What do Copenhagen, Prague, Warsaw, Minsk and Moscow have in common? Well, it turns out that if you randomly board a carriage on the 22:28 City Night Line train from Cologne, you could end up in any one of those five cities: somewhere around Hanover the train splits in a spectacular fashion, and bits of it go hurtling off in all directions.
We spent Christmas 2007 in Copenhagen: one year later, we took the same train to Prague for the festive season. I'm not necessarily saying that you can now deduce where we'll be going on holiday for Christmas between 2009 and 2011, but you never know.
So take a break from all those Easter eggs you're ploughing through today, as I tell you how and why The Belated Birthday Girl and I travelled to Prague by train last December. Yes, by train, again. When you get down to it, it's got to be an improvement on getting there by plane.
Our route into the Czech Republic roughly resembled our route into Denmark for the previous Christmas: Eurostar from London to Brussels, Thalys from Brussels to Cologne, Deutsche Bahn overnight from Cologne to Prague, then repeat in reverse order to get back home again a week later. And like the previous year, that gave us a Saturday afternoon/evening free in Cologne, and a Sunday morning/afternoon free in Brussels. This time, however, we'd prepared for the stopovers - although, as it turns out, we didn't quite prepare enough for Cologne. Sure, we managed to get some quality time looking round the cathedral, soaked up the atmosphere (and gluhwein) in the Christmas Market, and caught all manner of festive fun around town. But this was the Saturday before Christmas, meaning everyone in Cologne was doing exactly the same thing, so every brauhaus from Peter's on down was impossible to get into. We ended up grabbing dinner at a waterfront Italian called Cosa Nostra, which was okay but not exactly ideal. Next time, we'll try and book a table.
Brussels, meanwhile, worked out a bit better. We already knew about the Sunday two-for-one day passes for the transport system, so we picked those up straight away and were quickly back in Grand Place for the Winter Pret / Plaisirs d'Hiver festival. A whole pre-planned route of winter wonders (to quote the rather dull English title) was available, including two extras we didn't manage last year: the magical Electrabel Nights installation at the start of the route, and drinking hot kriek out of souvenir mugs at the end. After lunch at the famous beerhouse A La Mort Subite (two omelettes and two beers for a mere twenty euros), we had a 90 minute slot scheduled to look around the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée. We'd left it till the end of the day because our Lonely Planet guide had been a bit snotty about it, but in fact it's a wonderful piece of work you could spend all day in. A museum dedicated to the history of the comic strip within Europe - inevitably, it's heavy on Hergé - it has a huge collection of original art and displays relating to the key comics creators of the continent. The Victor Horta-designed Art Nouveau building it's all held within is rather lovely to look at, too.
But you came here for Prague, so let's move on to the Czech Republic. A first time visit for both myself and The Belated Birthday Girl, so there was the small problem of the language to get over. Sadly our usual go-to gal for holiday crash courses, Elisabeth Smith, hasn't got around to doing a One-Day Czech CD yet, so we had to look for other sources. The BBG eventually downloaded a Collins language tape called 40 Minute Czech from audiobookscorner.com, the ideal site for anyone who scorns the audio book. It's more of an audio phrasebook than an actual course, but used in conjunction with a hard copy phrasebook it's more than enough, particularly as English is heavily prevalent in most of the main tourist areas of the city anyway.
Which leads to the big question: where do you stay? There are lots of splendid hotels around the Old Town Square and environs, which mean you're within easy walking distance of all the entertainment the city has to offer, but that comes at a price. Alternatively, there are lots of cheaper hotels out towards the castle, but they make for an awkward journey home if you've been out late at night. Our compromise solution turned out to be Hotel Elite, which fell neatly between the two. There weren't any major tourist attractions nearby, unless you count the enormous branch of Tesco that's laid out like an old Soviet-style department store. But you're minutes away from Národní třída subway station, not to mention a stop for a dozen or so of the main tram routes, so it's ideal as a base camp. The hotel itself is part of a chain quaintly calling itself Small Charming Hotels Prague, and that more or less sums it up: not chintzy enough to be irritating, just enough modern touches to make it functional, and cosy as all get out. We got ourselves a pretty good deal on six nights over Christmas which required us to pay the entire fee up front back in early November: given the subsequent tanking of the pound, that made us very happy indeed by Christmas.
