Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, is bisected by the Vltava River. Nicknamed “the City of a Hundred Spires,” it’s known for its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, with colorful baroque buildings, Gothic churches and the medieval Astronomical Clock, with a popular show. Completed in 1402, pedestrian Charles Bridge is lined with 30 statues of saints. A tour to the scenic city of Prague also known as ‘Praha’,is popularly referred to as the capital and the largest city of the Czech Republic.
Text & pics courtesy: Kunal&Tamanna Patel – www.worldwidewandererz.com
Background: After touring most countries of Western Europe, an opportunity to explore countries of Eastern Europe presented itself as an extension of a business trip to Germany and Austria. Combining a long weekend with a couple of days off, I planned a quick trip to Slovakia and the Czech Republic over a period of five days, which was barely enough to see the highlights of both these countries.
Despite the limited time, I put aside three nights for Prague or `Praha’ as it is more popularly called – the capital and the largest city of the Czech Republic. Unlike most trips, where I prefer to land at my destination in day-time, my schedule allowed me to reach Florenc – Prague’s Central Bus station for inter-city and international bus arrivals and departures, only late at night. Situated a few hundred metres to the north of Hlavninadrazi – Prague’s main train station, the area around the bus and train stations are apparently notorious and definitely not the place one would want to loiter around after sun down.
After quickly getting directions to my hotel on Zitna street from the information desk at the bus station, I hopped onto Metro line C from Florence to the museum. Prague’s metro system is only about 40 years old but it is amongst the busiest in Europe, carrying more than 600 million passengers annually.
On board the metro on line C, I was already travelling on the oldest section of Prague’s metro. The metro lines, combined with the tram system, bus lines, funiculars and ferries combine to make Prague’s mass transit system one of the most heavily used public transport networks in the world.
After exiting the metro at Museum and stepping out in the fierce October wind, the heavy drizzle only made my attempts to locate on the map, the street names that would lead to my hotel, more difficult. Though not one to be easily disorientated, I did miss a couple of turns and ended up walking around in almost a full circle before arriving at the hotel, after almost about an hour, when it should have taken me not more than 20 minutes.
After a quick check-in and a hot shower, I stepped out in the night braving the cold once again to walk down the couple of blocks to Wenceslas Square – the heart of Prague’s historical and cultural celebrations and public gatherings.
Named after Saint Wenceslas – the patron saint of Bohemia of which Prague was very much a part of, the Square is also a World Heritage Site. Not exactly a square but a boulevard and what used to be a venue for horse markets in the medieval ages, is now lined with high-end stores, eateries, hotels and offices.
Though considered to be the heart of Prague’s notorious and exotic nightlife, Wenceslas Square is a must visit for all travellers and as I was to realise at the end of the trip, it is completely safe. The shops and eateries are open till late night and even if you are not in the mood to grab a bite at the fancy restaurant or shop in one the numerous branded stores, a walk down the beautifully lit 750 m long plaza will remain etched in your memory for many years.
Beginning from the National Museum and the statue of Wenceslas at its southern end I walked the entire length, slowly soaking in the atmosphere of this vibrant hotspot, completely engrossed in trying to capture its soul with my camera. Realising the time only when I saw the city’s cleaning trucks stream in from one end, I retraced my steps through the now almost deserted streets, back to the hotel.
Rising up early to make the most of my limited time in one of Europe’s most political, cultural and economic centres, I decided to start my day from the Old Town Square – the heart of historic Prague. With its many attractions – the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Tyn, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Powder Tower and a host of other buildings in gothic and baroque architectural styles, the centrepiece of attention of the Square is the Astronomical Clock or Prague orloj.
First installed in 1410, it is supposedly the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still fully functional.
It was indeed a sight to see the mammoth crowd gathered at the hour to watch its show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures including the skeleton representing the figure of Death striking the time.
Consisting of three main components, the astronomical dial represents the position of the Sun and the Moon, the figures denoting the time and a set of medallions representing the months. Mounted on the southern wall of the Old Town City Hall, the best place to see the Old Town Square is from atop this Clock Tower of the City Hall. It offers a 360-degree viewing balcony from where one can see the red tiled roofs and the black towers of Prague’s many important monuments.
It is these that give the city its unique skyline unmatched by any other elsewhere in the world and it was a wonderful sight to see `the city of a hundred spires’ sprawled out below in the crisp October morning light. Seeing the shimmering surface of the Vltava river as it flowed through the city in the distance, I headed in its general direction walking slowly across the large Old Town Square.
