CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE
“There is never enough time in any city. These tours are designed to give you a taste. Then you can come back on your own and explore again.”
Our tour guide, Stephanie, said this to our group after we got back on the bus. She first asked the group, “What did you think?” and someone responded, “Not enough time!” She then told us her “just a taste” theory, and I’d have to agree.
We live in Europe, people! We can get to some of the most historically significant places in the western hemisphere in less time than it used to take us to get to Grandma’s! But sometimes the details can be overwhelming: What’s important? Where should I park? What should I see? Where should I stay or eat
Like riding a bike, sometimes you need training wheels and a guided tour can help you on your first trip. Later, you can take the training wheels off and take the trip again on your own. Then you can go faster or slower where you’d like, or maybe take a detour, but you’ve been here before and it’s more comfortable this time.
RTT on Ramstein offers many tour options throughout Europe and even further. We decided to go with them on our first trip to the Czech Republic. I’m sure we’ll go back – without training wheels – but our “just a taste” tour was great!
We left from the Base Chapel parking lot at 2300 (yep, that’s 11:00) on a Friday night. The first order of business was sleep! We needed every minute we could get for our big day ahead. The tour bus was comfortable and we rode through the night to Prague. By 0600 we had made it to Prague and stopped at our hotel.
Of course, we couldn’t check in to the hotel at that point, but we did have access to our luggage and bathrooms. Those who wanted to change or freshen up could and our luggage was safely stored in the hotel’s luggage storage. Even though we hadn’t stayed the night, the hotel and RTT had arranged for us to eat breakfast there.
The breakfast buffet was a nice mix of local dishes and American standards. There were pastries, eggs, toast and bacon along with a sausage soup. Coffee, tea and juices were also served. We had plenty of time to eat before we needed to join the group and get back on the bus to start our walking tour of Prague.
Back on the bus, we met our local guide, Martina. She would spend the rest of the morning with us, and we started at the Prague Castle. The Prague Castle holds the record for the largest castle in the world, but don’t think of one castle building; instead the castle site is a collection of buildings. There are government buildings, palaces, gardens, museums, a basilica and a cathedral. Name a European architectural style, and you can find examples within the castle walls.
We arrived early, beat many of the other tour groups, and for a brief while it felt like we had the courtyards to ourselves. Martina shared her knowledge of the castle and also gave us time to take pictures and do a little wandering. In the spirit of “just a taste” we didn’t see everything, but hit the highlights: a walk through the courtyards, a chance to see the inside of St. Vitus Cathedral, and a few photo ops with the royal guards.
Before leaving the castle area we were able to look out over the city from the castle’s hill. We walked down the castle steps, strolled through the lower town and then on to the famous Charles Bridge.
The Charles Bridge is famous for a few reasons: It’s old. It’s pretty. It’s pedestrian only. Completed in the early 1400’s, it was the first bridge over the Vltava River and therefore the first land connection between eastern and western Europe. The stone bridge is decorated with thirty statues of important saints to the people of Prague. Interspersed among the statues are musicians and vendors to entertain the many tourists along this famous bridge.
Once we crossed the bridge we were in Old Town Prague. Our walking tour took us to see the Astronomical clock, the Old Town Square, St. Wenceslas Square, and the Powder Gate. This part of the walking tour was pretty swift, but gave us a chance to get oriented for later when we could explore on our own.
Before splitting up, the group ate a local-style lunch in a lower level the Municipal House. The meal, minus the drinks, was included in the tour prices. Unless we requested the vegetarian option, we had a chicken soup, goulash and a crepe dessert. I always pictured goulash as a type of stew, but this was meat and bread with a tomato-based sauce. I enjoyed both the atmosphere and the food.
After lunch we were free to explore again on our own until 1600. My husband and I decided to revisit the places we had just previewed. One of the biggest “must-sees” happens at the top of each hour at the Astronomical Clock. At that time the clock becomes animated and figures depicting death, vanity, a miser, a Turk plus the twelve apostles come to life. A golden rooster crows and the bell tolls. This clock has recently celebrated its 600th anniversary!
