London has the Thames. Paris has the Seine. Prague has the....err?
London has the Thames. Paris has the Seine. Prague has the....err?
Don't worry, you're not the only one. The Vltava doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, which is odd given it's such a defining part of the Czech Republic's capital. It divides the city in two, separating the labyrinthine Old Town from Hradcany, the home of Prague's imposing hilltop castle. Its existence is also the reason for another of the city's most visited attractions – the ornate, statue-lined Charles Bridge.
Given you'll spend much of your visit criss-crossing between its banks, why not make the Vltava an integral part of your stay?
Dotted along the Vltava are several floating "botels", ranging from high-end affairs such as the elegant 25-cabin Matylda (botelmatylda.cz, doubles from $125) to more budget-oriented options like the 83-berth Albatros (botelalbatros.cz, $50). I opt for the Florentina (florentinaboat.cz, $70), a mid-range offering moored a 10-minute stroll from Charles Bridge and the heart of the Old Town.
Each of its 49 cabins (43 twin and 6 single) has an appropriately nautical feel with partial mahogany panelling, deep red carpet and brass fittings. There's a functional but compact ensuite toilet and shower plus a small desk and wardrobe. As with anything that floats, space is at a premium, but there's storage under the beds for cases.
A generous buffet breakfast is included as is free Wi-Fi in the communal areas. There's even a flat-screen TV in each cabin, although why you'd prefer to watch that rather than the mesmerising view of boats flitting up and down the river with Prague Castle in the background beats me. This panorama is particularly beguiling at night, when you can retire to the Florentina's spacious outdoor deck with a nightcap and watch the city skyline twinkle into life.
The most compelling reason to stay on the river is the respite it provides from Prague's history-hungry crowds. As soon as I reach the banks of Vltava my stride slows, my shoulders relax and my mind quietens.
Dozens of river cruise options are available and unusually one of the most heavily spruiked is also one of the most charming. Spend any time near Charles Bridge and you'll be accosted by a smartly dressed sailor offering a Prague Venice Canal Tour (prazskebenatky.cz). The one-hour trip leaves from an underground channel beneath the only remaining archway of the 12th-century Judith Bridge (the precursor to Charles Bridge). A conveyer belt of cute wooden boats ferries passengers across the river and up Devil's Stream, a narrow Venetian-style canal that separates Kampa Island from Mala Strana (Little Quarter). I don't catch everything our heavily accented guide says but the old black-and-white photos of people skating on the frozen river in winter and more recent ones of the devastating flood in 2002 are compelling viewing. Throw in an icecream, a beer and free entry to the Charles Bridge Museum and it's an agreeable way to spend $14 (get 50 per cent off with a Prague Card).
For a more leisurely trip, check out one of Prague Boat's myriad cruises (prague-boats.cz). My two-hour lunch cruise ( $40 for adults, $25 for children) on the 57-metre-long MV Sumava begins with a Martini Bianco welcome aperitif before we pass under Charles Bridge on our way upstream. Lunch is a self-service buffet that includes salad, cold meats and cheeses plus a selection of stews and the ubiquitous Czech dumpling. It's not Michelin star-worthy but it gets a respectable "seven out of 10" from an American passenger who looks like he's sampled a buffet or two.
After turning around by Vysehrad, a castle fort perched high above the river, we head for home. No incomprehensible commentary to spoil the view this time, just the pleasant strains of an accordion player.
For dinner with a side serving of jazz, check out the Jazzboat, which offers nightly cruises departing from under Čech Bridge. The 2.5-hour cruise includes a three-course dinner accompanied by a band playing jazz, blues or swing with menus starting at $50. Alternatively, you can buy a cruise-only ticket for $30, see jazzboat.cz.
If you'd like to explore under your own steam, you can hire a row boat or paddle boat from Slovansky Island for around $10 an hour and cruise up and down an enclosed portion of the river. Rather than choosing a standard design, why not opt for something a little more "look at moy" such as a giant swan or a vintage car? It's a particularly romantic option on a balmy summer's evening when the setting sun bathes Prague's delightful pastel-coloured buildings in a rainbow of golden hues.
Despite opening more than 20 years ago, Kampa Park is still considered one of Prague's finest eateries. From its riverside setting it boasts flawless views of Charles Bridge and serves beautifully presented gourmet cuisine such as deer loin with shimeji mushrooms and butter poached Canadian lobster. With mains around $45, it's not cheap, but the five-course degustation menu is good value at $90 (add $30 for matching wines).
