Our friend Mixon is Jewish and was in Prague last year so on her advice we headed to the Jewish area which for centuries was one of the largest ghettos in Europe and very well developed and organized. It goes back to the 12th century with oldest synagogue (the Old-New Synagogue) dating from the 13th Century. Today there are six synagogues, the city hall, and the old Jewish Cemetery. We bought the muli-tickets for all and so got to see most places. The cemetery is incredible with reportedly 20,000 headstones in there and many more layers of bodies beneath. The oldest is 1439!
During WWII the Jews in Prague were all forced to live in the Ghetto area before being shipped off to the concentration camps. Most were killed or never returned to the area. In one synagogue there was a moving exhibit of children’s drawings all done while in the ghetto or Terazin (the nearest concentration camp). This was very moving to me as were many of the pictures and displays in the other synagogues. It is hard to imagine the thriving community this once was just disappearing almost over night. It made for some very deep discussions with the children. Very moving for all of us.
No pictures of the synagogues or cemetery as you had to pay an extra fee for this and we didn’t realize this when buying our entrance tickets — pay ahead if pictures are wanted. So here are a couple from the area.
The last night we had dinner on the Old Town Square and it was the European cup final so filled with a huge screen in “fan central.” It was very fun and rowdy despite the team we wanted to win (Italy) losing to Spain. As we headed back to the Charles Bridge to cross over to our side, it started to drizzle and then as soon as we were on the bridge the heavens opened and it poured. The lightening also started so was quite apocalyptic feeling walking across a medieval bridge with huge statues looming out of the darkness and black water below. We got absolutely soaked through and really just had to laugh as luckily it was warmer than in England! It was memorable for sure!
We all enjoyed this city and are glad we went but none of us could imagine living there (which is what we often chat about in new places) or even racing back for a visit. Far too many tourists – the place is jam packed – and more than anything, more Americans than any other city we have been to! Apparently it’s not so full in the fall and spring so perhaps then would be the time to go. I don’t really enjoy going to a foreign city and all I hear are American voices everywhere – prefer the less traveled locations. Budapest won over Prague and we are actually now thinking even further into Eastern Europe would be fun – Sofia or Dubrovnik perhaps!
Some of the major highlights in Prague were the state opera house and zoo (ditto Budapest). We went to see Carmen at the opera and again were blown away at the quality of the entire show.
The children sat glued to it as did I. It was not quite as hot in there but still warm. Tickets were a lot more expensive and our cheap seats cost about $20 a person this time instead of $2.
The zoo is the biggest in Europe and did impress. We spent about 5 hours there as it was outside of the city and on a hill so had lovely views plus was slightly cooler. The Littles rode horses twice and we got to see some different exhibits.
Two baby gorillas playing were neat and the polar bears up next to the glass were impressive. It’s funny how culture comes through even here though as the snakes were being openly fed large dead rats and the trainer was doing a show feeding the otters (which used to be one of my favorite animals). Usually in the US they throw a few fish in but in this case they had dead ducklings – cute little yellow babies! We were a bit stunned to watch the otters ripping these apart violently and chomping down. Adds a whole new side to otters to see them with duckling feet hanging out of their mouths. I’m afraid we were squeamish and didn’t stay around there long.
We did find great t-shirts for the Prague zoo that were half the price of tourist t-shirts in the main stores so perhaps things are cheaper away from the main city!
Jake took off and did the Communist Prague tour and went to the KGB museum, communism museum, and sites in Wenceslas Square as well as the Kafka Museum. The others and I did the castle with full tickets so we went into all the buildings and various museums. It’s the largest castle compound in Europe and it certainly takes a full day to see everything. Max got a new pocketknife from there and got to shoot a crossbow so was happy.
We only had 2 days back in The Netherlands and then headed out to Prague for a week. I had a conference to present at and so we rented another apartment which turned out to be in a fantastic location and with great service.
http://apartments-in-prague.org/ Ivo organized a pick up at the airport service (40 euros for a large van) and the concierge was there to let us in and give advice on local area etc.
They had a cell phone for us to use and all the expected items in a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment. It has lovely old wooden, painted ceilings and sturdy antique furnishings and was just down from the castle area. We were across the street from the American Embassy although didn’t’ know this until our taxi was stopped and searched by police – all vehicles in the area are. The driver claimed we were in the safest spot in Prague as the other side was a police station!
Prague is lovely and the cathedrals and castles intertwine with amazing architecture. We kept coming across rather nondescript big buildings wedged between apartments and shops and upon looking in, we found them to be these incredible churches. The outside is very plain but the insides are highly ornate.
