29 December – Prague Castle and Petrin Tower…….
Our second day in Prague was dedicated to exploring the other side of the river – the Prague Castle complex and Petrin Hill and the Petrin Observation Tower. It was another day with lots of walking, but the effort was rewarded with plenty of food and beer!
We were all up about 8am for a bacon and egg breaky. Not in a rush today, we headed out around 10am. It was a bit cooler than previous day, but still no sign of snow (or the below zero temperatures we were expecting from Prague).
We caught our very bumpy tram down into town, and across the river to Prague Castle. Like the previous day it was very crowded on both the trams and also when we hopped off at the stop for the Castle. We were definitely not the only tourists headed that way!
The gardens surrounding the Castle were quite pretty, although hard to get to as they were in deep gorge. As we are now used to, the Castle was patrolled by some guards with very warm looking outfits, but with slightly less silly looking hats than some of the other palace guards we have seen on this trip!
Prague Castle is a castle ‘complex’ (seriously it is huge!) dating from the 9th Century and is the official residence and home to the President of the Czech Republic. It is the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of 70,000 square metres. Not all of the castle complex is open to visitors, but there are various areas you can visit, and different tours you can take. We had originally planned to do ‘circuit A’ which covers off all the open areas of the Castle but already suffering from ‘castle fatigue’ we changed our minds while lining up and decided on ‘circuit B’ which allowed us into 4 areas, but the main ones we wanted to see. Speaking of lines……. the line up for tickets was huge, stretching out across the courtyard. Luckily the guards were marching around with their weapons, keeping us and the kids entertained!
The line was moving relatively efficiently, and we waited less than half an hour. If you wanted to get an audio guide the line was significantly longer. We normally don’t bother with the audio guides as they take too long and the kids get bored. The audio guides for this castle cost as much as the tickets did, so we definitely didn’t bother.
We decided to head to St Vitus Cathedral first. The St Vitus Cathedral is a Roman Catholic metropolitan cathedral, and is the biggest and most important cathedral in the Czech Republic. It is owned by the Czech government and the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. It is an excellent example of gothic architecture and is very impressive poking out from behind some of the large main Castle buildings. The Cathedral is enormous and measures 124m x 60 m and the main tower is 96.5 m high. The arches are so high it’s hard to get a decent shot of them. It is an impressive building and once inside it’s truly enormous! We found one of the most impressive features of the cathedral to be the amazing stained glass windows. Astrid was quite impressed with them too….. There were also a number of guilded statues that were very intricate.
Once out of the cathedral we wandered around the courtyards between the buildings. There were some Christmas markets (of course) and a straw nativity scene that the kids liked looking at. There were quite a number of people wandering around but the complex is so big that it wasn’t too hard to move around.
We decided we probably had time to visit St George’s Basilica before it was time for the changing of the guard. St George’s Basilica is the oldest surviving church building in Prague Castle and was founded in 920. Compared to St Vitus Cathedral it is much smaller, and only has one vaulted ceiling. It was almost the opposite experience of walking through the Cathedral.
The Basilica didn’t take us too long to look through, so we headed back outside and worked our way towards the main courtyard which is where the changing of the guard was due to take place at 12pm. The crowds in the Christmas markets were now fairly thick, but that was nothing compared to the enormous line up for tickets. It was now twice as long as when we arrived. We were very glad we’d already done half our tours for the day.
We headed out into the main courtyard but the changing of the guard was annoyingly behind the palace gates and the crowd was fairly thick so it was virtually impossible to see anything. We’d seen plenty of changing of the guard ceremonies during this trip so weren’t overly worried. Astrid got the best view by sitting up on shoulders but the rest of us just listened to the band (who were quite good) and looked at the lovely view out over Prague.
We then did the tour of the open part of the Castle. It turns out that only a small section of Castle is open – ‘Old Royal Palace’. Which we were actually quite thankful for, since if we had to tour the whole thing we would still be in there! Most of the building is being used for Government business but there are several floors in one section that we could walk around. Unlike some of the castles we have visited throughout our trip, the inside of Prague Castle wasn’t overly lavish or opulently decorated. The main hall with its vaulted ceilings and chandeliers was probably the most impressive room, but several of the other rooms had ornate ceilings and some interesting built-in furniture. There were also some replica jewels on display. The real ones are apparently in a hidden room!
One of the best parts of the Castle tour was the balcony with the view over the city, Prague is very pretty from up high. Also included in our ticket was a tour of ‘the golden lane’. We decided to skip this and instead head to explore the Lesser Quarter and grab some lunch. Tickets to the Castle are valid for 2 days so you can spread your visits out. Circuit A included quite a few more tours so the second day might be useful.
After the Palace section of the tour the kids were getting tired so we popped Soren in the ergo and headed out to get some shots of the Castle complex from a distance. We walked out the front of the Castle and around several streets and up some hills and somehow ended up facing the courtyard that the Changing of the Guard took place in. Adding at least a kilometre to our walking for the day. We did see some nice buildings though and an interesting old stone wall!
Walking back around also meant we got a nice view of the Castle from the front without all the crowds in the way. Soren had fallen asleep just after we left the Castle so we were happy to wander around for a bit to give him a nap. We also discovered that just behind the main courtyard was a lovely set of stone steps leading down to where we were headed for lunch. There were really interesting little shops and restaurants dotted along the sides of the steps. It was certainly easier walking down the steps, as we were, rather than up – like great hoards of people we passed.
