I contacted the concierge at the Augustine about a week before our arrival in Prague in order to arrange for a private tour of Prague Castle and Strahov Monastery. I had read that, like many old European cities, there would be cobblestone streets to contend with. Because there is no faster way to kill a vacation than blisters and painful feet, I have long given up on making a fashion statement with my shoes. Comfortable in my sneakers, we took off with our guide, Helena, and walked the few short blocks to the 22 tram to Strahov Monastery.
The Monastery is home to one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever seen. Truthfully, I usually am bored just looking at old books but the architecture was breathtaking. Our guide brought the otherwise visually overwhelming fresco-lined walls and ceiling of the library to life. Today, information transmission is seemingly instantaneous and the ability to read is assumed. The amount of labor to produce the ancient tomes housed in Strahov library, with their intricate calligraphy and elaborate illustrations, was mind-blowing. Considering that they were the main form of communication left us all feeling amazed. Even if libraries and old books are not your thing, Strahov Monastery sits atop a hill with panoramic view of Prague making this destination well worth the trip.
Our guide had suggested starting at Strahov and making our way downhill to Prague Castle. Aside from the obvious nod to the gravitational advantage, this approach brought us to the Courtyard, a less crowded entrance. Knowing how to circumnavigate the crowds was only one of the advantages of having a guide. Simply having to choose between the three ticket types, ranging from the abbreviated introduction to the inclusive, for your visit can be quite daunting. The fact that admission ticket is good for two days speaks volumes. Helena was more than a guide; she was an oral historian who deftly wove the medieval history into engaging stories. The cost of our private guide was $180 for 4 hours–or $60/person for the three of us, the same cost as if we can gone on a large group tour. Having a guide to ourselves allowed my history-obsessed husband to ask questions to his heart’s content. The highlights and the lesser known treasures of the castle were brought to life as we were able to cover much more ground than the groups are able to. Although we had the opportunity to meander around on our own after our tour, we were mentally saturated. Over the years, I have figured out that, no matter how interesting the subject, 3-4 hours is the limit of my uninterrupted attention span. So, knowing that our tickets were good for another day, off to lunch we went.
Cold and Hungry
By the time we hiked back up the hill in the cold, damp December air, we had worked up quite an appetite. My husband and daughter swore I was trying to freeze them to death; a little dramatic, in my opinion, for 35 degrees. Reluctantly, I agreed for us to go into Velká Klášterní Restaurace (the Great Monastery Restaurant) which is almost immediately on the right after entering the monastery complex. I was trying to keep us going us but my grouchy troops were so desperate that we ducked in to warm up with some potato soup in a bread bowl and a beer. While perfectly adequate, Velká Klášterní restaurace was uninspired. But, I had a different plan.
Foodie and Craft Beer Heaven
A fundamental component in planning any of my trips is figuring out where to find the best food and libations. Given that the Czechs love beer and monks worldwide have brewed some of the best beer, I wasn’t exactly surprised that the Strahov Monastic Brewery was one of the must go to places in Prague. I had spotted the entrance earlier in the day and was scheming to get us back there especially since my husband is a craft beer enthusiast. Even though it was cold and rainy, we were warm and cozy in the brewery courtyard replete with its covered seating, heaters and heavy wool blankets. There are three beers on tap year round and needless to say, we tried all three. However, the seasonal Christmas brew (only available in December) stole the show. We all agreed that it, alone, was worth coming to Prague during the winter.
Another thing I discovered is that the Czechs love tartare–beef, venison, reindeer–or, at least it seemed that way as it was on the menu at virtually every eating establishment regardless of how fancy. For those of you who are uninitiated, steak tartare consists of high quality, fresh, raw minced steak that is often mixed with capers, onions, black pepper and Worcestershire sauce with a raw egg yolk on top. I didn’t expect to like it. The Strahov Monastic Brewery steak tartare served with delicious, warm bread fragrant from the rubbed garlic, changed my mind.
Prague Castle by Night
Content, warm and full, we decided to walk back to our hotel rather than take the tram. The lights of Prague Castle shone brightly below us as we descended down the hill. We were able to walk through the Castle, stopping to take in the sights and smells of the small Christmas market occupying one of the courtyards. I would strongly recommend an evening stroll through Prague Castle for a completely different perspective. Imagining what it was like to be there at night in the 13th century was very eerie.