The First of Many Firsts - the Czech Republic
We started our trip in Germany. It was Darrell's first time there, however Sharleen had visited roughly 12 years ago. The Czech Republic was a new experience for both of us, and we were both excited and nervous to explore the western part of the country.
We started our Czech adventures just past the Germany border, in a town called Cheb. We had arrived in the late afternoon, and were only in town for the evening before making our way to Prague the next day. It was also a national holiday, so the town was quiet and peaceful, which made for a nice stroll up and down the cobblestone streets.
After Cheb we made our way to Plzen, the town known for the creation of the original Pilsner beer. We were on a bit of a tight schedule, as we were making our way to Prague, but we took some time to do a tour of the impressive Pilsner Urquell brewery. The term "brewery" doesn't accurately describe this location, it is more like a massive manufacturing complex where they manufacture beer. The brewery is over 170 years old, and they brew, bottle, and ship an insane amount of beer everyday. They bottle over 120,000 bottles (0.5L), 60,000 cans, and 18,000 plastic bottles (1L) of beer every hour. It was a very informative 90 minute tour, and at the end we got to try a pint of unpasteurized Pilsner. Very delicious!
After Plzen we made our way to Prague, where we had the opportunity to explore the impressive architecture through two days of self guided walking tours. We walked over 25km within the city, which included a trip up the Astronomical Clock, a tour of the Jewish Museum and Cemetery, Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, and of course, the iconic Charles Bridge.
Of all the architecture we saw in Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral was definitely our favourite. The Cathedral is located in the centre of Prague Castle, and it stands out in the city skyline. As you walk through Prague Castle, you are reminded of a time when knights, horses, and kings actually existed! From the narrow streets and alleys, to the cramped living quarters that are on display, you really get an appreciation of what life was like in the 16th century. We started on the East side of the castle and worked our way throughout the grounds, which led us to St. Vitus Cathedral. We first saw the cathedral from the back side and even though it was partially covered due to restoration, it still took our breath away. We took our time walking around the building, taking in the seemingly endless details. Once inside, you are met with an awe-inspiring view. The sheer volume of expertly crafted stained glass was something to behold (seriously we have never seen so much of the stuff!). The natural light that passed through the stained glass created a very ethereal mood throughout the auditorium. Maybe it's a lack of skill, but no matter how great any photo we took looks, it pales in comparison to the real deal. A definite must if you are in Prague.
We also went to our first art museum in Europe - Narodni Gallery. This is the National Gallery museum featuring art pieces from the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. At least 4km of our Prague walk was spent in this 5 story building, as we walked each floor looking at the various exhibits. Neither one of us could remember the last art exhibit we had visited, so it was nice to try something new. While we have an appreciation for the talent and the pieces, there is only so much art we can take-in in one "sitting". By the second floor we started to play a game were we would each try to guess the name of the art piece from a distance before looking at the name plate. Sharleen was the first to guess one correctly, "Footprints" (literally footprints in plaster), and we ended up tied at 2 each after viewing hundreds and hundreds of pieces (the other pieces were "Black Lake" (D), "Dead Swan" (S), and "Adam and Eve" (D)).
All in all, the few days we spent in Prague provided tired legs, sore feet, and an amazing time experiencing Prague's views and history.
We left Prague bright and early to head north to hike in an area called Bohemian Switzerland, a national park in northwest Czech (not in Switzerland, although the name can make that confusing). This was our first hike of the trip, so we were quite excited to get into the fresh air and make our way to Pravcicka Brana, the largest natural sandstone bridge in Europe. The hike started with a 4km hike uphill, on a well marked pathway. It was not a difficult walk, although it is a steady uphill climb until you see the old hotel at the base of the bridge. The hotel is no longer in service, however there is a cute restaurant that smelled of homemade goulash and beer for the hikers who had reached their main destination. We were continuing on to the next section of our hiking loop for that day, however before we left, we took in the sites of the area for about an hour. From the top of the mountains you can see other sandstone formations, farm land, and acres and acres of forests. It was a beautiful view, and well worth the climb to the top.
From there we hiked just over 6km through the forested sandstone mountain range, again on a well marked pathway, but this time mainly downhill. We were happy that we started the loop heading to Pravcicka Brana first, as it was a quick 4km uphill, but the remainder of the 15km was downhill.
We had a quick picnic lunch then headed on for the last third of our hike. In this section of the hike we walked through flat/slightly downhill forests. It was shaded and protected by the sun, which gave the 1.5km walk an eery feel. We both thought it looked like a place where werewolves would live. It was a quiet pathway with very few hikers, which made it a little more enjoyable.
The next 1.5km was again a complete change of scenery, with a beautiful gorge. We walked along the edge of the sandstone walls the whole way, with bright green trees on either side, and the Kamenice stream below us.
After the short walk, we arrived at the first of two boat rides. We were looking forward to the boat rides, and an opportunity to sit down for a few minutes. However, you could tell that the rides were definitely a tourist attraction, and quite gimmicky. Even though it was given in Germany, we could tell it was quite cheesy. But it provided some entertainment and a quick break which was pleasant. The boat docked after about a 10 minute ride, and we hiked about 2km along the gorge to the next boat ride. This ride was very similar, maybe even a little cheesier due to the on demand man made waterfall - the gondolier would just pull a rope and water would flow from the ledge above.
After the second boat ride, we were on the last stretch of our loop which ended in the parking lot where we had parked our car for the day. It seemed like there were many other hikes in the area, and with the well marked pathways it was easy to build your own adventure for a full day of hiking. We had found an Airbnb in a nearby town, where we spent the last night in the Czech Republic before making our way to northern Germany.
We were a bit nervous going to a new place where the land, language, people, and culture were completely new to us. However, we left the Czech Republic with fond memories, and more confidence as we continue to explore many more "firsts".