My Travel A to Z ~ Letdown to Moment I Fell in Love with Travel

So what’s my greatest letdown in a lifetime of travel, five continents and 44 different countries?

L – for Letdown is

The Astronomical Clock in Prague.

So that's all it does then?

Yes I know it’s a very clever piece of 15th century engineering, but when all is said and done the most common thing I have heard the people, who have patiently waited in the cold for that clock to chime and for the little figures to jiggle about, say is “was that it then?”

M – Moment I Fell in Love with Travel

Let me take you back in time to England in the 1960s. It wasn’t quite in black and white, though you may be forgiven for thinking it was, there were only three TV channels, no home video or internet and your best chance of a foreign holiday before 1967 was a wet weekend camping in Wales. You might have even thought we were still at war with Germany given that it seemed to be the focus of most adults conversation twenty years after the event.

The cinema was a place to escape from that monochrome world. Back then you didn’t just get one blockbuster and a bunch of trailers, but a full programme of A and B feature, a Warner Pathe Newsreel (although that was in black and white and the news was about a month behind what you had already seen on the telly, it did have a great theme tune and a chicken though),

and quite often a travelogue too. The one that caught my imagination was one for the Canary Islands. I was entranced by the lush vegetation and banana plantations, the camels carrying travellers through the Moon like lava flows of Lanzarote and the cable car reaching for the peak of snow-capped Mount Teide on Tenerife.

Champagne above the clouds in the shadow of Mount Teide, only missing Raquel Welch in that fur bikini.

It was all very exotic, I thought it the stuff of unattainable dreams, just like trekking through Mexican jungle in search of Mayan ruins, looking down on the roof of the Chrysler Building from the Empire State Building  or taking tea at the Cataract Hotel in Aswan, all seemed to be to a north London kid, at the time. You tell kids today that and they will never believe you!

So much for nostalgia eh? little wonder it was once classed as a disease.

This film was shot in Tenerife in the 1960s too, the swim wear had become a bit briefer by the time we got there in the 1980s, but my hairstyle was pretty similar.

However I think our holiday there was miles better than Chuck Heston’s, that didn’t end well.

My A to Z of Travel – I Manage A and B

Well this is an interesting challenge, I mused when Restless Jo put my name forward for the A to Z. By then I had already had a nose through On the Luce’s A to Z and was wondering about giving it a punt, so when Restless Jo‘s call to action arrived I could no longer resist.

However I’m not going to do it all in one go, because being of a certain age, there are an awful lot of memories to plunder and a lot of stuff to look out. It may ramble on a bit with random bits of information, but I’m going to enjoy doing a bit of introspection and I might just discover something interesting about myself and the motivation behind why I do things while I’m at it.

So onwards

A – Age on First International Trip

To be honest I can’t remember my first trip abroad. I was a mere toddler when my parents took me to the Spanish resort of Sitges. The first trip I can remember was to Estartit on the Costa Brava. I was about seven or eight at the time and tremendously excited about going in an airliner for the first time. Now back then jet aircraft were still a relative new phenomenon and I can remember how disappointed I was that when I discovered that our aircraft had propellers. I thought it was very old fashioned. It was a Bristol Britannia operated by British Eagle Airlines. Now they went bust in  1968 which means I could only have been eight years old at the outside. Known as the Whispering Giant, because of the low noise of its four turboprop engines, there were only 85 Britannias built between 1952 and 1960 and I now realise that I’m actually very lucky to have flown in a piece of British aviation history.

Speaking of classic aircraft, (Well Aircraft begins with an A doesn’t it?) in 1990, as a junior PR manager I got to fly in the other great British turboprop airliner the Vickers Viscount. It was a press trip to the Normandy Battlefields and we got a battlefield tour that took in the Pegasus Bridge the first place in France to be liberated (by the British 6th Airbourne Division soldiers who arrived in a glider), the landing beaches and the very moving War Cemetery .

Then in 2001 I got to fly overnight from Stansted to Edinburgh in the cockpit of a Lockheed Electra mail freighter. I was supervising a news team from TVAM who were doing a story on the Christmas mail operation. The Electra was first built in 1957, a year before I was born, and I can remember what a tight squeeze it was in the cockpit.Trying to prevent the pilot from being clobbered by the camera when the reporter did a talking head several thousand feet above the frozen English Midlands was mildly chilling, but the take off and landing from the pilot’s perspective is a memory I will treasure forever.

