PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - Wisconsin has curds, but the Czech Republic is home to fried cheese served as an entree. Count me in.
Located in the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic is a small, gorgeous country with a very long and tumultuous history. I first visited seven years ago when I was an exchange student living in Germany, but I became fascinated with the country as a child. I've always wanted to go back, but I wasn't expecting to so soon.
You see, with cold temperatures sure to be settling in the Stateline Area, my husband Mat and I had booked a vacation to the Virgin Islands about a year ago. A beach vacation is so atypical from our usual go-go-go style of traveling, so we thought it'd be a nice change of pace.
Hurricane Irma arrived in early September and Maria soon followed, drenching the already devastated area. It quickly became apparent that we weren't going to have sand between our toes in October. Rather than completely canceling our getaway, we vowed to try again for the Virgin Islands in the future, and created an impromptu "plan B."
We clicked Google flight's "feeling lucky" button a few times and landed on the Czech Republic's capital city of Prague as one of our cheap last-minute flight options.
Fast forward just a month and we found ourselves walking along cobblestone streets, some 4,700 miles away from our original destination, jackets on and hot chocolate in hand.
It wasn't at all what I thought I would be doing, but the trip couldn't have gone better. Prague is a gorgeous and affordable city that is a feast for the senses. There is something different around every corner. And, since we no longer had to worry about having "beach bodies," we fully embraced Czech treats and relaxed for a week.
Although we were only really on vacation for 5 days because of our flights, we logged 50-plus miles on our shoes. We saw all sorts of architecture, soaked in the sunshine through towering stained glass windows at cathedrals, explored an over 1,000-year-old castle, took a river cruise and even climbed a mountain.
I love to learn about an area's history and soak in all the information I can while traveling. While we didn't go to any "traditional" museums with glass display cases and the "shh...quiet please" signs on our visit, we did see many sites that allow tourists to explore and learn at their own pace.
• Charles Bridge was originally built beginning in 1357, and it is a buzzing destination from sunrise to sunset. The Gothic bridge connects the city's Old Town to Prague Castle, crossing over the Vltava River. The bridge offers perfect vantage points for pictures of the castle and also the tallest spires of Old Town.
• Prague Castle, which has the Guinness Book of World Record's title as "largest ancient castle in the world," towers over the city. Dating all the way back to the 9th century, the castle complex features an old palace, the current residence of the Czech president, churches, the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral, a dungeon, vineyards, gardens and more. My favorite area to see was "Golden Lane," a long row of squatty houses and buildings dating back to the 16th century.
• Old Town Square is flanked on all sides by restaurants and winding streets filled with bars and shops. The square itself features a large statue in remembrance of Jan Hus, a Czech religious reformer who was burned at the stake in 1415 for heresy against the Roman Catholic Church. Among his beliefs was that people should not have been able to pay the church to forgive their sins. At the opposite end of the square is the famous astronomical clock, dating back to 1410.
• Prague escaped World War II mostly intact and its Jewish quarter remains untouched. As twisted and sick as it is, the ghetto remained because of Adolf Hitler's own wishes. He had hoped to keep the area as the museum of an eradicated race. The former ghetto has roots back to the 13th century and has six synagogues and a Jewish ceremonial hall. A memorial to the 60,000 Czech Jews killed during World War II is somber and eye-opening, with every name neatly written in the Pinkas Synagogue from floor to ceiling. The Jewish cemetery is said to be one of the most unique in the world, with graves being layered 10-deep, making it high above street level.
Prague's city center can get very crowded with tourists during the day, but it doesn't rise to the same level of havoc as in other popular European cities like London, Paris or even Berlin. If you go out early or late there are far fewer people around. I really enjoy Prague because it is one of those cities that is really safe to walk around and the transit system also runs at all times.
• Although it's only a short subway ride away from the city center, Vysehrad, a historic fort that was originally built sometime around the 10th century, has few tourists roaming about during the day. The area is like a huge park that includes historical buildings, a church, and a really neat cemetery where famous composer Antonin Dvorak is buried. There also are wonderful views of the city and castle from the hilltop.
• Taking a boat trip along the Vltava River is a wonderful way to see Prague's most famous sites from a different perspective. All kinds of cruises are available, including 1 and 2 hour excursions, both with and without commentary. We decided to take a 3-hour-long dinner cruise. We enjoyed a three-course plated dinner and were able to sit atop the boat and see everything lit up at night.
• Enjoying a tour with experienced guides always adds another layer to enjoying a space. We visited Kutna Hora, a town located about an hour from Prague that is famous because of its "Bone Church," an ossuary decorated with thousands of human skeletons. Kutna Hora also was a huge silver mining town in the past and is a UNESCO site.
• We rented a car and took a day trip to Bohemian Switzerland National Park, located about two hours northwest of Prague. We hiked along a few well-manicured trails to enjoy the changing colors and took a boat ride through Edmund Gorge near Hrensko. We also hiked to Pravcicka brana, the largest sandstone arch in Europe. Unfortunately the fog rolled in, so we didn't get a beautiful view.
Eat, eat, eat
Czech food is hearty. We joked that the Czech Republic seems to be "the land that vegetables forgot," as the country's traditional cuisine doesn't include much besides cabbage, potatoes or bread as possible side dishes. I didn't mind eating nothing but protein, starch and sugar for a week straight, but anybody who is health conscious might not enjoy it. Here are a few of my must-try items:
• Goulash is like a thick gravy stew that can be mild or spicy in taste. It can include cubed beef, cubed pork, or a mixture of both. It is often served with Czech dumplings, which are not at all like the dumplings you might think of from Poland or Germany. Instead of being "noodle-like," the dumplings are like bread and used to soak up sauce.
• Braised pork knuckle is one of those dishes that you look at and wonder "how in the world do I eat this?" The huge chunk of meat is presented on a plate with a knife stuck in it and you're free to graze. Dumplings are pretty much required as a side, as is a half liter of beer. The meat is so tender it falls right off the bone.
• Not all fried cheeses are created equal. Don't get me wrong, I love my curds, but fried Edam or Camembert are in a different world. "Smazeny Syr" is a staple in Prague. Huge chunks of the cheeses are battered, fried and served as an entree or in a sandwich form with tartar sauce or mayonnaise.
• Trdelnik are seen all over the city, being cooked on spindles at open air markets and in little shops. The hollow pastry is like a cinnamon roll without the frosting, and is slightly less sweet. Each stand has its own options for filling. Some popular choices include vanilla ice cream, Nutella, strawberries, or straight-up chocolate. You can't go wrong.