Prague of­fers a feast for the eyes and the soul

Prague of­fers a feast for the eyes and the soul


For a city that was not on my list of must-see des­ti­na­tions, Prague turned out to be the per­fect place for me. I was head­ing to Switzer­land to visit my daugh­ter and a friend sug­gested I check out Prague, say­ing a quick stopover would be all I would need.

I found my­self in the heart of Europe, in a beau­ti­ful city steeped in his­tory and brim­ming with ar­chi­tec­tural mas­tery, mes­mer­iz­ing mu­sic and breath­tak­ing vis­tas. With its fairy­tale-like set­ting, this is a place where time stands still, of­fer­ing a feast not only for the eyes, but also the soul.

My three-day visit, while some­what whirl­wind, was ad­e­quate for cap­tur­ing Prague’s main sights – while still leav­ing me long­ing for more, an­other time down the road.

Prague is the capital of the Czech Repub­lic, the his­tor­i­cal capital of Bo­hemia and home to just over a mil­lion peo­ple. Ar­riv­ing first thing in the morn­ing af­ter a night flight from Toronto, I was taken by the famed sky­line of red rooftops, goldtipped tow­ers and mag­nif­i­cent church spires. Nick­named “the Golden City of a Hun­dred Spires,” it is noted for be­ing one of Europe’s best pre­served cities.

Armed with my cam­era and wear­ing sturdy walk­ing shoes, I strolled the nar­row cob­ble­stone paths and ex­plored the high­lights, all within a rel­a­tively com­pact area.

Walk­ing tours are highly rec­om­mended. I se­lected Tour 4 Char­ity, where the guides are pas­sion­ate about Prague and their nom­i­nal fee goes to char­i­ties for un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren in the Czech Repub­lic. The guides then keep any gra­tu­ities to support their in­come. It is a novel con­cept for giv­ing

back while sup­port­ing lo­cal tourism.

Our tour guide, John Paul Sch­lamm, re­vealed part of Prague’s charm is its pris­tine con­di­tion. De­spite be­ing oc­cu­pied by the Nazis dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, its struc­tures were largely spared from the bomb­ings. “Adolf Hitler or­dered his troops not to dam­age Prague be­cause he planned to re­tire here af­ter the war,” Sch­lamm said.

Wars, in­va­sions, reli­gious re­volts, fires and floods – Prague’s tur­bu­lent past is filled with up­heaval, yet it is widely cel­e­brated to­day as a place where the power of the peo­ple has led to great pride and pros­per­ity.

“We’ve al­ways been the un­der­dog in his­tory,” adds Sch­lamm, “but we’re still here. Prague has a magic about it, much of it is pre­served. Post-com­mu­nism, there was a big push to fix up fa­cades, bring back dec­o­ra­tive styles and lay the cob­ble­stone streets. Czech pride is ev­ery­where.”

Also ev­ery­where are its stun­ning struc­tures and build­ings – many de­signed and con­structed in the Mid­dle Ages, awe-in­spir­ing and still stand­ing as a tes­ta­ment to the coun­try and its peo­ple’s re­silience.

Nowhere is this more ev­i­dent than at Prague Cas­tle.

It is a World Her­itage Site and, ac­cord­ing to the Guin­ness World Records, it is the largest cas­tle com­plex in the world – larger than seven football fields. The cas­tle is perched on a hill over­look­ing Prague’s Old Town Square and the pic­turesque Vl­tava River. Con­structed in the 9th cen­tury and used as a fortress to ward off in­vaders, the cas­tle has evolved over 1,000 years and through sev­eral dy­nas­ties, in­clud­ing the Prêmys­lids, the Lux­em­bourgs and the Hab­s­burgs. It is the orig­i­nal seat of Czech Kings and is cur­rently the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the pres­i­dent.

His­tory buffs are cap­ti­vated by the sights and sto­ries. Af­ter all, this was where a large Protes­tant protest took place back in 1618 when a group of angry no­bles marched in to dis­pute Hab­s­burg Arch­duke Fer­di­nand’s suc­ces­sion to the throne. The mob man­aged to throw two of Fer­di­nand’s Catholic gover­nors out of a cas­tle win­dow; de­spite fall­ing more than 15 me­tres, they sur­vived by land­ing in a heap of ma­nure. The in­ci­dent was called the De­fen­es­tra­tion of 1618 and sig­nalled the start of the Thirty Years’ War.

Art his­to­ri­ans also flock here to gaze at the art, architecture and the im­pres­sive ar­ray of mag­nif­i­cent palaces, churches, grand ban­quet halls and man­i­cured gar­dens.