At 1600 we met our tour guide who took us to the bus and we had a ride back to the hotel. Those who preferred to stay could, and directions were given for riding the subway back to the hotel. Dinner and the rest of our evening was our own to spend how we liked.
The hotel was the Clarion Congress Hotel Prauge. It’s a nice hotel with a typical, you could be anywhere, feel. It has an adjoining small mall with a few restaurants and stores. I know a few in our group chose to eat dinner there.
The next day we ate at the same breakfast buffet and got back on the bus for just under two hours. The second town of our trip is the second-most visited town in the Czech Republic, Karlovy Vary, also known as Karlsbad, or even Carlsbad.
Whatever its name, the city is famous for it’s hot springs. There are 13 main springs and around 300 minor ones. The springs were thought to have restorative health powers and the town was built as a spa location for the rich. The town lies on the banks of the Teplá River and today is a popular place for visiting and ex-pat Russians in the Czech Republic.
Our tour bus was not allowed in the main city area, so we parked and then rode a city shuttle bus to a drop-off spot. We were given a time to meet back at the bus stop, but we were also allowed to follow the tour guide for a walking tour along the river. We chose to follow Stephanie, for “just a taste” of Karlovy Vary.
It was a rainy, chilly day as we walked, but we were dressed for the weather and ready to go. We stopped at a small local shop that had a wonderful selection of small “sipping cups.” Almost all of these cups had a handle that doubled as a straw. This would be useful as we came to the fountains for the hot springs.
As we walked along the river, we came to various buildings in various architectural styles built to house the hot springs. Each fountain was constantly trickling and we used our sipping cups for tasting the waters. I’d have to say the warmth of the water was the best part. It tasted slightly salty and smelled, well, like hot springs!
The town was beautiful and we enjoyed window-shopping, people watching, and picture taking as we strolled. Those who were interested ate lunch together at the Venezia restaurant located near the river. Their Italian food was reasonably priced and we enjoyed drying off while we ate. www.venezia-pixxeria.cz
There was a little more time for shopping and exploring before it was time to meet the shuttle bus. After the shuttle bus, we boarded our regular tour bus and headed back to Ramstein. We made one stop at a rest area for gas. There was a Burger King and convenience store, so anyone who was hungry had a chance to eat up. By about 2100 we were back on Ramstein and ready to go home.
It was “just a taste” but it left us hungry for more. We’d love to go back and have some more time, especially in Prague. One of our fellow travelers mentioned that DoD employees and dependents may stay in apartments at the US embassy in Prague. We’d also like to visit the Ossuary in Kutná Hora. Now that we’ve seen what a neat place the Czech Republic is, we’ll be back for a main course!
Since the trip begins late on Friday and returns on Sunday night, it can be done on a weekend without taking time off of a regular duty week. It would be a squeeze, but it could be done.
The price of this tour varies slightly depending on the season. Low season is November – February and the rest of the year falls under the high season.
Low Season Prices: €189 Adults; €179 Children 3-12, when rooming with 2 adults; €129 Children under 3 (bus seat only)
High Season Prices: €199 Adults; €189 Children 3-12 years, when rooming with 2 adults; €129 Children under 3 years (bus seat only)
The tour included lots of walking and not all of it was on even ground. It is not recommended for children under 6.
Included: two breakfasts, one lunch, hotel, transportation, use of two tour guides.
Not included: other meals, all drinks, souvenirs, and tips. (During the Prague walking tour, an envelope was passed to tip the local guide. Towards the end of the bus ride another was passed for the RTT guide and bus drivers.)
The Czech Republic uses Czech koruna also known as Czech crown as their currency. Some places took euro or US dollars, but not every place. I was unable to exchange currency at my bank on base before the tour, but our tour guide helped everyone on the bus. Bring along cash in either euro or dollars to exchange. She was able to expedite the exchange at the hotel, by doing it as a group. This exchange rate was fair.
The weather range in the Czech Republic is similar to Germany’s. It can get pretty cold in the winter and warm in the summer. Check out the forecast when you are packing and remember you will be spending a lot of time outside walking. Also remember that you will have limited access to your luggage.