Praha = Prague = Fantastic!!!

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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Prague (pronounced and spelled Praha on local maps) was a city I'd wanted to visit for almost 2 decades, ever since the Iron Curtain collapsed at the hands of the Velvet Revolution.  But as is often the case, life happens and my plans kept being postponed.  Still the idea of visiting Prague was firmly set and as we finally were approaching the Hlvani Nadrazi train station, completing our four hour rail journey from Vienna, I felt a tingle run up my leg (with due apologies to Chris Matthews) on seeing some of the Prague landmarks I recognized, like the spires of St. Vitus and our Lady of Tyn Cathedrals.  I was really looking forward to our upcoming week in the capitol of Bohemia and the Czech Republic.  And I was not to be disappointed by this fantastic city (with the one exception outlined below).

Prague was fortunate enough to have escaped the bomb damage of World War II which devastated so much of the European continent and is one of the best preserved medieval capitols in Europe.  It is a delightful city to explore on foot and has something to please almost every taste.  There are beautiful old churches, great architecture, wonderful performances of classic music and opera, the world's best beer (my Canadian friends might argue with that) and terrific food.  Once visited it's easy to see why Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The heart of Prague, both metaphorically and geographically, is the Charles Bridge.  This beautiful 600+ year old Gothic stone structure dates to 1357.  It is almost a half kilometer in length and is decorated by 30 baroque religious statues.  This bridge is the ribbon that ties together the four districts of the town.  It's where all tourists flock to and with good reason because it's unique and set in a beautiful landscape.  Visit the bridge at different times of day and walk across it a number of times to enjoy the changing light on the bridge, the river, its statues and the surrounding city.  While it's often crowded with street artists, artisans and tourists during the day, it's nearly deserted early in the morning or late at night.  If you feel energetic climb the steps of the one of the Bridge Towers for great views of the bridge and city.  For a different experience take a boat cruise or rent a row boat to travel the Vltava River around the Bridge and to appreciate it from an ever changing perspective.

Modern day Prague historically was four separate towns that several hundred years ago started growing together forming today's city of over one million people.  To help with orientation imagine Prague as a clock, with the Charles Bridge at the center of the clock face.  When facing north, from 12-3 o'clock portion is the Old Town, from 3-6 o'clock is New Town, from 6-9 o'clock is the Lesser Quarter and from 9-12 o'clock is the Castle District. These are somewhat crude approximations but I think for illustrative purposes it works.

1) Old Town (Stare Mesto).   Located on the east bank of the Vltava, it's been the historic core of the region since the 10th century.  Formerly a walled fortress, some remnants of this wall persist (notably the Powder Tower).  If you can find a place to stay here, you have an ideal location from which to visit Prague as this is where most tourists like to hang out.  If you like interacting with locals you're better off staying in the Little Quarter or New Town.

Old Town Square has been a market since the 11th century. It's almost always crowded with tourists; for example, when we were there live feeds of World Cup Soccer matches were projected on to large screens (coupled with food vendors and a lively crowd, it was a fun place to be).  The Square's centerpiece is a memorial to Jan Hus.  Hus lived a century before Martin Luther and was a professor and priest who condemned the Catholic Church as corrupt and tried to evoke local religious freedom. For his efforts Hus was martyred by fire (Martin Luther later completed the Reformation Hus had sparked). 

As you continue around Old Town Square stop by the unique astrological clock in the City Hall tower which always attracts a large crowd as it strikes the hour (See video clip below).  The clock itself was mostly intended to show the phases of the moon and seasons. Travel up the City Hall's tower (by stairs or elevator) for great views of the Old Town Square and all of Prague.  As you leave the Old Town Hall look for the 27 white crosses on the ground immediately in front of it.  This marks the place the Hapsburgs killed 27 noblemen in 1621 in hopes of getting locals to accept Hapsburg rule. 

Also located by the square is the elegant Gothic Church of our Lady before Tyn (with the grave of astronomer Tycho Brahe adjoining the alter).  This church is especially impressive when it is lite by floodlights at night.  Visit the Church of St. Nicholas off the square; originally Catholic, now a Hussite place of worship, it is a popular venue for concerts, as are many of the old churches in Prague.  We attended a beautiful organ/tenor/soprano concert at the St. Francis of Assisi Church right beside the Charles Bridge.

