Four Days in Praha

Posted in
  • travel
  • photography
Prague Castle
Spoiler alert: this is in Prague. The castle, from Karlův most.

Back in September, I opened my birthday present from Austen. Out of the bag, I took a set of imperial measuring cups, and a set of teaspoon measures. Very convenient—I’m still unaccustomed to baking by mass, rather than volumetric measures. Underneath were two thick, folded papers, which were illegible until unfolded. The first was an Airbnb confirmation, and the second was a receipt for two Brussels Airlines tickets to Prague.

A month and one day later on October 20th, we caught the train to Brussels Zaventem, and—my fault—narrowly made our flight. The flight itself was uneventful; we watched the finale of Mad Men’s Season 6, In Care of, and we arrived at a reasonable 11:10 am. We’d continue our Mad Men watch-through at a later time.

Awakening as we emerged from the airport, we made our way to the Airbnb in Prague 7, stopping to buy only water and toothbrushes en route. An otherwise simple task was made difficult by Prague’s street addresses, but we found our destination after not too long, when a confused couple of Americans (that’s us) walked into our host on Ovenecká outside the flat. Fighting the urge to sleep—why I almost caused us to miss our flight—we walked to Vegtral. Austen had abstained from meat for a long time, and I finally decided to shift from minimizing my intake to avoiding it altogether, but it’s a tall demand in Prague—more on that later. I had an amazing halloumi-and-portabella burger, and Austen had a vegetarian chimichanga—a callback to her last meal in Texas (from Chuy’s, of course) before departing for Brussels. More importantly, we both had a 50cl stein, of course, of Pilsner Urquell—her first! We both loved the break from Belgian food, so if one finds themselves looking for a great vegetarian restaurant in the area, definitely give these folks a shot.

We then made our way to one of the numerous nearby coffee shops—specifically why Austen chose the location—Cafe Letka. The shop’s interior was gorgeous, with peeling, warm pink plaster walls and light from three southern-facing bay windows reflecting from a large glass bar on the opposite wall. Specks of light reflected from the glasses and bottles, and the dust in the air radiated in the light, creating a warm and relaxing environment. The warm walls were offset by a not-overly-saturated aquamarine trim on the windows, and a formerly-white tile floor that showed age, but also regular cleaning and upkeep, maintained the feeling of lightness throughout the day’s varying light. One could bask there, and on returning multiple times over the next three days, it looked like a crowd of regulars actually did. I wanted to snap a few 23mm shots of the interior, but the patrons all sat close enough that there was no way to do so without garnering negative interest, so I contented myself to lounge like a lizard in sunlight.

The cafe was only a block from our flat, and as we returned, the neighborhood’s palette took me back to pastels from Lisbon and Croix-Rousse, with an added mint green tint that I hadn’t seen in Western European buildings, and the expected car exhaust streaking on porous building materials. I always find it interesting while traveling to see localized differences built atop common themes—the greens, and later blues, fit as naturally in the neighborhood as would any other color, but I never would’ve seen them in Lyon.

We returned to the Airbnb planning to shower, but instead fell asleep. We emerged three hours later, well-rested and recuperated, but also after nightfall.

We walked from Ovenecká to Letrohradská, around the National Technical Museum, through Letna Gardens, and across the Vltava on Štefánikův most, entering Prague 1. We meandered South along Dlouhá, and eventually to the Old Town Square and the clock tower. There was plenty to see there at night, even through the seas of people, and we found ourselves amongst a crowd encircling a fire dancer—reminiscent of another from Lyon, three months earlier. His performance was both personable and incredibly kinetic—he transitioned from explaining his journey from seeking an electrical engineering degree to dancing and street art, while investing the crowd through a humanizing story and entrancing, pyrotechnic motion. With the crowd already waiting on his every breath, he upped the ante by blindfolding himself.

