Prague Travel Diary 2006

11th June 2006

With four nights and about four and a bit days in Prague, we could afford the time to take more trips outside of the city. There was only one small problem - we could barely be bothered! After all, a break is supposed to be just that but with the hot weather - still no rain or even a cloud today - it was difficult to discipline ourselves to go too far. So, once again, we opted to stay nearby. We had planned to climb both the bridge tower and the tower above the astrological clock, and with such clear skies, today looked like the perfect time. However, there was one visit outside the city that we still wanted to plan in - to Karlstejn castle. It would be easy enough to get to, and trains run there on the hour; all we needed was the timetable and we'd be passing the information centre on the way in to the towers. So, there was the plan - get the train times, climb the towers, head out of town to the castle and be back in time for dinner. Or, at the very least, supper.

The climb up the bridge tower was energy-sapping but, thankfully, not time-consuming; we were at the top in no time at all overlooking a sun-drenched Charles Bridge and beyond to the castle that we'd wandered around just the day before. It was fascinating to watch people on the bridge below from behind a big zoom lens, all of them unaware that they were being spied on. Well, if spying is the right phrase for watching people pointing at the artists stalls that line the bridge. We also took a walk across the bridge (yes, again!) for yet more photos before doing an about-turn and making our way to the Old Town Tower.

The crowds on Charles Bridge.

The organ grinder and his cuddly toy monkey.

The way up to the top of the second tower was a far easier affair - easier than the bridge tower and easier than our last trip up this tower eight years ago. Back then, we had to walk around the spiralling staircase (actually, more of a grooved incline) all the way to the top before climbing up a final steel stair case that took you right above the gaping hole that ran right to the bottom of the tower; definitely a 'don't look down' moment. Now, the spiralling route up is still there but the void down the middle now has a lift shaft and the scary staircase has since been removed. It was all too easy!

We spent some time making our way around the four corners, identifying locations that we'd been to previously, picking out routes that were now familiar to us but would, inevitably, soon evaporate from memory. One of the highlights was watching the crowds gathering below the tower to witness the hourly 'show' that takes place on the astronomical clock. By show, what I mean is that a bell chimes, some wooden figures 'parade' past a small window above the clock and when that's done a hen clucks and flaps its wings. It is, to say the least, as distinctly underwhelming as every guide book suggests it is, but every hour tourists appear to witness the act in the hope that they either read it wrong or were misadvised. Even from up this height, I could sense the crowd's dissatisfaction and could feel the 'is that it?' vibes drifting up to me. Nano-seconds later, the crowd dispersed down various side streets and across the square.

People watching the astrological clock on the hour.

Horse and cart ridde through the Old Town Square.

Tyn Church in the Old Town Square.

We'd got our fill of tower-climbing for the day and so made tracks for the train station. And by that I mean we made our way to the train station, they didn't need any new ones made by us, or anyone else for that matter. Which was just as well - we got worn out just waiting for the train to depart for Karlstejn. I wasn't entirely sure how obvious it would be when we arrived at the destination as we appeared to be the only tourists on the local train (local = no air-con and no surface free of graffiti). When the train was ten minutes past its supposed arrival time I did start to worry a little that we might have gone wrong somewhere. The ticket looked right but had we got on the right train? Almost as soon as those first moments of doubt appeared, so did Karlstejn station.

We got off the train along with just three other people who looked to be heading for the castle too. There was no transfer bus waiting there as the guide books suggested, so we followed the signs out of the station, over a stretch of water and around a corner until the castle loomed into view high on a hill. Arriving at around 4:30 pm pretty much guaranteed that the large number of tourists who visit this place on a daily basis had all but gone. It felt really quite sleepy in the village that sits underneath the castle and we weren't about to break that atmosphere by doing anything too energetic. We came, we saw, we took some photos, we left; we didn't even bother to climb up the hill to get a closer look at the castle. Experience had shown us that up-close these things are often lacking in the interest factor, but if you can step back and get the complete picture it's much more rewarding. We'd seen the castle for ourselves and could cross that off the list of things to do (rather than not see it and wonder if we'd made a mistake by not seeing it).

Karlstejn Castle.

In the evening we made one final foray into the Old Town Square and tried to have something to eat at one of the pavement café/restaurants. I say tried because having sat down and waited for quite a while for our drinks to arrive and with no hint of an order being taken we decided to move elsewhere. I asked for the bill and the waitress had a look of shock that suggested that she'd never heard of anyone daring to just have a drink, like she was completely oblivious to the fact that seated right next to us, and under her care, was a table of three very unhappy people who'd waited an hour between starters and main course. To say that they were not the most perceptive waiting staff would be a bit of an understatement. So we moved on, finding another restaurant very near the bridge.

We were sat with our backs to the wall, facing directly out on to the street where we could watch the world go by. Directly opposite us, stood in an ornate doorway, was one of Prague's beggers. As we sat and ate our meals, drank our drinks and chatted away, he stood there quietly and dare I say it dignified. I had yet to see a pushy beggar in the whole of Prague - in fact, they really do seem to 'beg' here, but not in a whiny "spare any change?" kind of way, but rather that they're usually on their knees and elbows, head down with their begging bowl/hands/hat held out in front, as if they could not possibly get any lower to the ground. This man could almost have been waiting for a friend to arrive but he was simply waiting for someone to put something in his dish. In about an hour I only saw one person drop a coin or two in for him. I've never watched anyone begging for this length of time and no-one could accuse him of making a living from doing this. After the meal I couldn't simply get up and walk past him, I had to leave something for him - and for my conscience.

The beggar just stood there quietly as the world walked past.

We stayed out for a little while after the meal, getting our last fix of late night photos and atmosphere, eventually returning to the hotel just before midnight.

The Castle and Charles Bridge at night.