Generally speaking, getting around Prague isn't that much of a problem. There's a solid public transport system, consisting of three subway lines and a series of trams. It runs reliably, even on Christmas Day, and you can choose whether to buy single tickets or a pass for one or more days. The one-day passes generally worked out best for our needs, but how the hell are you supposed to pay for them? You have to buy all tickets before boarding, and although Národní třída is a fairly big station it doesn't have a ticket desk, just coin-op machines with no facilities for changing notes. There's a news kiosk outside the station that purportedly sells tickets over the counter, but it was closed the one time we tried to use it. I ended up buying a couple of tiny chocolates from a station stall just to break a 200Kc note – but all my change came back in coins, so I guess that might be how the system works after all.
If you're going to be a proper Prague tourist, most of your time will be spent around the Old Town Square. And that applies doubly in the festive season, because that's where the Christmas market takes place. Food and drink available by the ton, a big old Christmas tree (the basis for The BBG's video Christmas card seen at the top of this page), and a stage with entertainment going on most of the day. And it's overlooked by one of the undeniable tourist attractions in town: the Astronomical Clock Tower. Outside, you can join all the tourists looking at the fabulous exterior design and waiting for the entertainingly racist mechanical display you get on the hour: inside, you can climb to the top and see some splendid views of the city. (We also caught a film that was sort of about its construction, but more on that later.)
Prague's pretty well sorted for views no matter where you go, of course. There are plenty of other elevated locations from which you can look over the city: atop the towers on Charles Bridge, the observatory on Petřín Hill that's reachable by a fun funicular ride from Újezd station, or from the old fortress at Vyšehrad. The latter has all manner of bonus sights nearby: some terrific bits of graphic design on the memorials at the Slavin cemetery, the beautifully designed Cubist villas, and the lovingly preserved decor of SS Peter And Paul Church. The most bonkers elevated view has to be the one from the TV Tower in Žižkov - particularly splendid as night falls, but leave yourself time to marvel at the sculptures of giant babies climbing up the outside. Alternatively, given that you've got the Vltava river running through Prague, an organised boat tour (ideally, again, timed around sundown) will give you a whole new perspective on the city, and the chance to have coffee and cake while you do it.
You can also get a great view from Prague Castle, although you'll probably be spending all your time looking at the Castle rather than the view. The full admission ticket costs 350Kc, but it's valid for two consecutive days, which is really what's needed to give the place justice. We managed a huge exhibition on the history of the castle before lunch on our first day, along with the lunchtime spectacle of the Changing Of The Guard. From there, we skipped round a few other highlights – the Basilica, the National Gallery (taken at particularly high speed) and the Golden Lane, where all the original buildings have been tackily converted into shops. We also called into the Toy Museum, which is quite fun even though they don't tell you there's an extra admission charge until you've climbed two flights of stairs. Still, it's crammed with hilarious wrongness, including a full set of WW2 action figures (with Hitler jauntily posed next to Stalin) and an entire floor full of Barbies. On our second visit, we got around the inside of St Vitus Cathedral (best to avoid the crowds that flood in as soon as the Changing Of The Guard's finished), the old palace (mostly ruins, but with one lovely room painted with the coats of arms of Prague's judges), and a gallery of 19th century Czech art. It's all very nice, but (on a late December morning) incredibly cold, especially the freezing room in the main castle exhibition which tells The Story Of Heating without providing any evidence that they ever really had some.
It's section three of a four-section travel article, so it's time to hit the button labelled #660066 and hand over to The Belated Birthday Girl for a discussion of the best food and drink options.
For our first dinner in Prague, we wanted to have something traditional and dumplingy, and Svejk-themed restaurant U Karla fit the bill. I had the pangasius fillet (a fish which seemed to be quite common in Prague) with a side order of potato dumplings, while Spank had a traditionally goulashy dish, also with dumplings. To be honest, although my fish was moist and tasty, probably the dumplings went better with the saucier meat dish Spank had. But we both enjoyed our meals, and the local beer which we sampled to accompany it. Some of the traditional Czech places we'd passed were a bit crowded for our taste, but U Karla was possibly too quiet. But it was a nice place and made a good start to proper Prague eating.
