Prague – Czech Republic and my favourite city

I think one of my earliest memories of “The News and Politics” involves the uprising in Prague and tanks in Wencelas Square, but what I didn’t expect was to visit this most beautiful of cities.  We first visited Prague in October 1991 as part of the development of a three-way research collaboration with Russia, The Czech republic and The UK.  It rained really heavily and all I remember was rushing across town in what seemed a maze of streets to a wonderful cheap bar, where we spent all afternoon drinking and eating with a Russian colleague.  The bill came to £10, which made me reaslise this city was going to something special for me, haha!

The funding for the collaboration with The Czech Republic was successful, as were several other grants, and I was able to visit Prague almost every year between 1991 and 2009.  I fell in love with this city and I must remember I am writing a Blog and not a book!  So, where do I start?  I suppose my first thing must be to thank everyone who I met and who made my viisits so pleasent.  I better apologise to all those who attended my seminars and didn’t quite follow my Geordie accent, or my arm waving approach to lecturing!  If you recognise yourself in the picture thanks for attending!

The city of Prague came through the second world war almost unscathed, despite an American bombing campaign and has something in common with Paris in that respect; although, I think it is more beautiful!  It sits on the Vltava river, which provides a beautiful centrepiece for the city, with the castle sitting at the top of the hill over-looking the whole of the city.  In turn, the centrepiece to the river is Charles Bridge, which dates back to the 14th Century and is one of the most beautiful bridges I have ever walked across.  However, this also provides a rapid introoduction to the biggest problem that Prague faces – its own popularity!  Charles Bridge is always a river of tourists, with local artists and sovenier sellers lining the edges of the bridge, it has lost some of its early appeal during that first visit in 1991.  But every visitor must stroll across Charles Bridge (early in the morning is a good idea) and into Malá Strana (“the Lesser Quarter”), which is full of bars and good restaurants.  A challenge is to find the restaurant with two hearts on the door, worth a visit for good Czech food if it is still there – they got badly damaged during the floods of 2002, but I believe it is still there.  Sadly the bar we ate in during our first visit has long disappeared, but there are so many other places to visit for good food.  My own preference is to try some the hospodas as these simple bar/restaurants are much more authentic.  The Institute, where I gave my seminars, is lucky enough to have two close by (the “Green House” and “The Black Swan”), but in the city centre near the Old Town Square there is “Futball”, which serves good food and genuine Czech cuisine.

I remember the first few times we walked around the city we soon became aware that an important part of “seeing” Prague is to look up at the buildings, the architecture is always magnificent, but also varied and is also accompanied by beautiful paintings and illustrations.  Hidden away from the city across one of the bridges near the island is one of the most beautiful café/restaurants, which is typical of the type of architecture that is common in Prague.

I could write about so many places around the city, but this will become boring eventually, so, instead a few thoughts about what makes the city special for me (apart from the architecture).  I think the first point is that you can sit in The Old Time Square (either at a bar, or just around the statue) and people watch – the city is always busy, there are jazz bands coming and going, or just the variety in people from all nations.  I have spent many a day sketching out a scientific paper while also people watching!  Tram hoping is one of my favourite ways to see a city and Prague is very good for this.  You can buy a ticket that lasts all week, which allows travel throughout the city and just swap from tram to tram.  You can occasionally jump off to visit the castle or some other passing landmark, but if you do this outside of the rush hour you really get a feel for the Hotel Europalayout of the city.  Live music is the other thing I really like in Prague – usually this means visits to various jazz clubs, but also other types of music are played all over the city.  One example I liked from early visits was The Hotel Europa, which has a very Bohemian bar/restaurant at the front entrance, and we used to sit listening to a violin and piano entertaining the restaurant clientele – very pleasant!

If you have never been to Prague you must go, avoid the weekend if you don’t like crowds and hen/batchelor-parties, but visit the traditional Czech bars and restaurants.


