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Black Book Travel Guide: Prague

Dianna Pawlik Author: Elle Canada Credits: Dianna Pawlik

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Black Book Travel Guide: Prague

"Ugh, what time is it?" my sister, Nadine, calls out from the bed next to mine. I lift my head from the soft down pillow to squint at the round clock beside my bed. "It's 6 a.m.," I say feebly before my head collapses back into the creamy sheets. The phone is ringing.

It must be the wake-up call. My mom, Dianna, all chipper and already dressed, pops out of the bathroom to answer it. Her bulging camera bag is perched on the end of her bed and it's zipped tight.

"Rise and shiiiine!" she says with a parent's first-day-of-school enthusiasm - even though we are grown daughters in our 30s and we're on vacation. "Are you girls ready to see if there's any mist over the bridge today?"

It's our fourth day in Prague, and getting up to watch the sunrise from the Charles Bridge has become our morning ritual. Not that I'm complaining. The Charles Bridge is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and the Czech Republic's most famous landmark.

It dates back to 1357, when Bohemian king Charles IV commissioned its construction to connect the city's Old Town on the east side of the Vltava River to Lesser Town and the Prague Castle on the west side. It also features 30 baroque statues (many are now replicas), which were added beginning in 1683.

So it's no wonder that the bridge is a tourist mob scene on any given sunny afternoon. Expecting this, we got up before dawn on our first morning to enjoy the bridge in a glorious, almost-empty state. It was my mom's first experience in Europe, and it left her in tears.

As my sister and I leaned back on the bridge's cool stone parapet, I could see my breath as I slowly inhaled and exhaled the crisp fall air and the faint smell of incense coming from the surrounding churches.

My mom adjusted her tripod as I listened to the rushing water and the cooing pigeons (as well as the clicking of a few camera shutters) and watched the light shift behind the silhouetted statues. "What a mystical experience," mused my mom. "Watching the orange and pink light rise behind the bridge and the city's spires is almost indescribable."

We came on this trip - Prague and Paris were my mom's choices - to celebrate her birthday (a milestone that will remain unnamed). My sister and I were hoping that she would have "a big moment" of some kind to remember.

We didn't expect it to come on our first morning-with 12 days (and Paris!) to come. "Mom," I said worriedly, "I think we've just ruined France and the rest of Europe for you! It's going to be pretty hard to top this." She just laughed and said "I can't wait!"

Pack your bags for another chic Europena vacation ... Florence!

Discover the top three highlights of Prague on the next page...

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The picturesque town of Ceský Krumlov

Day trip: We hit the town

"I'm not leaving the Czech Republic without going to that little town Dr. Hahn keeps telling me about," my mother repeatedly reminded my sister and I as we were planning our trip. The "little town" her co-worker kept raving about is Ceský Krumlov, a medieval village (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) a few hours' drive south of Prague in the Czech Republic's Southern Bohemia region, near the Austrian border.

Before our trip, we had a hard time remembering the place's name. (It became a bit of a running joke—I took to calling it "the Keyser Söze town" after the elusive character in The Usual Suspects.)

But not after. Like Prague, the town is so pretty it almost feels artificial—it's any photo buff's dream. My mom was in heaven. The town's curvy, narrow cobbled lanes, red-tiled rooftops and imposing clifftop castle are perfectly lassoed by the Vltava River and surrounded by pine-covered hills.

A tour of Ceský Krumlov castle, which is the country’s second-largest after Prague Castle (and even more interesting, in our opinion), takes you back to Renaissance and baroque times as well as the 19th century, thanks to original and restored interiors, complete with intricate ceiling panels, period furnishings and even authentic place settings.

On the day we visited, security was especially tight because a descendant of the Rosenbergs—a powerful family who lived in the castle from 1302 until 1601—was attending an important government meeting on site. On our way to explore the vast castle gardens, I was sidetracked by a local shop dedicated to Czech Easter eggs ( kraslice).

Nadine just rolled her eyes. “Go on,” she said, knowing that I’m a devout egg collector. (We’re half Ukrainian, and collecting and decorating the folk art is one of my favourite hobbies.) Neither of us made it to the gardens. My sister kindly (and patiently—what a good sister!) waited outside the store for 45 minutes until I emerged with two-dozen carefully selected eggs. Best shopping spree ever!

Discover where to stay, Prague highlights, and where to shop and eat on the next page ... 
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Image of The Augustine Hotel's Lichfield Bar, courtesy of The Augustine Hotel Prague.

Top 3 Prague highlights
1. Climbing the spiral staircase to St. Vitus Cathedral's Lookout Tower to take in the city view from the highest point in the Prague Castle complex.

Best part: Sitting in the shade of Prague Castle's central "Lion fountain" after our climb and cooling our bare feet on the cold cobblestones.

2. A Johann Sebastian Bach trumpet and organ concert at the Church of St. Nicholas, one of Lesser Town's many baroque cathedrals.

Best part: Our amusing post-concert debate about "musicality." The discussion somehow included references to our childhood violin lessons and So You Think You Can Dance.

3. The fireworks display going off beside the Petrín Lookout Tower (a.k.a. Prague's mini Eiffel Tower) that we happened upon as we crossed the Charles Bridge (yep, the bridge again) late one night.

Best part: It was the second time my mom teared up in Prague.

Where to stay in Prague

The Augustine Hotel Prague is perfectly situated at the foot of Prague Castle and less than a five-minute walk from the western side of the Charles Bridge (which came in handy for our early-morning excursions). We dined on seasonal, locally foraged chanterelle mushrooms with braised rabbit at the Lichfield Restaurant, and we tried to spot practising friars from the hotel’s inner courtyard—the property includes a renovated portion of the 13th-century Augustinian St. Thomas Monastery. My mom had as much fun discovering and snapping photos of the unique statues and Czech cubism decor at the hotel as she did taking pictures out on the street.

Insiders Guide to Prague
Lucie Kutálková and Lucie Trnková are the designers and owners of Czech fashion brand and boutique Leeda Prague. “The Czech fashion scene is still emerging, but our store is located near the National Theatre, where there are a growing number of design, fashion and art boutiques,”says Kutálková. “It’s quite a nice atmosphere.”

Here are some of their favourite places in Prague:

Fave shopping spots
“We love how the Artel store uses classic techniques from the traditional Czech glass industry to create modern designs. Art Deco Galerie has a fantastic selection of second-hand art-deco jewels, fashion and notions, like buttons and lace.

We also love to shop at fashion designer Klára Nademlýnská’s boutique for flowy, feminine dresses. And Minty Concept Club is one of the best pop-up galleries, carrying Czech and international brands.”

Top eats
“The café at Headquarters is a meeting place for artsy types as well as cyclists. Jazzdock literally floats on the Vltava River and has a great restaurant and bar scene with live jazz music.

Grabbing a beer at the Letna Beer Garden will afford you an amazing view of the city. We often grab lunch at Lehká Hlava, a vegetarian restaurant with ’60s decor. And Cili Bar is a small place where locals like us hang out—they make delicious cocktails.”

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Black Book Travel Guide: Prague