I Fell In Love With Prague

5 Aug

…Its cobblestone streets, plazas filled with tourists, churches and restaurants. The views of the city from anywhere up high; the spires Prague is rightly famous for and the almost complete lack of the modern urban blight of the skyscraper. Prague seems to disdain those buildings, preferring instead an endless carpet of tile roofs, pierced randomly and endlessly with the spires and towers the town is known for. And the people of Prague, seemingly subsumed by the packs of tourists roaming the streets, maintain their good humor. Everywhere we went tourists with selfie sticks at the ready as if the beauty of this town was improved by grinning faces, souvenir hats, and ducks lips. Regardless of that carpet of tourists, Prague and it’s people still shone through.

Prague Panorama

But all of this came at the end of The Vacation. Just three brief days in District One: Old Town Prague. But before all of this my wife and I (and about 150 other people) spent a week cruising slowly up the Danube from Budapest, Hungary to Vilshofen, Germany.

My parents, my aunt and (Hungarian) uncle had done similar cruises several times before. Always including Budapest (Uncle Paul escaped to the US during the Hungarian revolution in the ’50s) and other cities and towns up and down the Danube. Starting in the 1960s through the 2000’s. Long before cruise ships were common on the Danube, they were there.

Aunt Bette & Uncle Paul in Budapest ca. 1986

Aunt Bette & Uncle Paul

 

So when some inheritance money came our way, Budapest and a Danube cruise seemed like an affordable possibility. A possibility my lovely wife of four years had never even contemplated but one of several possibilities that ended up as the final choice. That is what this is in pictures and words.

A local travel agent turned us on to this particular cruise. Yeah try finding a cruise that is suitable, affordable and interesting on your own. It’s a daunting task, what with the dozens of cruise lines who each offer dozens of European cruises. AMA Waterways Melodies of the Danube turned out to be doable. Only a week on the boat when many cruises were two and three weeks. And for cruise virgins like us seven days on board seemed the best choice. We were right.

 

Yeah try finding a cruise that is suitable, affordable and interesting on your own. It’s a daunting task…

 

We learned that British Airways flies out of Austin with direct flights to London, Heathrow. Upgrading to the Premium Economy seats gave us wider seats, my much needed extra legroom and a cabin and service that was close enough to first class for us on our nine hour flight. There was a three hour layover in London before our three and a half hour flight to Budapest. There we met a cruise representative that got us on the bus to the AMA Prima.

You will learn something the first time you get on a bus in Europe. European bus drivers defy the laws of physics. They fit a bus the approximate size of California down roads and through gaps in traffic more suited to a Smart Car. Once the wife and I settled into our seats we started to take in the scenery, both similar to the scenery you would find in and around any city in the US, and a bit different. Like exotic restaurants: Burger King, McDonalds & TGI Fridays interspersed with equally exotic retail establishments. Taking on the responsibilities of a tour guide I announced to my wife, at every opportunity, these establishments. this annoyed entertained her as we zoomed thru Pest rush hour traffic.

Budapest is actually two cities split (or if you prefer, joined) by the Danube. The flatter and more commercial Pest to the east and the hillier and more scenic, and residential Buda, to the west.

In about an hour we were welcomed onto the AMAPrima, handed glasses of champagne at a brief orientation and welcome meeting, introduced to the boat and the people we would be sailing with and handed a key to our stateroom. After which we collapsed for a couple of hours followed by dinner on board.

Our Cabin

 

The meals on board are superb, local and a high point of the cruise. Do be careful though, you will gain weight.

For whatever reason we suffered not a minute of jet lag, perhaps because we were up for about 24 hours before we hit the hay. So in the morning and after a wonderful breakfast we joined our tour group. We had signed up for the “hike” which was nothing more than a longer walk that included a bit of stairs and hills that the other tours didn’t. So it was just me, my wife and a fascinating lady from London. Our young tour guide was friendly and had an encyclopedic knowledge of Hungarian history and geography.  So we got, essentially, a private walking tour of Budapest lasting some four hours.

Part of Fisherman's Bastion, Buda

Part of Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda

 

More of Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda

 

View of Pest from Fisherman's Bastion, Buda

View from Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda showing Pest across the river

 

We had a great time, saw some great sights and learned from our young guide that there are two types of people in Budapest, those who live in Buda and those who want to live in Buda. Budapest is a lovely city, with friendly and welcoming people. Enough people speak English that you can quite easily get by knowing little if any Hungarian.

