of the Victory figures
Detail of a ram's head on the bridge


The bridge was named after the writer Svatopluk Čech, who died just after construction was completed. During the Nazi occupation between 1940-45, it was renamed the Mendel Bridge (after Gregor Mendel, the German geneticist).

Next time you happen to be crossing the river at that end of the city, take a moment or two to appreciate the amazing attention to detail on Čech most.




Saturday, 17 February 2018

Prague Moments #14 - The Butterfly House

Despite all the wonderful things to see around the city of Prague, at this time of year you sometimes need a break from the cold and find an indoor venue.

Arguably the warmest new attraction in town is the Papilonia Butterfly House which opened last summer. Located on the lowest level of Hamleys' toy shop on Na Příkopě (around the corner from Wenceslas Square), the permanent attraction covers 150m² and its design was inspired by the temple of Angkor Vat in Kampuchea.

The environmental controls maintain a temperature of 26ºC and 80% humidity and the attraction is home to 600 butterflies from 40 different countries, including Mexico, Australia, and other South American and South East Asian locations. The intention is to vary the species during the year so there will be different species in the spring compared to the autumn.


When you go through the hermetically sealed double doors, it’s like hitting a brick wall of heat and humidity and reminded me of leaving the airport building in Hong Kong. Butterflies with wingspans of up to 20cm are apparently happily flying around, seemingly oblivious to the human sightseers. Butterflies will come and perch on you if you're lucky - they are attracted to bright colours like reds and yellows.



Because of the humidity cameras may get a bit steamed up, especially coming in from the cold. My new iPhone X had no problems, but my Nikon DSLR couldn't cope so it went back in the bag. You can get up really close to the 'models' which continue to pose even when you're just a few centimetres away.


Children are welcome, but I would prefer parents to keep hold of them. There are butterflies on the floor as well as everywhere else, and it's easy to tread on them if you're not careful. You also need to be careful leaving to ensure no butterflies escape.

             

This was a wonderful experience and at the time of writing cost 150CZK for adults. The collection is open every day from 10:00am to 20:00pm (8 o'clock).

Monday, 5 February 2018

Prague in Plain Sight #2 - The Šitka Tower

If you continue walking past the Kranner Fountain towards the Dancing House, you’ll not miss the Šitkovská (Šitka) Water Tower on the right-hand side of the road (Masarykovo Nábřeží). This tower was named for one of the original mill owners that used to crowd the riverfront. It supplied water from the Vltava to the upper New Town.

Šitka Tower from Jiráskův most
The current tower dates back to 1588-1591; other towers existed on the same site but were destroyed by fire. The onion shaped dome was a later addition in 1648, following damage from the Thirty Years’ War. The waterworks went out of operation in 1880 and the tower was threatened with demolition.

Šitka Tower with Prague Castle in the background
Václav Havel, the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia, probably wished it had been, as the top floor was a spying spot for the communist Secret Police for many years as it had the perfect view of his house, which was monitored 24 hours a day in the 1970's to see who was visiting, when, and for how long.

Although you can easily get to the tower along the main embankment, a more interesting route is to cross the little bridge onto Slovansky ostrov (Slav Island) and approach the tower through the park. Head right down to the end of the island and you can make your way back up to the road via the staircase under the tower.

The Tower from Slav Island
Inscription on the rear of the tower
The building alongside the tower houses an art gallery (Galerie Mánes) and a little cafe restaurant.


Thursday, 1 February 2018

Prague in Plain Sight #1 - The Kranner Fountain

In a city like Prague, there are plenty of things that you often walk past but never give them a second thought. Sometimes it’s because there’s something more interesting on the other side of the road, at other times you may just step over them without realising their significance. In this set of posts, I’m hoping to bring some of these places into a bit more prominence. They don’t really qualify as being hidden because they are in such plain sight, but they do deserve a mention, rather than being taken for granted.

The first of these landmarks is the Kranner Fountain, which is just a few blocks from my usual apartment when I’m in town. I’ve walked past it thousands of times but only have one photograph of it, and until I started writing this, I didn’t even know what it was called.

Reminiscent of the Scott memorial in Edinburgh or the Albert Memorial in London, the Kranner Fountain was built in 1848 by the architect Josef Ondrej Kranner from whom it takes its name. It was unveiled in May 1850 as one of the requirements of a project which included the construction of a chain bridge linking Malá Strana and Smíchov and the creation of the first paved stone embankment in Prague, now Smetanovo Nábřeží.

Kranner Fountain
The Homage to the Bohemian Estates or Kranner Fountain

Whilst it’s Kranner whose name is associated with the fountain, the sculptor was Josef Max, and the primary stonemason was Karel Svoboda.

Officially called “The Homage to the Bohemian Estates” (rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it?), the centrepiece of the monument is an equestrian statue of the Austrian Emperor Franz I. Below this are sixteen figures representing the, then, sixteen Czech regions, with Prague at the head. These are allegorical depictions, representing science, art, peace, abundance, ploughing, mining, industry and commerce. A complex water pumping mechanism is built under the main plinth, connected to an underground corridor leading off to Divadelní.

In May 1919, after the founding of the first Czech Republic, the statue of the emperor was removed but a copy was returned to the platform in 2003 when the monument and pumping system was renovated.

One of the things I need to do on my return to Prague in a few weeks is to spend a bit more time in the little park in which the fountain is situated, maybe have a bit of lunch, and take a few more photos of this exquisite fountain.