Once at the bottom we had a wander through the streets to find somewhere for lunch. There were a number of streets filled with restaurants and shops between the bottom of the Castle area and the Lesser Quarter side of Charles Bridge, we ended up finding a Czech Pub down a little side alley that looked interesting (and warm).
Lunch started with a ‘light dark Czech beer’ for the boys. I don’t really know what that is, but they all seemed happy. The beer is cheap and plentiful, so there were no complaints. To eat, Alan had an onion soup with cheese toast and spicy-honey pork ribs. Anto settled on the goulash with dumplings. Mikl had roast pork in black-beer sauce, with dumplings and spinach (yes he had extra beer in his food, but he did also eat a green vegetable). I had about the only vegetarian thing on the menu which was grilled brie with cranberry, mayo and chips. The kids got to share with all of us, and also scored some of my hot chocolate. I decided to try the warm chocolate cake with cream for dessert, which was a mousse like cake and really nice. The kids stole a fair bit of that too…..
The meal was really good and the kids had their own colouring in book and pencils, so it kept them both happy. I think we established that none of us are very good at drawing, since we all took turns to draw things for Astrid and Soren and most of them were barely recognisable. That was even before the beer consumption!
By the time we finished lunch it was 3pm and we decided that we’d catch the tram up to Petrin hill so we could have a look at the views over Prague and visit the observation tower. Prague is full of hills but Petrin is the biggest within the city area, at 318m. Normally a funicular runs up to where the tower is located but it was closed for maintenance during our visit (which we were aware of before we decided to go up). The tram dumped us a fair way from the top, and we decided to take the back path around to the observation tower. There were some enormous stone walls bordering the streets on the way up. Yes that is us standing in front of those doors. Those walls were many stories high!
After we got up the really steep bit of road, there was a lovely meander down some gravel paths towards the tower. Followed by a long walk down some winding paths through the forest…….. followed by an enormous number of stairs up to the tower (or so it seemed when you were carrying both Astrid and Soren).
Once we got to the tower we decided we were not so keen on walking the 299 steps up to the top, carrying both the kids. We’d done way more steps than that up other towers (carrying kids) during the trip, but the legs were well and truly tired that afternoon. So we copped out and paid extra to go up in the lift.
The lift turned out to be a very tiny lift in the centre of the Tower and it wasn’t the most fun ride ever. Once we got to the top it was rather crowded (as most observation towers are). The really off-putting thing was that the whole tower was moving, constantly. It wasn’t that much fun. We had the utmost face in the Soviet engineering that built the tower, but didn’t stay too long. That (and the open windows that the kids could have climbed out if they tried hard enough) meant it was a short visit.
Petrin observation tower was built as a mini version of the Paris Eiffel Tower. It is only 60m high, but as it is sitting on the top of Petrin Hill it gives you good views over Prague and beyond. On a clear day you can apparently see the highest peak in the Czech Republic, Snezka, 150km away. It obviously wasn’t quite clear enough the day we visited but we did get there just before sunset and got nice views over the city.
I decided that between the rocking tower and the very claustrophobic lift, I would walk down the stairs with Soren in the ergo. Astrid got Gramps to take her down in the lift as her legs were not up to too much more walking. The walk down the external spiral stairs was actually more pleasant as we got nice views over the River and some fresh air, it was still a quick trip down though, with a short stop on the observation deck for some photos.
Once we got to the bottom of the Tower, it was getting rather dark (it was at least 4.15pm!). We decided to walk down the hill the other way, which involved more stairs but put us back near a tram with a little less walking. The cobblestone paths were mostly unlit though, and rather slippery, even without snow. We hightailed it down as quickly as possible as it would have been even more difficult with the kids. The path down did offer quite a few vantage points for photos over the city and river.
Once at the bottom of the hill we found the correct tram to take us back over the river. The Prague trams are generally quite crowded but this one was insanely so. At every stop we’d get pushed further towards the back as more people piled on. We often got split up throughout the tram, but we at least now knew which stops to get off at to change trams. Our Czech was also getting slightly better, to the point we could recognise the tram stop names and what ‘next stop’ was in Czech. There were a few times we wondered if we would possibly all manage to get off at the correct stop since there seemed to be 50 people between us and the door, but we always made it. As crazy as the trams were with their thousands of people and stop-start nature, we were usually offered a seat if carrying a kid, and the kids were able to sit down.
Once we escaped our crazy tram ride, we got on a slightly more sane one back to the apartment, where we had decided to have dinner in, after a big day. This meant toasted ham and cheese sandwiches for the kids followed by yoghurt. Once they were in bed, the boys went out to fetch kebabs from one of the many kebab shops within walking distance. Apparently felafel kebabs are a delicacy and need to be prepared out the back, rather than at the front of the store like the meaty kebabs. It is also the only time my dinner cost more than the boys dinner!
Statistics for the 29th of December 2015 in Prague – the temperature was 2 to 5 degrees with a mean of 4 degrees. We walked a total of 13.5km for the day – a significant proportion of that was up hills and stairs, the byproduct of a city littered with hills! We were enjoying the cheap food and alcohol and planned to make the most of it the following day, our last full day in Prague.