Sunday, September 24, 2006

A trip to Prague

Last week, I was invited to give a talk in London to a group that is putting together an online brokerage site.  Since I don’t (yet) review UK-based online brokerage sites, it wasn’t a conflict of interest to give them an update of a talk I’ve done from time to time with the theme of “How to be an Award-Winning Online Broker.” I’m happy to present it to any group that sends me a plane ticket and puts me up in a nice hotel. 

As long as I’d made the trip across the pond, I decided to spend a few extra days somewhere else in Europe. I hadn’t yet been to Prague, and wanted to visit before they convert to the Euro (not for a few years, so you still have time).  After spending two full days in London, I left for Prague on Wednesday afternoon.

I decided to go cheap on the transportation from my London base to Heathrow, so I took the Tube (Jubilee Line and transfer to Circle Line at Baker Street) from Canary Wharf up to Paddington Station, then hopped on the Heathrow Express there.  The total elapsed time was actually 20 minutes or so less than the drive in from Heathrow on Sunday afternoon, and I imagine it was a lot less expensive.

The flight to Prague was uneventful.  I was hoping that getting through immigration would be more interesting, but it went very quickly—which actually *is* interesting, since that’s usually a long ordeal.  I changed some money (exchange rate is about 22 Czech units to $1 US) and then bought a 3-day transit pass, which lets me take all the buses, trains, trams and funiculars I want.  The three-day pass cost about as much as each round-trip tube ticket I bought in London, and 2/3 of the Paddington Express ticket. 

A quick recommendation on exchanging money:  Use your ATM card to withdraw cash from their machines.  Your bank will slap on a fee for using an out-of-system ATM, but it ends up being cheaper than exchanging US dollars with an agent.  I did this in both London and Prague and got better rates than if I’d handed money over the counter.  I also used my credit card for as much as possible; those guys really know how to get good exchange rates!  OK, back to the story. 

I had to haul my stupid huge suitcase onto a bus, and then haul it off and carry it down two flights of stairs to get to the train, then haul it back up two flights of stairs when I got to my destination in the old town in Prague.  Finding the hotel was a little tricky, especially rolling the big suitcase over cobblestone streets, but I made it.  My hotel, U Kocku (pronounced “ooh coach-ku") is on Karlova street, which is basically the extension of the Charles Bridge to the north.  Lots of restaurants, souvenir shops, crystal stores, and so on. 

I didn’t get to my hotel until about 8PM, and then was starving, so after settling in I took myself out for an evening stroll around the old quarter while hunting for food.  I tried to order food at a restaurant that has a terrace overlooking the Charles Bridge and across to the castle, which is beautifully lit, but they had stopped serving food at 8.  Pout.  Eventually I found a little dive where I had some of the local cuisine—garlic soup, pork cutlet with a spicy mustard sauce, and a huge pile of chopped raw vegetables.  Plus a glass of red wine.  The garlic soup was VERY garlicky; I felt I was in no danger of being attacked by a vampire that evening.

My dinner surprise was a charge added to my bill that I didn’t understand, for 70 Czech crowns (a little less than $3.50).  It turns out that they charge when they put a big tray of condiments on your table, whether you use them or not.  I used about a tablespoon of vinegar.  I learned over my next three dinners that just about every restaurant charges some kind of fee just for sitting down.  This place had the highest charge; the more expensive restaurants charged less. 

On Thursday, I joined the 6 hour “Ultimate Walking Tour,” which also included a boat ride and a tram ride.  We started in Old Town Square, then went to the Jewish Quarter, then down to the river for a ride, then back to Old Town for lunch, then across the Charles Bridge and on to a tram that took us up to the castle district.  We walked past the Loreto and onto the grounds of Prague Castle, and poked around a bit there.  Then all of a sudden, the six hours was up.  It flew by.

I used my honed naviguessing skills to find the store that the guide told me might carry an adapter so I could recharge my computer.  I ended up going directly to the store he’d told me about—but they didn’t carry adapters. An English-speaking helpful sales dude told me about another store that’s near the next stop on the subway system, so off I went.  Having bought a three-day pass at the airport on Wednesday night, hopping on and off trams, subways, buses and so on is really easy.  His directions out of the subway were a little vague, but I stumbled on the place about 2 minutes before they were to close, and came away with my prize. 

That evening, I had dinner in a restaurant right on Old Town Square.  Very charming, and a fun place for people watching. 

Friday I decided to poke around more in Old Town and to visit the Jewish quarter.  It struck me that all the places I would want to visit would be closed on Saturday for Sabbath and Rosh Hashanah, so off I went.  I got a ticket that gave me access to six places and started off at the Maisel Synagogue, an interesting building filled with fairly old silverwork and such.  Apparently quite a few of the items in this display were stolen from other synagogues around Europe by the Nazis, who had planned to use Prague’s Jewish Quarter as their place to show off artifacts after they’d finished their extermination program.  Creepy.

I also visited the Spanish Synagogue, which is a beautiful Moorish building.  It continues the story being told in the Maisel, displaying some more recent silverwork.  The Klausen Synagogue focuses on educational topics, but the Pinkas Synagogue lists the names of the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.  The Pinkas also has a room full of artwork done by children at the Czech concentration camp.  It’s very moving.

I was fascinated by the Old Jewish Cemetary.  Because the Jewish community was walled in and their movements were restricted, they also didn’t have much in the way of options when the time came to bury someone.  There aren’t records left to say how many people are buried here, but the graves got stacked on top of one another and the headstones were also just jammed in as close as
possible to the appropriate grave.  It was used for about 400 years, ending in the late 18th century.  I took loads of pictures.  Right next to it is a small museum that details burial customs.

I then walked over to the St. Agnes Convent, which is now being used as part of the National Gallery.  It’s filled with Czech art dating back to the 11th century.  After that I slaked my thirst with a beer and a snack, and rested up for dinner. 

I spent Saturday on the other side of the river, in and around Prague Castle.  The (literal) highlight was climbing the 287 steps to the top of the Old South Tower of St. Vitus Cathedral, where I also took loads of pictures.  I also went through several museums dedicated to the history of the castle and the art collected by the various kings and emperors over the 1000+ years the castle has existed. 

Then I strolled over to Restaurant David, as recommended by my dad, and had a wonderful meal.  My other three dinners have come with bowls of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers when I ordered a salad, but the David uses lettuce in their salads.  I also had a yummy roast veal dish with a mushroom sauce.  My waiter brought me a complimentary glass of dessert wine with the check. 

I walked off dinner by heading back across the Charles Bridge and over to my hotel.  On Sunday morning, I had to wake up very early to get all my junk downstairs when the car came to take me to the airport.  It was a great trip. 

Posted by twcarey on 09/24 at 08:22 PM
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