A stroll through historical Prague
Allison Foat lace supher walking shoes and takes to the street of Prague on a tour of discovery
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.
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.