Within the Old Town you will also find the Estates Theater wherein Mozart himself presented the original performance of his masterpiece, Don Giovanni.  The Old Town also features the Municipal House, a lovely Art Nouveau building which is home to the Prague Symphony Orchestra. 

The Jewish Quarter (Josefov) lies within the old city.  It is said to be the best preserved historic Jewish site in Central Europe.  A tour of the Jewish Quarter includes 1) The Pinkas synagogue which is memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia; over 80,000 names are etched onto it's walls.  The second story has a moving display of children's art from the Terezin concentration camp.  2) Jewish Cemetery which has over 12,000 tombstones in the small plot of land allotted to the Jews to bury their dead. We found the cemetery, with its crowded toppling tombstones, to be a surprisingly moving sight.  3) Ceremonial Hall exhibits methods Jews used to deal with the dead and dying.  4) Klausen synagogue highlights Jewish customs and traditions and Maisel and Spanish synagogues highlight the history of Jews in Bohemia and Moravia.  A separate admission is charged to see the Old-New Synagogue, an 13th century synagogue we found historically fascinating.  For example, this synagogue had two thickened vaults in which Jews stored their tax money before giving it to the king (they were the most heavily taxed people in Prague).  We found our visit to the Jewish Quarter to be a half day well spent and unlike anything we'd ever encountered during our travels.

2) Castle Quarter (Hradcany).  The first castle in Prague was built here on the west bank of the Vltava in the 9th century.  This region has been the home to Prague's ruling class for almost a thousand years -- kings and noblemen in the past, now it has the offices of the President and foreign ministers.  Prague Castle is one of the largest castle complexes in the world.  Explore the grounds of the castle complex, including statues, fountains and displays.  The changing of the guard occurs on the hour.  It's worth renting a portable audio-guide to aid with your exploration of the castle.

A highlight of any trip to Prague will be a visit to St. Vitus Cathedral which is at the heart of Prague castle.  It is one of the most magnificent European cathedrals I've had the privilege to visit.  Just as Westminster Abbey is the spiritual heart of England, so too is St. Vitus the spiritual heart of Bohemia.  The exterior is classic Gothic, complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses.  Highlights inside the cathedral include the graves of most of Prague's famous rulers (such as Charles IV who built Charles Bridge), the beautiful silver grave of Bohemia's St. John of Nepomuk, the Chapel of St. Wenceslas (the walls lined by semiprecious stones and containing the saint's grave), and a lovely stained glass window by famed Czech art nouveau artist, Alfons Mucha.  Take a few hours to explore the small chapels and examine each of the wonderful stained glass windows in this beautiful house of worship.  Also be sure to visit St. George's basilica on the Castle grounds, one of the oldest churches in Prague dating to the 10th century. 

The Royal Gardens immediately adjoining the Castle complex are very pleasant and quiet to walk in.  It's a lovely park that for centuries was closed to commoners -- only open to the ruling elite (including during the Soviet era).  You might even be lucky enough to see hunting falcons, eagles and owls, as did we.  They are magnificent birds!

Just up the hill from the castle is the historic Strahov Monastery.  This medieval monastery has a history dating back to the 12th century.  The Library at the Monastery features two halls filled with ancient hand-written books, as well some displays of these ancient texts.  Also present are some displays of 'scientific curiosities", including a young pickled dodo bird.
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3) Little Quarter (Mala Strana).  A merchant settlement on the west bank of the Vltava burned in the 1540s and was replaced by a Baroque town and gardens. The elegant homes in the quarter were often built by noblemen; these buildings now house embassies and fine restaurants.  A part of the lesser town is on Kampa island, a pretty place which features riverside parks and a modern art museum.  Kampa Island provides wonderful views of the Charles Bridge and the east bank of the Vltava River.  There are many great restaurants in this part of town many of which cater more to locals and embassies than to tourists.

The Little Quarter is home to the lovely Baroque St. Nicholas Church which is well worth a visit.  Rarely will you see a more elegant use of marble than in its interior.  Also popular but not nearly as dramatic is the Church of our Lady Victorious -- Infant Jesus of Prague, which features a small wax infant which is perhaps the city's most famous religious relic.  Some of the faithful make a pilgrimage here to see the "bambino".