It was late in the day our feet were tired and we headed back to the boat for dinner. Again superb food featuring local dishes including a Hungarian Goulash that I was happy to see was much like the one I made from my Hungarian uncle’s family recipe.

 

…there are two types of people in Budapest, those who live in Buda and those who want to live in Buda.

 

The dining room aboard the AMAPrima looked much like any well appointed restaurant at a high end hotel. Booths, tables and serving stations. Though if you sat at a window seat your shoulders were at about water level. A little disconcerting at first. That and there were no tables for two. So every meal we were seated with another couple or two. Being a tad on the introverted end of things we selected a table with no one at it. Shortly we were joined by another couple, and another, and had a great time. No doubt there are no tables for two on purpose to encourage people to socialize. Good choice that.

Shortly after dinner started the ship cast off for an evening river tour of the Danube and Budapest.

BP at night 1 BP at night 2

 

Our first full day in Europe and Budapest over, we retired to the lounge as the ship got underway and shortly to bed serenaded by the sounds of the river around us as we continued up the Danube to Bratislava.

 

The two ends of the Bratislava "UFO" bridge.

The two ends of the Bratislava “UFO” bridge.

 

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia is in interesting mix of Soviet-era architecture and building styles ranging from the middle ages to contemporary, both of which can be seen in the above pictures. It had that in common, to a greater or lesser extent, with all of the places we visited. What we saw was a mix of old and new so very different than what we are used to in the US. Except that ‘Old’ in these European cities goes back some two thousand years to the Roman Empire.

 

Bratis pano Bratisx2

 

St. Stephen's, Vienna

St. Stephen’s, Vienna

We spent just half the day in Bratislava. A couple of hours later we were up the Danube to Vienna. That evening we were offered a traditional Viennese evening of wine and music. As neither my wife nor I care for classical music we decided to skip that event and take a cab into central Vienna and walk around and see the sights on our own. This is where we learned one of the differences between European retail business and US retail business. Most of the shops were closed. Pretty much the only places that were open served food or catered to tourists looking for souvenirs. But the streets were busy and we had a grand time exploring on our own.

The next morning we got a guided tour of Vienna including the big central church. As expected the catacombs under the church was filled with coffins, canisters and small rooms filled with the bones of the people who didn’t rate a coffin or canister. Creepy but interesting. Later on we got a tour of the vast and beautiful Schönbrunn Palace, home to the former ruling family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Habsburgs. They were very important in the history of this part of Europe. They must have been, we heard all about them on every tour we took from Budapest to Prague.

Schönbrunn Palace Gardens

Schönbrunn Palace Gardens

 

Schönbrunn Palace Fountain Sculpture

Schönbrunn Palace Fountain Sculpture

 

The bus ride back to the boat included a talk by our tour guide on literally everything we passed by, it’s history and current use. I learned a lot of interesting trivia. Well heard a lot of interesting trivia, not sure I retained much (except a vague overview on the Austrian health care system). Vienna was a beautiful modern city sprinkled with buildings dating to the first millennium, really lovely, and one of my wife’s favorite cities of the trip.

Vienna_clockStatues

 

The next day found us up the Danube a little ways through the Wachau Valley, probably the prettiest and most scenic part of the river that we saw.

 

Wachau Valley

First was Dürnstein a lovely little town that specialized in wine and apricots. Being the good tourists we are, we acquired some apricot liqueur and schnapps along with a few other touristy souvenirs for friends and family.

Dürnstein, Castle and Vineyards

Dürnstein, Castle and Vineyards

 

Picturesque Dürnstein street

Picturesque Dürnstein street

 

Dürnstein Downtown and the Blue Church

Dürnstein Downtown and the Blue Church

 

Picturesque Dürnstein home

Picturesque Dürnstein home

 

These were on sale everywhere in Austria. Blame a former US president...

These were on sale everywhere in Austria. Blame a former US president…

 

After Dürnstein we continued up the Danube to Emmersdorf for the Melk Benedictine Abbey tour. Melk Abbey is quite the interesting pile of stone and stained glass.

Melk Abbey

Melk Abbey

 

Melk Abbey Vista

Melk Abbey Vista

 

Melk Abbey, just inside the main gate

Melk Abbey, just inside the main gate

 

Melk Abbey Interior Ceiling example

Melk Abbey Interior Ceiling example

 

Melk Abbey interior

Melk Abbey interior

 

One of the more curious displays included an invention by someone well placed in the Roman Catholic church some several hundred years ago. Only one of which was ever made.

What an odd looking coffin...

