It's a wonderful city to get lost in.
Alley ways twist away like whispering children; tiny shops beckon you around the corner; through an arch and you may find yourself face-to-face with a beautiful church or small palace. Like fairy tale, there is a sense of wonder and magic.
Prague is a small city of secret nooks and fantastic details, and everywhere its history peeps out behind the bright street vendors and the six McDonald's restaurants.
With the Vltava River cutting the city into two halves, old and new, and the Hradcany Castle dominating the skyline of the new, it is indeed difficult to get truly lost here. So, don't let it worry you, and wander in a city that gives new meaning to the word "bohemian."
After Czechoslovakia rejected Communism in 1989 and became the Czech Republic, its capital city with a thousand-year history, Prague is now on the swift and glittering rise to once again becoming the crown jewel of Europe. Its skyline spiked with church spires, and in its delightful feast of architecture alone, from medieval gothic to 1920s Art Nouveau, the city presents its history as the cultural and often political center of Europe.
On the east side of the Vlatava is Stare Mesto, Old Town, a handful of higgledy-piggledy streets encompassing the oldest part of the fortified city, dating from the 13th century. In the tangled center is Staromestske, Old Town Square. Nowhere else in Prague is there such a mixture of architechtural styles and moods, and the effect is surprisingly harmonious and charming.
The Old Town Square has been the center of revolution and a cultural gathering place since the city's beginnings. The swirl of the city's often bloody history concentrates here: Jew-baiting, open-air parties, state executions, the world's first public dissection.
In the center of the square is a monument to Jan Hus, a heretic who was burned in 1415, and is now revered as a symbol of Czech nationalism. From here you've got a vantage to see all at once the combination of over a millenium of the architecture that made Prague famous: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Roccoco, Art Nouveau.
The most prominent feature of the square is the monstrous Gothic and gilded spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn (or simply the Tyn Church), looming up behind a squat, pink, Baroque facade. Try looking for a front entrance to this surely glorious church and you'll end up scratching your head; it can only be accessed through the arcade of the building in front. The story behind this unusual configuration is the result of one of the age-old struggles in Prague, the tensions between religious groups: in this case, the Jesuits of Prague didn't like the fact that the Protestant Hussites had built this church, and thus simply built another building in front of it.
Quirkily Germanic-Romanesque is the Old Town Hall and its attached bell-tower, opposite the Tyn Church. Around the corner of the bell-tower is Prague's justly famous astrological clock. dating from the 14th century, this still-functioning delight chimes out the noon hour with a parade of the 12 Apostles and a ghastly bell-ringing skeleton.
Squirming south to Narodni nam. (National St.), you cross the "boundary" between Stare Mesto and Nove Mesto, New Town. Perpendicular to Narodni runs Vaclavske nam., Wenceslas Square, a long rectangle full of capitalism, from McDonald's to Dunkin' Donuts to glitzy department stores. St. Wenceslas, famed of the Christmas carol, ruled Prague in the 10th century until his brother Boleslav the Cruel murdered him. There's a statue of the gentle prince looking properly heroic on a horse at the far end of the square near the great neo-Baroque monster of the National Museum.
Heading down Narodni to the river and past another neo-Baroque monster, the National Theatre, you burst upon a magnificent view of Hradcany Castle. This impressive structure is a half-mile long sandy Baroque block on a hill on the west side of the Vltava. Like a spiny seashell, the Cathedral of St. Vitus thrusts darkly from the castle's back.
The Charles Bridge
Connecting Stare Mesto and Mala Strana -- the Little Quarter -- is the medieval and towered arch of the Karlov Most, the Charles Bridge. The last gothic bridge left in Prague, it reminds one of a more romantic time; now, beneath the gaze of the bridge's blackened, gloomy statues of saints, bishops, and angels, the bohemian student population of Prague sets up their art, photography, jewelry, and a melange of other quirky bits of imagination.
The Charles Bridge also provides some of the best and lovliest views of Stare Mesto, Hradcany, and the river. The most beautiful time of day is as the sun is setting, when the light brings out the warm reds and browns of the city.
Across the bridge to Mala Strana and Hradcany, the neighborhood surrounding the castle, the street dances upwards, past McDonald's and a dozen tiny shops full of traditional Czech handicrafts. Past a small square with a church, a jiggle to the right, and continuing upwards, you'll find the misnamed New Castle steps, tucked away between buildings (the Old Castle steps are newer).
