Prague – the world’s prettiest city?

Pickled camembert and drowned-person-sausage. It may not sound like a promising start to a week in Prague, but if you factor in the beer that went with it, sitting right on the waterside in what must be one of the world’s prettiest cities, then the picture gets a lot brighter.

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A female minstrel plays on Charles Bridge, as the sun rises. Prague Castle and Malá Strana in the background.

I was in Prague for a meditation seminar, with a group of around forty people from places as far-flung as Canada, Brazil, and New Zealand. This in itself was a fascinating prospect, but as it was my first time in the city, I was also determined to do my share of sightseeing. On the first evening we had some free time, so I ventured out on the public transport system to meet some Czech friends in the Old Town.

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Charles Bridge in the early morning light with towers and domes of Prague Old Town behind it.

The Old Town has been flourishing since the fourteenth century, and its architecture reflects this. I found it impossible to move around Prague without my mouth periodically dropping open in awe. From the intricacies of the Astronomical Clock with its hourly parade of apostles, to the monumental Baroque-Rococo buildings with their lavish decoration and gilded name signs, Prague is a feast of photogenic architecture, dominated by the iconic St Vitus’ Cathedral and Prague Castle ever-present on the skyline.

Having failed pitifully at navigating the public transport system, I finally arrived at the Charles Bridge (built in 1357 by Bohemia’s most celebrated monarch, Charles IV) and my friends Michaela and Jerry, waiting patiently, took me across the river into the Kampa district. There we found the John Lennon Wall, a gloriously anarchic tag-fest, which has developed since the1980s as a symbol of peace and protest – it became a rallying point for dissent under the Communist regime. A living thing, it is constantly changing as new graffiti overwrites the old.

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During the rest of the week, I enjoyed odd moments exploring the centre of the city, particularly in Malá Strana (Lesser Town), situated below the Castle and venue for many of our seminars. Quieter than the more popular areas, it nevertheless contains the lofty St Nikolas’ Church, as well as narrow cobbled streets, open squares and hidden gardens.

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Visitors in the Valdštejnsky Palace (Wallenstein Palace) gardens in Mala Strana.

A guided walking tour was also organised by our hosts, led by Zdeněk, a young Czech with flowing hair and a very large umbrella. An assistant minister for one of the local churches, he is also a professional tour guide, and apparently possessed of infinite patience as he shepherded a huge group of chattering, middle-aged individuals with very varied walking abilities around the steep cobbled streets. Herding cats would have been a lot more straightforward.

He regaled us with many historical stories: established by Prince Wenceslas (of Good King Wenceslas fame) in the early 10th century, Prague became the capital of Bohemia under Charles IV in the 14th century. It thrived, and continued as the capital until, according to Zdeněk, it lost out to arch-rival Vienna a couple of hundred years later. Further expansion was then prohibited, for fear it would become larger than the new capital. For this reason, so we were told, the existing city was preserved almost unchanged until relatively recently. (I became less confident in his historical accuracy when he also told us that Mozart and Casanova once partied together in a house in Malá Strana. This seemed unlikely given that Casanova was thirty-one when Mozart was born.)

Preservation makes the city sound like a museum, stuck in time, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its vibrant heart is its people: in cafes, on the streets, strolling with families in the gardens on Petrín Hill, or relaxing on the mid-river island of Střelecký.

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Couple kissing on the Radniční stairs, in the Castle district, flanked by St John and St Joseph. I’m sure they would have approved.

I found them genuinely friendly and welcoming, with an undercurrent of stoicism born of recent history. During a lecture by Professor Ivana Noble, of Prague’s Charles University, she spoke of a people who, until very recently (1989) were forced to adopt two personalities, one for public consumption and one reserved for trusted friends and family. It is difficult to comprehend how that must impact on the way people live and love, and carry on their daily lives. I felt privileged, in all senses of the word, to be among them.

The sausage, by the way, is utopenec, a Bohemian delicacy, and according to my Czech friend Jerry, it does translates literally as ‘drowned person sausage’. I want to believe it.

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Beer, bread and ‘drowned person sausage’ (utopenci, utopenec). A Czech delicacy, along with pickled camembert cheese.
See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.