However all this talk of aircraft is taking us obliquely away from the question of age and travel.  Childhood and teen family holidays for my family useualy meant Spain, sometimes we’d drive through France if we were camping, but mostly using that new fangled 1960s invention the package holiday. My late teens coincided with the deregulation of transatlantic air travel, so at 20 I had my first big solo travel adventure with a £75 ticket to New York on the Laker Skytrain and $300 in my wallet. I enjoyed my taste of America so much that the following year I went back and did the West Coast.

A busy career combined with further education and my own family life didn’t stop us from exploring Europe, Mexico and the Middle East. Then in 2000, an investment matured and we faced the dilemma of reinvesting the dough or taking a family trip around the world to Hong Kong, Australia, Fiji and Los Angeles. I think you can guess what we did.

With approaching middle age and an empty nest, the deregulation of European air travel, fall of the Communism and rise of the internet, facilitated lots of independent short hops to European cities like Prague, Budapest or Berlin. Funny really, back in the 1960s I would never have imagined I’d ever visit places like that as casually as taking a trip to Brighton or Southend, outside of a second hand trip via a Len Deighton spy novels.

B – Best Foreign Beer and Where

Down the hatch at Pivovarsky Dum Prague

This is a hard one. I like lots of different beers, but I would say my favourites are: in Spain Estrella; in the Czech Republic Prague brewery pub Pivovarsky Dum‘s home brew: in Russia the one with a goat on the label; Victoria Bitter in Australia and in Belgium there are too many to have a favourite, I’m still working my way through them. I’m also not discounting the UK where we have so many great local beers in so many great pubs, so a pint of Deuchars in The Ensign Ewart on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is high on the the list .

However the best time I have ever had with the beer must be the trip to Munich with Mab, Old Nick and Mr Wolfe. What was so good about it? Well Bavarian beer is brewed according to stringent purity regulations dating back to 1516, add to that early Spring sunshine and good company and it’s all you really need to have a great time, talking irrelevant rubbish at one of the city’s open air beer gardens like the Englischer Garten or the Augustiner Keller.

Cheers Augustiner Keller Munich

Up the Hill to Prague Castle and a Trip on the Vltava

Buoyed by the success of our ascent of Petrin Hill the previous day, on Saturday we decided to climb the hill to Prague Castle. The view was absolutely stunning.

View from the top

But by the time we got to the top I was puffed,  so I had a little drink of mulled wine at the terrace bar.

Yes the sugar was for the hot wine

Now I’m not saying the wine was rough but they do give you a sachet of sugar for a reason. From in front of the castle we could also see the spires of the nearby Loreto.

The Loreto

We had visited this rather lovely Baroque building back in 2009. It encloses a replica of  Santa Casa the Virgin Mary’s house where she is alleged to have received the incarnation, from Loreto, Italy. It was built to tempt the Czechs back to Catholicism after the Hussite Wars that put paid to the Czech Reformation. It won’t come as any surprise that the Loreto is of course built over a site of pagan significance. In one of the chapels inside, there is an alter dominated by a crucified woman with a beard. This is St Wilgifortis, who prayed to look like a man in order to protect her chastity.

As it happened we had arrived just in time for the changing of the Castle Guard, no photos I’m afraid as you would only see the odd bayonet and fur hat poking above our fellow tourists’ hats, but it was quite fun: lots of foot stamping, shouting and crashing of rifle butts, plus the odd tune from the band at the open second floor windows. So show over we headed through the Baroque facade of the Castle to St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside St Vitus Cathedral

The present Cathedral is the third to be built on this site and was founded in 1344. Thanks to various wars, running out of money every now and again, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, it was eventually finished in 1929, by which time the original Gothic had fallen out and back into fashion and out again!

Thanks to this late completion it does have some incredible stained glass windows in the nave including this rather lovely one by Alfons Mucha.

The Mucha Window St Vitus Cathedral

Designed in his own inimitable Art Nouveau style, it is just beautiful.

Detail from the Mucha Wimdow

While on the opposite side of the nave, the window by Frantisek Kysela is topped by a stunning red robed Christ.

Detail from window by Frantisek Kysela

Here’s one of my top tips, unless you really want to see the tombs of the dead kings and saints in St Vitus, don’t bother buying a ticket for the castle as you can enter the nave where these windows are for free. You can also wander right through the castle grounds for free, and here we had an inexpensive lunch at one of the little cafes.

I felt sorry for this poor lad standing to attention at the Castle’s exit, he looked ever so cold despite his overcoat and fur hat.

