Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - EU­GENE ABRAHAMS

IWAS LOST in Prague. Re­ally. I wish I had come up with that, but it was Sarel du Plessis, national man­ager (pre­ferred part­ner­ships) of Tour­vest Travel, who was with me on tour and threw it in my di­rec­tion as he saw me scur­ry­ing to­wards the meet­ing point at the Old Town Hall’s As­tro­nom­i­cal Clock in Prague’s Old Town Square.

We were about to em­bark on a cruise down the Vl­tava River at 7.30pm. Hav­ing left the group on a few prior oc­ca­sions to ex­plore other cities by my­self – he who wan­ders is never lost – and hav­ing kept them wait­ing, I was des­per­ate that it would not hap­pen this time.

But who was I fool­ing? In fact, I chal­lenge any­one vis­it­ing Prague not to find their at­ten­tion di­verted as they wan­der the streets and lanes, with a jewel of de­light around each cor­ner.

More than two decades ago this was a city trapped be­hind the Iron Cur­tain, but you’d barely know it th­ese days. Prague is a glo­ri­ous metropolis whose me­dieval past is writ­ten large across its nar­row streets, cob­bled squares and stately build­ings.

It was 7pm when I re­alised I’d bet­ter get a move on. Sarel had been with me, but he soon dis­ap­peared among the throng of tourists. My strat­egy: walk in a line to what I be­lieved was the square, but that was more dif­fi­cult than it sounds.

7.05pm, lux­ury bou­tique store Burberry, no, can’t pop in there. 7.10pm, patis­serie, love the cakes, no, move on, sou­venir shop, that’s a lovely fridge mag­net… 7.20pm, could do with some wa­ter, where am I? And the more I tried to find my way, the more the at­trac­tions kept dis­tract­ing me.

And as the sec­onds ticked down my feet pounded down twisty cob­ble- stone streets, then tar roads, more cob­ble­stones (thank good­ness my takkies have those lit­tle cush­ions in the heels), old city, new city, old city, then down an al­ley into a cul-de-sac, back again – and I saw a po­lice­man, who said: “Go straight, it will take you two min­utes. You can’t miss it.”

Meet­ing at the 70m Old Town Hall Tower, which houses the As­tro­nom­i­cal Clock, wasn’t a bad ren­dezvous point – the writer Franz Kafka lived in a house across the square.

What the As­tro­nom­i­cal Clock has shown since the time it was in­stalled in 1410 was that it re­mains a hands­down must-see in Prague. There’s al­ways a crowd in front of the tower and, on the hour, ev­ery hour, a small door opens and Christ ap­pears, fol­lowed by his Twelve Apos­tles.

Be­low the clock are 12 medal­lions with the signs of the zodiac. The four fig­ures flank­ing the clock are set in mo­tion at the hour. Th­ese rep­re­sent the four things that were de­spised at the time of the clock’s mak­ing: van­ity, rep­re­sented by a fig­ure ad­mir­ing him­self in a mir­ror; greed, shown as a miser hold­ing a bag of gold; across the clock stands death, a skele­ton that strikes the time upon the hour; and a Turk, telling of plea­sure and en­ter­tain­ment.

But with the joy of such beauty comes tragedy. Ac­cord­ing to le­gend, clock­maker Hanus was blinded by the city coun­cil to pre­vent him from con­struct­ing a more beau­ti­ful clock else­where.

And the rea­son the clock keeps on tick­ing, even af­ter all th­ese cen­turies? Le­gend has it that the city will suf­fer if the clock is ne­glected.

In my mazy run I could also have ar­rived right back at where we had started the pre­vi­ous day, at the en­trance to Prague Cas­tle.

This is the same cas­tle from where the War­saw Pact troops oc­cu­pied Prague in Au­gust 1968, crush­ing the Prague Spring and turn­ing it into a Stal­in­ist win­ter, which lasted for 21 cold years.

Back in March 1939, Adolf Hitler pro­claimed to the Czech na­tion, from the cas­tle, the Pro­tec­torate of Bo­hemia and Mo­ravia. This spared Prague from de­struc­tion in World War II, but Cze­choslo­vakia ceased to ex­ist. The coun­try was di­vided in two – the other part was Slo­vakia – and soon all sorts of ma­chine guns, tanks and ar­tillery were as­sem­bled by the Czechs to help the Nazis dur­ing the war.

Prague, long lib­er­ated af­ter its peace­ful over­throw of the Com­mu­nist govern­ment in its 1989 Velvet

Prague still seems to be the ex­cited kid who can’t be­lieve he’s been thrown a birth­day party

Rev­o­lu­tion (the last Rus­sian troops left Czech soil in 1991), still seems to be the ex­cited kid who can’t be­lieve he has been thrown a birth­day party, with clowns and a bounc­ing cas­tle to boot. Af­ter the hard­ship and mis­ery Czechs suf­fered, it is no won­der there’s a con­tin­u­ous air of rev­elry.

Prague Cas­tle is the largest me­dieval cas­tle in Europe – and that’s say­ing some­thing, if you’ve seen the con­ti­nent’s other cas­tles. At one stage it was the seat of the kings of Bo­hemia and to­day the Czech Repub­lic pres­i­dent rules from there.

It is huge, more than seven hectares, and is cen­tred on three great court­yards. Your cam­era will click non-stop, the video on your smart­phone will fill your mem­ory card and you’ll get dizzy with de­light as you turn and twirl, soak­ing it in – churches, palaces, great halls, view­ing tow­ers, mu­se­ums, a monastery…

There are many draw­cards here, in­clud­ing the statue of St Ge­orge slay­ing the dragon, but do find Golden Lane, a tiny al­ley with brightly painted cot­tages dat­ing from the 16th cen­tury. Orig­i­nally built to house the marks­men of King Ru­dolf II, to­day they are sou­venir shops sell­ing high-qual­ity goods. Kafka fans take note: it was at No 22 that he wrote many of his short sto­ries.

Prague was dubbed the “Golden City” ( dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, Em­peror Charles IV had all the city gates’ roofs cov­ered with lead) and, down the years, the domes and spires have been con­tin­u­ously re­stored and regilded. And as

TIME IS AL­WAYS RIGHT: The As­tro­nom­i­cal Clock still keeps time 603 years af­ter its in­stal­la­tion. A close-up of Ma­gus and Ar­changel Michael fig­ures on the clock.

SWEET DE­LIGHTS: Trdel­nik, also known as Trdlo, is a Czech tra­di­tional sweet pas­try dough cooked on an open fire.

AWE-IN­SPIR­ING: The statue of saints Bar­bara, Mar­garet and El­iz­a­beth on Charles Bridge.

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