The other day, when I was wandering round on my own, Ness had called a local Volkswagen garage to make an appointment to have Eddie serviced today. For a while now we have had reminders from Eddie whenever we switched on the ignition, from “service in 600 miles” to “service now!” more recently. We checked out of the very good Best Western and drove to the garage, across the river, a bit to the south of the Malá Strana area, in a rather grey area. I compared it to the area around the Leuvensesteenweg in Brussels as a mental comparison.
It was frustrating driving in the one-way system but we managed to find the garage. A standard tidy Volkswagen garage and a very courteous service engineer. We could come back at 3pm, which was excellent as it gave us enough time for some more sightseeing in Prague as well as leaving enough time to drive on to our next destination, Plzeň, aka “Pilsen”, of beer fame. We caught the tram into the Malá Strana, feeling a bit like locals. We bought our travel tickets from the neighbourhood tabak and then trundled along the tracks into the busier and more touristic parts of town.
We got off the tram and bought some pastries and a coffee to go and then walked to the funicular station, and rode to the top of the green Petřín hill. This was another repeat of our previous visit when we did the same, going for the peace and quiet of this green side of Prague. At the top we sat on a bench in the rose garden and munched our pastries, including kolače, the typical Prague/Czech ones filled with a poppy-seed concoction – very tasty! Today, by now, it was sunny and a clear blue sky, perfect weather for strolling.
First we climbed to the top of the 60m high metal viewing tower, Petřínská rozhledna, with superb views. Back down and then we walked through the park/forest along the paths. At the top there was a calvary, a route of the stations of the cross. We strolled down along the quiet paths, empty except for one or two locals walking dogs, and ended at the Palace gardens, a green and seemingly untended area just behind the German embassy, and from here came to the cobbled lanes of the Malá Strana.
From here we had to climb uphill again towards the castle square. It all still looked familiar, tucked away somewhere in our memories. At the top, on the high part just below the castle square, we stopped for a drink at a little terrace café along the walls, and then walked across to the castle main entrance and took up position to watch the noon changing of the guard. The tin soldiers marched along and performed the change ceremony, with dozens of tourists all trying to get a good peek. Fortunately we had a good spot stood on a low wall.
We still had plenty of time and so visited the castle. First we crossed the main courtyard and then went through a wing into the even larger second courtyard, with the large chram Sv. Víta, St. Vitus Cathedral, which stood in one corner. We visited the cathedral and afterwards the old palace, which had a large hall with a wooden floor and some outside terraces with viewpoints. I can’t recall much of the specifics, but it was a very worthwhile visit. We stopped to wait for the next film show, a slideshow about the history of the castle, but it was the Czech version. Ness stayed to watch it (I thought) while I carried on. I came out in the courtyard behind the cathedral and plonked at the café in the corner and had a coffee while waiting for Ness, who came out much later. Apparently I had missed a whole wing, which Ness had visited (and not watching the Czech film as I had assumed).
Next we visited the very old (10C? 12C?) Romanesque Basilica of Sv. Jiří (St. George). Inside it was light and somehow, despite it’s great age, modern-looking. We still remembered all this from our previous visit too. Behind the basilica lay another part of the castle, with a tiny mini village, with its Zlatá ulička, “Golden Lane”, with a row of little houses built into the walls, once serving to house high-ish ranking court staff, but now a wall-to-wall of touristic shops (the communists had already made this change, many years earlier, and this was not a recent development). We left the castle and crossed the cobbled lane into a smart café and had a coffee and ice cream at the panoramic terrace, a spot which was still high up and looked across the Vltava and the city.
A long series of steps, with vendors of paintings and views, led down to the river level, to the main street, where we caught a tram, changing trams, to head back to the Volkswagen garage. Eddie was ready. It was still a stiff bill, just for an oil change. We drove north-west, already on the right side of town to get to the main road to Plzeň. It was only a shortish drive, southwest, and we reached Plzeň around five o’clock. I can’t recall much of the drive, just an ordinary Czech A road?
Plzeň, at first sight, looked grubby and industrial, not helped by the weather which had now turned grey, and the light was also fading a bit, and the net effect was a rather dreary looking town. Rough Guide did say that it was an industrial town. We had booked ahead for a hotel – not our first or second choice, but a hotel a bit away from the immediate centre. We asked at tourist info for directions and quickly found the hotel, near the railway line (with a quaint station building). It might lack the smart touches of a Best Western, but it was a pretty decent old hotel and a friendly welcome helped. We checked in and chilled for a little while. Our first reaction was that maybe we ought to just make this a one-night stop and, after a brief visit to the brewery tomorrow, carry on, but sensibly we didn’t make any snap decisions.
We headed into town, taking the number 4 tram. There were lots of students around. Plzeň was a university town, though rather in the fashion of the VUB in Brussels. That’s not to say there weren’t any beautiful buildings though. There were plenty of these as our tram trundled the few stops up. The grand Velká synagóga, Great Synagogue, was the most spectacular one. Apparently the second-largest one in Europe. The streets were quiet and empty, just a few pedestrians and a few people in Plzeň’s convivial-looking cafés. It reminded me of provincial Belgian market towns (Strombeek-Bever came to mind), with its church plonked in the square. Náměstí Republiky was a large square(-shaped) square, with a tall church plonked right in the middle, and it looked as if it was used mainly for markets, not for tourists and horse-cart rides, i.e. this was still a “working” square. The hotel we had first tried was right on the square.
On a street off the square, across the other side, we found the wood-panelled café recommended by our Rough Guide. It looked like a no-nonsense establishment, with high ceilings, open and bright, and large wooden tables. A small clientele of some locals, the after-work drink (and smoke), and a few similar couples like us. Later it got busier with more people, still a mix of locals as well as some tourists. We had big plates of hearty Czech nosh: pork, cabbage, dumplings, and a couple of very tasty beers. I especially like the dark lager, pivo černé, they do in Czechia. Outside it was now darker, which made it cosier inside. Afterwards we had another drink at a more “themed” café, U Švejk, with the waiter dressed up as Švejk, though lacking his rotund figure and piggy eyes. We had coffee, slivovice and pancakes and then toddled back to our hotel. By now Plzeň had grown on us a bit and we were back to plan A, to stay here for two nights. The late-night trains didn’t really bother us and we slept well in the very comfortable bed.