Another place nearby which we liked the look of but which we only managed a beer in was the Velryba bar. The beer was cheap - only 20Kc a glass – and the atmosphere was arty and laid back (it is attached to an art gallery). The menu looked interesting, but as we didn't eat there, I can't vouch for the food. But I'd think it worth a visit.
A local dish which I would definitely recommend is a soup in a hollowed out loaf of bread. It comes in several varieties, usually meaty (often goulash). But at the restaurant U Plebana in Bethlehem Square they had one with potato and mushroom soup as a starter. It was huge – big enough for a meal in itself – and delicious. I barely remember the mains there, and I know we were too stuffed from our starter to finish them, but the soup alone was worth eating there. Try one there or elsewhere.
Without a doubt, the best meal we had in Prague was at the very stylish Zahrada V Opere, which we'd booked for our Christmas Eve dinner. The traditional Czech Christmas dinner is fried carp, which was great for me. Here it was coated with almonds in the flour, which added to the flavour of a very tasty meal: being a freshwater fish, the carp is very earthy, and it was succulent and cooked just right. Spank went for the turkey, which he says was also very nice indeed. We wanted to have a local wine, and I was initially disappointed that when I asked for a recommendation they picked out a Reisling (I'd hoped for a grape I didn't know), but in fact it was a lovely bottle of wine and a very good recommendation. The staff were friendly, and the space was very swanky. Although it was extremely quiet when we arrived at 6pm, by the time we're done around 8pm, it was fairly buzzing. One other point of interest is the armed guard on the building next door, which we have since been told is the radio station, which is the first thing people tend to try to take over in any sort of uprising.
Another pub where we only had the beer but where they also do food is Restaurant Konvikt, amusingly located across from the police station. It's a fun little bar with an eclectic music policy, at one point blasting out Czech versions of The Locomotion and Waltzing Matilda. They seemed to have a wider variety of veggie options than some places, but we were only there for the beer (which was very nice).
Finally, every guide book mentions the Budvar pub and restaurant U Medviku, and it is a must-visit place for anyone in Prague for the beer. It's in a nice old building, and there are two types of Budvar on tap in the bar section, including a dark one which was particularly good. The restaurant section, where we had our final meal in Prague, had some tasty traditional options, including a cheesy potato dish which appealed to me. The place seems very aware of its tourist destination status, and portions were perhaps a little on the small side, although that did mean we had room to finish off with a shared portion of some delicious bilberry dumplings. But the touristy nature of the place – and a hidden cover charge on the bill at the end, which we weren't expecting – means I'd probably recommend U Karla as my favourite of the pub restaurants.
Back to me again for a roundup of our Prague cultural activities. On Christmas Day afternoon, I confidently strode up to the box office at Cinema City Flora and asked "dva lístek do Kozí příběh, prosím," only to get the response "but it's not in English." Yeah, like not being able to pronounce or understand a film's title has stopped us before. In fact, we'd stumbled across a small piece of Czech film history by accident, because Kozí příběh - Pověsti staré Prahy (aka Goat Story - The Old Prague Legends) is the country's first CGI-animated feature. It's the story of medieval hick Jemmy and his pet goat, er, Goat, who wander into Prague around the time that two of its major landmarks are being constructed: the Astronomical Clock and Charles Bridge. To start off with, it's a fun old romp, with a visual gag in every frame, and a rough-edged animation style that owes more to the cartoony look of Dreamworks than the perfection of Pixar. But this being Prague, things slowly take a darker turn, one you wouldn't expect in children's films in the West. For a start, Goat's an alcoholic who frequently sells her own milk for booze money. More ominously, the plot doesn't shy away from the gruesome legend of what happened to clockmaker Master Hanus when he tried to sell his clockmaking skills to other countries. By the time we get to a climax based around the hanging of a major character, you realise that British kiddies aren't going to be seeing this one any time soon. If you want to play along at home, the DVD has just come out: no English subs, though.
