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.