Prague was chosen as our first destination, after many hours of contemplations, because of very good reasons – it’s close, which is always nice; it’s accessible by train, which is our favourite mode of transportation (or at least it used to be before we started walking around with 90 kg worth of luggage); and mostly because everyone else has already been there, and let’s face it, half this trip is because everyone else has already been there.
So it was decided and we booked our first country of the cross Europe tour – four days in Prague and two in České Budějovice – because the Lonely Planet insisted it is a Must, and I failed to check why. Apparently it’s a must because this is the birthplace of the Budweiser, and you always want to stop where there’s beer. Unless, like me, you don’t really like beer. In which case, I guess, it is better to check before deciding to listen to Lonely Planet.
Leaving Berlin was not easy, I guess you leave a place exactly like you lived in it, so our farewell to Berlin was full of friends and really nice German people, angst and passive-aggressive German authority figures, and the ticket controller on the S-Bahn (on a Saturday, on the last stop on the last ride we will take on the S-Bahn in the foreseeable future. I think I was the only person in the history of the S-Bahn who was ever happy to see the ticket controller. After all, the week before we left, when it seemed that the universe is intent on making every last second in Berlin a living hell, including a root-canal and a screaming match in the school hallway, I started paying for every single ride on the U-Bahn, waiting for the moment I can flip the finger to the universe). Things got so hard there at the end that we decided to celebrate the trip only after we cross the border to Czech Republic. I was just glad the guy sitting next to us was sleeping when we put on I Can See Clearly Now and started dancing on the train.
When you tell people you are going to Prague the first thing they want to talk about is the money. Even the guy who saw us walking in the Hauptbahnhof and understood the Hebrew (I hate it when people understand the Hebrew. It is so convenient to have a secret language) and took it upon himself to warn us about the pickpockets, and insure that I will have to check the lock on my bag every ten seconds. After the pickpockets, what they usually tell you is just how really really ridiculously cheap Prague is. I guess they weren’t coming from Berlin. Or travelling with two kids. It is cheap, but not by much from Berlin, every thing costs extra (a plastic bag, a printed map of the castle, entrance to the synagogue, taking photos at the Lego museum), and just like Berlin – if you want something imported you will pay an arm and a leg. Buying coffee and caramel-waffles (ever since Holland the kids are crazy about caramel waffles. It’s the kids I tell you. I only buy it for the kids) in Starbucks for example is akin to buying a small flat. And they have M&S, with a food hall(!), which I know is not really a big deal if you are still living in the UK and there is a M&S on every corner, but I don’t and what can I say, I see a M&S sign, I have to go in. At least the prices in the M&S were normal. If you live in London that is (they also have Costa, which costs exactly the same as the Starbucks but doesn’t have the caramel-waffles; and a Tesco). At least, unlike Berlin, the public transportation is cheap and efficient, and we can’t do any shopping because of the rule – you buy it you carry it, and no one wants to add weight to their bags (except the tiny Babushka which is the same as the one my grandmother had and Yon was so intent on buying).
You see, when I booked the trip to Prague I did not take the little issue of lugging 90 kg into account. It is one thing to hop on a train with 3 little trollies and a backpack. It is a completely different thing to try and get our 2 gigantic bags, 1 medium suitcase, 1 trolley, 1 guitar, 3 backpacks and two hysterical kids up the narrow steps into the old Czech trains and fit all of them through the narrow corridor to our booth and somehow fit it all in while still leaving enough space for us to sit down and not annoying the other people in the booth too much (our trains had a booth-only policy). On hindsight maybe I should have brought less medications, but honestly when I packed I really thought I was being discriminative, I even left a few at home (true, it was mostly the ones I wasn’t really sure what they were, but I am pretty sure I also left a few packets of Paracetamol behind).
Prague was gorgeous, it looks much nicer in the sunshine (well, like most cities except for London who is built for the grey) so try and time your visit to a sunny weather. Because you control the weather. But if, like me, you are busy dealing with a couple other things and forget to order great-weather when you book the hotel, what you get is a greyish, cold and damp day where you keep calculating how much work you will need on the Photoshop to make it look like your weather is better than the weather back home. Also, apparently grey-days do not help bickering, arguing or general discontent. What they do do, however, is help you remember that when you packed Berlin was going through a heat-wave (3 days of over 20 degrees) and you decided there will be no more use for a hat, or a scarf, or gloves. Of which you have hundreds, and which are all tucked nicely into a box at the storage unit. It really did look like the right decision at the time to bring the bathing-suits instead of the winter hats.
Grey or not, It is an amazing place to visit, especially with the kids. I read people saying it is romantic, or like a fairy tale. I have seen the couples coming to get married there, but for me, it was none of those things – you have other places in Europe which are more romantic, or more gorgeous, or more medieval (though the basilica in the Prague Castle made me very emotional), but you don’t have many places where you feel the history quite like that, where you can stand in front of a wall, listen to Imagine blasting out of some random couple’s phone, and explain to your (almost) 11 years old about Communism, social justice and revolutions.
All the details if you’re heading to Prague –
We took the train from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Prague central station (Praha hl.n). It’s a 4 and a half hours trip, which is not so bad (and not so expensive – we paid about 50 Euros for 4 tickets with reserved seats), but the train is a booth-only train with 6 people at each booth and not enough air to go around, and with the amount and size of luggage we carry around it meant not all of it could actually fit inside the booth, on the other hand having to keep the door open (our bag doubled as the door) meant we had some fresh air coming in. It wasn’t the best train-ride we ever had, but we only had one stranger in the booth who luckily enough had headphones (I always feel sorry for all the people who have to listen to Yon talk for 4 hours straight about Minecraft and YouTube), we had plenty of food and snacks (after all who knows how long it will be before we see a sandwich again in these faraway lands we are headed to) and we did manage to play some train-Uno (Taki for the Hebrew speakers amongst us) with the kids.