Chilly Czech Soldier

on exiting we were treated to this wonderful view over the Vltava.

View from the top

By the time we’d got back to the riverbank we’d all had about enough of walking and decided to combine exploration with a bit of a lazy, on one of the river cruisers. This was something we had been unable to do on previous visits due to the Vltava being in flood. The tickets for a one hour cruise on the Jazz Boat (fortunately the day cruises do not involve bloody jazz) cost 220 crowns each, about  £8.

Now I like a good river cruise and this was nice and relaxing even if the commentary was a bit rubbish. The drinks were by Prague’s standards a bit expensive (our three glasses, not pints mind, of beer and a coke cost 228 crowns) but it was nice to put our feet up for a bit and watch the world go by.

Mr Wolfe and I enjoy the scenery

All too soon it was over, so we disembarked to wander back over Charles Bridge,

Charles Bridge

then cross Europe’s most dangerous road (I have never known anywhere, even Essex! for so many nutjobs with driving licences)   and head off into the Old Town for our final night in this most lovely of Europe’s cities.

Prague sunset

Pilsen Restaurant – The Municipal House, Prague

Pilsen must be my favourite restaurant in Prague. It is also inside one of my favorite buildings in the city, the Municipal House.

The Municipal House

Completed in 1912 the Municipal House is bang in the centre of Prague on Namesti Republiky 5. It was designed by Osvald Polivka and Antonin Balsanek in the Art Nouveau style and it was from here that Czech independence  was declared in 1918. The Art Nouveau scheme continues inside with mural, metal and glass work by several important Czech designers including Alfons Mucha (yes him of the Laurent Perrier champagne labels)

Within the Municipal House is the Smetana Hall (named after Czech composer Bedrich Smetana) and a number of other rooms used for events and conferences, cafes and restaurants and an information centre. Top tip – in  city where public loos often charge, the information centre has a free to pee toilet.

While the ground floor French restaurant is rather expensive the vast cavern in the basement that is Pilsen, is in my opinion very reasonable

The vast cavern of Pilsen

Laid out as a European beer hall, the food is typical hearty Czech fare, stews and roast meat with the ubiquitous dumplings to soak up any gravy

Roast Duck with Red Cabbage

I started with a smoked sausage which tasted a bit like a chip shop saveloy. No disrespect meant to to the sausage at all, I rather like chip shop saveloys and this sausage was mostly meat. For the main course I had the roast duck with red cabbage and dumplings. It was fabulous but vast. Although maybe not quite as big as the pork knuckle that Nick had!

Nick hides behind his knuckle of pig

Of course for the the spirit music is a natural accompaniment to food.

Musical entertainment by Josef Jehlik and Alena Penzenstradlerova

and the house band are the duo Svejk, Josef Jehlik on accordion and Alena Penzenstradlerova on double bass, playing traditional Czech folk songs.

Band master Josef Jehlik takes the salute

So what’s the damage? Four people starters, mains, aperitif and beers about 2400 Czech Crowns, a ridiculous £85 UK for what we had.

Sadly during our visit the American Cocktail bar

Ameriky Bar, Municipal House

in the Municipal House’s basement was closed for refurbishment, which was a shame because it is rather gorgeous inside.

Ameriky Bar, Municipal House

As you can see from the photos from our 2009 visit, it could easily be the place where Poirot does the big reveal.

The Ameriky Bar

Not to mention the fact that they mix a really mean gimlet

Meanest Gimlet in town


Grand Cafe Orient – Prague

At the corner of Celetny Street and Ovocny in Prague Old Town is this rather splendid building.

The House of the Black Madonna - Prague

Other wise known as the Cubist House it is one of the few Cubist pieces of architecture still standing anywhere. Completed in 1912, it was designed by Josef Gocar as a department store for the wholesaler Frantisek Josef Herbst. Gocor’s original designs were a bit more daring but he was made to tone it down to fit in with the city’s predominantly Baroque architecture.

The department store occupied the ground and second floors while a rather swish cafe took up the first. After World War One the cafe and second floor became boring bank offices and they continued as the offices of the State Exhibition Services during the Communist times. However one of the results of the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution was the restoration of the Grand Cafe Orient to its former glory. Exact copies of the fixtures and fittings were made from photographs and the waiters look as if they have come from a silent movie set.

