What could be more festive than Prague in December? The Christmas markets, the promise of snow, the steaming cups of mulled wine… the poker (I’ll explain later)? With a couple of flexible days in my schedule, I figured it was time to get my Christmas ON with another of my “36 Hours In…” cheeky weekend breaks.
4pm CET, Sunday
Motel One, Hotel #1
I love a bargain which is why, despite being on the road since about 3am, I didn’t check into my hotel until mid-afternoon: 2 flights and 12 hours later. Turns out spontaneous Christmas week flights to Prague are EXPENSIVE. I found an OTA via Kayak (kiwi.com) that could book me a Ryan Air/Wizz Air combo cheaper (£98)than I could do myself, bringing the cost down from downright “criminal” to merely “offensive”. Outbound also included a layover in Treviso – can I say I’ve been to Venice now?
After all that flight drama, transfer to the city centre was super simple. A nice lady at an arrivals kiosk sold me a ticket to the Airport Express bus (quicker than the public bus, I was losing daylight) for 60 CZK (approx £2) + a 24-hour public transport pass for 110 CZK and, after only a couple of wrong turns outside of the Námēstí Republiky metro station, I checked into my first hotel of the trip (…again, I’ll explain later), Motel One Prague.
I’m not really one for chains, but I chose Motel One because it looked clean, central and – at 50 Euros a night – was a bit of a deal. My 3rd floor room was pretty compact and lacked any kind of view, but everything looked shiny and new. The look was contemporary and I loved the kitschy little touches like the open fire playing on the flat screen as I walked in. Very cool.
Cake & wine? Suits me fine.
With only a day and a half in town, there was no time to hang out by the fake fireplace. Old Town Square and its famous Christmas Market were only a 10 minute walk away, but before making it that far, I stumbled into a smaller market near the Námēstí Republiky Metro Station. I was absolutely starving – I’d already walked past a KFC and nearly caved – so I stopped by for a snack. Námēstí Republiky has a tinier less touristy Christmas Market where, apparently, prices are less inflated and portions a lot bigger. Like my trdelník: a traditional Czech pastry made from dough wrapped round a stick and roasted over open coals, then covered in crushed sugar and nuts and returned to the fire to caramelise. YUM. My new addiction. Washed down with a cup of the local hot mulled wine – svarák – I’m refueled and ready for action…
3 Pints & a Pig Knuckle
I’m a social solo. Whenever I find myself with a free evening in a new city, when I haven’t arranged to meet friends from my networks or been dragged out by new hostel mates, I book a tour. Preferably one that involves drinking.
When in Prague, drink beer. A lot of beer. About 157 litres per person per year, as I found out on my Czech Pub & Pivo Experience with Sandemans. I’d looked at other options, ones that sounded a little less touristy and visited more local spots, away from the centre with a more hipster vibe, but I’ll admit, I played it very safe (didn’t want to stray too far from home in the dark: Sensible Social Solo). And cheap (400 CZK for drinks & tour; food extra).
Our group was small – 3 Americans, 2 Aussies, 2 Germans et moi – but very friendly, and was led by a super-caffeinated, very enthusiastic, hyper-positive Bulgarian guide who took us to 3 historic pubs around the old town.
In each spot, we heard the history of Czech beer, the brewing process, why it is so important to the national identity (see, education!) and, most importantly, got to chance to sample the goods. We tried half a litre each of a very dark, golden and lighter beer, including the Czech Republic’s most famous export Pilsner Urquell, delivered brewery-fresh and served unpasteurised.
At the final stop, we lined our stomachs (door. horse. bolted) with some traditional Czech fare. I was wavering between chicken schnitzel and fried cheese, went for the cheese, got immediate food envy when I saw the schnitzel on another table. Doh! The Aussie lads braved the grilled pork knuckle which was, no joke, the size of my head.
Absinthe makes the heart…burn
Despite being stuffed full of beer and food, most of the group were up for a post-tour carry-on and headed to an absinthe bar round the corner recommended by our guide.
Absintherie is a specialist Bar and museum that aims to introduce not only the taste of quality absinthe but also the correct way of serving it. They offer about 60 kinds of absinthe served traditionally, or as cocktails, beer, or even as absinthe ice-cream or slush.
I’m all about authenticity so, with the bravery that only 3 pints of beer can give you, I brushed past the cocktail list and convinced one of the guys to join me in a glass of pure absinthe served Czech- – not French – style.
It tasted like the contents of a petrol tank mixed with pure fire. Despite thinking it was going to kill me, I managed to finish my glass. Should have had an Absinthe Alexander – THAT was delicious.
Time to call it a night.
Shuffle up and deal
Woke up with a sore head in a very comfy bed. I did treat myself to a bit of a lie in, but had to reluctantly say goodbye to Motel One ready for phase 2 of my trip.
Now I’m not really one for chains (hang on…?), but I chose the Hilton for night 2 as, in my continual quest for random s***, the final table of the final European Poker Tour was in progress and I wanted to see what it was like actually being at a main event, rather than watching it on TV at insomniac o’clock. Strangely, none of my friends wanted to join me on this particular quest (I know, right?), so I was left to be a poker nerd all by myself.
