Continuing his East European sojourn, Vivish George shares his experience of travelling in the Czech Republic in this two part article, beginning with Prague in this month’s issue.
It is almost a ritual for anyone who visits the Czech Republic to begin with Prague, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Set on the Vltava River, this picturesque city with its striking gothic architecture will transport you back in time. Only the French are supposed to be as proud of their capital, Paris, as the Czechs are of theirs. Since the fall of communism in 1989, more travelers from the world over have been drawn to this iconic city, instantly falling in love with its magical charm.
Prague is another of those European cities that’s best explored on foot – at least as much as possible. Sandemans Walking Tour is a good introduction to Prague and a nice way to orient yourself before you go out and explore the city on your own. Prague offers so many places to visit, but here are some must dos:
The Old Town Square
Prague’s Old Town (or Staré Mesto) is the heart of the city that has retained most of its ancient history and architectural splendor. With its origins as a marketplace in the 10th century, the Old Town Square is the oldest and most beautiful part of the Old Town and a venue for many political and cultural events that influenced the city’s history. Some of the important landmarks here are the Old Town Hall Tower, Jan Hus statue and the Tyn Church. The square is full of buskers (street performers) and has an electric atmosphere!
The Astronomical Clock
The 600-year old medieval astronomical clock is one of the most visited sites in Prague. The complicated mechanism of the Prague Astronomical Clock is still running; when the clock strikes the hour, the Twelve Apostles in the clock are set in motion in a parade! With its moving apostles and statutes, it comes as no surprise that it was considered a wonder during the Middle Ages.
Charles Bridge, Prague’s oldest bridge, was built to replace the Judith Bridge that had been badly damaged during the floods in 1342. The bridge made of stone blocks is flanked at each end by the Lesser Town and the Old Town. Baroque style statues line the bridge, the most famous being the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, a Czech martyr saint, executed during the reign of Wenceslas IV by being thrown into the Vltava from the bridge. The plaque on the statue has been polished to a shine by countless people touching the statue to bring good luck and ensuring their return to Prague. An ideal time to visit the bridge is at dawn – not only the most beautiful time of day to visit, but also the best time to avoid the hordes of vendors thronging the bridge during the day.
The Prague Castle complex forms a maze of palaces, gardens and buildings. The Guinness Book of World Records says this is the world’s largest ancient castle. And indeed, large it is. You can spend a whole day here and still just about scratch its surface. If you are getting there by foot, do take the Old Castle steps that start close to the Malostranka Metro Station, for some of the most spectacular views of Prague.
Strahov Monastery Library
Situated close to Prague Castle, the Strahov Monastery is reputed to be amongst the oldest monasteries in the Czech Republic. Without doubt one of the highlights of Prague, the library is located within the monastery and is one of the most beautiful historical libraries in the world. Missed by many on their visits, do not make that mistake. The beer at the Strahov monastery brewery is very popular!
Man Hanging Out
Off the normal tourist circuit, Man Hanging Out is a strange sculpture by artist David Černý, of Freud hanging by a hand from a pole, dangling above the streets. It is a bizarre and yet eye-catching image in the Old Town, which enthralls tourists passing by.
Another curious sculpture is the reflective and twisting head of Kafka, also by artist David Černý. This massive bust made of 42 independently managed layers of steel is a mesmerising sight!
Since the 1980’s, the wall has been covered with John Lennon and Beatles-inspired graffiti. Constantly changing, the wall is painted over from time to time – but the graffiti returns!
Kutná Hora from Prague
Kutná Hora is one of the most popular destinations for a day trip from Prague. Called ‘city of silver’, Kutná Hora is an ancient mining town an hour away from the Czech capital.
A UNESCO’s world heritage site, here is the famous ‘bone church’ – a remarkable chapel decorated with skeletons, the bones of nearly 40,000 people. A large skull chandelier contains at least one of each bone from the human body. Skulls and bones hang from the ceiling, on the walls and piles of skulls and bones at the corners of the chapel… maybe eerie, but it is one of the places you must visit for a bone chilling experience!
Prague palate pleasers
When you need a break from visiting beautiful palaces and buildings, indulge in some Czech cuisine. Potato soup, traditional roast pork and apple strudel are must-haves. Other Prague favorites are the Palačiky, East Europe’s version of the French crêpes. Palačiky are thin pancakes rolled up with jam, nuts, fruit, even ice cream.
Try it at the historic Café Slavia (opened in 1884), at the corner of Národní street and Smetanovonábřeží, opposite the National Theatre. Request for a window seat, and enjoy classic Czech cuisine while feasting your eyes on mind-blowing views of Prague.
Taste another local favorite Trdelnik – a dish found all over Prague – made by roasting the pastry dough over an open flame and served topped with sugar or cinnamon. And the iconic Steak Tartare found at almost all the pubs and restaurants. The Steak Tartare can be a bit different at restaurants across the city, but every version of it is lip-smackingly delicious, with Café Savoy’s version being a personal favorite. If you have the time, grab a cup of hot chocolate at Café Louvre. This café has been standing for over a century and among its famous guests was Albert Einstein during his professorship in Prague.
Beer in the Czech Republic
Reputed to be the home of the original Pilsner and the original Budweiser, the Czech Republic is a beer drinker’s paradise. The Czech Republic drinks more beer per capita than any other country in the world. Don’t tell the Germans this! Everyone here is passionate about their beer. Perhaps, it’s even a matter of national pride! Beer is an important part of local culture and if you would like to mingle with locals during your visit, the best place to do so is over a beer at a pub! Some recommended pubs in old town are U Rudolfina, U Tri Ruzi and U Zlateho. Reservations are recommended to avoid disappointment!
So, here’s to your soonest visit to Prague. Cheers… or rather, nazdraví!