 

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Why I enjoyed Nice more than I thought I would – Part 2 Highlights and Must-Dos

The Stats

We were in Nice for five nights and four days, travelling on BA from Gatwick.We stayed in the port area via AirBnB – for more details, see Part 1 It’s completely impossible to park in the tourist area of Nice, so we didn’t even try to hire a car. Instead, we did a lot of walking, used public transport, which is plentiful and cheap if a bit bumpy, and had one memorable Uber ride. We also did a cycle tour which I cannot recommend enough if you want to escape the bustle for a while. What’s more, you’ll get a guided tour, and a workout thrown in for free.

The Highlights

1. The Old Town

Exploring the streets of the old town (La Vieille Ville) on the first day, buying fresh fish and vegetables from the market for our dinner, and sitting listening to a great clarinettist serenading on the street as we sipped our coffee crème.

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Place Pierre Gautier

2. The Hill

Climbing the hill between the port and the old town and finding a Jewish cemetery, castle ruins, a lookout point over the town, and a whole hidden park perched on the top of the hill.

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View of the rooftops of the Old Town (La Vieille Ville) from the hill

3. The Garden

11 acres of garden at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, with its main parterre laid out like a ship: the gardeners were made to wear sailor’s uniforms and hats with red pom-poms to remind the owner, Beatrice, of her extensive travels. Allegedly.

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View of the main parterre, or French garden, designed to look like the deck of an ocean liner (ship).

Different themed gardens included Japanese, arid, water – complete with musical fountains – a rose garden, and my favourite, a Provencal hillside rich with scent: lavender, rosemary, helichrysum, eucalytpus, and pine, basking in the midday sun.

Part of this trip’s charm was an Uber ride to the garden: a Jaguar XE rolled up outside our modest apartment, complete with squishy leather seats and a driver wearing a dark suit and tie. A small taste of how-the-other-half-live, for sure.

4. The Hillside Village

A trip to the hillside village of , a bit of a tourist trap, but worth a look and a wander. I enjoyed the elevated walk around the outer wall, although Chris felt it a little vertiginous and stayed firmly on the ground.

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The hillside village of Saint Paul de Vence

We also visited the Fondation Maeght just up the road:  set on a wooded hillside, the setting is really quiet and tranquil. The building is in-your-face 1960’s – modern, post-modern, I’m not sure of the correct term, and the art includes works by Miró, Chagall and Giacometti. 

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One of the sculptures at the Fondation Maeght. High art or just plain weird? You decide.

5. The Cycle Tour

Favourite of the holiday has to be the cycle tour we took with Nice Cycle Tours.  We opted for the 4-hour Riviera tour, as we couldn’t get onto the city tour early enough in the holiday. I am not a keen cyclist and the idea of four straight hours on a bike did fill me with a certain anxious tension (terror). I need not have worried. The bikes were e-bikes, which ride like a bike, with gears, but also have a battery-powered electric motor which kicks in with an assist as you pedal. It makes so much difference. I managed the four hours without any trouble, and it was such a blast!

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The start of the e-Riviera Bike tour, using e-bikes assisted with electric motors

Jenny, our guide, was from Brighton which was great, as she gave us lots of interesting info in English along the way. We rode out of the port and up into the ridge of hills which separates Nice from neighbouring picture-postcard town of Villefranche. After negotiating traffic, bollards and men with large packing crates full of water bottles (I only nearly fell off once), we found ourselves away from noise and bustle, amid olive groves and low brush and gorse-type vegetation on a road that no-one uses. All was silent, the air still and warm.

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View from the top of Mount Boron, down into the picturesque town of Villefranche, adjacent ot Nice on the French Riviera. Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is to the right.

Stunning views, a free-wheel down into Villefranche for a picnic lunch, and then all too soon back to the city.

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The picturesque seaside town of Villefranche

6. The Food!

I had forgotten how good French food really is. We didn’t have a bad meal once, and most were really, really good.

Check out L’Agrume, newly opened I think, from its lack of internet presence, on Place Garibaldi. The square is enormous, surrounded by buildings with trompe d’oeuil masonry detailing. We went here for lunch and as we were in Nice, I just had to try the Salad Niçoise. Made with fresh tuna, it was the best I’ve ever tasted – the orange, carrot and ginger smoothie was pretty amazing too.

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Definitely the best Salad Niçoise I have ever tasted. In Nice, obviously. L’Agrume, Place Garibaldi.

