We left Vienna just before 11am and headed north to the Czech Republic. We stopped briefly on the way out of Austria for diesel and a coffee and then not long later we crossed over the border. Unlike 18 years ago when Karen was driving and didn’t stop when a border guard told her to stop (!), this time the border and the old buildings were like a ghost town. After a little trouble I was able to find a small shed from which you could buy the sticker required for Czech motorways. As the currency in Czech is Koruna not euros they converted for euros for me … I paid 18 euro due to the highly inflated exchange rate – it should have been about 12 euros on the normal market.

We were pleasantly surprised driving along the motorway to have grassy fields and trees on either side of us. In fact the scenery all the way until just outside Prague was beautiful with the autumn colours in full change. However for I think the first time in all our travels we entered into fog. You could see the sunny blue sky and the fog approaching under it and then ten minutes later we were fully surrounded by fog. Thanks to GPS we found our apartment without having to think and arrived just after 3:30pm. With the fog around and the odd graffiti on the buildings the area looked a little dodgy but once the fog lifted we were very happy with the location as it was walking distance to the old city and tourist spots. Nearby, perhaps just five minutes walk if that, we found a large shopping center and a Tesco supermarket. The first night we went to Tesco I was overcome by the incredible selection of cakes, pastries, and breads. In fact we all agreed that it was the most amazing supermarket we had encountered in our travels.

Sunday started slowly and late but in the afternoon we dragged the kids back to the shopping center so Karen could look at jackets. We also got coffees and cake from Costa Coffee. Nice to see Costa again as it has been a few months now since I enjoyed their coffee in the UK. The sign outside the shop suggested to me that you could get a coffee and cake for a price that was too good to be true. Sadly it was too good to be true and I worked out later that the sign must have just been saying you can get a cake for just 50 Kr when you buy a coffee. It’s disappointing to think that the prices we experienced 18 years ago in Prague are long gone and that for most things you pay as much as you do anywhere else in Europe.

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On Monday after school we walked over one of the bridges and caught a tram toward the edge of the Old Town. The buildings on the way looked full of character and colour:

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In the old city we came across the most densely populated tourist groups we have encounter since Rome and Venice. In fact to locate the Astronomical Clock (see below), all we had to do was go where the crowds were.

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This clock, built in 1410, doesn’t tell the time but rather marks the phases of the moon, seasons and holidays. It’s the third oldest Astronomical Clock in the world and the oldest working one. Legend has it that the 15thcentury clock artist remodelling the clock was blinded by the Council so that he couldn’t repeat his fine work. I recall the same thing happened to the guy who designed the clock tower in Venice as well. The dangers of the clock work trade. Anyway, the story goes that the clock artist here, after being blinded, threw himself into the clock mechanism and died and that the clock remained out of full service for one 100 years. But this is probably just a legend and not historically true – well that Council wants you to think that anyway!

The buildings around the Old City sure look magnificent. I am looking forward to being back in New Zealand but I will miss the character of these old cities.

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Later we also found a super-shopping centre that makes the shopping centres in New Zealand look like out-dated malls. Of course we again visited the McDonalds for a price survey and they passed the usual tests. By then we were getting tired so we found the underground, figured out how to and what tickets to buy and then caught the escalator down to what seemed like the centre of the earth. The train wasn’t too old and the tickets were the cheapest we have found yet – only about 3 euros for all of us to get home.

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By the way that’s Daniel in the first photo above, a new game he plays when we are in clothes shops but at least he is still, doesn’t touch, and doesn’t talk …

In order to beat the crowds we decided on Wednesday to go to Charles Bridge first thing leaving school until later in the day (much to Daniel’s horror). Still it was just after 10am before we caught the tram so we weren’t exactly early. While we waited for the tram we had a nice talk to a lady from France who was also heading up the same direction. Our ticket was valid for 90 minutes so we got off the tram at the bridge and then after our walk over it we got back on the tram to go a higher point where we planned to walk down past a castle through gardens etc. The bridge by way was interesting and already getting crowded. We enjoyed listening to a guy playing crystal glasses.

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After a quick stop at McD’s to get coffee we got on the tram. Initially I was happy with the direction we were going but then it seemed to go the wrong way to the east rather to the north. In the end we went over another bridge and found we had arrived at the shopping center in the middle of the old town so we got off. Evidently the tram had changed from #20 to #8 midway due to maintenance work on the line up further where we wanted to go. We disembarked and with only about two minutes left on our tickets decided not to try to go back to the castle but rather to just wander around the old city some more. We walked back to the square where the clock was and sat down to eat a small lunch in the fog. I really enjoy just walking around the old buildings and looking at the autumn leaves colouring up the place so managed to convince the kids that rather than catch a tram home we should save that money, add it to our McDonalds fund, and walk home.