Prague's also well known for its jazz and blues scene, which is how we ended up at characterful basement dive U Maleho Glena on the Monday before Christmas. According to the publicity bumpf outside the venue, Stan The Man And His Bohemian Blues Band have been playing Monday nights here for the last decade or more. For that length of residency, even in the run-up to Christmas you'd expect him to have a regular following: not the audience of a dozen or so he had that night, all English-speaking tourists apart from three Koreans. It didn't help that after a half hour set of reasonable guitar and mumbled vocals, he cancelled the rest of the show because he was too ill to go on. Aren't bluesmen supposed to convert their suffering into music? Still, converting it into a refund of 2/3 of the door charge was better than nothing. The venue's definitely worth a visit, and it's probably worth catching Stan on one of his better nights.
If you're looking for classier fare, then head to Holesvice to see the National Gallery Collection of 19th, 20th & 21st Century Art. It's huge: five stories plus ground floor and mezzanine, each with a fairly big Small Hall and a gigantic Main Hall. It's interesting to see how proprietorial some of the attendants get over their particular exhibitions, virtually dragging you inside. On the day we visited, one highlight was an interesting selection from a Young Artists competition, conceptual art with several flashes of wit: a four-poster bed made out of the paving slabs from a scuzzy street corner, or an installation of fridge doors focussing on the illustrations they use to depict food storage times. Elsewhere, there's a pleasing focus on the design of various Prague landmarks (including quite a few we'd already seen that week), a cool display of theatre set designs, and miscellaneous examples of art from artists both local and foreign. We had to give the gallery's star exhibition – a collection of Picasso sketches – a miss, purely because we can get that sort of thing back home.
We booked for a couple of the more traditionally touristy Prague entertainments through Prague Experience, whose splendid Christmas Planner page also helped us make bookings for restaurants over the main holiday period. In retrospect, we probably relied on that page a little too much, because we weren't sure just what was available on that week. We found out far too late that there was jazz at the Klementinum and Mozart opera at the National Theatre on Boxing Day, to pick just two examples. Plus, virtually every church in town advertises Heated Concerts! nightly (you can see the attraction when you've been walking the freezing streets for a while). The Prague Experience planner is a great place to start, but just be aware it's not a complete list of what's on.
Still, they helped us to book for two of Prague's most popular shows over Christmas week. You can imagine unsuspecting families heading en masse to Ta Fantastika's Aspects Of Alice, a black light show loosely based on Alice In Wonderland. And then imagine their horror as a mysterious Dirty Old Man figure conjures three Alices out of his head and spends the whole show basically grooming them, turning Alice into an (even more) overwrought metaphor for awakening female sexuality. Luckily we'd seen the bit where two of the Alices lez up in the promo video, so we knew roughly what was coming. (A guy behind us actually applauded at the end of that scene.) It's a curious mix of styles: the black light and puppetry effects are generally well done, with some bits involving giant puppets and naked flames that show an enjoyably blasé attitude to health and safety. But on the other hand, there's a long and tedious clown section at the end of the first half, which completely buggers up the metaphor by suggesting a girl's terror at the changes in her body can be overcome by a man impersonating a pedal bin. Worth seeing anyway, but don't bring the kids.
Not that a puppet Don Giovanni would necessarily be suitable for the kids, either: but at least you know up front what you're getting with that one. Amusingly, there are four or five different fake productions on offer within the space of a few blocks, but rest assured that the one at the National Marionette Theatre is the original and best. It takes an abridged version of the score, and has it performed by a cast of brilliantly-operated marionettes. It's hugely entertaining, played for slapstick with the sex and violence cranked up, and scene changes covered by a puppet Mozart as conductor. The BBG is a huge fan of the Don, and actually preferred this production to the recent one at the Royal Opera House for not fannying around with the visuals too much: the ROH version had Giovanni rather enjoying his time in hell at the end, whereas here he gets to suffer as he deserves. Unfortunately, it's a fate you also end up wishing on the rudest audience I've been in for years: talking, filming and taking pictures of each other all the way through the performance. Burn, you buggers, burn.
So, that's Prague for you. The old hands may say it's not what it used to be, and in some aspects it's nearly as artificial a city as Venice is nowadays. But there's lots to see and do, even on Christmas Day, making it a welcome addition to our list of Places That Don't Shut Down Completely Over The Festive Season Like They Do Back Home. I'd hope that you'll get to hear about our choice of venue for Christmas 2009 well before Easter 2010. Being a monkey, and all.