Visit to York

We spent a few days (Thursday to Monday) in York over the weekend for the engagement party of our eldest granddaughter.  I love this city for many reasons, but most of all because of the fantastic history wrapped up in the place.  If you plan a visit to York, I always recommend spring as the hills on which the city wall sits are covered in daffodils, which is very pretty if the sun shines.We travelled up there using Cross Country trains as this is easier for us than going across London – Fareham to Winchester, then Winchester to York.  The journey up was generally OK; although, the carriage was a little cold (more about that later), but everything ran on time and we were early enough to have a quick beer in the buffet at York station – The Coopers – which sells very good real ales and is reasonably comfortable for a station buffet!  Then we took the No. 4 bus to The Marriott Hotel (can you tell we are retired and get free travel?), which got us there in about 10 minutes and leaves from opposite the Station exit – very convenient.
The first evening we ate at The Marriott Hotel and we were a little disappointed by the meal and especially the cost, but it was convenient.  Despite this the Marriott is a very nice hotel and we got an upgrade to a “Grandstand View” room (left with the gardens in the foreground and the racecourse in the distance), which was really comfortable with a huge bed (the less said the better).  The Hotel also has a swimming pool, a beauty center and a gym, but we did not partake in these!
Day two (Friday) was mostly spent shopping, but we didn’t get too far – Marks and Spencer and Fenwick’s, so not too much to report there.
However, we did “find ourselves” outside my favourite pub (strange that) – The Three Tuns – this is a really old pub (229 years of serving customers), but is also well on the tourist map and was busy.  The beer is excellent (and included some homemade mulled cider, for those who like cider – not me) and the food is good.  We only stayed for one pint, but I always like the atmosphere in there, however, the seats are not the most comfortable.
That evening we went to a lovely little restaurant in Goodramgate – The Lime House – where we had some really tasty food, which was both well presented and tasted wonderful (I had venison cutlets).  perhaps the only problem with this restaurant is it is small and we got stuck near the entrance, which was a little drafty as some people don’t seem to know how to shut a door!  but the place is worth a visit and I thoroughly recommend it.  We finished the evening with a few beers in The Cross Keys, at the top of Goodramgate, which is part of a chain of pubs and was very comfortable, it looked fairly newly fitted out, and served a nice pint of Hobgoblin.
Day 3 was the day of the engagement party (at a little “town pub” near Acomb – The Green Tree – which is OK, but nothing too special), so we spent the day shopping again.  The highlights were a little market display in a marquee at the top of Parliament Street, which was selling goods that were “handmade in yorkshire” and we bought a couple fo things.  I also enjoyed a chat with a young lady who was making and selling pewter goods (we discussed acid-based etching!), but I didn’t buy anything (tut tut).  Then Brown’s departmental store and finally a beer in The Graduate, because we could get free WiFi in there (sad).
Sunday is always a funny sort of day, but we discovered most, if not all, of the shops were open in York, which meant another round of browsing the shops.  I guess what I noticed most is that there are a lot of shops in a short distance and the walk up Stonegate, with a slight detour to take in the breathtaking view of York Minster, along Low Petersgate with its multitude of little shops, then down The Shambles just for the beauty of the street (still too many tourists, including us!) and then a couple of beers in York’s most haunted pub – The Golden Fleece – which is also a really nice little pub with some good beers.
If you recreate that little walk for yourselves, I recommend following it up with a walk around the walls of York, some breathtaking views are possible, there is also a lovely park near the Lendal Bridge (on the left when going up toward The Minster) and a number of places to visit as you travel around the city walls.
Our final day was spent packing and then travelling back on the train.  Unfortunately, the air conditioning in our carriage was ridiculously cold and we shivered most of the way home!
So, my final comment – visit York, take a few days to do it and try to make it in Spring to see the slopes at the walls covered with daffodils.  It really is a beautiful city and has lots of history, lots of good restaurants and far too many good pubs!

Wickham, Hants

One of the 00-gauge railway layouts at the Wickham Community Centre.

Today we had a day of in Wickham, a village just outside of Fareham that we can reach this by bus (but that is going to change and I will come back to that later in the blog!), but the reason for going was there was a model railway exhibition in Wickham Community Centre.  It was also a chance to look around the village on a lovely warn Indian Summer day.

