By: Sandra B. Wilkins
Senior Agent, AffordableTours.com
Prague, the Czech Republic: stop what you’re doing and make plans to go there NOW! I’ve been traveling to Europe for 30+ years, and have visited most of the capital cities more than once. Nothing in my past travel experience prepared me for the wonder of Prague. This is an absolutely magnificent city, top to bottom, start to finish.
Few people know that Prague was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century, when her leader Charles IV ushered in a Golden Age for his Czech subjects, with magnificent building projects (including the most famous landmark in Prague, the Charles Bridge) and the founding of Charles University, the first university in central Europe. Bohemia flourished during this period, and Prague subsequently became known as the “golden city of spires.”
For anyone who loves architecture, Prague is a genuine treasure trove. Not one bomb fell on Prague during WW I or WW II, so her buildings are all originals and during the twenty years since the fall of Communism they have been refurbished to their former glory, which makes walking down the streets in Old Town an eye-popping and mind boggling adventure. Everywhere you look you see gorgeous pastel colors on the building fronts, punctuated by elaborate ironwork, ornamental facades and beautiful decorative masonry.
One of my favorite architectural delights was the Obecni Dum (Municipal House) in Republic Square. This beautiful Art Nouveau building was constructed during the years of 1906-1911, and the contributions of the famous Czech artist, Alfons Mucha, display themselves throughout the building’s interior and exterior. Every inch of this building is elegantly decorated and inside the gorgeous café stunning chandeliers and art nouveau sconces illuminate the interior. Fifty yards away on a side street sits Hotel Pariz (Paris), another magnificent example of art nouveau decoration and furniture, where I enjoyed a very reasonable lunch.
Essentially, Prague is picture-perfect Old Europe boasting original winding streets, charming sidewalk cafes, castles and palaces, and yes, music on every corner. A delightful highlight of my Prague visit was savoring a concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the historic Mirror Chapel in the Klementinum, the largest and most historic complex of buildings in the Old Town. It covers over two hectares, and is located close to the river, near the Charles Bridge. The Klementinum boasts a rich architectural evolution. Since the middle ages many of Europe’s great astronomers, scientists, musicians and philosophers have studied and worked here, influencing the development of its wonderful array of buildings. The Mirror Chapel is a truly beautiful, unique chapel built in 1724, with extensive frescos and carvings. It houses two 18th century organs, one played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his visits to the Klementinum. This event would easily fetch a $100+ ticket in the USA, but in Prague, a mere $28 got us a front row seat! After the concert we strolled 5 minutes over to the Bellevue Restaurant, one of Prague’s best for a delightful meal in a lovely setting, overlooking the Vltava River.
Prague, along with Vienna and Budapest, has become a wildly popular destination the past 10 years and is frequently the starting or ending city of a Danube river cruise. My visit to Prague was indeed the warm up to “The Legendary Danube” river cruise by Avalon Waterways. This was my 4th river cruise, and my second time to sail with Avalon. Owned by Globus, Avalon now has a fleet of 10 wonderful ships sailing Europe’s major rivers, and will add 2 more “suite ships” next year. My partner and I enjoyed the spanking new “Avalon Vista”, a stunning ship boasting panoramic 11 x 7 ft windows that stretch the entire width of the cabin front, and they open completely to reveal the joys of the world slowly drifting by as you cruise along the river.
River cruises are definitely my new preferred mode of traveling. Entering your spacious 200 sq ft stateroom, you unpack one time to loads of closet and storage space, and the bathroom is beautiful with rainmaker shower heads and marble vanities sporting a lovely array of L’Occitane bath essentials. You indulge in a very high level of cuisine three plus times a day and enjoy unlimited regional wines with dinner. The service provided by the entire ship’s staff is attentive, friendly and professional. Another plus adding great value to this vacation is the free shore excursions provided at each port of call.
Though, for me, not as enjoyable as my cruise down the Rhone in Southern France two years ago, this popular itinerary was wonderful. We begin in Nuremberg, Germany and after our morning tour of this city we sailed down to Regensburg, one of Germany’s best preserved medieval cities, where that day’s included tour showed us the historical center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Onward we sailed to Passau where our local guide escorted us to St. Stephen’s Cathedral which houses one of the world’s largest church organs, with 17,000 pipes. Lucky us: the organist was practicing that morning so entering the marvelous interior we were enveloped by the thunderous peals of 17,000 pipes!
Many of our fellow passengers had opted that day to take the 6 hour excursion over to Salzburg to explore the “Sound of Music” city. We opted to stay on the ship, sip wine on the sky deck and play scrabble as we continued on our way to the remarkable town of Melk, Austria.
Since I’ve been selling river cruises for the past 7 years I was familiar with this stop on the itinerary, but never having visited Melk myself, what a joyous revelation the famous Melk Abbey turned out to be. We began our expertly guided tour in the imperial rooms, which now house the most modern abbey museum imaginable. Each room is distinguished by bright, vibrant colors, exquisite lighting and historic objects displayed with creative panache. The order of this Benedictine abbey was founded in 1089 and the abbey itself was constructed in the early 1700s. The baroque interior of the church is truly dazzling, and the Marble Hall a riot of various marbles used on columns, walls and floor tiles. Our favorite room (except for the wonderful modern museum) was the Abbey’s library, a huge and imposing room with magnificent floor to ceiling bookcases that house over 80,000 medieval volumes.
Lucky us for the 2nd time! Our visit to the abbey on Thursday, 7 June coincided with the annual Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi, so not only were we allowed to participate in the service inside the gorgeous church, we witnessed the procession of the clergy and congregation at the conclusion of the service. The procession began outside in the abbey’s courtyard and proceeded into the lovely little town of Melk. We saw precious children in their white robes, leaders of the church, and local men and women festooned in traditional Alpine dress… the ladies in dirndl dresses and the gents in their Tyrolean hats with enormous feather plumes waving in the breeze.
We docked in Vienna later that evening and had opted for an optional Waltz Concert, which turned out to be a disappointment when compared to the Prague concert we’d enjoyed earlier in the week. Clearly catering to the tourist market, this concert featured average musicians playing Strauss and Mozart and overweight ballet dancers! Skip this and book your own concert event in Vienna!
Continue to part 2 of this series.
© Sandra B. Wilkins
About the Author
Sandra Wilkins is a Tour Specialist at AffordableTours.com
Tel: 800.935.2620 Ext 115