Updated: Feb 4, 2019
Let me start by saying my first trip to Europe did not disappoint.
Dennis and I started our trip with four nights in Prague, Czech Republic. We fell in love with Prague from the minute we got there. We arrived after a very delayed flight out of St. Louis to Newark, then through Oslo to Prague.
My first impression was one of awe and excitement. It was a scenic ride from the airport to our lodging through one way, narrow, winding streets. We were very happy to see that we were even closer to the main square in Old Town than we thought.
Prague is definitely a walking town. We were able to walk every where we wanted to go. You just need to be sure to have sturdy walking shoes. All the streets and sidewalks are cobblestone or tile. It is very easy to twist an ankle without proper footwear.
One of the things that I wanted to see were Christmas Markets and Prague did not disappoint! I LOVE Christmas time. I’m the one who could listen to Christmas music all year long. I had been wanting to see the Christmas markets in Europe for several years. The entire square in Old Town was turned into a magical Christmas village, complete with a giant decorated tree, lights on all the stalls, Christmas music and all the sausage, Trdelnik, beer and hot-mulled wine you could drink. We spent a lot of time in the market. Every time we went anywhere, we had to walk through or around the market. Surprisingly, we found something new every time. The amazing thing is that there was a different market every couple of miles.
We wanted to try to acclimate to their time as quickly as possible, so even though we were tired, we stayed up and got out exploring. The place we went was to the Jewish Quarter in Old Town. We went to several of the synagogues. The one that stands out is the Pinkas Synagogue. Every wall of the interior is covered with names of Czech Jews that died during the Holocaust. When you first walk in, it looks like lined wall paper. When you get closer, you realize each line is a series of names. All the Jews who lived in Prague are in the main room and the smaller rooms contain the names of those Jews who lived outside of Prague. These are just Czech Jews. These names do not include Jews from outside of the Czech Republic. It’s very sobering how many lives and how much talent was lost.
The next day we planned on touring the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. We walked from Old Town across the Charles Bridge into Lesser Town. The Charles Bridge is amazing. It was built in the 1300’s across the Vltava River. The Charles Bridge is a pedestrian bridge that is flanked on each side by religious statues. I suggest you get there early before it gets crowded with tourists. It was great to have the bridge (almost) to ourselves to explore and see up close all the statues. Later in the day, the bridge is very active with tourists and street vendors.
We continued through Lesser Town, up the hill to Prague Castle. (yes, there was a market on the banks of the river in Lesser Town.) The Castle complex sits at the top of a steep hill in Lesser Town and is a series of buildings. Unfortunately, the Castle was closed this day, so onto Plan B. Onto St. Wenceslas Square. As we walked from Lesser Town through Old Town into New Town, yep, more Christmas Markets. My heart was so happy to see all these markets. I felt like a little kid. The statue of St. Wenceslas is in the middle of the Boulevard and in front of the new National Museum.
Day 3 in the Czech Republic takes us to Karlovy Vary and Plzen. We hired a driver to take us to this small town on the western side of the country. Karlovy Vary is known for their mineral springs and The Grand Hotel Pupp. The hotel was featured in the movies Casino Royal and Last Holiday. It’s a beautiful hotel at the top of the hill surrounded by high end designer shops. We walked down the hill along the river with shops of all kinds on both sides. At the bottom of the hill is, of course, their Christmas Market with smells of smoked meats and Cedar. We had a fantastic lunch in the cellar restaurant, Karel IV. The food was fantastic and Dennis thought the beer was even better! We get back into the car for the hourlong drive to Plzen to tour the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. At the end of the tour we’re able to sample the beer drawn directly from the oak barrel it was aged in. Still brewed the way it has been since 1842. Yum!
Day four is back across the Charles Bridge and up the hill (again) to the Castle. The buildings of the Castle consist of the official office of the President, St. Vitus Cathedral which was started in the 1200’s, The Basilica of St. George which was built in 920, the Old Royal Palace and several other buildings. It’s amazing to think that buildings from the 900’s are still standing and in great condition. St. Vitus’ Cathedral is breathtaking with all the naves around the perimeter and the stained glass in them. At the back of the Cathedral is the tomb of St. John of Nepomuck. The tomb is made with two tons of silver forged into intricate scenes and statues. The end of the day was spent walking around Old Town, finding the apartment where some distant cousins lived and then finding a small microbrew restaurant, uSupa, that had some of the best beer we had the entire week so far.
It was time to leave Prague and head to Warsaw, Poland. After the quaintness and charm of Prague, Warsaw seemed like the big major city that it is. Although 90% of the city was destroyed during WWII, the downtown area was rebuilt to resemble the buildings as they were before the war. Again, we stayed close to the city center so that we could walk everywhere. We stayed at the Intercontinental and there was a great restaurant next door, Bravo Eat & Drink Restauracja.
We spent one day in the center of Warsaw. As we were walking downtown to the city center, there was a very large roundabout and we are routed under the street to cross to the other side. As we got to the bottom of the stairs, we found there was another world under the streets. There were clothing stores, convenience stores, delis and bakeries below the streets. There were tunnels that lead to different subway routes and stairs leading to several streets. We went up the staircase on the other side and walked a few blocks more to “Palm Tree Circle.” The story is that a famous Polish artist went to Israel and fell in love with the palm trees. She brought one back and planted it in the middle of the circle. When the authorities wanted to take it down, they had a “beach party” under the tree in the middle of winter, complete with sand and bikinis. Let me tell you, it was cold when we were there in early December. The thought of a being in a bikini made me want to put my long underwear on. We turned left at Palm Tree Circle and headed to the “hip” Praga district then to the center of Old Town. On the way we stopped at the oldest chocolate shop in Warsaw, E. Wedel, and bakery, A. Blikle, with a stop for pierogies for lunch. We really did more than eat! We spent the afternoon touring the Royal Castle, where the Polish monarchs had resided for centuries. It’s amazing the Poles were able to smuggle paintings, furniture and even 6 of 8 marble columns from the king’s personal chapel out of Poland before the Nazis could seize them. The Castle has been built to look like it did before the war. Pieces of the walls and crown molding were retrieved from the rubble and copied for the re-creation.
Our last day in Europe was spent driving about one and a half hours from Warsaw to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. We were the only ones there. We toured the small museum on the site and watched a short film about the camp. It was a very solemn place. All the buildings were destroyed before the Russians arrived from the East. Outside of the museum, there’s a replica rail platform and a memorial. At the front of the memorial are large stones standing on edge with the names of each country where Jews had come from that were exterminated at the camp. Further into the memorial is a very large stone surrounded by a circle of varying size stones with the names of each city and village in Poland that Jews were from. Again, as we look at all the stones, we were overwhelmed at the lives that were lost during this tragic time in history. In 18 months, 800,000 Jews were exterminated. This is second only to Auschwitz.
As we were heading to the airport the next day, I was sad that we were leaving. This trip had been everything and more than I had imagined. I loved that we could walk everywhere, that we were able to communicate with very little problem, and that it was more beautiful than I had imagined. It was hard to believe that I had been walking on streets that kings and queens had probably walked on many centuries before me. As I sat in the taxi, I wondered what it had been like to be in these cities back in the 1000’s or even 1600’s. Will I go back? DEFINITELY, especially to Prague. There is still so much more to be discovered.