With the many monuments, churches and museums surrounding it, one can also observe the 27 crosses marked on the Square’s pavement. These crosses are marked in memory of the 27 martyrs who were beheaded here in medieval times of the Habsburg Empire.
Crossing the square and passing through a series of narrow winding lanes, you will reach the eastern bank of the river at the point where Prague’s and Vltava’s most famous bridge – the Charles bridge crosses the river. This 14th century structure was constructed under the auspices of King Charles IV.
As the only means to cross the Vltava for almost five centuries until 1841, Charles bridge has always been an important connection between Prague Castle, the Old Town and its adjacent areas. With a total length of 621 mand an average width of 10 m, the bridge rests on 16 arched piers and is flanked by three bridge towers at its two ends.
Considered to be one of the most elaborate civil gothic style buildings in the world, the bridge is adorned by 30 statues along its two edges. After centuries of use and numerous rehabilitation and repair works, this bridge
was restricted to pedestrians since 1978.
Climbing up the narrow winding steps in the eastern tower, you can buy a ticket that allows access right to the top, where the wooden trusses support the roofing lattice frame and tiles form a large attic like enclosure with a narrow balcony all around.
This was another fantastic vantage point from where one can see not only the tourists and locals as they crisscrossed over the bridge but also the perfect place to see the Castle, the Old Town and the New Town all in a single panoramic sweep.
From up here Prague seemed to live upto its reputation as the perfect meeting place of the distinct cultures of Eastern and Western Europe. After clicking pictures of the wonderful panorama, I walked across the bridge towards Prague Castle – `Prazskyhrad’ as it is known in Czech.
The Castle is actually a complex of different buildings dating back to the 9th century. The largest ancient castle in the world, as listed by the Guinness Book of Records, the complex is spread over an area of 70,000 sq m. Consisting of a basilica, a monastery, several palaces, watch-towers, museums including the National Gallery and a toy museum, gardens and even vineyards, the grandest building in the complex is the St. Vitus Cathedral.
The seat of the archbishop of Prague, the cathedral is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture and contains the tombs of many Bohemian kings, Roman Emperors as well as relics of St. Wenceslas.
Inside the St. Wenceslas Chapel, a small door with seven locks protects the Crown Chamber where the Czech Crown Jewels are kept. The jewels are displayed for common viewing only once every eight years and unfortunately my time in Prague did not coincide with this occasion.
Like in London’s Buckingham palace, the changing of the guard is a routine ceremony here at Castle Hrad and I was lucky enough to see that upclose. The grandness and opulence of the bygone eras, almost palpable when one is standing in the large courtyard with the historic buildings towering all around, is something not to be described but only to be experienced.
Standing on the large buttress wall at the edge of the castle complex, it was wonderful to see all of Prague laid out below. Many of Prague’s 17 bridges can also be seen from here, including the silhouettes of the statues of Charles bridge as can the Prague’s Towers.
I spent the next couple of hours in the `Hradcany’, the area around the castle consisting of exotic restaurants, souvenir shops and quite a few private residences. Moving off the touristy circuit to silently mingle with the locals, observing their ways of meeting and greeting, attempting to understand their animated discussions in a language that is foreign to you, is an experience like no other.
As evening drew near, I walked back to Wenceslas Square, a bit early compared to the night before. As it was Saturday night, the festive atmosphere was even more palpable as locals and tourists alike flocked here to celebrate the weekend.
There were temporary food stalls lined along the Old Town end of the square. Czech ladies offered everything from crepes and schnitzels to the traditional Bohemian platter, which included potato soup, meat dishes, fresh greens with Czech beer.
After a quick bite of the not exactly too healthy Czech food, I walked towards Na Prikopestreet where local craftspeople were displaying their wares to the tourists. This temporary weekend market set up by the locals was so much better that the routine souvenir shops selling mass produced trinklets.
Lovely smiling Czech ladies displayed jewellery, hand-painted leather ware, glass and tile mosaics and a few even had local pickles and traditional delicacies as well. It was incredible to see street artists performing, hear the soft music as it filtered from a multitude of sources until it mingled into a sort of local jazz.
It is things and experiences like these that memories of a place are made of, I thought to myself as I walked back to my hotel well past the midnight hour once again. This was all the more apparent as I spent most part of the next day visiting the Czech National Museum and walking in the Letna park which is a popular meeting place of locals for traditional beer, offered in the beer pavilion here.
The culture and traditions of this small Eastern European country were subtly yet noticeably different from those of Western Europe. And while I could see the effects of globalisation with the multitude of branded stores, multi-cuisine restaurants, the men and women in grey suits talking on their cell-phones, I certainly wished that many things that I had experienced about this historic Eastern European city would not change forever.
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