A stroll through his­tor­i­cal Prague

Al­li­son Foat lace supher walk­ing shoes and takes to the street of Prague on a tour of dis­cov­ery

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PROPERTY -

NEARLY two decades af­ter the Vel­vet Revo­lu­tion, Prague, the city of a hun­dred spires, has without a doubt es­tab­lished it­self as a su­perb East­ern Euro­pean des­ti­na­tion.

Af­ter arriving in un­sea­son­ably freez­ing weather, we joined a few friends and masses of tourists to soak up Prague’s rich cul­ture and her­itage, and com­pletely fell in love with it.

The ideal way for me to “feel” a new city is to walk it flat, and the astro­nom­i­cal clock in the old town (Stare Mesto) was my start­ing point on most days.

This over-the-top time­piece has been tick­ing since 1490 and at­tracts throngs of tourists with its slightly over­rated hourly pro­ces­sion of carved saints.

The old town square, where the clock is lo­cated, is a large, vibey space with the im­pres­sive Jan Hus memo­rial sculp­ture as its hub. Sur­round­ing the square is an as­sem­bly of great ar­chi­tec­ture, and the St Ni­cholas Church and Tyn Church with its eerie black­ened tow­ers are the most prom­i­nent.

When leav­ing the area, a labyrinth of quaint cob­ble­stone streets opens and show­cases su­perbly pre­served build­ings de­signed in Ro­man, baroque, re­nais­sance, art nou­veau and Cu­bist ar­chi­tec­ture.

It seems that ev­ery build­ing, whether sim­ple or grand, boasts a fresco, mo­saic, paint­ing or statue, and the de­tail of it all is as­tound­ing.

If you find walk­ing is a bit of a schlep, there’s an ex­cel­lent pub­lic trans­port sys­tem, but avoid the un­der­ground at night in favour of the rec­om­mended AAA taxi cabs.

The mag­nif­i­cent Charles Bridge (Karlovi Most) is a feat of Gothic en­gi­neer­ing. It was built in 1357 with 16 mas­sive sand­stone arches and 75 stat­ues and sculp­tures lin­ing the way from the old town to lesser town (Mala Strana).

It re­ally is a me­dieval marvel and one of sev­eral bridges span­ning the broad Vt­lava River. Strolling over it to the op­po­site bank, we headed up the lovely Neru­dova Street, the main walk­ing lane lead­ing to the spec­tac­u­lar Prague Cas­tle that spreads more than 70 000m2 and is the largest cas­tle com­plex in the world.

With its beau­ti­fully kept gar­dens, palaces, churches, Golden Lane and the aus­tere St Vi­tus’ Cathe­dral, the star at­trac­tion, it is without a doubt the Czech Repub­lic’s most sig­nif­i­cant mon­u­ment.

From the cas­tle precinct, we walked down­hill past the os­ten­ta­tious Wal­len­stein, Prague’s big­gest palace, with gor­geous roof paint­ings and statue gar­dens, and the some­what macabre drip­stone sta­lac­tite wall fea­ture.

Go­ing back across the river via the Mánes Bridge, tea at the chic café in the Ru­dolfinum on Jana Palacha Square was a very colo­nial af­fair. The Ru­dolfinum is home to the Prague Phil­har­monic and it’s très­fab­u­lous to sip your Earl Grey to strains of Vi­valdi and Dvo­rak.

Any­one vis­it­ing Prague must in­dulge at one of its many grand cafés such as the Mu­nic­i­pal House with its ex­cep­tional art nou­veau in­te­rior, or my favourite, the Grand Café Ori­ent in the Cu­bist style House of the Black Madonna.

A walk along­side the river with its pretty barges and swans is pic­turesque and ul­ti­mately leads to Frank Gehry’s con­tem­po­rary Danc­ing House in the New Town (Nove Mesto), also known as the Gin­ger and Fred build­ing. Be­tween 4pm and 6pm on week­days, t he pub­lic i s al­lowed onto the roof deck for a sweep­ing view of the city up the river to­wards the Cas­tle and Old Town.

The nearby Globe Café and Book­shop is per­fect to catch up on emails over for a latte or cup of rooi­bos (se­ri­ously), be­fore go­ing back up to­wards Jose­fov, the old Jewish Quar­ter in the Old Town.

Make a turn en route at the Big Ben Book­shop in the old town, and say hello to Re­nee, its Capeto­nian owner. It’s well worth spending a few hours in Jose­fov, now an up­mar­ket shop­ping des­ti­na­tion, with Pariska Street re­sem­bling a mini Champs El­y­see.

Orig­i­nally a Jewish ghetto dat­ing back to the 12th cen­tury, it is steeped in a highly emo­tional her­itage and in­cor­po­rates the Old Jewish Ceme­tery and sev­eral syn­a­gogues such as the Pinkas and the Span­ish Syn­a­gogue, the lat­ter sit­u­ated next to the statue of Franz Kafka.

Wences­las Square is one of the most visit ed at t r act i ons i n Pr ague, most fa­mous for the eques­trian statue of “Good King” Wences­las in front of the Na­tional Mu­seum. The square is long and rec­tan­gu­lar, and looks more like a boule­vard. It’s es­pe­cially seedy at night and best avoided for its pick­pock­ets and drug dealers.

Petrin Hill in the lesser town is a great place to re­lax and is best ac­cessed via fu­nic­u­lar, where the ob­ser­va­tory, park and gar­dens can be found at the top. The main at­trac­tion here is the Petrin Tower, a smaller replica of the Eif­fel Tower, and the re­ward for walk­ing up the 299 steps is an­other breath­tak­ing panoramic city view. At the foot of the hill is the Memo­rial to Vic­tims of Com­mu­nism, a strik­ing se­ries of sculp­tures of peo­ple in var­i­ous stages of dessi­ca­tion.