We also tried:

Les Garçons on Rue Rosetti, in the heart of the old town, is literally run solely by garçons of varying ages. Many tables are crammed into a tiny space decorated in industrial chic, walls with painted crumbling brick and graffiti, and large dangly metal lamps. It was warm, noisy, full of people, and the food was tasty, burger juices running down my fingers. I liked it.

Le Cafe des Chineurs, Rue Cassini, on the edge of the gay district, another hipster hangout, with quirky artefacts strewn around the place: sewing machine tables, old ornate metal backed chairs, 20s and 30s paraphernalia, full of shabby chic.

Chez Papa on Rue Bonaparte, one of the busy restaurant streets behind the old town. We were squeezed in at the last moment on a Saturday night, which was much appreciated. Chris ordered beef, I ordered tuna, but when it arrived I understood that ‘mi cuit’ means raw in the middle, so we did a swap (he likes sushi) which confused the waiter. Raw tuna notwithstanding, the food was great.

7. The weather

Although not guaranteed at this time of year (late October), we were lucky. Unflagging sunshine, and warm enough to sit outside until it got dark.

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Some fairly spectacular sunsets too.

Up next:

Why I enjoyed Nice more than I thought I would – Part 3 The Internal Journey

See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk/nice for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.

Why I enjoyed Nice more than I thought I would – Part 1

First Impressions

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much. We were booked to go to southern Spain when the sudden demise of Monarch Airlines intervened. So Nice was a last minute scrabble around looking for a cheap flight to somewhere vaguely sunny and warm that wasn’t with RyanAir (who were also threatening more cancellations). We settled on Nice with BA via the flight search engine skyscanner, and it turned out to be a great choice (although when did BA start charging for food and drink??)

Nice itself is busy – lots of traffic, particularly right next to the famous Promenade des Anglais, but it makes up for this in a wide sweep of beach – more than 7km long – looking out onto a sparkling, seriously blue sea. It’s not called the Côte d’Azur for nothing. We stayed in the port area via  AirBnB and had found an apartment at the top of a 5-storey building. The port was as noisy as you would expect a working port in a busy city to be, but the apartment had great double glazing and the view in any case, made it all worthwhile. 

24260A tiny balcony had room for a tripod or a breakfast table but not both at the same time. Once I had learnt to tune traffic and the occasional pile-driver out, some of my best moments were spent, cuppa in hand, sitting on the balcony as the morning sun flooded in over the opposite hills, watching boats chugging in and out of the harbour. Some were tiny, some not so much. 

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A thumbnail history: Nice sits on the French Riviera, at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, close to the Italian border, and it got its name (originally Nikaia) from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, after a particularly triumphant battle sometime around 350BC. It was an important trading port for centuries, and also a target for pirates and other warring factions, including various French and Italian clans. Its heavily fortified citadel was originally perched high on the hill, until it was besieged by the French in 1705 when this was demolished. Subsequently the old town (La Vielle Ville) came into being, nestling at the base of the hill and in 1860 became definitively French at the Treaty of Turin.

Its so-called ‘Belle Epoque’ began around the turn of the century when the great and the good came to take the waters and also, by the 1930s, to race cars (so it’s always been noisy.) Countless celebs have made their homes hereabouts: Renoir lived here, Queen Victoria spent her summers here, and other A-listers said to be currently in residence include Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) and Elton John (we rode past the end of his driveway – allegedly – on our bike tour of which more in part 2).

24265.jpgAs we explored the city, and sat in comfy sofas in beach restaurants, both Chris and I felt echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the ‘smart set’ of the 1920s and 30s – he located ‘Tender is the Night’ partly on the French Riviera.

24263.jpgThere is a sleekness to many of the passers-by missing in other destinations, and vestiges of that opulent, here-today-gone-tomorrow way of living, embodied not least by the string of casinos along the Promenade des Anglais.

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What I really enjoyed, though, was the sense of enjoyment in life which seemed to emanate from many, although not all, people, tourists and residents alike. It was infectious.

24267.jpgUp next: Part 2 – highlights and must-dos.

See my website www.anniegaphotography.co.uk for more images or contact me for licensing. All words and images ©Annie Green-Armytage. You are welcome to re-blog and link-share on social media with full accreditation; no other reproduction of any kind permitted without written permission.