Equally alluring but more affordable is its nearby sister restaurant, Hergetova Cihelna. It dishes up the same beguiling views with a seafood-inspired menu that features tiger prawns and tempura-fried tuna alongside more adventurous options such as sashimi pizza (which is surprisingly tasty). Both restaurants have an excellent wine selection including the dangerously quaffable local sparkling wine, Bohemia Sekt. See kampagroup.com.
For more traditional fare, try Marina (grosseto.cz), a floating Italian restaurant moored near Manes Bridge that serves up a reliable menu of salads, pizzas and pastas starting at $8. Alternatively, take a stroll and stop at one of the lively cafes and pubs that are sprinkled along the riverbank, many of which have live music at the weekends. A funky option is Bajkazyl, a cute riverfront bar, bike hire outlet and hipster hangout just past Palacký Bridge.
Prague's largest free music festival, United Islands, had to be relocated in 2013 due the Vltava flooding. In 2014 it was with back with a vengeance with dozens of local and international bands playing across several riverside and island stages. This year it will run from June 18-20 and include performances from American guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa, Danish indie outfit WhoMadeWho and Israeli rockers Acollective. See unitedislands.cz.
A popular venue which was closed during my visit but which has since re-opened is Jazz Dock, an intimate riverside club featuring – you guessed it – live jazz. See jazzdock.cz.
Another cool spot is Containall, a bar and arts venue on the banks of the Vltava next to the Franz Kafka Museum, which has cheap beer and live DJs on weekends. See containall.org.
On a budget? Grab a picnic and join the courting couples who pepper the Vltava's banks each evening. Or take a stroll over Charles Bridge and be entertained by a succession of buskers ranging from classical quartets to tambourine-wielding one-man bands.
At sunset, make a beeline for the small beach in front of Containall, where you can feed the swans while watching this irresistibly quaint city sparkle in the dusky twilight.
FIVE MORE LESSER-KNOWN EUROPEAN WATERWAYS TO EXPLORE
The 854-kilometre Oder starts in the Czech Republic and flows into Poland, where it forms the border with Germany, before emptying into the Baltic Sea. Known as a birdlife sanctuary, this largely unspoilt waterway is occasionally included on cruise itineraries between Berlin and Copenhagen. See croisieuroperivercruises.com.
Starting in north-east Spain, the Douro meanders west into Portugal, through spectacular rural countryside and past port-producing towns such as Régua and Pinhao. Several river cruise companies offer trips through the navigable Portuguese section including Uniworld, Viking and APT.
OK, France's Loire River is hardly a hidden gem but for the first time this year you can cruise overnight on this scenic, chateaux-studded waterway thanks to CroisiEurope's new 96-passenger paddle wheeler, the Loire Princesse. See croisieuroperivercruises.com.
The Meuse River starts in Pouilly-en-Bassigny, 316 kilometres south-east of Paris, and flows north into Belgium and the Netherlands. Passengers will be able to cruise along this historic waterway for the first time in April 2016 when Avalon Waterways debuts its new eight-night Enchanting Belgium itinerary between Namur and Amsterdam. See avalonwaterways.com.au.
After rising in the Krkonose Mountains of the northern Czech Republic, the 1091-kilometre Elbe crosses into Germany and flows into the North Sea. It's becoming an increasingly popular river cruise destination with Viking River Cruises offering seven-night itineraries between Berlin and Prague. See vikingrivercruises.com.au.
Qantas flies to Prague via London. Phone 13 13 13, see qantas.com.au.
Buy a Prague Card for free metro, tram and bus use within the city plus free or discounted entry to more than 80 attractions. The two-day version costs $63 for adults, $45 for children, three-day $77/$55, seepraguecard.com.
In short, you can't. None of the major river cruise lines sail through Prague but many, including Uniworld, Avalon, Viking, Scenic and APT, visit the city via a coach transfer as part of their Danube and Elbe itineraries.
WHEN TO GO
May is a lovely time to visit with pleasant temperatures and gardens full of spring flowers. September is also nice with cooler temperatures and less crowds. July and August are peak season so prices are high and it can be uncomfortably busy. Winter can be bitterly cold but the city looks magical when blanketed in snow and you'll have the place practically to yourself.
The writer was a guest of UTracks, Florentina and Prague City Tourism.