St. Vi­tus Cathe­dral is the dis­tinc­tive land­mark on the cas­tle grounds and one of the stand­outs of my trip. Words are

some­what in­ad­e­quate to de­scribe its beauty and grandeur.

While its con­struc­tion started in the 1300s un­der the or­ders of the Holy Ro­man Em­peror and King of Bo­hemia, Charles IV, it was a true “work in progress,” en­dur­ing po­lit­i­cal and reli­gious con­flicts and fre­quent fires. It was fi­nally com­pleted in 1929. The cathe­dral was con­structed un­der many art and ar­chi­tec­tural in­flu­ences, no­tably Ro­manesque, Gothic, Re­nais­sance, baroque and art nou­veau. It is a re­mark­able blend­ing of mas­ter­ful builders over the cen­turies.

King Charles IV is buried here, a for­ward­think­ing leader who chose Prague as his im­pe­rial res­i­dence. He is noted for herald­ing in the coun­try’s Golden Age in the 14th cen­tury and found­ing Cen­tral Europe’s first univer­sity – Charles Univer­sity in Prague.

The cathe­dral also houses the crown jew­els and the tomb of Czech’s pa­tron saint Wences­las – a.k.a. Good King Wences­las – a revered duke and mar­tyr who was killed by his brother in the 10th cen­tury.

Famed early 20th-cen­tury Czech artist Alphonse Mucha cre­ated art-nou­veau-style stained-glass win­dows as the cathe­dral’s glo­ri­ous cen­tre­piece, and while vis­i­tors marvel at this artistry, many are equally im­pressed by the cathe­dral’s St. Wences­las Chapel, which is en­crusted in op­u­lent semi-pre­cious gems.

As I wind my way down the cas­tle hill to­wards the Old Town Square, the famed foot­bridge – Charles Bridge – awaits. Com­mis­sioned by its name­sake Charles IV in 1357, af­ter the previous bridge was de­stroyed in a flood, it strad­dles the Vl­tava River and it, too, has a tale.

The bridge was for­ti­fied with sand­stone blocks and is ru­moured to have eggs mixed in with its mor­tar. It has proved to be durable and in 2002 with­stood one of the coun­try’s worst floods.

The bridge was the sight for the sign­ing of the Thirty Years’ War truce in 1648, which ended the con­flict and saved Prague’s old town from the Swedish army. To­day, this is the place where tourists con­gre­gate

in droves, as they en­joy artists, buskers, mu­si­cians and the repli­cas of the 17th­cen­tury baroque stat­ues placed along the bridge. The real ones were re­moved for preser­va­tion and can be viewed in a nearby ci­tadel.

And if this bridge seems fa­mil­iar to some, it may be be­cause it was used as a back­drop for Hol­ly­wood block­busters such as “The Bourne Iden­tity” and the James Bond thriller “Casino Royale.”

Head­ing into the Old Town Square, I nav­i­gate a wind­ing maze of nar­row streets lined with restau­rants and sou­venir shops but, once en­ter­ing the square, its vast­ness and vibe abounds. Its at­trac­tion is the va­ri­ety of architecture – the baroque churches, a ro­coco palace and, once again, those sig­na­ture soar­ing spires.

Loom­ing over me is the dom­i­nant Gothic spires of the Church of Our Lady Be­fore Týn, the an­cient struc­ture that rep­re­sents the Hus­site church and its revered re­formist founder, Jan Hus. He was burned at the stake here in 1415 for al­leged crimes of heresy af­ter he ques­tioned the Catholic Church’s cor­rupt prac­tices. His statue watches over the square, while those church spires are some of the most pho­tographed in Prague. They even in­spired the fore­bod­ing cas­tle de­sign in the An­gelina Jolie movie “Malef­i­cent.”

The Old Town Square for­merly served as a horse and cat­tle mar­ket, but more than 600 years ago there was an­other rea­son to travel here.

The As­tro­nom­i­cal Clock at the Old Town Hall is deemed a me­dieval won­der and is the old­est work­ing as­tro­nom­i­cal clock in the world, draw­ing hun­dreds of tourists on the hour to ex­pe­ri­ence its craftsmanship and pre­ci­sion. Ev­ery hour, 12 Apos­tles pa­rade in the win­dows to help sig­nal the po­si­tion of ce­les­tial bod­ies, as­tro­nom­i­cal cy­cles and, yes, even­tu­ally re­veal­ing the time and date. The mas­ter clock­maker who cre­ated it is said to have been blinded back in 1490 to pre­vent him from repli­cat­ing the clock any­where else in the world.

