April 06, 2013

Prague Peregrinations

The Golden City of Prague has long been on my wish list of places to visit.  In fact, since 1999 I have booked and had to cancel two trips to the capital of the Czech Republic.  But this winter, when friends suggested we extend our trip to Paris and spend Easter weekend with them in Prague, I had a good feeling that the third time would be the charm - and it was!

Built on nine hills along the Vlatava River which runs through the city dividing the Stare Mesto (Old Town) from the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter), Prague was founded in the 9th century on the cross roads of ancient trade routes.  Having survived occupations by Austrians, Nazis and most recently Communists, Prague has regained its stature as the capital of Bohemia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Today it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, and no wonder with its beautiful buildings representing architectural periods from Pre-Romanesque to Cubist, its superb cultural scene and fine food and drink!

Part of the Easter Market in Old Town Square

The best way to explore Prague is on foot, but the rough cobblestone streets and sidewalks are a challenge for even the most able bodied.  Nevertheless, and despite a record cold spell for the end of March, I set off to discover the delights of the city.

Just steps from the hotel was the Staromestské námestí, or Old Town Square.  Dating back to the Middle Ages it is a showcase of Baroque architecture with pastel colored and decorated buildings around the perimeter.  On my visit, the square was bustling with the annual Easter Market and filled with little wooden huts offering beautifully decorated eggs, "Old Prague Ham" sandwiches and the local pastry delicacy of trdelník, a sort of doughnut that was roasted over coals and was sweet and delicious!

A little farther on is the Staromestská radnice, the Old Town Hall, a major attraction thanks in large part to the Astronomical Clock that marks each hour with a procession of the Twelve Apostles followed by the screech of a cockerel.  At night, the effect is further enhanced with a trumpet fanfare played from the top of the Town Hall Tower!

A very entertaining way to get a view of this city is to take a boat tour on the river.  For 290 Czech Koruny, or crowns (approximately $15), you can see the sights from the "Venice of Prague" on a 45 minute tour with a free beer and ice cream thrown in!  Our guide was very entertaining and offered opinions on everything from Modern Art (didn't like it) to the Czech custom of gently spanking women with a special whip made of willow rods and decorated with ribbons on Easter Monday.  According to our guide, who heartily approved of this tradition, it was intended to keep the women pretty and healthy during the coming year!

Beside these cultural observations, we were treated to a close up of the Charles Bridge, a view of the giant metronome built to replace a statue of Stalin (in an attempt at "de-Stalinization") and a passage through one of Prague's canals where an original water wheel still operated.  I was fascinated to learn about the massive flood of 2002 when the river rose to 20 feet above normal levels leaving the subway system destroyed and major damage to all buildings within the flood zone.  The silver lining of this disaster was that the Czech government diverted funds to finance a monumental recovery and restoration project, the results of which can be seen in the recently cleaned and refurbished historical sites.

The Karluv most or Charles Bridge, was built in the 14th century and is Europe's longest medieval bridge at 1,700 feet.  Today it is a pedestrian crossing of the Vltava River linking the Old Town to the Lesser Quarter and is one of the signature sights of the city.  The bridge is lined with statues and legend has it that if you touch the eighth statue on the right side of the bridge, St. John of Nepomuk, it ensures a return visit to Prague.

The Old Town Bridge Tower
where construction of the Charles Bridge began
A very steep (1,300' vertical drop) but picturesque climb from the Charles Bridge on the Lesser Quarter side brings us to one of Prague's main attractions and the centerpiece of this city's panoramic view.  Prazsky Hrad or Prague Castle is a beautifully renovated complex of structures dating from the 10th to the 20th century and all linked by internal courtyards.  Self-guided tours allow visitors to enter the monumental Katedrála svatého Vita, St. Vitus Cathedral, one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in Europe and the spiritual heart of Prague.

A soaring nave is illuminated with brilliant stained glass windows including one by Art Nouveau master Alfons Mucha who painted, rather than stained, the glass to achieve the window's subtle coloration.  The cathedral also contains the Svatováclavská kaple, Chapel of St. Wenceslas (the "Good King" of Christmas carol fame) an ornately decorated tomb and the ancient core of the cathedral.

Other highlights of the Hradcany, or Castle Area, include Bazililika sv. Jiri, St. George's Basilica, a simple yet peaceful example of 12th century Romanesque architecture and the venue for many concerts, and the Stary královsky palác, the Old Royal Palace with its remarkable Gothic hall - a marvel of structural engineering.

Before leaving the confines of the Castle area, we pass through the newly restored Zlatá ulicka.  Golden Lane looks like a children's attraction but these tiny, brightly colored row houses attached to the Castle walls were built during the 16th century as accommodations for the Castle guards.  They housed various occupants, from seamstresses to novelist Franz Kafka, in less than commodious conditions save for the cachet of living on the Castle grounds, until recently when they were turned over to exhibition spaces and a few shops.

I couldn't leave Prague without visiting the Mucha Museum located in the Nové Mesto, New Town, just off Wenceslas Square.  I have liked the work of Alfons Mucha since I was a teenager - I even had a reproduction Sarah Bernhardt poster in my dorm room in college - and wish I had been able to purchase an original before his prices skyrocketed.  A Prague native who gained fame and fortune in Paris and also worked for years in the United States, Mucha returned to his homeland to create his Slavic Epic during the last third of his life.  The Mucha Museum opened in 1998 and showcases his fabulous posters, decorative designs, illustrations and paintings as well as many interesting documentary photos of the master of Art Nouveau.

All of this sightseeing can work up a powerful thirst and nothing is more refreshing than a glass of the local beer, Plezensky Prazdroj, or Pilsner Urquell, brewed in the nearby town of Plzen.  It's been a great few days here in the beautiful city of Prague and I hope that rubbing the statue of St John on the Charles Bridge really does mean a return visit!

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