So, we caught the 94 bus from Fareham bus station, which took us around Funtley and Knowles Village on the way to Wickham – about a 30 minute journey – through some fairly “country roads” with innumerable speed bumps on one road.

Interestingly, before we boarded the last bus back to Fareham (18:05) we heard that this bus is to be cut by First Bus – which seems to engage with a policy of isolating the countryside and small villages or towns, a very negative transport policy and something that needs to be addressed (OK, off my soap box now)!

The first thing we did was walk around Wickham Square, where the bus dropped us off, and we quickly found a small indoor shopping area with a lovely cafe where we had a nice cooked English breakfast.  Then we walked up Station Road (not there is no station in Wickham anymore) and Mill Road to find the Community Centre (about 5 minute walk) and spent about an hour and half looking around the exhibition.  One interesting layout was of Namibia and looked amazingly desolate (which it was in reality).  We had an interesting chat with the modeller.

The Chesapeake Mill is a large multiroom shopping area selling second hand goods – a veritable mine of different objects and household goods.

The next stop was the Chesapeake Mill, just down Mill Road.  This place is well worth a visit if you like to rummage through a mixture of junk, antiques and cast offs.  There was also some very interesting “nearly new” clothes to be had, a little cafe for tea or coffee and many little rooms to explore; although, it was very hot upstairs.  One such room had a history of the mill itself, which was very interesting to read (and nicely illustrated with a wide range of photographs).  We bought some birthday cards and the collection of cards was unusual and reasonably priced.

Finally (for me at least), a drink at one of the villages pubs – The Kings Head – is a Fullers pub and quite a large place.  The bar area itself is only a moderate size, but there a couple of room off that bar, a covered coach-drive with comfortable seating (and overhead heaters for winter) with enough room for about 20-30 people.  Through from this drive there is a function room that looks as though it might hold up to 100 people, with a separate bar.  I believe there is a skittles area as well, but I didn’t track that down.  Then there is a large garden at the rear of the pub, with about 10 tables and seats and a play area for small children.  The garden is very spacious and is quiet, surrounded by trees, with a pleasant “feel” to it.  The HSB was very nice and there were several real ales on sale as well as the usual collection of other drinks.

The garden at the rear of The Kings Head, with the childrens play area visible at the top of the garden.

Brno – Czech Republic

The cathedral at the top of Petrov Hill in Brno.

In 2004, I was invited to present at a conference in Brno, the capital of Moravia and the second largest city in the Czech Republic.  We travelled by train from Prague, having already flown to Prague from Southampton.  The train journey was amazingly smooth and pleasant, with some interesting views along the way.

Brno is an interesting contrast to Prague in that there are clearly less tourists and less spoken English (although I heard quite a lot of German being spoken).  Yet, despite this situation many of the bars spoke enough English for us to order food and drink.

The city is obviously quite old and is centred around the castle, which was on the hill facing our hotel.  This castle was founded in the 11th Century, which also founded the city that is now the centre of Moravia.  it seems the city is a large centre for Higher Education with a number of universities and 89,000 students!

I was impressed by the cleanliness of the city and the building, while fairly typical of eastern Europe in general are rather beautiful often with impressive sculptures on many.  As you can see from the picture from our hotel room, even the car park was tidy!  We managed to make use of the tram system and that was very efficient, as usual in Eastern Europe.  One evening, after presentations at the Conference, we were hosted at a large restaurant near the centre of Brno and we even managed to get a bus back to the hotel, without any problems despite it being dark and late!  The weather was lovely while we were there, not too hot for a change (we often seem to end up in a heat wave), which gave us the chance to walk around the city, including walking up to the beautiful cathedral shown at the top of the Blog.

The main square was very nice and had an open market on one day when we were there, but it is not as lively as I thought it would be – the bars seem to be in side streets and off the main roads – but there was still a nice atmosphere.  We found a good bar at the back of the hotel, which also did good, traditional food and the staff were very friendly; although, they spoke very little English.  On the evening of the Conference dinner we were hosted in a country bar/restaurant/manor house, which was very interesting with sampling of Moravian wine and local music, a disco and dancing (no pictures, sorry).