While Prague is a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion for its an­nual Christ­mas mar­ket, its Spring Mu­sic Fes­ti­val re­ceives equal billing and has been host­ing the world’s best per­form­ing artists, sym­phony and cham­ber or­ches­tras since 1946. It is also a mecca for Mozart fans. Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart had a fond­ness for Prague, fa­mously say­ing, “My Pra­guers un­der­stand me.” Here at Prague’s Es­tates The­atre, he de­buted and di­rected his renowned opera, “Don Gio­vanni” back in 1787.

To­day, that same the­atre hosts prom­i­nent mu­si­cians – tenor Placido Domingo head­lined dur­ing my visit – as do the many churches and palaces in Prague daily. I took in one of those con­certs at the Charles Bridge Palace, the site where the movie “Amadeus” was filmed in 1983 by Czech­born di­rec­tor Mi­los For­man.

Sur­rounded by un­touched 18th-cen­tury fres­coes and orig­i­nal chan­de­liers, I was en­tranced by the Royal Czech Orches­tra as I lis­tened to its mov­ing ren­di­tions of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart’s “Don Gio­vanni” Aria.

Trans­fixed as many are by Prague’s old-world charm and me­dieval mys­tique, make no mis­take there is a youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance here too. Its youth have led many peace­ful protests over the ages, espe­cially in 1989 dur­ing the famed Vel­vet Rev­o­lu­tion, when hun­dreds of thou­sands of stu­dents ral­lied for two weeks against their Com­mu­nist rulers and ul­ti­mately helped end four decades of con­trol, even­tu­ally lead­ing to democ­racy.

Per­haps the pro­test­ers were buoyed by peace ac­tivist and former Bea­tle John Len­non, who was as­sas­si­nated in 1980 and memo­ri­al­ized in Prague just steps away from the Charles Bridge. Many ad­mir­ers and peace ad­vo­cates make the pil­grim­age to the colour­ful John Len­non Peace Wall that boasts paci­fist graf­fiti in his hon­our and cre­ative ren­der­ings from vis­i­tors. The wall’s vi­brant hues and soul­ful state­ments con­tinue to draw crowds, cel­e­brat­ing free­dom of speech. Many even pick up a spray can, avail­able nearby, to add to the pow­er­ful prose.

Oc­to­ber 2018 marks the 100th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of the found­ing of in­de­pen­dent Cze­choslo­vakia. The coun­try has been re­ferred to as the Czech Repub­lic since 1993’s am­i­ca­ble part­ing of Czech and Slo­vak states, and both the Czech Repub­lic and Slo­vakia are get­ting set for the an­niver­sary.

Prague has been prim­ing for the party for sev­eral years, ren­o­vat­ing and re­fur­bish­ing land­marks to wel­come vis­i­tors. While the city will be alive with spe­cial ex­hibits, fes­ti­vals and many free events, so too will the record num­ber of fes­thalls and pubs, as Pra­guers hoist a pint of beer to usher in the an­niver­sary.

Beer drink­ing is a favourite pas­time here and so it is no sur­prise the Czech Repub­lic boasts a unique claim to fame: it has the high­est beer con­sump­tion per capita in the world.

The coun­try’s fa­mous brand of Pil­sner Urquell orig­i­nated here in 1842 af­ter it was first brewed in the Czech town of Pilsen. To­day, that small town 80 kilo­me­tres away is home to many com­pet­ing brew­ers. Just down the road, the brand Bud­weiser Bud­var is brewed in a town named Bud­weis. Sound fa­mil­iar?

The Amer­i­can brewer Bud­weiser adopted that name for its prod­uct af­ter a visit to the town in the 19th cen­tury and quite likely af­ter im­bib­ing a few, or sev­eral, sudsy sam­ples.

Me­dieval charm, spec­tac­u­lar architecture and Czech beer . . . the rea­sons to visit Prague just keep adding up, whether to quench your thirst for his­tory or, quite sim­ply, to quench your thirst.

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: The Prague As­tro­nom­i­cal Clock is one of the city’s great­est trea­sures and has been work­ing for 600 years. It at­tracts crowds ev­ery hour to en­joy a me­chan­i­cal per­for­mance as 12 Apos­tles pa­rade in the win­dows.ABOVE: Day shot of the Gothic spires of Church of Our Lady Be­fore Tyn, which dom­i­nates the Old Town Square.

Tourists are drawn to the ma­jes­tic build­ings in Old Town Square.

THIS PAGE: Tourists flock to the John Len­non Peace Wall, of­ten spray paint­ing their grafitti art and peace­ful prose.OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Art Nou­veau stained-glass win­dow cre­ated by Czech painter Al­fons Mucha in the St. Vi­tus Cathe­dral at Prague Cas­tle.

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