Despite getting the room at a bargain rate on hotel.es, I was able to check in before noon AND get a huge room with a river view. Sweet. Unlike Motel One, I had a kettle, a minibar and all the other amenities I was never going to use because I had places to be and thing to do. Thanks anyway.
I chose to move hotels as I wasn’t sure how easy it was going to be as a non-guest to get in and out of the casino. Turns out it wouldn’t have been an issue, I still had to go through security, get a pass and a wristband, but it was nice to be able to leave my stuff in my room and come and go as I pleased. I geeked out for a while as the place was just loaded with big poker names (obviously, I played it cool…), watched Joe Stapleton do the “Shuffle up and Deal” and stuck around for the first level.
Watching live poker? Not very interesting, it turns out. There are cameras on the table so you can watch the flop on a big screen, but without hole cards or commentary, it was a bit dry. The atmosphere in the room was pretty good as there was action on other tables and a lot of people milling around, but I was done for now. Experiment over; sightseeing time.
Eat, wander, eat, repeat
Having visited Prague before, albeit about 10 years ago, I wasn’t looking to do any kind of structured tour. I had considered doing a beer spa or going ice skating, but in the end, I settled for a mooch around the Staré Mēsto (Old Town), wandering through the Christmas Markets and consuming as much svarák and trdelník as my body can take. BTW trdelník + nutella = AWESOME. Breaks up the excessive dougheyness, makes it even more yum.
It was funny that, even though so much time had passed since my last trip with my friend S – and even with my horrible sense of direction – I could still feel my way through the Medieval streets of Old Town. I remembered a place where we stopped for ice cream (it was summer), the organic cosmetic place where we spent AGES choosing bath gels and soaps as presents (Botanicus – its still there! And still awesome. Could lose weeks in there), I made it across the Charles Bridge, as manic today as it was back then. It was so familiar, it was weird. How does memory do that? Anyway, remind me to give S a call.
As it started to get dark, I headed back to the Old Town Hall. 45 minutes standing in line for tickets (130 CZK), another line to get up the tower, an absolute scrum to get onto the viewing platform…worth it for the best view in the city. From the 14th century tower you get a proper 360-degree panorama, taking in the whole of the Old Town, across the river to the castle, all the festive lights across the city. Stunning.
Heads-up…to the bar
When I got so cold that not even svarák could warm me up, I headed back to the Hilton – via the tourist office, where a nice young man booked me a 300 CZK local taxi to the airport, about a third of the price the cartel at my hotel was offering.
With a 4.30am wake-up call pending, a manic evening was not on the cards. I was too cold to venture back outside, so I figured drink a couple of cocktails, catch the end of the poker and sleep diagonally across my enormous king-sized bed? Sounds like a plan.
Part 1) involved taking the ‘hidden’ lift up to the Cloud 9 sky bar & lounge on the ninth floor. A super-contemporary space, all clean white furniture with bright accents (nasty carpet) and mood lighting – so far, so typical. The real stars, however, were the floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the Prague skyline, the twin outside terraces each offering a different aspect (and handy capes and blankets – thank you!). Oh, and the lovely bar staff who made me an outstanding espresso martini (240 CZK) and kept me supplied with endless fresh popcorn (how did they know?!).
Part 2) had me back on the casino floor watching the final hands of the heads-up battle between Hungary’s Marton Czuczor and Jasper Meijer van Putten from the Netherlands. It was more interesting than earlier, partly due to the bigger crowd – mostly Czuczor’s hilariously drunken mates – partly because we got to see more showdowns. Mostly, though, because when Czuczor’s 2-2 lost to Meijer van Putten’s K-J, I got to drink champagne, get involved in the confetti drop and stand (a couple of rows) behind the winner as he lifted his trophy. Fun times!
After brushing off the last of the confetti, I headed back to my room to commence part 3). However…
I wasn’t particularly tired – it was only 11pm- so I headed back out to find that ‘hidden’ lift and blow my last CZK’s on a nightcap. Halfway through my Basil Smash (gin, basil, cucumber, fresh lime, simple syrup, brown sugar) and a random conversation with a guy from Seattle about how he was trying to avoid his future in-laws this Christmas, I noticed that a load of players had also made their way upstairs and there was a little bit of an after-party going on. Naturally, I had to crash it…
…for about half an hour. Then it was definitely time for part 3.
10:45am GMT, Tuesday
Back to Work
Seriously. Fresh off my 07:05 flight.
Prague is a city where you can do so much or, like me, very little of anything at all. Having visited before, I was lucky enough to have already ‘Czeched out’ (boom-boom) many of the key tourist spots – The Castle, the squares, the bridges, the museums – so felt no pressure to run around ticking ‘been there’ boxes. Even though, with the city’s continual evolution since my last visit, there is still so much I haven’t even touched on, it was nice to just BE. To relax, to wander around feeling festive, to stuff myself with hot wine and sugary snacks…to watch poker. For everything else, there is always next time.