Thursday, November 20, 2014

Charles Bridge - the most magical bridge in the world

Every now and then, moments come along when you think, "Yep, this is as magical as a Disney movie." I've found most of these moments happen to me when I'm travelling, which is one of the reasons I love seeing new places as often as possible. My last "Disney" moment was in the beautiful city of Prague.

I've found that many of the very popular places in Europe have been affected badly by mass tourism. Although the original attraction is still beautiful and worth seeing, all you can think about is how to get away from the hoards pushing you whilst snapping their camera sloppily above their heads. Once you get away from them you're usually confronted with many souvenir stalls selling cheap plastic items. Now I love souvenirs as much as the next person, but I would rather spend more than a pound and get something a bit more special that hasn't been produced in the millions (if not billions!). 

Charles Bridge is one such extremely popular tourist attraction, that draws thousands and thousands of people each year. However, despite the crowds, to me it didn't feel so horribly touristy. It may have been because I visited in October, so the summer crowds were long gone, or it might just be because Prague doesn't get the amount of tourists that Paris and Rome get.

I first saw the Charles Bridge during the day. I was walking into the Old Town on my first full day in Prague, all ready to discover the city. It was pretty crowded, but I still had my personal space. There were people busking, begging, drawing portraits for people and selling jewelry. The blackened statues stared down ominously, watching the bustling crowds push towards the end of the bridge. It was certainly a beautiful bridge, however it was still just a bridge.

The Disney moment was still to come, and happened to be whilst I was walking along the bridge at night. It was around 6pm and already pitch black. It was cold but not freezing, and I walked along with steaming Gluhwein in hand. It was still busy but not overly crowded and the buskers were playing some pretty good jazz music.

As I got towards the end of the bridge, I looked around at the statues and the shiny cobblestone reflecting yellow lamp light. I could have been standing there at any point in the last few hundred years and the bridge wouldn't have looked very different at all. The only thing that could set apart this moment in time from any other previous time period was how people dressed and the flashes of cameras going off. 

Standing there in that moment was nothing short of magical.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Segwaying in Prague - the coolest uncool thing I have ever done

One of the many beautiful views from our tour

When I think of Segways, the first image that pops into my mind is the cheesy family movie Mall Cop. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, just see the below image.

Yep, so that basically means that I have never thought of Segways in a "cool" way. 

This all changed though during my recent trip to Prague. One of the first things you will notice if you visit the Old Town is the amount of Segways. They are everywhere! After a few days in Prague, and after lots of giggling at some serious looking Segwayers on tours I decided I couldn't mock people unless I had tried it. This proved to be the best decision of my trip. 

My group and I found someone in the Old Town on a Segway offering tours. I can't actually remember the name of the company, but I can imagine that they all follow the same or similar route. The options were for a 30 minute, 60 minute or 90 minute tour, the latter also included Petrin Hill. They all included a ride around the Old Town. We decided on the 60 minute tour as we thought 30 minutes was too short and weren't sure if we would like it enough for 90 minutes. The original price for 60 minutes was around 1 500 Czech Korunas (around £40 or $75) per person, however we managed to haggle it down to a bit under 1000 Koruna (£30 or $50) which was a much better deal! As there was five of us, we were a large enough group to get a private tour.

The guy on the right sold us our tour. I have no idea which square this is!
The man selling us the tour was very friendly, and whilst we were waiting for people to bring our Segways he let us on his one and taught us how to use it. He made sure that we were comfortable on it before giving another person a turn. They are very easy to get the hang of and even those in our group that weren't really comfortable at first were speeding around within a couple of minutes!

Our Segways arrived with our tour guide who was very friendly and also had great English. We all got our helmets, hopped on our Segways and away we went! Segway tours aren't like typical tours where the guide is explaining things along the way. As you can imagine, that would be very difficult when everyone is on a moving vehicle! We could go at our own pace and if anyone fell too far behind the guide would stop and wait. She also let us know that we could stop at any time to take pictures.

