Spring is a beautiful time to visit Prague. We hoped that, with recession jitters and an exchange rate that looked dodgy, spending more time out in the sun would also save us money
This glorious city is quieter in spring than in the summer and with the first sun rays hitting the ancient bridges, spires and castles, its inhabitants seem hell-bent on reclaiming their outdoor spaces after another long cold winter. So we got out to join them.
Here are 10 free or cheap ways to make the trip recession-proof:
Castle Steps is a series of apartments. They are basic in a good way, simply decorated with attractive antique-looking furniture. The location makes them - right on the side of Petrin Park. Many have views and Prague’s favourite walk is on your doorstep. The castle is just behind you and in 15 minutes you’re down to the river and beyond. The breakfasts excel: try the onion bagels and put marmalade on them. Rates vary on the room/apartment but reckon on about 67 euros for a double room.
The Castle district
Staying at the Castle Steps, our first day’s aim was the castle. They were busy getting parts of it ready for Barack Obama who was visiting directly after us (copy cat). To go around certain parts of the castle rooms and palaces costs but you can wander around the grounds for free, including the beautifully ornate St Vitus's Cathedral. You can also watch the Czech changing of the guard through scary looking castle gates depicting battling Titans. One evening, we wandered around here at midnight: it’s all still open and the views are stupendous. Of all the buildings in the castle and monastery district that charge, Strahov Library (www.strahovskyklaster.cz) is the one not to miss. The library equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, this displays 130,000 volumes in the most ornately decorated rooms imaginable. Admission: approx 3 euros.
The Astronomical Clock Tower
You have to do the Old Town Square but make sure you do it in style and climb (oh ok then, take the lift) to the top of the clock tower for some more finger-licking views of Prague. The Nazis blew up half of the building in a fit of pique when retreating after the war but they missed the tower. Entry: about 5 euros.
A bit like Picadilly Circus now. Wenceslas Square is where you sit and you really could be in a Western European capital. But this is where, just 20 years ago, the Velvet Revolution was acted out. It’s also where in 1968 two men burned themselves alive to protest at the Soviet invasion, a grim spot marked by St Wencelas’s statue. More recently, the council tried to clean up the burger bars but the people rioted and the burger bars remain. At first it seems sad, what's the point of freedom if all you do with it is protest your right to eat burgers? But I guess the prohibition of them just reeked too much of the old days.
If this odd story fails to inspire you to eat a burger for the revolution, stalls sell lovely pretzel-like breadsticks of various (sweet) flavours. And if you really hit a Prague spring with weather to match, there’s great ice cream on the left side before the National Museum and a lovely little square, the Franciscan Gardens, hidden away to the right to collapse and eat it in.
Petrin Park is the massive lungs of Prague and its right on the doorstep from the Castle Steps. It's great for a wander and, being on the side of a hill, has more great views of the city, the kind of place you can lie about in for hours and just watch the view and the people.
This is down a side street not far from Charles Bridge on the Mala Strana side. It's where, back in the old days, people came to write graffiti on Lennon and the Beatles as symbols of Western culture, peace and love. The police would come and paint over it all and very soon the people would come back and graffiti all over again. And they still do!
There’s no charge to wander over this ancient bridge, dating from the 14th century, and most famous Prague landmark. The now blackened statues were added during the 17th and 18th centuries. Look carefully and you will see a couple of bronze reliefs, one depicting a St John of Nepomuk. (You can tell he's a saint as people rub that part of the relief so much it’s worn down – it’s supposed to bring good luck. The other relief shows someone patting a dog and people have rubbed the dog in the same way!)
If you’re eating ice-cream in the Franciscan Gardens (see Wenceslas Square), look at the beautiful figure sculptures that almost lift off in delight. In Petrin Park, Olbram Zoubek’s sculpture of a series of figures descending steps, in increasing levels of destruction (more part of the figures are missing the further you look back) symbolises the effects on political prisoners of their lost liberty. More mystifying though just as sinister are the scary baby sculptures (by David Cerny) outside the Kampa museum on Kampa island –outsized babies made out of black stone, crawling on the ground, with no faces...
Where to eat
U Sevce Matouse restaurant (Loretanske namesti 4) - we needed cheap restaurants. It wasn’t easy in Hradcany, the castle area. But we were intrepid and soon found the U Sevce Matouse restaurant in an old shoemaker’s shop. It has a reputation for slow service and we did have to wait a bit but the steak certainly hit the spot and we particularly enjoyed the olive paste and bread brought as a starter. About 6 euros for a main course.
Stoleti restaurant (Karoliny Svetle 21; www.stoleti.cz) - on our second night, the Stoleti restaurant in Stare Mesto just south of the river did the honours. It's got a quiet calm ambience and a local feel and the meal of pork tenderloin medallions with peanuts and orange curry sauce more than hit the spot for under 6 euros for the main course.
U modre kachnicky restaurant (Michalska 16; www.umodrekachnicky.cz) - there are two branches of this beautiful restaurant, decked out in 1930's style. For a final night’s splurge, we sought it out for roast duck with ginger and honey with raisin rice (about 14 euros for a main course). I don't care if you've got no money. Save whatever you've got and do nothing for the rest of your stay but make it down here while you're in Prague.