St. James' Park was top notch: the 52000 in attendance birthed this undulating roar that was unlike anything I'd experienced, even at the fantastic matches in Dublin the summer past -- and celebrate Jan's birthday; and, man, I knew her Stan was one-of-a-kind, but there's no half measures with any of the Geordies I met: tons of elaborate 'fancy dress' costumes and things still in full swing when we left in the wee-ish hours.
Tuesday, December 28
Luckily we'd padded our schedule with a day between Newcastle and our flight out of Bristol, as the M1 was pretty much a parking lot for large swathes of the 27th. With an early afternoon flight, we got plenty of sleep, even after a late night of packing. This was our first time on EasyJet, which was much like the other discount airlines (if a bit dirtier, to be honest, although, hey, it could've been worse with how quickly they turn around those planes).
Prague Orloj, or Astronomical Clock, which was just a few blocks from our hotel. The first of many meals of goulash, chased with much pivo (pretty much all the Czech you need, incidentally) of various sorts, followed.
Prague Castle, or simply 'the hrad' to the locals, topped Ron 'n' Michelle's list for their last day, so we agreed to meet them up there after a fantastic breakfast in our hotel's cellar. (You can see a number of advertisements around town for pubs and restaurants in these cellars, and it's definitely a neat experience.) The hrad grounds stretched on and on; standing in the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral, you could be forgiven for forgetting you're still within its walls. At minus 10°C, we soon needed some mulled wine, as we admired the icicles hanging from the mouths of the cathedral's gargoyles -- "Ice vomit!" as Tea so eloquently put it.
Charles Bridge. (I've seen pictures of it in the summer, and I have to say, even then, there was something so right about it set against grey clouds, snow resting on its 30 statues.) I know many would call the galleries and little stands along that stretch touristy, but I was really impressed with the quality of the watercolours and ink drawings I saw; probably the most beautiful and varied I've seen of what you would consider readily available to the casual buyer.
Shopping's thirsty work, so we decided to stop at the Hotel U Zlatého Stromu's heated patio for some refreshments. Well, one look at probably one of the best menus I've ever seen (in terms of presentation) quickly pushed this well beyond even our substantial definition of a 'snack': check out Page 72 for a glimpse of Ronnie's skewer from the gods. More than sated, we resumed shopping, determined to rebuild our appetites for the amazing ham sandwiches at the Christmas markets -- reminiscent of the "slab o' ham" sandwiches from Cologne... Boy, do they know how to cook good pig in that part of the world!
Prague State Opera's gala event, Johann Strauss’ operetta Die Fledermaus, would be fun. However, we didn't bring any nice clothes with us, so, after a breakfast of klobasa from the old town square Christmas market, it was off to buy new outfits; Tea was crushed, of course.
the restaurant, Rainer Maria Rilke, right next door. It was a beautiful place, if a bit drafty, and the owner was very accommodating. I had roasted duck -- his grandmother's recipe! -- and Tea had salmon. So tasty!
New Year's Eve
It started to snow as we wandered 'new town', so we stopped in Branická Formanka for lunch. The place was packed, with only reserved tables open. However, as the Good Beer Guide Prague stated, it's always good to ask: we found a table that was apparently reserved special for us. Our waiter was very friendly, actually (which is unusual for Prague, incidentally). Good goulash and beer followed, then it was back to the hotel for a kip before the big night.
Tea and I felt perfectly at ease amongst the well-dressed crowd -- thank goodness we'd shopped! They had an open bar, which was a nice touch, and as I was reading the English summary of the operetta, beer in hand, Tea struck up a conversation with a Dutch couple nearby.
A quick New Year's skype with Tea's family, and then it was time for bed.
New Year's Day
Obecni Dum, and the Alphonse Mucha (pronounced MOO-ka) museum. (I'm embarrassed to admit that, while being a fan of his art for many years, I didn't realize he was Czech. A happy surprise, I can assure you.) We both really enjoyed the museum: the layout was excellent -- and beautiful, of course. There were many pieces I hadn't seen, and themes to others that I'd never picked up on. The documentary was also very well done. We came out of there with laden arms, in search of sustenance.
Wandering the city the day before, we'd been handed a number of flyers for various concerts, either on New Year's Eve or early in the new year. We'd made the decision to go to the New Year's concert in the Clam-Gallas Palace, featuring Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as well as selections by Mozart, Dvorak, Pachelbel and Telemann. We left Bredovský dvůr with just enough time to make the 6 p.m. start.
I don't mind telling you that that ten-piece string orchestra's performance of Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D brought me to tears; and flowing ones at that. The whole concert, certainly less than an hour, was unbelievable, really. A violin soloist, Lucie Hulova, according to the programme, took the floor a few times, and her performance of Winter (I don't know which movement of Concerto No. 4 specifically) in particular opened my eyes to: 1) the leeway they have in performing these pieces, as she sprinkled little... quarter notes, I would imagine, throughout, and 2) what true passion can bring to a performance -- particularly when you standing barely 15 feet from the musician!
If you haven't guessed by now, I would have to put this in the Top 3 concerts of my life; if weighted with ticket price, at the equivalent of £15 per person, it shoots to #1, easily. And, as I said, we had our pick of these concerts without even trying. What an absolutely amazing city!
We finished off the evening at the nearby pub, U Zeleneho stromu. They had pretzels at the table, hanging off these neat little trees, and more unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell. At some point an entry on their beer menu caught my eye: Master Special 18°, which doesn't mean 18%, by the way, but rather is the percentage of malt sugar present before fermentation. Still, generally speaking, the bigger the number, the stronger the beer. This was brought home to me when I ordered it, "Is a strong beer, yeah?" was the waitress' reply. Well, holy tootin', she wasn't kidding. A beautiful dark, it was so much smoother than I'd expected. In truth, I nursed it, because with every swallow I could feel its punch. I defy anyone to have three of those in a night and make it home under their own steam.
Our flight wasn't scheduled 'til the early afternoon, so we took the opportunity to go a-wanderin'. We ended up outside the hrad main gate as the changing of the guard was finishing; quite the production, especially under the gaze of those battling titans.
Prazsky most brewpub. All in all, a fantastic trip. Tea's already talking about returning in 2011, which suits me fine.
Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the trip.