We also took the train from Prague to České Budějovice, a 2 hours 20 minutes ride, which was exactly the same…
We stayed at the Iris Hotel Eden in Prague 9, which I chose because it was a good price, very close to good public transport, and most importantly of all – it is situated inside the football stadium in Prague. Of course we didn’t get a room with a pitch view like I hoped for, for some reason we always get the rooms on the first floor with the views directly into the bins (or a grey wall, which is always nice to wake up to), but it was still really spacious, had 2 single beds for the kids (instead of a pullout sofa) and free okish wifi. It is also right across the road from the Eden shopping centre which has a (very) big Tesco, and right next to a McDonalds (which in Prague does not like vegetarian people). We only ate breakfast at the hotel once because a) we are now on a long trip in which we are supposed to be budget-conscious, b) we are now on a long trip so we have to be calorie-conscious, and c) it is really not worth the money when all the kids eat is a bowl of cereals and pay full price.
In České Budějovice we stayed at the Grand Hotel Zvon, where we only got three beds and no service. I have no idea why it is considered a 4.5 stars hotel or how it came to be number 1 on Tripadvisor. It was not worth the money, or the space on the blog. But the wifi was great (and free).
We used the public transportation in Prague quite a bit, mostly because we didn’t have a choice since the hotel was far from the city centre. It is very efficient and cheap, and also it is fairly easy to understand and navigate the underground as it’s a cross between the London system and the Berlin one. It is a little harder to navigate with the trams and buses, but I am still proud to say (as the person in charge of navigating, though for the life of me I can’t understand who trusted me with this job, I still can’t tell left from right) we managed it without getting lost even once (ok, once). We bought daily tickets (which are good for 24 hours from the moment you stamp them) at the hotel on the first day and then at the underground station (very important because you can’t buy a ticket at the bus-stop and you need one to get on the bus which takes you to the underground station where they sell the tickets, which is kind of a catch 22).
We took the kids bobsledding at the Bobova Draha Prosek track. It is not very easy to get there, and it is not cheap, but it was their favourite part of the trip, so it is very recommended.
We did all the touristy things – went on the Charles Bridge (twice), it is really a lovely bridge; saw the Astronomical Clock show (by mistake, we just happened to be there at 1 o’clock and saw lots of people standing around so we went to see why); saw the view from the tower we went on a clear day and it was amazing. It also has an elevator, which is not something you take for granted. Especially on the way up, we did the way back on foot because it turned out to be a stepless-tower which isn’t so bad; went through the old city which is really lovely, it is such an interesting experience to see the old and the new, the Communism and Capitalism meshed up together; went up Petrin Hill – the cable car was fun for the kids, (just pay attention and don’t get off it on the first stop like we did, because it’s a ten minutes wait for the next one or a very long hike up the hill) but the mirror maze was disappointing and the sign on the outside of the tower said no elevator so we did not go up. All in all, unless you are really into parks and sitting on the grass, it’s a waste of time; took the bus to the Prague Castle, where we chose tour B (the shorter one) and did not take the audio-guide (which costs almost the same as the ticket). All I can say is, unless you are really into castles you might be better off just walking around the free parts, and the gardens and maybe buying the ticket to the Golden Lane (if it’s possible, I’m not sure) which has the armoury and 15th century homes; went to see John Lennon wall with all the cool kids and school trips; visited the old-new synagogue and Jewish quarter (ok we passed through the Jewish parts from the outside on the way to the synagogue, but it still counts); and of course finished it all off at the Palladium shopping centre.
We also took the kids to the Imaginarium which had a very good mirror-maze and some other attractions (it is far better than the one at Petrin Hill); the Lego museum, which is basically a few rooms filled with lego models and some play-areas for the kids. The most impressive is the 5 meter model of the Charles Bridge. The kids had a blast; and the Dali – Warhol exhibition at GOAP gallery because modern is the only art the kids go to see willingly, and it is an educational trip after all.
None of the places had a disability discount that we could see, but they all had a family ticket (2 adults 2 kids) where you get one child free.
Free wifi is everywhere you go (not on the streets obviously), it works great usually and is quite fast and stable. It was great.
Google maps works well, both for walking and for public transport (Apple maps don’t have public transport, so they redirect you to google maps). Because it also works offline, we mostly used the free wifi to get the maps (the only cost was usually a cup of coffee) and then used it outside offline.
Food, is never our strong suit, and I always end up feeling like we spent way too much on it anyway. We mostly bought lots of things at the Tesco (the kids loved the Milki Mix), ate sandwiches from M&S, drank coffee at Starbucks and Costa, ate at McDonalds where Yon has discovered Cheeseburgers, and were very adventurous with a self-service frozen yogurt. As you can imagine the only traditional thing we ate were sweets – Trdelník, Strudels and Medovnik honey cakes and all I can say is we are very lucky we were there for a short time or we would have started to look like a Trdelník.
The kids are now officially on “trip schooling” and they wanted it to be as close as possible to a “real school” structure so I made up a schedule which includes 2 hours study in the morning (plan of the day, maths, English and a rotating lesson), outing, “after-school club” (music, sports, IT, languages in rotating order), free-play time and trip-journal writing in the evening. In contrary to my expectations, they adapted and adopted the time-table and are embracing the whole mummy-the-teacher thing. We had to tell them they don’t really need to raise their hand when they want to talk…