I roamed the crowd looking for an unblocked shooting angle, and after we left fifteen minutes later, we found a small restaurant with a heated terrace and blankets, where we both enjoyed a serving of goulash and a beer—perfect food for the cold. However, in retrospect, it’s hard to determine where the blanket and heating ended, and the thick, warm goulash began. We left to return to the Airbnb, and stopped briefly to try Trdelník, which was further warming on that increasingly cold night. Throughout the rest of our time in Prague, Austen appropriately referred to them as “turtleneck.” Despite this pause, we were again falling asleep, and made the best time we could in returning to bed. We arrived not long after midnight.

We woke at a reasonable time on Sunday, and while Austen showered, I quickly returned to Cafe Letka to bring back the morning coffee. The shop was even more gorgeous in sunrise, but this time with an amber glow across the bar, and tinting the walls more orange than pink.

We left the flat not long after 10 am, and went out of our way to stop at another coffee shop—Y’es. In stark opposition to Letka, this was a much darker interior with dark gray walls and a polished concrete floor, but warm tan furnishings and bar. It wasn’t somewhere one would comfortably take a couple of hours, and if one were to spend time there to work or to write, they would find themselves there having sought isolation.

From there, we caught a bus to Náměstí Republiky, and spent a couple of hours at the Museum of Communism. As an American, I can comfortably say that we learn little of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet sphere from the perspective of those affected, and instead focus on policy as dispatched from the Kremlin. It was incredibly interesting to see the few points I was able to remember re-contextualized from the perspective of a country upon whom policy was enacted.

We emerged from the museum surprisingly ravenous, and wandering around, found ourselves back at the clock tower—and found there, as well, an incredible and authentic Mexican restaurant, Las Adelitas. We descended a full story along a tight staircase with a tighter 90° turn, and emerged into a thin, high-ceilinged, and cavernous, but tight space with blue painted walls, a Saltillo tile floor, painted terra cotta doorway-trim, and a semi-open kitchen. The space was what I would have expected from a nicer Mexican restaurant at home in Texas. We both ordered enchiladas, and I enjoyed a margarita and later a mezcal drink, while Austen took a jalapeño margarita. We haven’t yet found any passable Mexican food—or mezcal—in Belgium, so this was a welcome treat.

From there, we wandered the old town. The localized palette I’d observed the previous day gave way to standardized gray, tan, and peach exteriors—I’d missed this difference in the previous nighttime exploration. We eventually made our way across Karlův most, and while crowded, the bridge offered great photos of both tourists and locals, and views across the river, reflecting a magnificent blue sky. The crowds didn’t make for a good day to explore the castle, but we found plenty more to see in the vicinity, including an open air Christmas farmers-and-artisans market, but the crowds only grew denser, making it much more difficult to explore.

While wandering, we meandered into the St. Nicholas church. I hadn’t heard of the church before, and it wasn’t a planned stop—and that was reflected in the building’s emptiness. It was a great, if temporary, escape from the bustle. The interior was under renovation, and rather than an axial view along the vertex of the church’s roof, I could see only scaffolding. However, walking deeper into the building, one could make out brilliant detailing and faded gold leaf in the trim and the molding at archway peaks. Towards the back, a spiral staircase granted access to an upper level where one could look down upon the congregation, better appreciate the details of the ceiling, and view the church’s art collection. Unfortunately, the paintings had faded to such a point, and were positioned in such a way, that the afternoon light and glare prevented one from gleaning more than an impression of silhouettes.

We continued to wander for a short while, and decided that given our plans for the evening and the amount we’d eaten at lunch, a break would be in our best interest. We had eaten like we would have in Texas, and in Texas, we would have driven away rather than walking for hours. We returned to our studio, except this time by tram, and quickly lost two hours where Austen slept, and I edited photos and then caught up on Daredevil—Season 3 had just dropped, and with only two episodes remaining, I couldn’t let my investment dissipate. Despite the break, we were out the door a few hours later in time for our planned evening—a drunken tour of Prague.

