In my opinion, there are three types of travel moments that matter: the fiasco moments (that typically end up being extremely laughable assuming no actual harm), the moments that you appreciate in retrospect, and the moments that announce themselves as glorious little time nuggets of joy from the very second you find yourself in the moment.*
You know, those last ones are the moments that make you pinch yourself, turn the adult you into the giddy middle-school version of yourself (don’t worry, you’re likely much more self-aware now, so your antics are forgiven). These are the moments that I sometimes call Fraulein Maria moments–moments that make me think that “somewhere in my youth of childhood, I must have done something good”. Of course, any time you have a great trip, you’ve probably had a few of these.
In Prague, it seemed like they were heaped upon me. I was swimming in Fraulein Maria moments. Leisurely backstrokes. Sure, it was our first stop on the trip, so I was probably extra eager to pick up on special little vacation vibes as quickly as possible. Whatever, that may have created bias, but my reflections are coming to you long after we’ve had time to finish and process our entire EuroTrip. (Too long, sorry!)
Day 1 | We arrived in Prague late at night. Because, well, Prague has a reputation that even my co-market-workers in Vancouver warned me about, we pre-arranged a trusted driver to weave us in and out of the Old Town streets. And we spent the night splitting our time between ducking in and out of late-night bakeries, indulging in our first Czech Pilsners, and losing ourselves between floodlit buildings of grandeur. Oh, yes, from night one, I was in a happy place.
Day 2 | Our first walk through Old Town Square was crowded with other tourists just like us, but we still geeked out at the architecture. Even better? Wandering just a few blocks off of the square, where there will still be tourists, but there are rarely hoards. Then you can take photos and smile at all the pretty windows without worrying about another tourist slamming into you. We spent the rest of the day walking. And eating bread and potato dumplings. And sausages with mustard and fresh horseradish. The ubiquity of fresh horseradish made me so, so happy. Those of you with wild horseradish supplies in your yard, I envy you. We also visited the beer garden that overlooks the city during our stroll in the park. The beer culture here becomes obvious on a weekend day in the park. Moms push strollers from playground to playground, chatting and sipping to-go pilsners. Friends bring picnics to the garden and share a pitcher. And all of this seems so low-key, familial, and enjoyable.
We made our way to the other side of the city to the Malá Strana area, where I got straight to work on being nerdy. We headed to the Lennon Wall, Shakespeare and Co., and walked in the footsteps of Kafka, before crossing back into the Staré Město across the Charles Bridge.
Day 3 | Alas, Jordan could not play tourist with me forever. On day three, Jordan headed to his conference to register before it actually started. Registration went quickly, allowing us time to explore the Vyšehrad Castle and grounds together before grabbing lunch together.
The Vyšehrad grounds took a fair amount of time, and we let it. We visited the church, vines, statues, a few restaurants and a pretty cemetery with a view (for those of you who don’t know, I love visiting them. They are a beautiful expression of culture and history). When lunch came, we found an outdoor grill restaurant. I tried to order a grilled vegetable, but failed. The sausages were delicious and well accompanied, but it had become clear I’d have to seek vegetables out more than I was used to.
One of maybe three photos together on the whole trip!
Day 3 Continued | The mister spent the afternoon at his conference, which meant I got to explore the city according to my own interests, and they alone. Freeing, really. I’ve never taken a long trip by myself, but this trip would give me a taste of that. After the time in Prague, our days started to fall into a bit of a routine on the days we weren’t on the move. We would have breakfast together, be it in a coffee bar, cafe, or in our Airbnb apartment. He would check in with his data (which was processing back in Canada), start running some processes, etc. Then we might do one morning activity together or read/recover in the apartment, each lunch at a market or low-key restaurant, then part ways. Jordan would retreat to a cafe or the apartment to write, edit, process his data. I’d explore museums and markets and city neighborhoods to my heart’s content. This is when I could take as long as I wanted in any gallery, browse the books as slowly as I wanted to, and ask questions galore about the truffles, cheeses, or vegetables I found. And oh yeah, visit libraries.