Just like Prague, live entertainment often frequents the streets and is usually jazz.  This guy was obviously quite commercial, with CDs and mementos on sale, but many are amateur, yet very entertaining!

Not as pretty as Prague, but very similar – I enjoyed the visit and would recommend it to anyone touring The Czech Republic.


The cathedral at Exeter.

Our first visit to Exeter was a day trip from Bristol in September 2004.  We arrived at Exeter St. Davids; although, afterwards we realised we could have got off at Exeter Central, which would have been nearer the centre of town.  The walk into the city centre from the station was quite pleasant, except for the first climb which was quite steep.  However, we found a bar to refresh those parts that needed the rest!

We then continued along the main street, which led to the centre of town and the sizable shopping area.  The usual collection of shops were present and perhaps the main thing missing were lots of side roads with boutiques and other such specialist shops.

One place worth a visit is Chaucers, a downstairs restaurant/bar in the High Street inside an ornate old-world building.  The menu is quite varied and has some very tasty steaks.  The Hobgoblin beer is good and they serve a good collection of other drinks.  However, for those addicted to the mobile phone – there is no signal in the cellar bar!

Down at the riverside (Quays) in Exeter, a lovely walk along the river in both directions.

Next we went around the cathedral area and had a meal and coffee/tea in a cafe facing the cathedral.  The front of the cathedral is very impressive and the whole area is very picturesque.

We then made our way down the high street and to the riverside and eventually around to the quays.  This was a very nice walk and it is possible to walk quite a long way along the river in either direction.  In one direction (upstream I think) is a wonderful pub called The Double Locks, which does good live music in an evening, while in the other direction was (eventually via a slight detour off the riverside walk) The Mill on the Exe, which serves some very fine ales that you drink while sat on the balcony, decked area and enjoy the sun going down.
The ferry at the quays.

If you have children, you can always take them on the short ferry crossing of the river at the quays, cheap and easy entertainment!  Then the little enclosures facing across the river in the picture offer a variety of shopping opportunities from antiques to repairs for vehicles!  There are also a couple of antiques shops and the area is worth a look around, especially if it is sunny.

In summary, Exeter is a nice, small city that is easy to get around, busy with a good mixture of pubs, bars and restaurants, but, in my opinion, where it excels is the music – the city has frequent concerts and many of the bars have live music.  One interesting late night venue is The Old Firehouse, which has a wide variety of late night music, which can be great or a disaster depending upon your taste, but if you don’t like the music go upstairs and chat over a wine and a piece of pizza!  So, take a whole day over Exeter, enjoy the nightlife and stay overnight in a hotel or B&B, but don’t miss it.

Salisbury, UK

Swans on the waterway in Salisbury. The walk around town is very pleasant with a lot of water tumbling through the town until it eventually passes through what must have been an old mill at one time.There are lots of little shops hidden away in these “back-streets” and some good pubs.

Well this is my first Travel Blog entry and it will be a test of how easy it is to make such entries worthwhile.  What I plan is to look through my digital pictures and write about places that I have a few pictures of.  So the first place is quite local, only an hour away by train – Salisbury.

Salisbury is one of my favourite places and close enough to where I live now to visit regularly.  My first visit was many years ago when several of us students went to Stonhenge for a summer solstice, we actually camped on some farmland in a village near Stonehenge, but we managed to walk to Salisbury.  About the only thing I remember about that visit was the Cathedral and paying somthing (£5 I think) to have my name engraved on a replacement beam.  More recently I visited in 2004:

One nice place to sit and relax, or to eat is one of the hotels at the far end of the town – The Red Lion – and this place has a good bar, a lovely sheltered garden area and served pretty reasonable food.   I don’t remember what beer they sold, but I do remember enjoying what ever I had.
The garden at The Red Lion
The garden, as you can see is sheltered, but catches quite a lot of sun.  I am not sure what beer I drank, but I see to remember I enjoyed whatever it was and spent a considerable time in there.
The other place to visit, of course, is the cathederal.