I’m of­fi­cially not a fan of tra­di­tional Czech food such as goulash, dumplings and cab­bage soup, so eat­ing out was un­for­tu­nately a bit of a non-event. The best thing for me was the cham­pion Czech Pilsener Urquell beer, matched with a de­li­cious uber bagel from Bo­hemia Bagel. A re­li­able al­ter­na­tive is au­then­tic Ital­ian food, prefer­ably at any of the Am­bi­ente restau­rants.

The lo­cal wine, by the way, is not a patch on ours, al­though some up­mar­ket ho­tels do serve a se­lec­tion of South African brands at scary prices.

When it comes to ac­com­mo­da­tion you can try the rea­son­ably priced Mer­lin pen­sion around the cor­ner from the Danc­ing Build­ing, or splurge on the pricey and more cen­tral de­signer Yas­min Ho­tel. For me the de­cid­ing fac­tor for both was the free Wi-Fi, a must for com­mu­ni­ca­tion ad­dicts con­stantly up­load­ing to Face­book and Skyp­ing fam­ily back home. Cul­tur­ally, there are daily mu­sic con­certs in many of the churches, and opera and bal­let sea­sons take place reg­u­larly, al­though the stan­dard isn’t world class. Jazz how­ever, comes highly rec­om­mended by Capeto­nian jazz fundi sand Czech lo­cals, and there are loads of jazz and blues clubs all over town. For an ex­cur­sion be­yond the city lim­its, try Karlovy Vary, a snooty lit­tle spa town per­fect for air­ing that pair of de­signer sun­glasses! This is the home of more than 70 min­eral springs, the Sprudel geyser and the ever so posh Grand Ho­tel Pupp, where

Casi­noRoyale was filmed. The Grand Café Pupp, with its glam in­te­rior, is worth vis­it­ing for its pas­try se­lec­tion and sub­lime hot chocolate, and while on the trot, pick up a box of Kolon­ady spa wafers, de­li­ciously light and filled with hazel­nut, chocolate or vanilla cream.

With Prague be­ing so cen­trally lo­cated, it means that there are sev­eral other Euro­pean cities you can visit. Some, like Vi­enna, War­saw and Berlin are two or three hours away by train, al­though I opted for Bu­dapest, six hours away.

The city felt so sim­i­lar to Prague in its lay­out, with the river Danube split­ting its three dis­tricts, Obuda and hilly Buda on the west­ern bank, and flat Pest on the east­ern bank. You can cover Bu­dapest in two or three days with ease. A two-hour tour on the hop on, hop off bus gives tourists the ad­van­tage of be­ing able to see 14 key sights be­fore de­cid­ing where to re­visit at leisure. High­lights for me in­cluded Great Syn­a­gogue, Europe’s largest, that is built in t he Byzan­tine style. The “ weep­ing wil­low” tree memo­rial to the 600 000 Hun­gar­ian Jews mur­dered i n Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps, is ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble.

There are also many spec­tac­u­lar churches in Bu­dapest, with St Stephen’s Basil­ica be­ing the one that dom­i­nates the sky­line. The Buda Cas­tle and Royal Palace, sit­u­ated atop Cas­tle Hill, can also be ac­cessed via a cable­way. Stun­ning build­ings in the Cas­tle District in­clude the Royal Palace, Matyas Church, Lord’s Street, the Fish­er­men’s Bas­tion and the Hun­gar­ian Na­tional Gallery. A boat ride along the Danube gives a whole dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive of Bu­dapest and takes in the Chain and El­iz­a­beth Bridges, the Academy of Sciences, and the im­pres­sive neo-Gothic Hun­gar­ian Par­lia­ment, one of the city’s most defin­ing sights. As far as eat­ing Hun­gar­ian went, I pre­ferred the chi-chi McCafé at McDon­ald’s in Bu­dapest, which is jus­ti­fied by be­ing very stylish and serves great cof­fee. There are great out­door cafés on the fa­mous Vaci Utca, said to be the heart and soul of Bu­dapest, and a prime shop­ping des­ti­na­tion. Pub­lic trans­port is well or­gan­ised via tram and bus, al­though I walked ev­ery­where as usual.

Back i n Prague I cov­ered al l t he r emain­ing si ghts be­fore l eav­ing f or home, truly in­spired by a rich ex­pe­ri­ence and an­other “diva des­ti­na­tion” crossed off my “cities-to-do” list.

Ad­viser

Prague, Czech Repub­lic. Best time to visit: be­tween July and Septem­ber.

Get­ting there: Turk­ish Air­lines from Cape Town, via Is­tan­bul.

Cur­rency: 1 euro = 25CZK (at time of go­ing to press) Prague to Bu­dapest, Hun­gary. Best time to visit: be­tween July and Septem­ber.

Get­ting there: Via train from Prague: 18 to 20 Euro one way if you book three days in ad­vance or 59 to 70 eu­ros

Cur­rency: Hun­gar­ian Florenc (HUF); 1 euro = 250 HUF (at time of go­ing to press).

CLAS­SIC CARS: Clas­sic car tours down Prague’s quaint cob­ble­stone streets.

BIG RIVER: The Danube and Houses of Par­lia­ment as seen from the Fish­er­men’s Bas­tion in Buda.

AT­TRAC­TIVE: The stun­ning Mu­nic­i­pal House on Na­mesti Repub­liky.

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