Hapsburg Empire – part 1

 

I can finally strike five cities in Europe off my wanderlust checklist. :) In a whirlwind trip lasting six nights, the husband and I swung into Prague, Vienna and Budapest, with day stops in Český Krumlov and Brastislava. There wasn’t enough time to really absorb the historical wealth these destinations offered as we had gone on an escorted tour, but the trade off is that I didn’t have to tear my hair out in the planning process. It is always good to visit an unfamiliar destination first with a reliable tour company, and if you like what you see, you can plan a future trip dedicated to just one city and take all your time in the world to romance it. So we begun our journey in Prague. It was almost 3pm when we arrived at President Hotel, which sits just across from the Vltava River. We dropped our bags and wasted no time in heading out for a stroll down the river. At 5°C, the weather was perfect! The cobblestone banks of the Vltava River was coated with a layer of ice, making it quite a challenge for me to walk at my usual quick pace. Oh well. I was in no hurry to get anywhere anyway. :) So I slowed down and enjoyed the surroundings.

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The Vltava River eventually led us to the famed Charles Bridge. Constructed in 1357 as a critical causeway linking Prague Castle and the old town, Charles Bridge is just as revered today. Numerous tourists cross this bridge to worship its beauty and make countless photos to show off to friends and family back home. I was one of them. :)

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On the side of Mala Strana, the old town, a majestic watch tower stands, offering strong-limbed visitors a bird’s eye view of the bridge and Prague’s cityscape.

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Pushing past eager crowds, we found our way onto the bridge and was faced with a line of huge stone statues on each side. According to literature, there are 30 statues of saints and patron saints venerated at that time. Today, these statues are mere replicas, and the originals are kept protected in the National Museum.

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We hung around for a while more, then returned to our hotel. A welcome reception was awaiting, and the fancy dinner event was held in Restaurant U Cisaru, established in 1673. The name literally means “At the emperors”, and the restaurant has hosted several political VIPS throughout its history.

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It was drizzling the next morning and so cold, but that didn’t stop us from visiting Prague Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral.

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I realised that many parts of the castle are actually open to visitors, but I guess due to time constraints, we were only brought to see the interior of St Vitus’ Cathedral. So Prague Castle is going into my to-do list. :) Emerging from the compound of Prague Castle, we found ourselves on the top of a hill, overlooking the sprawling ancient city which was the imperial capital of the Hapsburg empire from 1583 to 1611.

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Clicking heels against the ancient cobblestone slopes around the castle, we found ourselves on a street lined with the prettiest of old shophouses.

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Without the cars that lined this road, I would have thought I had stepped back in time!

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Our local guide, Jere, brought our attention to little icons found above the doors of some shophouses. To help illiterate people of the past to identify locations, icons such as this golden key were used in place of addresses.

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The same was practiced in old Singapore too, with figurines of animals placed on ledges above doors to guide people. Some of these figurines still stand – watch out for them on Boat Quay. From here, we trekked onwards to Charles Bridge, giving us the opportunity to admire the structure in daylight. Remember how I wrote earlier in this post that the original statues on Charles Bridge are now kept in the National Museum? Thank goodness for that. Look what the birds are doing! :)

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Now, say hello to the statue of John of Nepomuk. The poor chap was thrown into the Vltava by Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia, when he refused to disclose what the queen of Bohemia had confessed. On the bright side, John of Nepomuk was considered a martyr and was made a saint of the country.

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The locals believe that touching it brings good luck, hence the two bright spots at the foot, polished bright by hopeful hands. Moving along, we found ourselves in Prague’s Old Town Square – my favourite place! But before the group was disbanded for some shopping at the Christmas market, we enjoyed a little show in front of the Prague Astronomical Clock, or Prague Orloj.

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This is a medieval astronomical clock that was installed in 1410. At every hour, four figures flanking the clock would do a little mechanical dance, and a golden cock would pop out and crow. These figures represent four things that were despised at the time of the clock’s making: Vanity, represented by a figure admiring himself in a mirror; a miser holding a bag of gold represents greed or usury; Death, a skeleton; and a Turk who dispenses pleasure and entertainment. Then, a trumpeter would work his magic at the highest point of the clock tower. With the city tour now completed, the husband and I were free to explore the Old Town Square on our own. So we made our way to the top of the clock tower. You could take the elevator, or climb all the way up.

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And from way up there, Prague’s Old Town Square looked most enchanting!

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Watching all the action in the Christmas market below made us very hungry, so we made our way down in search of a feast. We stuffed our faces with grilled sausages, a huge bowl of potatoes, bacon and sauerkraut and svajak (hot mulled wine).

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Then we ended the meal with two rings of sweet, roasted bread rolls. Yummy!

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Completely stuffed, and with aching feet, we returned to our hotel for a rest. We must be recharged for some night adventures! By 6pm, our tummies were growling again. So we headed out in search of Hotel U Medvidku Brewery. The name says it all – it is a hotel with a microbrewery and restaurant. It was a long walk from our hotel, and I was about to give up, when the husband hollered the sweet words, “There it is!” Dinner was spectacular. We shared a tasty potato soup with mushrooms, a roasted chicken leg with cream sauce, and a large apple pie, and downed four mugs of beer brewed on site.

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Happiness came with a bill of no more than S$23, which included a fat tip that made the waiter really delighted. Woohoo! Just as we were about to finish our meal, two young Asian girls came over to ask if they could share our table, as the restaurant was packed to the rafters. Of course we said yes, and the four of us struck up a really fun conversation. One of the girls is from Malaysia and is in Prague studying political science, the other is from Shanghai. We got along so darned well that we adjourned elsewhere for drinks. We ended up in Hemingway Bar, a pretty little cocktail bar in a very quiet alley. Really, if you aren’t in the know, you would never have thought that a stylish bar sits behind that inconspicuous wooden door.

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Hemingway Bar specialises in cocktails and there is a mind-boggling variety to choose from. I picked a Pimm’s creation, which was filled with so many fruits and a leafy bunch of mint leaves that I thought it was a health drink!

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Time flies when one’s having fun, and soon we had to go our separate ways.

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