Czech mates make trip to Bohemia one to remember
Perhaps this wasn't such a great idea. Set adrift on the Vltava river in a four-person raft, I realised that aside from knowing which end of the paddle went into the water, I had no idea how to steer, start or stop.
I was a wee bit sketchy on what a weir was too, though I knew there were four of them between here and our final destination in Cesky Krumlov, a Unesco World Heritage site a three-hour bus ride south of the Czech Republic's super-popular capital city, Prague.
Here was teamwork stripped down to its essentials: between the four of us – the hapless crew completed by my wife, son and daughter – we had to avoid water hazards, other rafters and kayakers and ride a couple of mini-rapids to reach a destination we had never seen.
What sounded like a recipe for disaster turned into a Bohemian rhapsody, an unexpected delight that saw us figuring it out as we went along, arriving exhausted but elated after viewing this stunning city from a vantage point we'd otherwise have missed out on.
Our friendly Airbnb hostess came to meet us at the bus stop in her tiny car, which was filled by our luggage. She suggested we might like to walk to our lodgings. This too could have ended badly as we watched all our worldly belongings disappearing round the corner with a complete stranger. But as we strode open-mouthed into the cobblestoned heart of the picture-perfect city, it made perfect sense. Lovingly preserved Renaissance and baroque architecture gave the impression of a film set rather than a place real people actually live.
The step-back-in-time vibe was bolstered by a visit to the city's quite remarkable open-air theatre with revolving ampitheatre, as much a delight for engineers as it is for am-dram fans. This care for treasures from the past was a theme we'd see across the city and, later, in Prague.
The Regiojet bus that whisked us through southern Bohemia from one city to the other was cheap, clean and punctual. It had free coffee, too. The rhapsody continued.
Prague had been on my ever-lengthening travel bucket list for years. I'd heard it was no longer as cheap as it used to be (where is?) and that its popularity with stag parties had tarnished its historical gem status a little.
If beer is taken as the comparator, it puts the rest of the world to shame in terms of quality and value for money. And in the kebab-like cevapi, encountered by chance at a street market, I discovered a food I could quite happily live on. Watching it being made over a simple hotplate was every bit as enjoyable. The trdelník, sort of a chimney-shaped cake comprising rolled dough, sugar and walnuts, might require five miles of walking to burn off but was worth the sacrifice.
There's no question it's a popular place with eight million visitors annually arriving in the city. Head out at peak times of the day and it feels like they are all there on the stunningly beautiful Charles Bridge with you. Yet head out before 7am and it feels as though you have the place to yourself. Trust me, the early bird is well rewarded if avoiding crowds is your goal.
There are plenty of well-charted attractions to visit – Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral to name but two – and yet it's possible to embrace the majesty of the city without spending a penny, though I would highly recommend a day dotting around on the trams, if just for the people-watching potential.
You won't forget walking across Charles Bridge by dawn or dusk, encountering some jaw-droppingly talented musicians, craftspeople and artists en route. Hoofing it up Petrin Hill is rewarded by a stunning city panorama and then there are quirky pockets of history such as the old Jewish cemetery to stumble across. Whisper it but you don't really need to pay to go into the castle – enjoy the high drama of the changing of the guard at noon and wander at will through its ample grounds.
The heavily commercialised Wenceslas Square left me cold despite its place in history, though the benches carved with quotes from famous authors is a nice nod to the city's proudly bookish image. Speaking of which, do seek out the wonderful Shakespeare bookshop if you're on the hunt for something to read or simply for the pleasure of browsing for an hour or so.
Busy it may be but it's actually not that difficult to escape the madding crowd in one of several public parks or the little islands on the Vltava – yes, that river again, the longest in the Czech Republic. If you want to leave your mark on Prague, wander to the Lennon wall, inspired by the late Beatle and an ever-changing palette for graffiti artists and visitors alike. My two certainly couldn't resist.
We found the locals in both cities to be friendly, practical and helpful. In late July it was still pretty warm – but then that was the perfect excuse to find a pavement vantage point to enjoy a wonderful beer or ice cream.
Need to Know
Early flight? Stay at the Premier Inn Edinburgh Airport at Newbridge and enjoy a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast before you go. Phone: 0333 321 9224
Edinburgh Scotpark, which offers a round-the-clock courtesy bus from car park to airport terminal, is a no-nonsense choice that worked well for us.
Lonely Planet's Prague and the Czech Republic offers a comprehensive introduction and insider tips.
Local tourist information from www.czechtourism.com
We flew direct from Edinburgh to Prague with easyJet in around two-and-a-half hours.