A week in Prague. Old buildings, beer and heavy food away from the oppressive July heat of Osaka. I guess three out of four isn't too bad, as Prague was in the midst of a heatwave, with temperatures above 30° every day. Not as hot as in Osaka — the humidity here is much worse — but many places in Prague lack air conditioning.
This was a business trip for me. The CNS 2015 conference was held in Prague and I gave a tutorial on the use of MUSIC and NEST. Ritsuko has never been to Prague, so this was a chance for her to see the place. I was usually busy so she spent time in the city by herself, although she did join the conference dinner and we had dinner together a couple of times.
I'd been to Prague once before, almost fifteen years ago, but the place is still mostly as I remember: Lots of beer places, lots of book stores and lots of quiet beautiful streets. The cityscape is a mix of the old and the new of course, but it's clear they have building codes in place to make sure new construction fits in with the old. No new buildings can be higher than existing ones, for instance. They're doing a good job of keeping the atmosphere. I don't remember there being this much graffiti though, or perhaps I'm just no longer used to it.
The trams are by far the best way to get around the city. They're quicker to use than the metro since you catch them on the street with no need to run up and down stairs. You see where you're going so you don't get disoriented, and you can see a lot of the city this way. Public transport is really easy: you buy a ticket good for 30 or 90 minutes, stamp it in a machine as you board, then you can travel on the trams, metro and buses until your time is up.
The area next to the river has always been the focus for tourists, but now it's all souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants for foreign tourists (with prices to match). We walked to the Charles bridge one early morning and it was already filling up with salesmen, tour operators, "funny" caricaturists, schlock painters and so on. A walk along the river is nice, but you're generally better off avoiding the two-three blocks around it.
The conference was at the university of Economics, on the east side of the train station. The city is much quieter there, as fewer tourists find reason to visit the area. Tree-lined streets with apartment buildings, small shops, restaurants and convenience stores. A large, pleasant park abuts the university on the south end. The venue was in a couple of quite modern buildings, with meeting rooms around a large atrium, and the main presentation hall off to the side. The lack of air conditioning made the tutorials and poster sessions almost unbearably hot at times.
This was the first time I attended CNS — I should have done this before; it's a great conference — and as I'd heard, the highlights really were the tutorials and the workshops. The main three-day meeting and presentations were good, certainly, but it was the smaller, focused events that really delivered. I took more notes during the one-day neuromechanics workshop than I did over three days of general presentations.
The food is good, it's heavy and there's a lot of it. It skews heavily towards fried meat and dumplings, stews and heavy sauces. Fresh vegetables is limited to the occasional token tomato wedge or cucumber slice. The amounts are almost ridiculous; a starter is a whole meal, and I and Ritsuko could share a main dish between us if we wanted.
The beer is likewise abundant, cheap, and very, very good. Modern, filtered beer pretty much originated here, and there must be dozens of breweries around Prague alone. It tends to be light but flavourful and refreshingly low in alcohol, often 3.5-4% or so rather than the heady 5% you always get in Japan. And so very tasty; even Ritsuko, normally no fan of beer, found it very easy to like.
The final night we wanted something a little different from the ever present pork-dumpling-sauce track of Czech cuisine, so we found a retro cafe/bar/restaurant called "Kaaba" southeast of the train station. Furnished with mid-century furniture and an overall design from the 1960's, it draws young, hip people from the neighbourhood. The atmosphere was pleasant and the food was quite good.
I had high expectations coming to Prague. Did the city deliver? Yes, I think it did. The river area was a bit too touristy for my taste, but I spent most of my time toward the eastern areas away from the worst parts. It doesn't strike you as a big city (though it is), but a friendly, walkable place that's a joy to visit.