Danny Yee >> Travelogues

Prague + Jelenia Gora

December 2014

I've tried to include some broader observations, but much of this travelogue is concerned with managing an almost-two toddler and may not be of interest to most.

Thursday

Getting to Prague was pretty easy. We took a taxi straight to Gatwick — we were travelling with Camilla's mother, Dana, so there were three adults, making taxi only a tiny bit more expensive than the bus as well as a lot easier logistically — had dinner there, had an uneventful flight with Easyjet, found the taxi driver waiting with my name on a card, and were soon in town. Helen didn't sleep on the taxi to Gatwick, as I'd planned, but got her nap while we waited there.

But then things went badly wrong. The keys for the apartment we'd booked were supposed to be with the mini-mart underneath it, but they weren't. We tried ringing the manager but couldn't get through, then rang booking.com and got someone who also failed to get anyone (and couldn't find us a hotel nearby). So we ended up wandering the around central Prague at midnight, with five suitcases and a backpack, plus stroller with toddler (I was really glad I had the backpack, as I could just manage that, the stroller and one suitcase on wheels). Fortunately Helen, having had a late nap, was as happy as anything — she ran around while we waited outside the apartment, then sat in the stroller watching Prague at night.

After half an hour or so we found a hotel that was open and had rooms for all of us, a bit pricier than we might have liked, but a nice hotel. (Getting in took a while, since the guy at reception insisted on going through the full booking procedure, including taking my credit card as security for the booking, and then following that up with the full check-in procedure, including taking my credit card details again for the actual payment. He also screwed up the billing, to the point that Dana managed to get the manager to refund the cost of one room when we checked out.) It was 1.30am before we managed to get settled in and got Helen to sleep.

Helen managed an average sleep time of 12.40am over the five nights of the trip: we once managed to get her asleep by 11.30pm, but twice she stayed awake till 1.30am. She survived with some extra napping and some sleeping in, though that meant we had late starts and missed a lot of the daylight hours.

Friday

We spent the day walking around Prague.

Camilla and Dana plunged into the very first souvenir shop we passed, but it was a pleasant day and I was happy to stand around and look at the buildings and streets. The Man Hanging Out was right in front of me, and there's a reason half the top dozen Prague attractions on most lists are locations or whole quarters!

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Good Soldier Svejk
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St Vitus Cathedral
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outside the cathedral

The astronomical clock is not that exciting, but the old town square is lovely and the Christmas Markets were on. We took a brief look at one church, but otherwise just wandered around sampling snacks. Then we wandered down towards the river and had lunch just off Karlova. Here Helen had an episode of crankiness, when she wanted to nap but we tried to feed her lunch before she went to sleep.

We never got out of tourist-trap Prague, and ate in establishments largely serving tourists. So the food was still cheapish (by UK standards) but not as cheap as it might have been. And probably not as good as it might have been, either, though it seemed fine to me.

We crossed the Charles Bridge and walked up Nerudova to the Castle, doing still more shopping on the way. There we had a quick look at the cathedral and stopped for afternoon tea. Helen woke up for that and then walked all the way down from the Castle to half way across Charles Bridge — more than a mile, perhaps 1.7km, with one long stop for tablecloth shopping and a quick visit to a bookshop — the longest walk she'd ever done. She even walked a good chunk of the way from the bridge to the car hire pickup.

Then we had the day's debacle. Camilla had (in retrospect dementedly) planned to pick up a car that evening so we'd be ready to set off early the next day for Jelenia Gora (in Poland). But parking anywhere near the hotel proved impossible on a Friday night and we got caught up in central Prague's maze of narrow one-way and no-access streets, with Camilla driving a car she'd never driven before, on the wrong side of the road... Fortunately Helen slept through all of this, and we eventually found an expensive overnight parking place — in a station as far away from the hotel as the car hire pickup!

Dana and Camilla had scared me with stories of -10 temperatures and snow, so even though I had looked at the weather forecasts and wasn't expecting anything colder than Oxford, I took an extra jacket, a spare part of solid shoes, and extra thermal underwear, none of which I ended up using.

The coldest I got was in the few hundred metres from the airport to the taxi on arrival in Prague, when there was a brief flurry of snow, or at least sleet, and I somehow ended up leaving the airport without even my jumper on.

Saturday

Camilla went to pickup up our hire car, then we packed everything into it and got underway. It was a late start, but that proved good as Helen napped most of the way to Jelenia Gora.

