There we were, in Germany in the summertime, two parents, a teenager, and an almost-10-year-old, with two weeks off work, but low on money. We were being lazy--reading, watching videos. I was working madly on writing the second draft of my YA novel and making great headway. Yet it seemed a crime to not make the most of the opportunity and take a trip somewhere. So we decided to head for the Czech Republic, where the dollar isn't so weak as in other parts of Europe.
On a whim, I bought a copy of National Geographic Traveler's guidebook on Prague and the Czech Republic. I'd already seen that hotel rooms in Prague are pretty expensive, but a place in Melnik, listed as a "Day Trip" from Prague, caught my eye. The listing sounded nice--right next to the castle, with kitchenettes and comfortable accommodations. It said "Some of the rooms have four beds, making the hotel a useful option for families." We decided to try it. It was listed as from $50 to $80 for a double room, so we were disappointed when we calculated the price in dollars and it was $150 a night, but at least we could all be in one room. We booked three nights.
Incidentally, I so wish that someone would publish a European hotel guide for families! The guidebooks always list the price for a double room, but we've found that that has little correlation to how much a hotel is going to cost us. If the hotel doesn't even have rooms that fit four, we usually have to pay twice the price. If they do have rooms, it depends on whether or not they give a discount for children. How nice it would be if prices were listed for families of 3, 4, 5, or 6 members! (Though we'd settle for the price for a family of four.)
We left at 10:30 in the morning. It was a cloudy day, and the temperatures were perfect for driving. The green hills, fields and forests didn't change much as we passed from Germany into the Czech Republic. The main difference was that now the signs appeared as gibberish. (What kind of language has one-letter words that are consonants? I saw the word "k" here and there.) There also was more advertising across the overpasses than in Germany. The Czechs seem to have embraced the capitalist spirit. The highway was smooth and straight and well-maintained.
At 5:00, we were just coming into the city. Timothy was hungry. Steve asked we should stop and eat, but I wanted to press on to Melnik (on the other side of Prague). What a mistake! I hadn't been thinking about rush hour. We crawled forward. What had looked like a simple ring road around the city ended up being a complicated series of turns and exits. My map showed that several different route numbers were involved in the ring around the city, but it didn't tell which route joined where, and we took a detour south for a bit.
Well, we finally made it to Melnik and found our hotel, "U Rytiru." It's a rather old building, but had nice furnishings downstairs. There was no elevator, so we hauled our bags up two flights of stairs, hoping we weren't paying all that money for some dive.
We opened the door and all said, "Wow!" It wasn't a room; it was a suite. The door opened into a huge living/dining room with a balcony and window with a grand view. The "kitchenette" was about twice the size of our kitchen at home, and more modern. (Though it didn't have any dishes or utensils, and we never asked if we could borrow some.) There were three bedrooms, all big and with nice chests of drawers and desks.
There wasn't one simple bathroom. There was a shower room, a room with a toilet and sink, and another big bathroom with a toilet and bidet, a double sink, and a jacuzzi!
Needless to say, we suddenly felt much better about spending three nights in this place. The price wasn't high at all for what we were getting.
After settling in, we roamed around the town a bit. There was a palace and a church next to the hotel, both high on a ridge overlooking the Vlatava River, with grapevines growing on the side of the ridge. It was a lovely evening, still cloudy but at a perfect temperature, not too cold and not too hot.
Melnik reminded me strongly of Pordenone, in Italy. Both towns had galleries in front of shops with Romanesque arches. The Czech shops were a little shabbier, with some peeling paint, but the idea was similar, a nice place for strolling.
The next day we slept late, then drove into Prague. It only took about a half-hour, though then a bit longer for me to navigate the one-way streets and get us close to the Castle.
Prague reminds me a little bit of Edinburgh, with a big castle complex on a hill overlooking the city. Only Edinburgh's castle and hill are more rough and rugged. The dominating feature of Prague's castle is St. Vitus's Cathedral in the center of it.
We were there just in time for the Changing of the Guard at 12:00. Rather than push our way through the crowds, we went into the National Gallery next to the castle, located in Sternberg Palace (and so is our 158th Castle). We only saw one wing, with lots of masterpieces by Dutch painters, and also a beautiful painting of Christ by El Greco. We had lunch at the museum.
In the castle, we wandered through the cathedral, the old palace, and the lanes of shops. I bought a couple of books by Kafka--It seemed the right thing to do in Prague.
We visited the Toy Museum, which was having a special exhibit of Barbie through the years. I spotted a couple of Barbies my sister used to have. Remember Walking Jamie, Becky? She was there. Most of the costumes I recognized were from the early 70s. You know, pinks and oranges.
On Saturday, we visited the part of Prague on the other side of the river. We started with the Charles Bridge. It reminded me of the Rialto Bridge in Venice--crowds of people, and lots of things to buy. Saturday, the weather had turned to glorious sunshine. It felt good to be over the river in a great city, with bright sunshine and cool breezes.
We went across the Charles Bridge, with me madly snapping pictures. So many towers and spires in Prague! We ate lunch in a nice cool and peaceful Italian place, away from the crowds, before going back to the other side. Then we made our way slowly to the Old Town Square, stopping in lots of shops along the way.
A marathon was going on in the Old Town Square, so we couldn't examine too many buildings too closely. But I still managed to take lots of pictures, and we even found an English-language bookstore in which to go nuts.
After that, we walked on, heading for Wenceslas Square and the National Museum, which Timothy wanted to see. We had passed its imposing building the day before, and he liked the sound of it in the guidebook. We ended up taking too long to get there before it opened, distracted when we saw the headquarters of the Cowparade.
Did I forget to mention the Cowparade? Cowparade 2004 was my almost-10-year-old son Timothy's favorite thing about Prague. All over the city, there were cow statues in three different poses, all decorated in different ways. Timothy's favorite was the Matrix cow, with letters and numbers going down its sides. I liked some of the pretty designs, but I also liked the cow that was reading a book. Timothy also enjoyed the cow that was surfing the Internet. I took pictures of all of them, planning to make a Cowlage when I'm done. At the Cowparade office, we got a map of the Cow-ordinates of more cows and Timothy got a Cowparade T-shirt. Josh also got one that said, "Make Cows, Not War."
I was amazed that, no matter how long we walked, the buildings continued to be grand and palatial. I loved the carvings and statues on the fronts of the buildings. No matter where we were, we couldn't forget that we were in a grand old European city.
Our final day was Sunday. We stopped at the National Museum on our way home. It was nothing special, but a nice excuse to go into Prague again. I liked the collection of Rocks and Minerals. Or at least the first 500 or so were interesting.
We decided to drive on another hour to Plzen for lunch. Steve (my husband) has been there twice on trips with the band. He took us to a nice restaurant where their sponsors had fed them while they were there. The food was wonderful, and the prices were low. Plzen is another lovely little town on a river. It has a beautiful cathedral in a grand town square. It was a Sunday, so none of the shops were open, and it was slightly shabby, like Melnik, but seemed a beautiful place.
Now we're back home in Germany, enjoying our cool summer weather. And I've got about 300 more pictures to develop. (I'll try to figure out how to post some on this site.)