The climb leaves you breathless and warm, but from the top of the steps Prague stretches out before you, littered with churches and odd roofs and red tile. Turning around, you face the dull Baroque front of Hradcany castle, the town within itself where even more of Prague's tumultous history unfurled.
Not so dull are the castle guards in their candy-bright and faintly ridiculous looking uniforms, concocted by the costume designer of the movie Amadeus.
Through this first courtyard and into another with a skinny chapel, then bearing a little to the left and through a dark vaulted arcade --
-- suddenly the Cathedral of St. Vitus threatens to overwhelm you through the bright sunlight. A masterpiece of eclectic Gothicism, it was founded by St. Wenceslas in the early 10th century and not finished until early this century. Sand-castle spires and fanciful tracery cover every bit of this magnificent anamoly to the staid Baroque castle. Look straight up and make faces at the marvelously hideous gargoyles that leer down on the tourists below.
Inside is a confusion of arches and ribbed vaulting and mausoleums to kings, royal families, saints, and bisops. Architecture took a radical turn here and Prague became a new center of the Gothic, with the initiation of this catheral's freer and more abstract vaulting and lines than most French and English Gothic monstronsities.
Back outside and circling to the right side of the cathedral, look up to the intricacy of the golden grill on the side of the bell-tower and the patterned tile roof, a true sign of Prague's Germanic influence.
Behind St. Vitus's Cathedral is a small square; on the far side is the clunky Baroque facade of St. George's Basilica. But don't be fooled by its exterior: like so many things in Prague, the interior is a surprise. The interior is an elegant Romanesque, ancient, predating much of the rest of the castle.
Crooking along behind St. George's are the alleyways leading to Golden Lane. Four hundred years old, this alley of Easter-egg colored cottages that are built into the castle fortifications used to be the homes of a king's marksmen who guarded the castle walls, and later shops for the castle's inhabitants.
Odd bits of history and legends flitter through the castle like its many ghosts, and there's certainly more to fascinate you than is possible here.
Inexpensive and comfortable As a place that hasn't quite caught up with Western consumerism, prices of everything are incredibly inexpensive, and with capitalism and tourism providing shots into the economy and a reason for most Praguers to speak a little English, Prague can easily be a remarkably comfortable city, even for those on a budget. An excellant little hotel, Dum Stare Pane ("The Old Woman"), with its sparkling white and eccentric rooms and hearty breakfast, is a great choice, located in the center of Old Town. Price? About $100 a night.
In search of a souvenir that captures the paradoxical complexity and simplicity of Prague, capitalism has triumphed here and presents you with a plethora of shops that glitter with one of Behemia's major arts: leaded cut crystal. Like everything else in Prague, prices are gloriously cheap. There's also Czech handicrafts: sturdy little wooden toys and decorative straw ornaments and elegant painted eggs. And don't forget the marionettes, from eight-inch stuffy souvenirs of Bohemian milkmaids to four foot individual masterpieces that seem ready to lift an arm and speak.
Cultural events have found a resurgence in Prague life. For classical music lovers, this is heaven: there are innumerable concerts every night, seven days a week, along with the occansional opera and dance performances. Mozart especially is extrememly popular here; Prague's love affair with his music is still as strong as it was 200 years ago. Mozart found few followers in Vienna, Austria, but became such a celebrity in Prague that he remained here for several years and wrote an opera for Praguers, including the famous Don Giovanni.
Besides multiple performances of every variety of Mozart, there's Dvorak -- another popular composer, as Czechoslovakia is his mother country -- Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, Corelli.... And once you decide on a performance, there's still the venue to be chosen from a dozen choices: the grand, glittering Rudolfinum or a small Romanesque church in Hradcany castle?
Another theatre performance to delight in is the magical art of the marionette theatre. The puppets are sure to enthrall children and adults alike with their life-like charm. The National Marionette Theatre presents a performance of Don Giovanni that is simply hilarious, even if you don't know the story or aren't a fan of the opera.
A fairy tale city is Prague, surrounding you with magic and sweeping you up in its enchantment. And like a fairy tale, its enchantment is familiar and comforting: a place you can easily know.
Copyright 1997 by Jennifer Tyson