This day was magic. Pure magic. I walked up the hill to the Strahov Monastery to view one of Europe’s most beautiful libraries. And then also head across the street to the abbey’s brewery for a lone beer. And I know people (sorry, Amy Schumer!) might feel like that girl reading a book in a bar is trying to look mysterious, but really, she just wants to drink her beer and read her book. This is also my “don’t-feel-like-you-have-to-make-conversation-with-me” shield. I enjoyed the moment. Truly. I was high on the library moment.
And then I started ambling down the cobblestoned streets, taking in the view from the top of the hill. Everywhere I turned I saw a trdelník, those beautiful sugar-coated tunnels of delicious carbohydrate. When I saw a stand that had a particularly yeasty smell, I stopped to purchase my very own. I stand by my choice. Not too crunchy, still just a little doughy, sugar and cinnamon, and tiny bits of almond. I nibbled, bounced my way on down between other happy tourists, jaded locals, and the beautiful buildings that surrounded us.
I reached the bridge, still nibbling, still grinning like a fool, and the music that seemed to be in my head was suddenly being played by a jazz band on the bridge. How did they know what was in my head?
Day 4 | Or the day I fell in love with Alfons Mucha.
Jordan needed to present some research. He practiced a few times in the morning. I tried to be a strict coach. I think I was. But I was also dreaming about breakfast at Libeřské lahůdky. The pastries were varied and numerous. We tried cheese and poppyseed, a jam kolache, and a creme-fille doughnut of some kind. For years I have said I don’t like doughnuts, but those are words I didn’t mind eating 🙂
He left for the conference, and I went to the Alfons Mucha museum to learn about his relationship with Sarah Bernhardt (his muse) and some of the history of the Czech people through his art. I swear to myself that the next time (!) I return to Prague, I will see his Slav Epic. I visited the Municipal House (pictured below), and then had a coffee in order to wait until a respectable hour for lunch.
For lunch, I visited Sisters, which was recommended in the Foodie Guide to Prague (the best three dollars you can spend before you trip, I kid you not). It was worth the wait. Sisters uses fresh, pretty ingredients to make chlebicek, those little works-of-art open-faced sandwiches that the CR is known for. I’d also be lying if it didn’t taste wonderful just to have any sort of vegetable-heavy lunch. I asked more questions than was probably normal for ordering a lunch at the register, but they were helpful and suggested some classics. I also took the opportunity to scope out the butcher next door. I almost lunched a second time when I saw their offerings, but figured I should just come back, especially since we’d planned on eating at a nice place for dinner that night.
I spent my afternoon splitting time between one part of the National gallery (which is split between several buildings), answering e-mails, catching up on jet lag sleep, and reading one of the books I’d tucked along into my luggage.
In the evening, I meet with the mister, his then future boss, and some other people in his field. We met at Cestr, but apparently my dining suggestion had been overruled by the group (which obviously hadn’t read the Foodie Guide!), so a beer was had, and then we were supposed to meet them across town where some other colleagues were eating. We got lost, and lost again. Then found the place, which was closing for the night, and later learned that they never even found it. By the time this had happened, we ended up eating pizza slices on the street and having cake at Cafe Slavia, one of Kafka’s old haunts. Not how we’d pictured the evening, but other than being a little chilly and a lot lost, all was well that ended well enough.
Day 5 | After the Cestr/getting lost debacle, Jordan had agreed to leave the conference around 2 for a late lunch there. He must have sensed my disappointment from the night before 🙂
I planned a morning visit to the Jewish neighborhood of Prague and it’s Jewish Museum, which consists of 7 buildings. The synagogues are beautiful and have exhibits ranging describing the life of the Czech Jewish community throughout history. I visited Celebration Hall and the Pinkus Synagogue, which is a memorial with the names of the 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. It’s a powerful, powerful memorial. I highly recommend a visit to this neighborhood and museum if you’re in Prague.
I actually wound up running into the then future boss there, which is how I learned about that the other group never found the restaurant the evening before.