The Czech Republic is firmly in Mitteleuropa — Prague is west of Vienna — and Jelenia Gora was Habsburg for two hundred years and Prussian for another two hundred, so it's not clear that I really managed to reach Eastern Europe on this trip. (The Habsburg borders are still visible in cultural norms.)

When we got there we went to the old town square, which is pretty much completely intact and really rather attractive. We had to drive the long way around to get to our apartment, even though it was within walking distance (at the other end of 1 Maja), and that turned out to be on a grand scale, with huge rooms. Dana wasn't with us when we got the keys and the couple giving us those didn't speak English, but fortunately they did speak German, so I got to practise my "ein bisschen Deutsch".

Then we drove up the mountains to the north to visit one of Camilla's cousins. They lived in a nicely renovated farmhouse, where we were wined and dined on very tasty home-cooked food and had a pleasant evening. Helen was quite taken by the two little dogs. The fog on the way back was a bit scary, especially given the route has hairpin bends that are dangerous enough in daylight, but Camilla managed it ok, in second gear for much of the way.

Sunday

Waking up before everyone else, I went out for coffee, but it being a Sunday everything was shut and the best I could find was in the supermarket.

We visited a Tesco shopping centre which was pretty boring, though Camilla went into the Tesco itself and some stuff there, since it had different products to UK Tescos. And we had lunch in one of the shopping centre cafes. Then we drove to Dana's home village, where we visited the cemetery and her sister and the family home. We had afternoon tea with an old friend of Dana's, in a little one-bedroom flat in a residential complex in Jelenia Gora.

This was my second encounter with Soviet-block planned residential complexes — I had stayed in one in Mongolia — and I have to say that, while the implementations may leave something to be desired, at least the overall idea compares favourably with most British urban layouts. Here a large number (the buildings were numbered and I saw a "19") of blocks of flats, mostly of five or six stories but with a few going up to ten or twelve, clustered around central facilities, including (at least) a park, a playground, a gymn, a nursery, and a few shops.

This kind of design seems much more flexible than the UK's rows of terrace houses or complexes of semis, and less dependent on car ownership. It allows one bedroom flats suitable for retirees, such as the one we visited, alongside larger ones for families. And the communal facilities encourage interactions, where the UK model has children playing in individual backyards, no public space, and hostile streets. (Not too far away we passed what looked like allotments, which presumably provide a way for those who want them to have gardens.)

Monday

I had to get up to put money into a parking meter, but everyone else slept in. There followed a mad two hour trip just to visit a Christmas ornament shop, lunch in a nice restaurant in central Jelenia Gora, and a long drive to Prague that dumped us straight into the evening peak hour traffic jam, taking longer to get around the city centre than it would have taken me to walk. Poor Camilla ended up doing almost six hours of driving. Fortunately we managed to get Helen to sleep for over two hours of this, and to keep her entertained and mostly happy for the rest of it.

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our apartment
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restaurant puzzle
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Jelenia Gora

We dropped our luggage off at our new hotel and then drove back to the car drop-off, from where we walked back through the Christmas markets, eating more donuts, and around Wenceleslas Square. We had dinner right near the hotel, with huge portions.

Tuesday

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Helen didn't need a ticket
but we got one anyway

The last day of our trip went off without problems. The hotel was happy to hold our luggage for us while we wandered around Prague, so we caught a tram 22 up to the Strahov monastery and walked down through the Petrin gardens (I really don't recommend this with a stroller: it's a 150 metre descent with a lot of steps and some mud/gravel sections). Helen loved the tram ride — and the trams (she wasn't that good at telling them from buses, but seemed intrigued by the difference) — and slept through the descent.

Then we had lunch, walked back across the Charles Bridge and up to the Old Town square, did the tourist horse-carriage ride for twenty minutes, ate some more donuts, looked at more trinkets, and so forth, so we didn't have time to visit the Mucha Museum. (In the end we didn't visit a single one of the museums or art galleries; that will have to be another trip.)

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Christmas Market in Old Town Square
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central Prague
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the Charles bridge

There were a few glitches getting home — we hadn't realised that "large cabin baggage" for Wizz Air means "normal sized cabin baggage", and at Luton it took five minutes to work out we had to walk to the drop-off to get the taxi I'd booked back to Oxford — but Helen slept for pretty much the whole 2.5 hour stay in the airport, and we kept her entertained during the flight, so she at least was pretty happy, even if the rest of us were all nodding off on the way back to Oxford.

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