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Daniel had been waiting this past three months for us to go to the Prague Zoo and at last on Wednesday we went there. Although we had hoped to get to the gates at opening, 9am, we didn’t make it until just after 9:30am. The zoo is big, some 600 species except by Daniels count at the end of the day it was 242. My favourite animals were the fur seals and the polar bear. The fur seals were amazing, up close, swimming from side to side; and then one of their trainers gave them some practice and put on an unofficial show which was as good as any I have ever seen.

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Then we saw the giant polar bears. One stayed outside while the other spent all its time swimming around. These bears were a couple of metres long and when they glide through the water like a stone-crusher their back legs and body seems to flop around powerfully in the water.

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Amy and I only saw about half the zoo as we left after lunch to go clothes shopping while Daniel and Karen went around every inch of the zoo. Overall, from what I saw, the zoo must be among the best in the world. The layout, the presentation of the animals in their enclosures and paddocks was fantastic. A few of the areas we would like to have seen were closed due to construction work on new living areas.

Amy and I caught the bus to the metro station then a train and a tram to get to an outside market near the river. It was a bit of a waste of time, just hundreds of Chinese selling much the same jackets, asking inflated prices until you walk away. One dress that we initially liked started at about NZD$50 and then be the time walked away the price had dropped to about NZD$25. Unfortunately, for the shop owner, by that time we realised that the dress was probably too small and also not really the right style for Amy. Next we caught the tram and train back to our usual stop which is next to the shopping centre we often seem to be walking around. We didn’t buy anything; the prices were too expensive so we will probably leave it now until Berlin which has a Primark store. We finished the day going out for dinner, ironically to a Chinese restaurant and had a fantastic meal for a steal.

On Thursday afternoon Karen and the kids didn’t want to go out so I left them at home and went out around 4pm to catch a tram up to Charles Bridge. One thing they really do well and inexpensively in Prague is the pasties and cakes. I grabbed a donut-apple-turnover sort of pasty on the way and then once at the bridge I brought two takeout coffees at McD’s, one for me and the other for me. By the time I reached the end of the bridge where I stopped to listen to a jazz group playing both coffees were gone. I really like looking at the scenery from the bridge, the autumn colours, the old buildings, the boats, and the people walking around. In case you are interested construction of the Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV, began in 1357 but it wasn’t finished until the beginning of the 15thcentury. Until 1841 it was the only way to cross the river connecting the Prague Castle on one side to the old town on the other.

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We decided that after lunch on Friday we would go up to the old city and join in a tour and then after mid-way through the tour we would go and play The Game – Prague. I worked out a dozen or so sights we had to visit and the race was between Karen and Daniel, and Amy and me. Sadly after an hour or so of the tour, which by the way was excellent, it was freezing and slightly raining so we had to give up on the idea. Daniel didn’t have any warm clothes on and he was shivering all over and the rest of us were also close to shivering. I am not sure where the freezing weather came from but the next day Saturday it was forecast to snow! We were so cold that we also decided not to buy tickets and attend the orchestra that was playing at 8pm as we just wanted to be home in our warm apartment. Feeling a little defeated, as we were excited about playing The Game and also going out to the orchestra, we dragged ourselves down to the metro and caught the train back to our local station. Unfortunately to make matters worse we had to buy some groceries at the Tesco on the way home.

Karen and I would love to have stayed in Prague longer. There were so many places we would like to have still gone to including the Prague Castle which is supposedly the largest in Europe. One of the moments of highlight for me on the Friday was when we were on the tour and I realised that the National Museum building that we were looking toward from Wenceslas Square was the museum Karen and I visited 18 years earlier and therefore this street, somewhere on the right was where we bought hot dogs for just a few cents!

Before we abandoned the tour I was interested to learn a little about Wenceslas Square. You have probably heard the Christmas carol about Good King Wenceslas – well the square is named after the same chap that this carol written about in the 1850’s. The funny thing is that King Wenceslas in real life wasn’t actually a king and our tour guide seemed to suggest he wasn’t all that good either. He was in fact son of Vratislaus I and Duke of Bohemia between 921 until his assassination in 935. He became the patron saint of Bohemia and a national hero.

I should mention that the underground trains here really seem to be much deeper in the ground than in most other cities we have visited. Here are a few photos of one escalator:

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One day we hope to come back to Prague but again it was time to leave to another city, Berlin. On Saturday we loaded up the car and left Prague by 10am. As we drove off the kids were excited to see a light snow starting to fall and as we headed north the snow really started to fall. It was lovely driving and gazing out to the snow covered fields. Little did I know that within the hour I would regret even leaving Prague! The trip to Berlin was such an ordeal that I have left it to a separate blog you can read at http://www.travellingeuropewithkids.com/week-3637-prague-to-berlin-drive/

(Week 36: Saturday, 20 October 2012 – Saturday, 27 October 2012)