In this, the second part of a two part chapter on Prague, the city’s historic centre is explored. Having dropped off my bags at my B&B on the outskirts of Prague, I caught a subway train and emerged at Staromestská, a station located in Prague’s ‘Old Town’. The moment I set eyes on the city I was blown away by its splendour.
Unlike some cities, Prague really lives up to its reputation. It is ridiculously pretty no matter what direction you look or which street you walk down. Some of the buildings positively drip filigreed gold and sculptures and the skyline is dominated by golden spires and onion domes.
Prague’s grandeur can largely be attributed to its age and the role it has played throughout history. The city is over 1100 years old and has played host to a number of Holy Roman Emperors; was ruled by the Hapsburgs and has survived a number of revolutions and conflicts including WWII which it managed to escape unscathed. Unsurprisingly, the historical core of the city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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The Dancing House
Flowing from the east towards Germany, the Vltava River divides Prague in two. Hradcany, Prague’s castle district and Mala Strana (Little Quarter) occupy the left bank while Staré Mesto (Old Town) Josefov (Prague’s Jewish quarter) and Nové Mesto (New Town) straddle the right bank.
After drawing some Czech koruna at an ATM, I made my way up a steep cobbled road to the castle district which hulks over the city from its position atop a hill. The walk up was a bit of a slog but the view from the top more than made up for it.
The castle district sprawls, is gilt to the nines and comprises a number of important sites including the fascinating old royal palace which dates back to the 9th century; the magnificent 14th century gothic St Vitus cathedral (which houses the Bohemian crown jewels and St Wenceslas’ tomb); the Golden Lane (a series of tiny chocolate box pretty cottage shops which originally served as accommodation for the palace guards and which now house overpriced souvenir shops ); the slightly disappointing St George’s Basilica; the Powder Tower; the infamous Daliborka Tower which confined prisoners within its cold, dark bowels and the Royal Gardens.
A number of other attractions besides feature at the castle district and I could have easily spent a day or two exploring it. By the time I’d reached the Daliborka Tower though I felt I’d seen enough of the castle district and moved on.
At the bottom of the hill I stumbled upon the Baroque Wallenstein Palace which acts as the seat of the Czech Senate. In typical Prague fashion the palace and grounds are sumptuous and feature a number of points of interest, including - oddly - an artificial wall of stalactites punctuated by strange motifs of animals and faces. Slightly nonplussed, I left and continued with my sightseeing.
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The Municipal House
Part of Prague’s appeal lies in the fact that the historic city centre is compact and the majority of the main attractions lie within easy walking distance. Next on the list was Staromestské námestí, the Old Town Square which is arguably the most beautiful I’ve ever come across in Europe.
The square is large and ringed by beautiful pastel coloured Romanesque and Gothic buildings. Shops, restaurants, pubs and museums are plentiful but the most noteworthy features are the extravagant Gothic ‘Church of Our Lady Before Týn’ (now one of my favourite monuments); the Old Town Hall fronted by the famous Astronomical Clock which dates back to 1410 and the gorgeous and comparatively diminutive Church of St. Nicholas.
Numerous ancient cobbled streets lead off from the square, the majority of which feature their own attractions and points of interest. For instance, Celetná Street will take you to the brooding Powder Tower (not to be confused with the castle district’s version) and the imposing Obecní dum or Municipal House - Prague’s most prominent Art Nouveau building which hosts exhibitions and concerts. Think gold trim, stained glass, mosaics and sculptures.
Not far from the Old Town Square lies the famous Charles Bridge. Built in the 13th century, the bridge is a ‘must see’ even though it’s usually packed with tourists (the odd pickpocket) and locals flogging their typically tacky souvenirs. The bridge measures 516 metres and is festooned with sculptures and statues, many of which were rubbed for luck by passing visitors.
While most of Prague is characterised by old architectural gems, there are a few fine modern buildings including the delightfully playful ‘Dancing House’ in downtown Prague. Nicknamed ‘Fred and Ginger’, the building resembles a swaying pair of dancers and is well worth catching a tram to see.
Another short trip on tram number 9 will take you to Saint Wenceslas Square. The square is in actual fact a boulevard measuring 750 metres long and 60 metres wide. It was first laid out 600 years ago and was originally used as a horse market. It can comfortably hold 400 000 people and has been used as a regular parade ground for just about every notable organisation, person or political party to have ever made an appearance in the Czech Republic. A statue of St. Wenceslas on his horse and the Neo-Renaissance National Museum crest the top of square which today is lined with gardens, slightly shabby shops, hotels and restaurants.
Another Prague ‘must see’ is the Old Jewish Quarter. Contained within the quarter, (in addition to a modern luxury shopping district) are the remains of Prague’s former Jewish ghetto, the Jewish Museum and a number of synagogues including the ‘Old-New’ Synagogue (the oldest synagogue in Europe) the High Synagogue, the Jewish Town Hall, the Pinkas Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery which is heart wrenching as the deceased are piled one on top of each other due to the lack of land originally allocated for Jewish burials.
Of course there is so much more to do and see in and around Prague. The opulent State Opera, the Petrín Lookout Tower, the Communism Museum, Strahov Monastery with its magnificent Baroque library, the Church of Our Lady Victorious, Kutná Hora of bone church fame, and the Loreta are but a few other attractions worth visiting.
Interestingly, Prague’s property market is struggling somewhat. Although prices have fallen, purchasing property in Prague still isn’t a cheap exercise with prices ranging from 70 000 to 194 000 euros for fairly basic apartments
Overall I couldn’t help but compare Prague to a decadent cake: all ornate frosting covering layer upon layer of history and culture. Some of the more modern outskirts of the city are scruffy; the people are friendly and interested in South Africa; the food is a bit on the heavy side (think dumplings and stews) and the transport systems are cheap and efficient. In a nutshell, definitely one for the bucket list. I left the city with a heavy heart.