What an odd looking coffin…

 

The idea behind this invention was to save money on funeral expenses. how it works was that the body of the deceased would be placed in this special coffin for the viewing and then taken to the grave and only partially lowered into the grave. Once the funeral party had left, a catch at either end of the coffin would be thrown and the bottom of the coffin would hinge open dumping the body into the waiting grave below. The coffin could then be easily reused over and over again. I gather it saw limited (if any) use.

...Oh look, the bottom drops out.

…Oh look, the bottom drops out.

 

The next day on to Linz another lovely Austrian town started around 800AD and is famous for (among other things) the Linzer Torte. After our tour of Linz we got on a bus and took a two hour drive through the Austrian countryside to the Austrian Lake District. We drove around to a number of little towns (Mondsee, St. Wolfgang, etc.) and poked around a bit. Unfortunately it was cloudy and drizzly but still the beauty of the area was on display, just magnificent scenery.

ALD 1 ALD 2 ALD 3

The towns around the Austrian lake district were known for some of the settings in The Sound of Music. Our tour guide spent a whole lot of time telling us what scenes had been filmed in which locations. On the way home our friendly and chatty tour guide passed out some new lyrics from a song that Julie Andrews sang not long ago. And we had a singalong. If you are curious you may view the lyrics here. Fortunately both my wife and I failed to record even a tiny bit of this.

The next day, our last on the AMAPrima finds us in Passau a nice little town in the southeast of Germany

Passau

 

We were in Passau for the morning hours then up the river an hour or so to our disembarkation city, Vilshofen.

 

Three from Vilshofen

Three from Vilshofen

 

In Vilshofen we got a quick orientation tour and then are left on our own for a couple of hours. A charming little town with interesting street sculpture, scenic buildings and the largest number of pizza places per square mile kilometer on our entire journey.

While we were touristing in Vilshofen AMA Waterways set up a tent in the parking lot in front of the boat where we are promised an authentic (private) German Oktoberfest with lots of beer and traditional German music, dancing and tourist embarrassing.

 

Have I mentioned the beer yet? I really should mention the beer…

 

Though I am not a big beer aficionado and really don’t keep any at home. The beer available to us on board and in the various and sundry eating establishments during the vacation were in a word, superb. On board they had an excellent German beer called Bittburger that slid down my throat with alarming ease. That is odd in and of itself as I am not fond of pilsners, but found this German brew to be everything American pilsners promise, and fail to deliver: crisp and tasty with no bitterness at all. I guess what they say about German and European beer is true, it is better. And if I had access to beer like I had on this trip at home, I might actually keep some in the fridge. So if you go to Europe, have a beer.

The next morning it was time to say goodbye to the AMAPrima and board our bus (big comfy bus!) to Prague. This was an optional part of the cruise tour package: three days in either Munich or Prague with tours of each city provided by AMA Waterways. About halfway to Prague we stopped for three hour hours in Regensburg, Germany. We got an abbreviated orientation tour that ended at The Sausage Kitchen an almost thousand year old restaurant that was built for the construction of the Stone Bridge (that we had just crossed) and were then set free to seek sights and food on our own. Unfortunately it started raining (and us with no umbrella). So (slightly moister then when we started) we made it back across the river towards our bus stop to a nice little German place that was a little younger. Looks like it had been there for maybe 800 years. They served a tasty soup that my wife found hit the spot and I, of course, had the sausage and sauerkraut with a very tasty beer, brewed on premises.

Regensburg food

 

After lunch the rain had subsided so thankful for that and slightly less moist and much less hungry we make our way back to the bus for the final leg of the bus trip to Prague…

 

Our first scenic view of Old Town Prague from the bus.

Our first scenic view of Old Town Prague from the bus.

 

Which passed with no incident. Though I must note that once we reached the outskirts of Prague we seemed to wind our way through endless narrow streets past buildings that looked like many had been there for hundreds of years. Winding our way through a city that is part familiar, part medieval, was fascinating as it was seemingly endless. Traffic was heavy (it being rush hour) and our bus driver (like all I rode with on this trip) fearlessly navigating down streets and around corners that barely seemed big enough for a Mini Cooper, far less a big tour bus. Eventually we arrive at our Hotel, the Hilton Old Town in the heart of central Prague.

Once checked in and refreshed we got a brief orientation tour of our surroundings from our friendly and knowledgeable cruise director, who accompanied us to Prague to oversee the final part of our tour. The hotel we stayed at was a five minute walk from the old town square from whence your sightseeing can immediately start. The hotel location and street level geography made this part of Prague quite easy to find our way around in. The result? We never once got lost.