The first evening we were walking and passed a huge church with a sign that said classical music concert. As we were reading it, a man was gathering up the signs as he said it was just starting. We looked disappointed and so he said “come, come” and pulled us inside to sit. We got to listen to an hour long concert of Mozart and more in this beautiful venue for free – what a gift. We later saw that most of the churches has concerts a few times a week as fundraisers but they were not cheap!
As we walked home after a good dinner and the concert we stood on the Charles Bridge admiring the sites when suddenly explosions went off around us. After the initial shock we saw the fireworks going off right next to the bridge and so got another free show – a 15 minute display so close the ashes of the paper fell on our heads! Pretty impressive.
We got to see these a couple of times in the week and they seemed to be a nightly occurrence at about 9:45 pm. When we inquired about the fireworks from a waitress she shrugged it off saying must be someone’s birthday so I don’t know if this happens all the time (of course she was just openly rude about everything so who knows).
That was actually a big downside to Prague. People are RUDE. In Budapest the culture is a little cooler and standoffish than in the west but it’s easy to see this is a cultural difference. However we had some really unpleasant interactions in Prague and service workers and the general public across the city just really did not seem to be happy or considerate. People don’t smile often and we referred to the “help desks” as the “unhelpful desks” as we actually had people working in these (zoo and airport) who were openly rude and angry at answering questions. It is also very expensive in the tourist areas and the non-tourist areas harder to access or find.
We are pretty good at managing on public transportation but Prague was the most difficult and frustrating although we barely used it as it’s a very walkable city.
My sister says this should be our family motto and I agree!
We drove and parked nearer to the main shopping area and then set off up the hill to visit the castle. I’ve spent various times there but when living in Scarborough you tend to pick warm and dry days unlike this trip. It did stop raining when we got into the main part of the castle thankfully and we had about an hour of dryness but it was quite windy and cool. Still the views from there are amazing and it is easy to see why this has been a castle/military post from early bronze age to Romans, Vikings, Saxons and even WWI. They found a bronze age sword there a few years ago but only the replica is in Scarborough with the main one in the British Museum so we decided to look it up when we were there a couple of days later. The Viking history was neat to read about and the children were able to make links to York from it.
From there we headed into town and hit the market and shops. The market used to be a big Victorian building that was dark and dingy, filled with stalls of low price items. It was busy and loud – a little daunting for children. Now there is a large lower level with little cafes and antique stores plus the main part is much lighter and airy and things seem very clean and organized. It’s certainly nice to shop there but has lost its edginess!
Ate at a traditional Yorkshire seaside restaurant (the kind of place my grandmother would have sooner starved than allow us go into) and had fish and chips and peas and huge pots of tea. I’m beginning to wonder if peas are the only vegetable we have available in England! Then did some more shopping, as I love Next clothing so wanted to stock up. All the Union Jack clothing and household goods are so neat to see (I was tempted by duvet covers) and it certainly makes you feel patriotic. Even food items are packaged in the flag and there is a huge quest to push everything British. The Jubilee and Olympics are fueling some of it but the trend started a couple of years ago with the recession and drive to go back to some of the “make do and mend” mentality.
We ended up spending another couple of hours down on the beachfront. The bumper cars and arcades were pulling the Littles in. It’s funny because there are no gambling hang ups in England so they merrily popped their 2 pence pieces into slot machines and other type games – seem to be same ones as I did growing up. Ice creams (99s – cone with a Cadbury flake stuck in) are just as good now too.
Tired out we hit Tesco and stocked up on food – ready meals are really good here. I found tea nirvana with the huge amounts of PG Tips and the new flavors (light/strong/hint of early grey…). Sadly Ryan Air dictates I not buy the 500 teabag boxes. We all slept like logs and my grandmother always said you do in Scarborough as it had good sea air.
Views from the Castle area were amazing and the churches lovely.
And a view from cathedral on the other side of the city:
Back on the road/rails again and heading to Eindhoven airport (1 hour, 40 minutes from the Hague). It was pouring when we left but not too cold. Everyone is damp and rather looking forward to the WARM and DRY weather forecasted in Budapest. In fact it is supposed to hit 90 degrees so we may complain about the heat.
And we did struggle with the heat but luckily the lovely apartment we rented was air conditioned. We stayed at this place: http://www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/p413820
The owner, Sophie is delightful young lady and emails quickly or chats by phone prior to arriving plus arranged for a car to meet us at the airport and then her sister gave us a ride back to the airport.
She was waiting at the apartment and showed us around and provided good tips on where to go for everything. The apartment is directly across the street from the Municipal Museum and 5 minute walk to the metro and trams. It was also only a 10 minute walk to the big market hall and river. It was also close to the Vacci road which is a pedestrian street full of restaurants and shops. So highly recommend contacting her.