Me plus beer Grand Cafe Orient

While the surroundings are rather chic the only drag is that it’s not very well air conditioned and there is a terrible fug of cigarette smoke, which even as an ex smoker I found hard to bear, so we only stayed for one, but the magnificent interior had to be seen.

What’s the damage? Four pints of Staropramen and a hot chocolate 222 Czech Crowns about £8 UK

Friday Afternoon – Petrin Hill and Charles Bridge

After our slap up lunch at Pivnice U Pivrnce we decided to go and have a look at Petrin Hill. Despite this being my third trip to Prague , Petrin Hill was something new for me and I was quite looking forward to getting a bird’s eye view of the city from its heights.

Pleasure cruiser passes under Charles Bridge on the Vltava

Crossing over the Vltava we soon found ourselves at the funicular station, turning out our pockets to find the 26 crowns for the ticket machine. Mind you it was worth it  the view at the top was quite staggering

Prague from Petrin Hill

The Church of St Lawrence at the top of Petrin Hill was built over a pagan shrine in the 10th Century. The present onion domed edifice dates from the 18th Century and in the 1830s stations of the cross were added leading up to it.

Church of st Lawrence

Another feature of Petrin Hill is the Eiffelovka observation tower built for the Jubilee Exposition of 1891. A quarter of the height of its Parisian inspiration we thought better of ascending  the 299 steps to the top.

Eiffelovka Tower

Curiosity satisfied it was back to the funicular for the journey back down.

The trip down Petrin Hill

From there we headed for the famous 600 year old Charles Bridge, to get back to the Old Town for the evening.  Dodging the various stall holders, buskers and cartoonists, we took in some of the 30 odd statues and reliefs of saints installed from 1683, to encourage the people back to Mass after Prague’s unsuccessful attempt at the Reformation.

St John of Nepomuk, he's the one being tipped over the bridge

Apparently rubbing this relief of st John of Nepomuk diving into the river is supposed to bring good luck. According to the legend Nepomuk was drowned in the river at the bequest of good King Wenceslas in 1393 for refusing to reveal the secrets of the Empress’s confession. Truth was that he was already dead when his body was tipped over the previous bridge.

As Nepomuk’s luck had quite clearly run out when his corpse was dumped in the Vltava, I stuck with the new tradition of rubbing the dog on the relief nearby.

Rubbing the dog, Charles Bridge

Pivnice U Pivrnce, Prague

Following our morning in the Jewish Quarter we had lunch here

Pivnice U Pivrnce

This is what is known as a traditional pot house, that’s pot as in beer pot obviously and this one is decorated inside with cartoons by Petr Urban, many of them quite rude! The main restaurant part is on the ground floor and the food is good hearty Czech cuisine, fairly basic stuff like goulash or roast duck. I had the beer battered chicken escallops which came with a mountain of chips and salad, the batter was quite exquisite. Nick found the notion of a starter called flatulence irresistible, it turned out to be onion rings! I’m not saying anymore about that.

Downstairs is a more pub like establishment which we used several times during our visit. A pint of Pilsner Urquell or Kozel (otherwise known as goat) was around 30 Crowns so not much more than a quid UK.

me downstairs at Pivnice U Pivrnce

Whats the damage? Well for four people: starters, mains and about two beers each expect to pay around 1400 crowns a bargain at just under £50.

Pivnice U Pivrnce, Maiselova 3 Prague 1

Friday Morning – Prague Old Town and Jewish Quarter

I do think that Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It’s architecture, a mixture of Gothic, Baroque, Neo Classical and Art Nouveau  along with the odd more recent building could almost have been designed for a Walt Disney cartoon, only without the dysfunctional teenage girls and irritating anthropomorphic animals.

Not quite the house that Disney built

On the Friday morning we took a walk into the Old Town Square, where we had a coffee in the cafe opposite the Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall,

Prague Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock

On the hour the statues did their little dance for the crowds

Mechanical figures Astronomical Clock

Dancing Death, Astronomical Clock Prague

It was all over so quickly that some people were heard to say “Is that it?”, but perhaps that is a bit harsh on 15th Century technology. So show over we drank up and left for the Jewish Quarter. Now one of the things I have often said about London is that if you keep your eyes at ground level you will miss a lot of things worth seeing and this is certainly true of Prague too, where there are some really lovely bits of Art Nouveau decorative work to be seen overhead like this splendid window that I spied on the way.

