It was a pretty extravagant date to jet over to another country just for a day but- Yep, I can now say that I’ve done that.
Okay so the jet was in fact regional trains, using the Bayern-Böhmen (Bavaria-Bohemia) cheap ticket, and it wasn’t that quick- it took four hours either way, including stops. And the other country was just next door- we hopped from Nuremberg to Plzen in the Czech Republic. And we did it on the budget of 800CzKr each (that being the spare change from our Prague escape). But it was one of the most surprisingly fun and interesting dates I’ve ever been on, and possibly day trips.
If this year has taught me one thing it would be: go to the places that aren’t on the tourist trail. Plzen isn’t really on many trails; it is sidestepped mostly in favour of Prague and, for those that know the Czech a little better, the quainter and possibly more classically beautiful Carlsbad. However for us, it was easily reachable on public transport, doable in a day and at a reasonable price too.
My favourite building of the day, oddly, was the train station. Viewed from the outside it is a rustic, green-gold, glowing splendour with that classic, Eastern European building style that reminds one slightly of the Mediterranean in a greener setting. It’s small but rather adorable, especially with the sun glancing off at all angles. We then wandered our way into town, admiring the Tesco, the Museum of Western Bohemia and the increasingly intricate, colourful architecture. It has another Mediterranean feature; the buildings get more beautiful as you look up. Away from street-level the tall, spindly buildings hold richer colours and intricate balconies, playing delicate shades of pastel through pleasantly green streets. We stumbled on several wedding parties- why am I always travelling on wedding days?- and a little stage set up on a street corner where tap dancers were giving performances; really good dancing and such a nice atmosphere. We continued to the main square of the old town with the Cathedral of St Bartholomew reigning as the centre piece. More beautifully intricate buildings in their chocolate box rows and a strange array of sculptures, of Greek letters, pouring water and glittering golden in the sharp sun, surround the modest but beautiful cathedral. There are three options in the cathedral: have a limited but sufficient look through the back door, for free, pay (I’m not sure how much) to go inside and wander around, it did look rather impressive so it’s probably worth a look, and then there is a tower you can head up. We almost bypassed the door leading to the spiral staircases since the sign was a bit misleading and we thought you needed to book a tour to go up. But we’re nosey- I mean, curious- so we went and had a look and for the Krona equivalent of about 80cent you can head up and alarmingly steep tower for the best view Plzen has to offer. The ‘guided’ parts of the tour are the information points and posters on the way up, explaining the history of the tower and how it was built and re-built. Other than that, you’re on your own for a, slightly safer, more legal version of Urban Ex as you head up the, really rather alarmingly steep stairway for what feels like ever, ducking under beams and low ceilings as you go. The top is worth the climb for the sunning panorama. You can see far beyond the reaches of the tiny city, you can see the hill behind with its tower blocks rolling off into the distance, the brewing chimney, the factory chimneys and the green world beyond. And you can see the weather rolling in across the Czech countryside; we could certainly see some coming our way.
We then swung by The Great Synagogue which was only a little disappointing. It’s probably great to look inside but since it was the Sabbath that wasn’t an option, the outside is very understated and tasteful, as I have found with most European synagogues but it was also on an extremely busy main road and currently surrounded by building works so I wasn’t particularly feeling any spiritual vibe or sense of calm. The clouds drew in and we headed down a street called, I believe, Presovska (but I could be wrong) where we stumbled across I think my favourite restaurant of all time. An Italian restaurant called Dolce Vita occupies a courtyard, accessed from the street through an unassuming archway, and looks, again, very Mediterranean with its warm yellows, iron candle holders, geraniums in terracotta pots; the weather had other ideas though. We sat down to a huge menu choice for a very reasonable price – this is the Czech Republic so I paid 302Kr for my two course meal and a drink and that’s about ten Euros – and the thunder started to clap.
It was actually hugely enjoyable sitting under the awning watching the rain pour down around us, still quite warm, as the waiters ran from the restaurant to the cover with our food. It was quite Europeanised Italian food, nothing like I’ve had in Italy, but it was honestly probably the best meal I’ve eaten since living abroad: everything tasted distinct and perfectly prepared, all the ingredients tasted fresh. I don’t think I’ve ever raved about a restaurant quite like this; it must be good. The beer in Plzen is also quite different from in Germany- many more bubbles- but still a very nice break. And if you’re going to have beer in the Czech, then what better place to have it than Plzen?
As it’s the home of beer we decided to take a wander over to the place where the magic happens, past the football stadium, through a beautiful park and rose garden and then over a bizarre bridge in the Brewery’s colours right into the heart of the production. Both the underground tours and the brewery tours are supposed to be worth a look, but we sadly didn’t have time for either. We got a good long look at the magnificent buildings though, and could admire through the glass, the big magic pots where the famed brew is fermented. There is a Bier Keller there too and a temptingly cool gift shop- albeit a tad overpriced. The entire compound is so clean, and neatly kept but it’s also more modern than the rest of the town- like its very own gated community, apart from ‘real’ Plzen. It’s a different kind of architecture but it’s still very pretty in its own way.
Plzen isn’t exactly on the list of Top Ten Hottest European Cities, I’ll grant you that, but it’s certainly not as bypassable as everyone believes. If you’re in Czech and you have just a day and an evening to spare, or you’re looking for someone to kill some hours or make a stop over, then do this little city some justice and hope out and give it a look. It’s over shadowed by its big sister Prague but it is quirky, vibrant and very beautiful. You can’t ignore the price difference between it and Prague either. Good things often come in underrated packages- dare you to be that traveller and go there, because this is going down as one of the best days of my year so far.
In case you’re interested, here’s the website for the restaurant. I’m not sponsored by them. I can’t find a trip advisor page or place to rate them but if I could it’d be 10/10, I’ve never felt the need to go and find way to rate a restaurant before. http://www.dolcevitarestaurant.cz/?restaurace