We all fell in love with Budapest (pesht) as it is full of amazing architecture, the people were friendly, prices relatively low(er), and was not jam packed with tourists. It is a busy city but we at least felt there were more locals than tourists here!
Food was good but heavy. Lots of meat and of course goulash. This comes either as soup or a thicker stew. Both are heavy on the lovely smoky and rich paprika and delicious. The markets have some lovely Hungarian paprika for sale – go to a local market rather than the old looking powder in tourist shops. We did get stopped going back though as we had it in a carry-on (Ryan Air again) and it took 3 Hungarian security people to figure out if it was OK or not to have this big bag of powder. The two men were leaning toward no when the woman came over and shouted at them both and handed it to me saying “OK.” Guess she cooks!
The architecture is really neat but some of the buildings show decay. Somehow this is more quaint than run down. They were filming a Bruce Willis action movie in the city and we were told many are made there if they are pretending it is Russia because Russian buildings have been modernized too much. So it seems Budapest still reflects Communist era architecture more still.
Major highlights were the zoo, spa, and the opera house. The zoo had all the normal animals naturally but some of the buildings such as the elephant house are lovely and were built by famous architects (Eiffel one of them) in the 1800s.
We spent a few hot hours looking around and then went across the street to the Szechenyi Baths (spa) which is one of the largest in Europe. Budapest is the city of spas and there are lots to choose from but this one was large, had three open air pools (cooler), was co-ed and you have to wear bathing suits, http://www.szechenyibath.com/ Once we worked out the system of paying and a changing cabin plus got our rental towels it was lots of fun and we had a relaxing afternoon. Max was also happy to see many local men playing chess which is a big game in this area. He is a chess lover (takes multiple classes in the US) so got to carefully choose a new board and pieces, which he is treasuring.
I’m hooked on Delft and especially the Thursday market there so we went over for the afternoon. We loaded up on good and cheap vegetables and fruit. A large bag of new potatoes (tiny Dutch ones) were 1.95 euros and I got some amazing persimmons that were like jam to eat. The children are desperate for more as they are hooked. We bought smoked herring which Max and I liked but we have yet to try the raw herring that everyone seems to love here. You get a gutted raw herring on a bread bun and top it with diced raw onions. We love sushi so want to try it but somehow it’s taking more time to work up to. I see people just holding the herring up and munching them down plain too. Hmm. I think it’s the bones that put us off more than the rawness.
But market day has a festive feel to it and there are musicians playing plus the horse-drawn organ, which is quite loud. The outdoor cafés were full and I think coach tours from England were in town as there were so many Brits there.
Well guess what – it’s raining again. Actually it’s rained so much that they are doing emergency rescues of people in Wales and they say flooding is possible all over the south. What fun. We ended up taking a taxi to the Tower of London as it was somewhat within walking distance for us but the rain and tired out children was not fun. No lines to go in plus I’d bought tickets online earlier and only had to pick them up using my credit card that I’d paid with (I was worried as it stated you needed to print out the email but you didn’t — just the credit card). We saved a little money buying online but it was still pricey and yet worth it.
We first did the free tour with a beefeater and she was so much fun – -great sense of humour and good scary stories. I chatted with her later and women have only been allowed to be beefeaters for about five years now and she was one of the first. She spent 22 years in the military and all of them had also been on active service before going through the extensive recruitment process. She said there are about 300 people living in the Tower and some have children and families. What an interesting place to grow up in I would think.
Saw crown jewels, beasts of the tower (I never knew there were lions and other exotic animals there for most of it’s thousand year history), and lots of armor and weapons. I remember dungeons and torture tools from the past but those are not there now – well two things but nothing scary at all. Charlotte has become very fascinated by graffiti in Europe as it’s on so many things but usually is quite artistic rather than simply swear words painted on. In fact the area we are staying in has huge displays and is supposedly a growing arts area with one focus of street art. Anyway she enjoyed the engravings in the rock walls inside the tower – the graffiti etched in by prisoners waiting to die!
We got back on the bus for more touring of London from a dry view! Our main thing was Buckingham Palace but sadly the entire front was blocked off because they were dismantling the stages and seats from the Jubilee concert. So we hit Oxford Street and found lunch and shops again. Very crowded there though and not as pleasant to be in. Ben was admonished loudly for wearing his hood going into a store because of security issues (hmm it was raining outside…) and I questioned why he was forced to remove his hood when half the people shopping were from the Gulf area and women were completely covered from head to foot. I missed good old Scarborough shops (and they were all the same ones really). But except for Oxford Street, all the sites are fun and enjoyable to see.
We had an early start the next day – 04:30 car to drive us back to Stanstead. Ryan Air does not have the choices in times or I would not have gone that early. But the price overruled tiredness and it was an easy trip home as we knew the process.