One of the nice things about Prague is that things are pretty inexpensive. Dinner for two with beer and wine (but rarely dessert) at a nice restaurant ended up costing us about $45, $20-30 less than in the states. Lunch even cheaper. And tipping  everywhere was just ten percent. Which makes Prague a good value for your vacation dollar.

Our first evening we had dinner at a lovely French place next to the hotel, the bread and butter were great and the food outstanding, and a good value.

FrenchBread

Then, a quick walk around the town square and back to the hotel for the night.

Charles Bridge Prague

The next morning we met at the AMA Waterways table in the lobby, set up for AMA cruisers for the various walking and bus tours. We opted for the longer walking tour and soon found out that the three other couples who had also signed up for the same tour as us were a no show! So we got a private guided tour of old town Prague, then across the Charles Bridge, up into the palace and then back towards the hotel.

Our guide for the day was a charming guide who had lived in Prague her whole life, Elena Eretová. If you have never had a guided tour of a city by a knowledgeable, professional, guide I would heartily recommend it. We learned a lot about the city, it’s history and it’s people. And if you plan on going to Prague Elena would make a good choice. She is fluent in English, Italian and Spanish, German and Russian and made our first full day in Prague a delight.

Prague Charles Bridge Jazz Band

The Charles Bridge in Prague is a 600 year old attraction covered with artists and entertainers including these guys, The Charles Bridge Band. My wife bought one of their CDs and found it surprisingly good. It seems that Prague is now and has been for a long time quite the haven for excellent Jazz, who knew?!

 

Panorama of Prague from the castle

Panorama of Prague from the palace

 

Prague Door Sculpture

Elena pointed out all of the decorations prominently displayed over many of the older buildings in old town. It seems these were used as the building address before address numbers became common. “Meet me at the musical angel.” or even,  “The house of the noonday sun.” Clever!

Prague 9

 

A "hidden" garden just of the Old Town Square

A “hidden” garden just off the Old Town Square

 

The tour lasted four or five hours and when it was over she dropped us off near our hotel at a restaurant she recommended just off the old town square. Yes it was delicious, filling and about fifteen bucks for the both of us.

We headed off to our room for an hour or so prior to our participation in the “Folklore Dinner” where we were promised authentic Czech food and drink along with traditional Czech song and dance. Brace yourself.

We arrived at the venue (seemingly the last busload to arrive) and were ushered into a smallish room decorated with “Traditional Czech Decorations” (kitchy…) and packed with  two hundred, or so, tourists seated along a number of long tables.

I will not describe the food except to say it was not up to the delicious standards of the rest of the food in Prague. It was presented with a decent wine and a pretty good pilsner. All with a verve and excitement that made it, at least, entertaining.

Following dinner the smallish dance floor in front of the band was turned into a light hearted revue of traditional Czech song and dance. The singers and dancers were talented, attractive, and presented the show with a great deal of enthusiasm. It was fun from a kitchy or (if you’ll pardon the term) ironic perspective.

My wife took some video.

 

 

The next day was our final day in Prague and since we opted out of the Terezin concentration camp tour we had the day to ourselves. Thoughtfully, Elena had done a great job orienting us and suggesting things we might want to have a look at on our own. So we spent most of that day exploring the streets which led off the old town square, on our own.

 

Art Deco interior of Prague restaurant just off the old town square

Art Deco interior of Prague restaurant just off the old town square

 

Prague 9

Something we learned about Prague is that old town has become the place to go to get married for young Chinese couples. Although it was not the height of the wedding season when we were there (mid June) we saw a number of brides all dressed up in their white wedding gowns accompanied by the groom, a photographer and a friend or two. There was lots of laughter, posing, selfies… and more posing. All seeming a bit incongruous.

We were told to be very careful in the crowds in and around old town square as that particular location was a target for pickpockets from various other parts of Europe.

 

“Carry your wallet in a front pocket and your purse in front of you.”

 

But we never ran into any issues, in fact the crowds were pretty light making the whole “seeing the sights” thing a lot more pleasant that I was expecting.

If you do visit Prague listen to your hotel concierge or professional guide on where to exchange your dollars or euros for the local currency “crowns”. There are a large number of currency exchanges many of which we were warned away from. Exchanges that hide absurd exchange rates in the fine print. And the crown is a fairly small denomination, I learned this when I exchanged a bunch of euros for crowns and got a handful of thousand crown notes. At the time a thousand crowns was worth just over 40 bucks.