After already spending a few days in Prague walking around the Old Town, I was amazed by how much I hadn't seen. We went along a path right beside the river which I would never had known was there if not for the tour. We also went through all different beautiful parts of the Old Town which I also didn't realise I had missed!

The Segways were so fun to ride and there was never a boring moment during the tour. Everyone with me was very sad when our tour ended and all of us wished we had picked the 90 minute tour so that we could go through the park as well. A side effect we all noticed after being on the Segways for an hour is our ability to walk had been impaired temporarily, like having sea legs. I felt so short all of a sudden, and felt like I was just stomping along the cobblestones. I missed being so tall and powerful on my Segway!

If you are visiting Prague and like me have a bit of a giggle about the un-coolness of Segways, I highly recommend you give it a go! It is so much fun, and for me it was absolutely the best way to see the city.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A day trip to Poland from Prague

With my week in Prague almost complete, I decided to cross the border for the day and visit Poland. Prague is very close to Germany, Poland, Austria and Slovakia but as Poland was the only one I hadn't been to yet, I decided to hop over there. (Not literally of course)

In the past, I have had some pretty bad border town experiences. A couple of years ago I visited a town in France which borders with Spain. It was a complete dump. All the shops were shut when it was only about 1-2 pm. (None of them looked half decent anyway) Of course I had held out on eating lunch in Spain because I was hoping for an amazing salad and an eclair. 

After walking around for a bit I found a McDonald's"Why have an amazing French salad when you can have a Big Mac", said no one, ever. Already very disappointed, I managed to get sworn at in French because I didn't order my McChicken in a French accent. Well pardon me. 

So after that unfortunate experience of a border town, I was desperately trying to find out about a nice Polish border town. It seems though, that Google did not have many answers. I found a few old forums saying that the drive was horribly boring and I would need to drive a few hours further to see anything nice. I also found lots of suggestions about train journeys, but as I was going by car none of that helped.

Despite this, I decided to go anyway and had an idea of a town I wanted to visit. It is usually a bad idea not to at least have a general destination in mind when driving around. I love finding amazing little places that are off the beaten track, but at the same time it's good to have a back up place in case you never find that. Jelenia Gora was my back up town, which I never actually ended up visiting. I found my little hidden town instead, called Szklarska Poreba.

Don't ask me how to pronounce it, I have no idea and will probably just make a fool out of myself. Szklarska Poreba is on the edge of the Karkonosze National Park, and is a popular ski resort in winter. There is a small fun park place with an awesome looking toboggan run, tree climbing/zip-lining thing and other assorted fun activities. Once I arrived, I got lunch at a nice restaurant in the town where the bill came to around £25/$46 for 5 drinks, 4 meals and two desserts! (It wasn't all for me of course, who do you think I am?) It was so incredibly cheap, and considering just a drink, meal and dessert in London would be at least £25 for the same quality it was a pleasant surprise.

After lunch I wandered around the town for a bit which is very quaint and the surroundings are gorgeous. I then walked around in the forest part of the fun park for a bit, which has an amazing view of the surrounding forests and mountain/hills. The autumn leaves were vibrant shades of orange and yellow. I could have walked around there for hours admiring the view. 

From a practical point of view now, if you are worried about money you don't need to be. The restaurant I went to took credit card and a souvenir shop and a cafe I visited took Czech Korunas. There is no border check as you are passing from EU to EU. If you blink you might even miss the sign with a big PL and not realise you have just crossed into Poland. No one I found in Szklarska Poreba spoke English, however if you have a bit of German it will really help you. The menu I got was in Polish and German, and because I can read a little bit of German I managed to (mostly) translate the menu. The waitress couldn't actually speak German, but at least I could point at what I wanted on the menu. Of course, it would have been ideal to speak a bit of Polish but I managed to get by. It's amazing how well you can communicate just with body language and gestures!