Lovely Art Nouveau decorative work

Like many cities in eastern Europe before World war Two, Prague was once home to a thriving Jewish community. The community first became established in the 10th Century and despite many years of persecution, eventually became an important part of Prague’s cultural life following the reforms of the 18th and 19th Centuries. the Jewish quarter of Josefov dates from the 13th Century and is named after the Holy Roman Emperor Josef II (1765-1790) who enacted many of the reforms of the 18th century. We each bought a combined ticket which gave us access to a number of Synagogues and the Jewish Cemetery and Ceremonial Hall.

The Ceremonial Hall

The Spanish Synagogue dates back to 1868 and is built in the Moorish Revival style. The interior is an amazing confection of Islamic styled decoration on nearly every surface (unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures in any of the synagogues).  It’s also the home of Prague’s Jewish Museum, charting the community’s fascinating history. The Pinkas Synagogue is a memorial to the 77,297 Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War Two. Hauntingly empty inside it bears each of their names on its walls. There is also a display of child art from the Terezin Ghetto, where Czech Jews were held before being transported to the death camps – very very moving.

The Maisel Synagogue has a fine display of ceremonial silver, textiles and prints, but for me the most fascinating place was the Ceremonial Hall, which despite its Romanesque architectural style was only built in 1911. Originally a mortuary and ceremonial hall it now has a fascinating display on Jewish funerary customs.

Jewish Cemetery and Ceremonial Hall Prague

The Old Jewish Cemetery is Europe’s oldest. Dating from the early 15th century it is reckoned that over 100,000 people are buried there in fifteen layers, which is one of the reasons the level of the ground within its walls is so much higher than that of the street outside.

Not included in our ticket was the Old New Synagogue


Attic of the Old New Synagogue last resting place of the Golem of Prague

Built around 1270 it’s the oldest working synagogue in Europe as well as one of Prague’s oldest Gothic Buildings. It’s also said to be the last resting place of the Golem, a clay being created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to protect the Jews from persecution by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. When Rudolf gave in to Loew’s demands the Golem was deactivated by rubbing out the first letter of the word emet (meaning truth) from his forehead, the remaining word met being death. Loew is said to have stashed the remains in the synagogue’s attic, which is very definitely not open to the public.

Pivovarsky Dum, Prague

The happy crew have just returned from our first trip overseas this year.

Our adventure began when we arrived at the Old Time Hotel to find that our booking had been cocked up (like why would a married couple want to share a room with two single blokes?) which resulted in us having to move to the Pension Brezina a short distance away. Just far enough away to cop a l0ad of the Goth receptionist’s poetry, but that is another story.

Anyhow, once we had all changed rooms once (no hot water on second floor, so why give us the rooms there?) we headed off for something to eat at one of my favourite Prague restaurants, Pivovarsky Dum. As you have probably guessed beer plays an important part in this restaurant’s life. Several different types are brewed there and served unfiltered.

Many different home brewed beers at Pivovarsky Dum

Suitably beered up we ordered our starters

Potato Pancakes

Deep fried potato pancakes, fried bread with garlic cloves

Fried Bread with Garlic Cloves

Beer cheese, which is essentially cheese marinaded in beer which we spread on rye bread

Beer Cheese

And smoked neck of pork with mustard and pickle

Smoked Neck of Pork with Mustard and Pickle

Naturally all this tasty salty food worked up a bit of a thirst so more beer was ordered. I went for a nettle beer

Nettle beer, just one of many different brews at Pivovarsky Dum

Green as spinach with a very distinctive peppery finish it is just one of the many different beers to sample. I also tried the standard home brewed lager, coffee beer which was a little like cough syrup and sour cherry, more beery than the Belgian equivalent but with a cherry in the bottom of the glass!. Other brews include dark beer, banana and wheat beer

So onto the mains. I had the Beef Goulash

Beef Goulash

This came with bread dumplings which were essential to mop up the beery gravy, that must have been stewing all day given the tenderness of the meat , Mab had rabbit with spinach

Rabbit with Spinach

While the lads tucked into pork with saurkraut

Pork with Saurkraut

As you can see the portions were massive so by the time were finished it was about as much as we could do to waddle back to the hotel

What’s the damage?

Four people with starters, mains and rather a lot of drink 1780 Czech Crowns, about £75 UK

Other items on the menu we sampled on other nights included a fantastic dip of cream cheese and raw garlic, beer stewed sausage, soused herrings and beef in candle sauce (cream and wild berries) All delicious and very filling. See the link to their website on the blogroll.

Pivovarsky Dum, Jecna/Lipova 15, 120 44 Praha 2