The tour was a great and different way to experience the city. Our host was a veritable comedian, and the international participants made great conversation along the way. We started at a small basement-bar, where the small crowd got to know each other over drinks and stencil making—for a later activity, we were told. The tour followed part of the same route we had taken already that day, diverging for the National Theatre, a provocative piece by David Černý, and a few other sights, concluding at the John Lennon wall, where everyone painted their aforementioned stencil. Two or three hours had elapsed, and the tour shambled back to the bar, where many of us briefly remained to continue conversation. An hour later, we caught a tram back to the Airbnb, stopping for a falafel kebab, which in Prague is surprisingly cabbage-dense. We passed out as we hit the bed.

Thankfully, the late and exorbitant night cost us little when we woke up at nine the next morning. Again, I went to Letka for the morning coffee, letting the morning light wash over me as I absorbed the space’s lavish visuals. I returned to the flat where Austen had finished getting ready, and she’d found another café to try, so we found ourselves at Sólista Espresso bar. The interior was quaint, but felt as if it were decorated as an Instagram-like popup shop. With solid pink walls and pastels, a powder blue couch and two stools, it was clear their primary business was not consumer-facing—it was cute, but not a comfortable place to stay long. We then made our way by tram to a novelty children’s museum in another part of town. Shortly after, we wandered our way into an incredible vintage glass and camera repair store, though unfortunately I found little of interest.

We got lunch at an Indian fast-food restaurant, and continued wandering—stopping at Headshot Coffee. I was blown away by this shop’s interior, and snapped a few iPhone-photos for my ongoing palette collection of the store’s metallic aquamarine, rich pink, and orange-yellow interior. We then returned to another camera store, looking to repair a recently-found issue where my X-T2’s EVF no longer responded to the focal distance wheel, and occasionally changed position on its own. They referred me to yet another store, and so we made our way further into town to a coffee shop and a camera repair store. Unfortunately, the repair could not be done during the time that I would remain in Prague, and I’d rather risk guesstimating focal precision than lacking my camera for my remaining time there.

Despite wanting to continue exploring, we both retired via metro and bus Prague 7, where we rested for a couple of hours before seeking dinner. At our host’s suggestion, we found proper and traditional Czech food at Lokál Nad Stromovkou. Unfortunately for us, “traditional” meant nonvegetarian, and my newfound distaste for all-things-meat was satiated by some of the best schnitzel I’ve had in my life. We were seated in the basement with another small party, which meant a quiet and cozy atmosphere to continue our break from the crowds in Prague 1. After dinner, we took the metro to Bohemia Boards and Brews where one of Austen’s friends from KU Leuven now works, meeting her and her boyfriend there. After an hour, we moved on to an adorable tapas bar only a few blocks away, where—over good conversation—Austen and I both got to try Czech cider for the first time. It was nicely different than American ciders, and nowhere near as sweet as British ciders. It had a skunkiness that I had only come to expect from lighter beers, while tasting reasonably of apple, without being overly sweet.

After a few hours, we finally took a (very long) night tram home. There was an uncomfortable but brief moment with another passenger on the tram, but he disembarked not long after we boarded. We arrived back at our Airbnb a couple of hours past midnight, and again, we passed out.

I’d intended the next morning to try another vegetarian restaurant for breakfast before we returned to the airport, but the late nights and early mornings had caught up with us, and we instead took our time sleeping in, showering, and finally Letka, before taking the tram back to the airport to catch our 11:40 am flight to Brussels. We arrived back to Brussels at 1:10 pm, and I worked the rest of the day, while Austen returned to her lab for the day’s remaining working hours.

After the summer’s exhaustive and extensive travel, I believe I’d come to enjoy the comfort of the home we’ve made here for ourselves. This trip was a great reminder that despite the comfort I take in nesting, it’s worthwhile and rewarding to get out, and elsewhere. I’ve got a few inklings as to where next.