That day in Poland was one of those instances where the internet should not be trusted completely. If I had trusted all those opinions, I would have missed out on visiting Poland and seeing beautiful forests and a quaint little town which was only a 2 hour drive away from Prague. If you have a free day in Prague and want to hire a car, I highly recommend visiting Poland. I really loved the little town I found and although I was only there for a couple of hours, I really felt like I had experienced Poland. Plus, I didn't get sworn at! Although, since I don't know a word of Polish I wouldn't actually know would I...

Friday, November 7, 2014

A perfect week in Prague

Returning to London is always a bittersweet moment. I love London, but when you've been away, especially to a beautiful European city, things don't seem so shiny. This is how I felt returning from Prague to drunk people wandering the streets in all sorts of Halloween costumes. My room isn't very well sound proofed so I heard the shouting and screeching all the way through to 4am... But that's enough of my sleep deprived rant! Moving on to what I got up to during my week in the beautiful city of Prague!

Wandering around the Old Town

I prefer not to travel too fast paced and like to get to know a place outside the tourist hubs. The best way to do this I find is by wandering around the city. I was staying about a half hour's walk away from the Astronomical Clock, in Prague 5. This gave me a chance to walk through nice parts of Prague and really take in the surroundings. Like with most European cities, sometimes the best way to enjoy a place is by getting lost in it.

Seeing all the sights

There is so much to do and see in Prague, and even with a whole week there are things I didn't get to. Climbing up things seems to be pretty popular, and I ended up climbing three different towers around Prague. These were Petrin Tower, Astronomical Clock Tower and the Astronomical Tower which is part of the Klementinum. All offered amazing views, but if I had to pick one favourite I would say it is the Astronomical Clock Tower in the center of the Old Town. I unintentionally turned up at around 5pm so managed to see the beautiful sunset with an amazing view all around Prague. It was incredibly crowded up there at that time, but so worth it to see the sun set on a clear night. Petrin Tower offers views from further away, and the Astronomical Tower in the Klementinum also offers great views of Prague.

If I could recommend just one thing to do in Prague aside from going up a tower, it would be to visit one of the beautiful libraries. The library in the Klementinum was the one I visited and it was absolutely amazing. Despite the fact that most of the books were missing to be digitally recorded, it was still such a beautiful room. Of course, you might hate libraries and old books, but if you are a lover of these things like me you will thoroughly enjoy it! There is also a great library in Strahov Monastery, however I didn't manage to see that one.

Eating all the food

For me, an important part of travelling is trying the local cuisine. I feel that if you don't try the food, you really can't say that you have experienced that culture or place. My diet in Prague consisted of lots of goulash, bread dumplings and trdelnik, which is a kind of pastry dessert. My favourite goulash was the traditional Czech kind and I also liked the goulash in a hollowed out bread roll. Beer goulash was also on many menus, but I found that one to be far too rich. Most places also have the classic pizza, pasta and meat dishes if you don't like goulash.

After having my fair share of trdelnik, I determined that it has the potential to be great. It is basically dough wrapped around a stick/pole which is then covered in cinnamon, sugar and optional walnuts or almonds and then grilled. It is traditionally cooked over an open flame, but many places have taken to a more modern approach. To cut things short, trdelnik is delicious. However, I found so much inconsistency with them. The first one I tried did not have much sugar on it and was cold, the second one I tried was still raw in the middle, and the third one I tried (wait a minute, I sound like Goldilocks here) was overcooked and too chewy. They were all still great, but I just wished that they were made a little more carefully and not just made sloppily for tourists. After three times trying to find the "perfect" Trdelnik I gave up, although slightly happier in the knowledge that I could finally pronounce it. 

Prague is an amazing city, and one certainly worth visiting. There is so much to do, and I did a lot more that I will save for other posts (I don't want to bore you with a 5 000 word essay now do I!). I really enjoyed staying there for more than just a weekend to really enjoy and embrace Prague. The scales have also enjoyed telling me I embraced Prague too much...darn you delicious food!