Catching the early flight proved possible, and it wasn't long before I was in snowy Prague.
Public transport system
I'd been a bit worried about this aspect beforehand, including ruling out several possible hotels because they weren't 'in the centre'. I needn't have worried.
The system there is great, and spectacularly cheap if you're staying there for any length of time. So a ticket for one week's travel cost £7, and two weeks would have cost.. £8.
There are three metro lines in the city, with frequent services to around midnight. For some reason, although they were clearly built around the same time, changing from one to the other involves far more walking than should have been necessary at each of the three stations served by two of the lines. All the lines skirt the old city. For long distance travel, they're the way to go.
Trams were the next most useful. For some reason, although sensible colour coded maps of the network exist, you have to pay about £2 for them. So while that's not much, I relied on the free maps on various bits of paper, and had to follow lines with my finger to see where tram 7 ended up. You also have to be careful about knowing where the stops actually are – these are clear on the A0 maps on and around metro stations, but not elsewhere.
For example, there I was at a stop not too far from my hotel, but I thought 'I'll stay on the tram, the last stop was about 400m ago, so the next stop will probably be closer to the hotel if not right by it…' Nope. Three minutes tram ride = a considerably longer walk back. I waited for a tram in the other direction.
Trams don't go into the old city either. The older trams have plastic seats but were warmer than the slightly more modern ones with padded seats: hot air is blown out into the tram from underneath each seat.
Buses… apart from the buses to and from the airport (covered by the weekly pass, they take you to and from a metro station) I don't think I was ever on a bus there. Most of them don't go into the old city either.
I spent the evenings, one afternoon and one morning at the opera. Prague has three main venues, the State, the Estates and the National.
The State Opera is lovely, a large stalls ('orchestra' for Americans) area with a small circle, several layers of boxes and a high up balcony. The best stalls seats cost £30 and the productions varied from the very very good (La Traviata), and the good (Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Rusalka).
For the 'foreign language' operas, there were Czech surtitles, with English (and memory is telling me Czech too) for Rusalka.
The only two problems for me here were a) the presence of Radio Free Europe next door meaning the best route from the nearest metro station is blocked for 'security reasons' and you have to cross half of the Communists' 'let's get tanks onto Wenscelas Square as quick as possible' dual carriageway instead and b) the audience on the Saturday night for La Traviata. Never before have I heard so much chattering going on during a performance, never mind an excellent one.
I don't expect everyone to know every nuance of every opera – I certainly don't – but Trav is opera plot A: boy and girl love each other, other people insist that they part, but they get back together just before she dies singing. That's it. Yep, Moulin Rouge nicked it too.
So WTF did the English couple behind me have to continually complain to each other that they didn't understand the plot? Would you even let in the group of French people who'd actually bought tickets for the previous night, thinking they'd booked for LT and making a fuss about the seats they'd very generously been allocated?
The Estates Theatre is much narrower and has a raked stalls area (with not particularly comfortable seats, especially at the edges) with seats costing about £25 and then about seven layers of boxes. Don Giovanni had its premiere there, and it was used in many of the concert hall scenes of Amadeus. So it was DG that I went to see on Saturday afternoon. The opera is my favourite, the production was ok. Czech surtitles again.
The National Theatre was surprisingly small, somewhere between the other two. I wasn't planning to go as most of the things on while I was there were plays in Czech, but I noticed that they had an opera, Dvorak's The Devil and Kate on the Sunday morning and stalls seats cost £10. Ok…
I'll confess to never having heard of this one, but it was fun. Kate is not very nice, and when a devil appears at her father's inn asking about whether the local ruler deserves damnation (yes), she agrees to go off with him. For some reason her father wants her back, so a forester volunteers to go and discovers that the devils want rid of her. The rescue makes him famous, so the ruler asks for his help in avoiding being dragged off to Hell himself. He uses the threat of Kate to frighten the devil after the ruler agrees to be nice, frees the serfs etc etc.
There were a surprising number of children in the audience and they were a lot better behaved than the adults the previous night. I didn't realise it would have English surtitles, so bought a programme which was good for English speakers and fabulous value for Czechs.
We also saw one of the 'black light theatres', Image, near the Old Square. £10, ok show with two very good segments: frogs and one based on abstract lines.
Discovered thanks to a review in the English language Prague Post, Lehka Hlava ('Clear Head') is a highly recommended vegetarian place not far from the Charles Bridge. I ended up going there about four times. Three courses cost about £5. Yep, eating out is cheap (for us).
The other repeat visit place was Blatnice near the Old Square, including two out of three for their dish of the day – three courses for £3.
Country Life (like the one that was in London, it's run by a Christian sect who celebrate sabbath on Saturday – and so are closed from sunset on Friday – and you pay for your food by the gram) is the only other place I remember. It was ok.
I stayed at one of the three Ibis in the city – not very adventurous, but close to both trams and metro, and a known quantity. Booked from another website, the breakfast buffet was included, and filled me up so I only needed a snack for lunch each day.
When I was joined by the others, we were at the Venezia. Made from an old apartment building, this had ceilings about fifteen feet high with two foot thick walls in our suite. We'd gone for it in part because of the kitchenette, but never actually used it (see above for why).
The tower overlooking the city – it's on a hillside, so the 'above the city' height is about that of the Effiel Tower it's based on – was good. Two visits, one on my own and one with everyone else. £2.50 each. There is a small lift, but it's for staff and people with disabilities only, so for everyone else, it's 400 steps up and 400 steps down 🙂 I liked the exhibition in the basement, about a rightly forgotten Czech inventor…
Close by is a small mirror maze with a diorama of one moment in the city's history (students and Jews defending the Charles Bridge against the Swedish army towards the end of the Thirty Years War) and some funny mirrors. Fun, but once was enough for me. £2.50 again.
The (free) Army museum could have been a lot better. Once it glorified the Soviet Army, now it goes from Czech resistance in WWII straight to the modern independent Czech Army. The only remnant of its past is a T-34 tank outside the entrance!
Not done this time
The castle (at least a day needed to do it properly), the Jewish ghetto, an 18th Century fortress used as a transit camp by the Nazis about an hour away, and the National Museum.
But they'll be a next time, oh yes.