The Little (Lesser) Quarter is also where Petrin Hill is located, a large park which offers great views of the city, especially from its version of the Eiffel Tower, the Petrin Tower, atop the hill.  On a clear day it's a lot of fun to be at the top of the hill, to climb Petrin Tower, and to enjoy the incomparable view.  Also be sure to look up the Monument to the Victims of Communism at the base of Petrin Hill.  It's an unusual and moving art work, showing how repression eats at the person leaving only a fraction of a human alive.

Lastly, no visit to the Little Quarter is complete without a stop at "John Lennon Peace Wall".  This colorful graffiti decorated wall popped up after Lennon was killed by a madman in 1980.  Communist officials repeatedly painted over the graffiti but it would always reappear.  The wall became part of the defiant struggle against Totalitarianism.

4) New Town (Nove Mesto). Extends south from the Old Town and is centered on Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti --named for the Good King of Christmas carol fame).  The square was at one time a horse market and was very important in the Czech Republic's recent history as a site of the people rebelling against Soviet oppression.  In 1968 it was the site of demonstrations suppressed by the Soviets.  In 1989 some 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks celebrated their freedom here. 

At one end of Wenceslas Square is the National Museum. Look at the large pillars on the exterior to see the botched repair of bullet holes left after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion; these holes were purposefully filled with off color plaster by craftsmen to remind people of that day.  

Stop by the museum of Czech artist Alfons Mucha.  While its collection is not extensive, it is representative of the artist and shows his development and roll in Czech culture and history.  We weren't that familiar with his art and found it to be extremely appealing and like-able. 

The New Town also features the National Theater, a great place to see a performance of classical music or opera.  The cost of a performance here is small fraction of what you'd pay in Vienna.  There are dozens of venues available for musical performances in the town including the Municipal House and many of the old churches.
 
Food and drink:
Czech beer is among the best in the world and the Czech people per capita are world champion beer consumers.  So as part of your experience here try some of their beer with your meals or in a pub or beer garden.  Pilzner beer is very popular, especially Pilsner Urquell (Pilzen is town in Czech Republic which invented the technique to make Pilsner beer).   Many like the wine of Moravia, which we didn't sample to any degree so we can't comment on it.

The food was very tasty and "hearty".  Most restaurants feature meat and potato dishes, often served with a vegetable and dumplings.  Soup is popular and very tasty.  Among entries we noted that roast duck and pork seemed very popular and many restaurants featured roasted "pork knee" -- a massive joint that we didn't try. 

Most of the food was very good but without question the best restaurant we ate was David's.  For a complete cultural show I'd recommend going to the Folklore Garden where you'll be served a traditional Czech meal, as much beer as you want and be entertained by musicians and dancers.

Shopping:
Prague is a good place to shop.  We like getting small handicrafts as gifts and souvenirs and some of the best of these were found on the Charles Bridge.  It is also a great place to buy the world renowned Czech crystal and glassware, and ceramics.  Garnets are deep red gemstones that are native to northern Bohemia and are featured in many stores.  Amber is also popular in making jewelery .  Clever wooden toys and marionettes, textiles and old-fashioned Christmas ornaments are popular gift items as well. 

Epilogue:
We really enjoyed our time in Prague.  It's a small enough city to walk around in but if you want there is an efficient system of trams and also a fairly extensive Metro system.   Be cautious on the Metro.  I had my wallet cleanly picked by a very talented thief, which was really our only negative experience in town.  Otherwise we encountered helpful friendly people.

Beyond that I found the entrepreneurial energy and palpable sense of optimism in the Czech people to be contagious.  The city has come far in the 20 years since the Soviet empire collapsed and I think its future is bright.

While Prague is great to see in the day, it is also fantastic after dark so do at least one walk at night.  You'll find a different atmosphere and less busy city.  Even if you don't drink much (we don't either) stop by a pub or open air beer garden and take in the ambiance of the city.  Also I'd recommend taking a river cruise at dusk.  It's a great time of day to cruise through the city and under the Charles Bridge.
 
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If you would like to see high resolution images of the following photos, please go to this link: http://drfumblefinger.com/wrdprs/?p=280.  For full screen views, click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar (playing at the bottom of the post) 
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