The D&O Diary finished up its recent European sojourn with a weekend visit to Prague. After a four-hour train ride northeastward from Munich through forests, farm fields, and low mountains, and a final stretch through the Vltava River valley (the river is known as the Moldau in German), we reached Prague, or Praha as the city is known to the natives. The Czech Republic’s capital and largest city is a bustling river metropolis with a rich cultural heritage and a vibrant night life.
Even before we arrived in Prague, we had to confront the fact that in the Czech Republic, the people speak Czech, a Slavic language with very few English (or even German) cognates. Street signs and basic instruction placards were, for me at least, incomprehensible. We confronted the sign to the right when we changed trains in Plzen. In addition, though the Czech Republic is in the European Union, it has not adopted the Euro, a policy decision that is looking pretty good these days. The current exchange rate for the Czech currency is a relatively favorable 24 koruna to the dollar, which made for some rather mind-numbing calculations when paying bar bills and restaurant checks.
Prague has one of the best preserved center cities in all of central Europe. The Royal Way of Prague traverses the Staroměstské Náměstí (the Old Town Square, first picture below), crosses the river at the venerable Karlův Most (Charles Bridge, as depicted in the next paragraph), and then climbs the hill on the river’s left bank to Pražský hrad (the Prague Castle, as depicted in the picture at the top of the post).
Prague’s well-preserved architectural heritage rightly attracts throngs of visitors. Unfortunately, that means that on a warm Saturday afternoon in July, the city’s central sites were mobbed. The narrow streets between the Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge are choked with tourists and lined with shops selling Trdelnik (traditional sweet pastry rolls), tattoos, replica swords and knifes, stacking dolls depicting famous athletes, and aprons that proclaim “I am queen of the kitchen.” The venerable old bridge itself, which these days is open only to pedestrian traffic, is nearly impassible because of swarms of tourists, and the innumerable buskers, caricature artists, and merchants selling jewelry and postcards. By the time we had made our way across the bridge, we had begun to wilt in the hot sunshine.
In a moment of brilliant good luck, we fled the heat and crowds by taking a side stairs off the bridge’s western end, into the quieter neighborhoods of the Malá Strana (or Little Quarter as area below the Castle is known). Within a few steps, we found our way to Restaurace Velkopřevorský Mlýn, a quiet, shady canalside café, where we enjoyed our first encounter with the excellent Czech beer. In this case, the brew on offer was Staropramen, which has its brewery along the river, right in Prague.
Newly energized after a brief interlude at the café, we made our way to Petřín, a roughly 450-feet wooded hill that rises abruptly up from the river’s left bank. At the top of hill is an observation tower, which bears more than a passing resemblance (in outward form, anyway) to the Eiffel Tower. The tower’s observation deck, reached after a climb of 299 steps, affords breathtaking view across to the Old Town, of the Castle, and up and down the river valley, as depicted below. Note how crowded the Charles Bridge is in the first picture.
Hoping to beat the crowds and the heat on Sunday morning, we made an early start out across the river and up the hill to the Prague Castle. The Castle has been a seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia, and is now the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic. The Prague Castle is claimed to be the largest ancient castle in the world. The Castle grounds encompass a huge number of buildings and it represents a veritable catalogue of Western architectural styles.
The Castle’s preeminent feature is the massive St. Vitus Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic church that was begun in 1344 but that was left unfinished for many centuries until it was finally completed in 1929. The church’s southern transept is pictured to the left. Later, on Sunday afternoon, there were lines of hundreds of people standing in the hot sun waiting to enter the Cathedral; because we had gotten an earlier start, we avoided the lines and managed to arrive just as the Sunday morning worship service began. The liturgy was said in Latin, although the scripture readings and the homily were in Czech. The choir performed segments of Masses written by Schubert, Mozart and Bach. We hadn’t set out intending to attend a church service, but the service may have been the best part of our visit to Prague – one of those great coincidences that can make travel so rewarding. After the service, we had lunch in a café on the back side of the Castle hill, in the Castle vineyard, at a table with great views back toward the Little Quarter (pictured below).
Although I have emphasized the number of tourists in Prague in this post, the truth is that with little bit of planning, the most touristy sites can be avoided. The tourist crowds predictably clog the streets at the sites in the town center, but as far as we could tell, relatively few tourists make their way down the river to Vyšehrad, an ancient fortification and castle built in the 10th century on a steep rock directly above the river’s right bank. Several early Czech kings maintained their royal seat in the fortress, which, other than a few restored sections, is largely in ruins. At one time, the commanding location allowed the local monarchs to control the flow of trade (largely salt and timber from Austria) on the river. Today, the ramparts afford sweeping views up and down the river, as shown below. The Staropramen brewery is also visible across the river. Within the fortifications is the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul, a beautiful church that has some interesting and unusual Art Nouveau paintings of various saints.
Prague is a prosperous modern city and these days, 25 years after the Velvet Revolution, most of traces of the Communist rule have disappeared. One particularly interesting vestige is the Lennonova zeď (Lennon Wall), a preserved piece of ever-changing protest art located in the Little Quarter not far from the canalside café where we drank Czech beer on Saturday. After John Lennon was killed in 1981, students began painting the wall with words from Beatles songs, its messages of “Lennonism” providing an ironic counterpoint to the ruling regime’s propaganda. Student have continued to visit the site and to paint slogans of peace and love. It is a great place, and as you can see, in the picture at the top of this paragraph, students continue to gather there.
One of the more interesting sites in Prague, in a location that while nearby to the town center is entirely off of the tourist grid, is the statue of the Prague Metronome, located on a hilltop overlooking the river in Letná Park. Built on the site previously occupied by an enormous statue of Joseph Stalin that partisans destroyed in a 1962 explosion, the working metronome is a constant reminder of the legacy that Stalin and communism left behind. Today the somewhat scruffy adjacent park doubles as a world class skateboarding venue. As depicted in the picture, visitors have made something of a sport of flinging tied shoe pairs over the electric wire that powers the metronome.
I have been fortunate to visit a lot of cities in the last few years, but I have to say, Prague is one of my favorites. The architecture is rich and varied, the people are warm and friendly. And on a warm summer evening it is a wonderful thing to sit at a sidewalk café and drink excellent Czech beer.
More pictures of Prague:
Prague’s rich architectural fabric is simply beautiful; it includes not only historic churches and a skyline of peaks and spires, but it also includes modern buildings, such as the recent Frank Gehry building known, for obvious reasons, as the “Dancing Building.” The fourth picture below depicts the Stahov Monastery, seen from Petřín Hill.
Those who like me are fascinated by obscure corners of history will be interested to know that the second defenestration of Prague took place at this window (now covered for construction at the Prague Castle building)
Among the city’s more famous former residents is the writer, Franz Kafka. An unusual statute of the writer was located near our hotel. Along the so-called Golden Lane along the castle walls in the Prague Castle is a house now improbably painted bright blue where Kafka lived for several years. Some believe his time living there served as a basis for his novel, The Castle.
OK, so which way is back to my hotel?
A beautiful city (Prague Castle, viewed from the Charles Bridge)