From the Jewish Museum, I went back to Name Maso and the market to choose the ingredients I’d need for my attempt at Czech cuisine. This shop buys meat from farmers who use traditional aging practices to increase flavor and typically use a heritage breed of Semental. I asked for help, knowing they’d know exactly the kind of cut I’d want for a goulash. I left with 260 grams of shank steak (though he said I really should have at least 200 grams per person–ha!), 100 grams of pastrami, 100 grams of salami, and a loaf of beautiful, hearty, dark bread. A total of…just over 9USD. Woot! My other purchases for this goulash meal, as well as breakfasts, and a road lunch came to 7USD. That’s including a French cheese, people!
The mister and I met for lunch. Cestr (and really any place recommended in that food guide) did not disappoint. This was one of the best meals of my life. (I have zero Michelin star notched on my belt, so judge that as you will). I have no pictures for you because I was too excited and too embarrassed to snap photos with a clunky DSLR in a classy restaurant. Still, worth your time and money. We were served an amuse-bouche, which also served as an amuse-moi. I don’t usually dine at places were I’m given a proper, cute amuse-bouche, okay? There was a perfectly chilled pilsner, pork knuckle, brisket, bread and potato dumplings, fudgy chocolate cake with housemade peanut ice cream, port-like dessert wines from the CR, and a walnut liqueur. All this, dear reader, came to about 30USD. And you don’t have to tip near as much as at home in North America. So, so worth returning after the previous night’s almost-meal there.
We returned to our temporary home. Jordan worked. I read a bit. I got to food prep. I knew that by the time we returned from our evening plans, we’d be hungry again, and I certainly wouldn’t have time to do all I wanted in the kitchen. Oh, glorious home cooking! It’s strange, maybe, I’m not sure, but after even three days of not doing any real cooking, I had missed it sorely. It was therapeutic for me, boiling potatoes, cooking some cabbage, channeling my Bohemian great-grandmother, all while looking into a cutesy Czech courtyard. Cabbage, caraway, paprika, dumplings, fresh horseradish. It all felt so comforting. This little moment to myself in the kitchen, combined with the lunch of a lifetime, was snowballing into a very glorious food day 🙂
Before we could partake of the dinner, though, another wonderful thing happened. I convinced the mister (thanks in part to the very affordable prices) to accompany me to the opera! It was my first time, and I was giddy, yet again. The atmosphere itself was worth it. Getting dressed up, seeing others gussied up, sitting in a little opera balcony with a French farmer-turned-B&B-owner couple that happens to love the opera, the ornate chandeliers, the old creaky chairs. The mister looked dapper; I felt pretty. I even sipped a champagne flute at intermission of the front balcony. Oh, there are times the 20-year-old me must look at the 30-year-old me and be disappointed. But this, I cannot believe would disappoint her in the least. I experienced an evening–a whole day–she would have not even known to have dreamt.
On the way home, we swung into a resto for one last pilsner before returning to “our” kitchen and our home cooked meal. The mister seemed impressed that I had made all of that while he was working/napping. Oh, happy, happy day. Even just thinking of the day makes me feel truly blessed.
Day 6 | Day 6 doesn’t really count. We woke up, packed, ate breakfast, packed lunches, and made our way to the bus station.
Our time in Bohemia had come to an end. The whole trip, however, was just beginning. There would be oodles of pinch-me! moments to come over the next three weeks. Still, there was little doubt that Prague had set the bar high. Sure, there are droves of tourists, you have to watch for pickpockets, and you’ll never have a serene moment in the Old Town Square. But if you do just the tiniest bit of research, you’ll eat well, find amazing merry drinks, be immersed in art, music, history, and culture, and all while feeling that this is a life you can afford. I’ve seen only one tiny part of the Czech Republic. I so, so hope to see more some day.
*This is obviously excluded any actually dangerous scenarios, but on the vast majority of researched trips, these do not occur. I’ve only once been in a situation I thought was really, really sticky. It probably wasn’t safe. But I do laugh about it now.