All too soon the day was over, and as we had a 6AM flight, our airport shuttle left the hotel about 4AM the next morning. We got to Prague airport about 4:30 and had managed to arrive even before the British Airways staff arrived to open the check-in counters. So my wife found some coffee at a Starbucks and enjoyed the experience of a rude barista insulting her in Czech, but found that Starbucks coffee is pretty much the same the world over.

Unfortunately, and unlike most airports I am familiar with, there were no cafe’s or shops to be seen

 

By 5AM we had checked in, gone through security and were again stymied by the security personnel at the gate who were not inclined to let us in yet. Unfortunately, and unlike most airports I am familiar with, there were no cafe’s or shops to be seen, only a few vending machines that took your bills and then failed to dispense your bottle of overpriced Czech spring water.

Shortly enough we were boarding our British Airways flight back to London, Heathrow, and then home to Austin.

This blog post has really gotten out of hand. I had originally envisioned dashing off a few paragraphs, adding a few pictures, and that would be it. But here I am, some 19-thousand words later and a month and a half after returning, almost to the end of this blog post… sheesh.

Overall we had a wonderful time. We were kept busy enough with tours and other things to do but not to the exclusion of some down time to just sit and relax with a book and watch the Danube flow past. Honestly this would be a great introduction to Europe for anyone. Even now, as I write this some 6-plus weeks after our return it all seems like a wonderful dream, and over much too quickly. And lest I pass by the obvious necessity of a companion to share the trip with, my lovely wife without whom the trip would not have been so nearly wonderful. So it is easy to say, from both of us:

Best. Vacation. Ever.

Jeffrie & Steve @ Charles Bridge


Tips, Thoughts, Pointers

In case someone other than family finds this post and is considering a Danube cruise or visit to central/eastern Europe. A few random tips and hints from our, first-time, experiences.

  • I can’t say enough good things about the cruise itself. AMA Waterways was nothing short of stellar: the people, food and drink, the tours, the on-ship accommodations, all of it wonderful. Not one thing about the cruise wasn’t absolute perfection. We spoke with a number of people who, like us, had never cruised with AMA Waterways before. Many of which had done river cruises before and had less than complimentary things to say about other cruise lines. To a person they’ll never cruise with anyone but AMA.
  • On-Board WiFi: they have it and it’s free, but remember that you are on a boat on a river (there are no tangerine dreams and marmalade skies, sorry…) and you will not be able to stream Netflix, or anything else. You will likely not even be able to download a book through the Kindle store (I couldn’t). You can do email and a little light web surfing. Don’t count on anything else.
  • Having a phone seemed like a good idea. AT&T (my carrier) and Verizon both charge onerous fees for European roaming, so that was out. Still, I wanted the security of a working phone with a data connection (for maps and TripAdvisor, and emergencies) I got a T-Mobile SIM card for my phone while here in the US. It cost me $60 bucks (one month of service) for 6GB of data, unlimited talk/text and a little peace of mind and it worked like a champ. Well worth it.
  • If you are in reasonably good shape the walking tours are easy enough. Shorter days were a couple of miles, longer ones were 4 to 7 miles. Easy enough even for a desk job slug like me who doesn’t get enough exercise. We did hear the optional bike tours were good but you tended to go past the sights a little fast.
This is how much mileage I walked. Steps at top and miles at the bottom.

This is how much mileage I walked. Steps at top and miles at the bottom.

 

  • For Budapest and Prague (they are in the EU but not in the Eurozone) trade some euros or dollars for some of the local money as the smaller shops often will not take euros or have credit card terminals. You’ll be sorry if you don’t, like I was.
  • Unless you are really into the whole medieval church thing you can skip most of the churches. We saw three; one in Vienna, the Melk Abbey in Emmersdorf and one in Prague. We could have seen three to four times as many. They are interesting and beautiful but once you have seen one Gothic cathedral…
  • Don’t feel you have to go on all the walking tours or events. It is good to skip a couple and just explore on your own. Especially Prague where the people are very friendly and most speak at least a little English.
  • Watch out for herds of Chinese tourists. They will roll right over you, and keep your eyes peeled so you don’t get brained with a selfie stick. I almost got nailed a couple of times.
  • Don’t believe what they tell you about what is acceptable clothing for Europe. Sneakers, jeans, shorts, t-shirts are all just fine. And with the exception of a certain color people in Europe looked and dressed pretty much like people in Austin.

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