Nigel J. Ross

Prague, 2004

A long February weekend in Prague and we seemed to manage to do so much in such a short time. The flights with Volareweb were on time and very easy. We arrived early in the afternoon on the Friday, easily found the bus to take us into the city, then got the underground for four stops to our "chosen" hotel ... it had sounded an interesting option in one of the guidebooks. The weather was also very mild when we arrived, so it wasn't too much of a problem getting lost on coming out of the underground station and taking about three times as long as it should have taken us to get to the hotel.

We really liked the hotel when we got to it. All wood-panelled and "olde worlde", with just eight rooms, bang in the heart of the city but in a small pedestrianised lane, away from any traffic noise. They showed us four different rooms, two of which were suites with coffered ceilings. We especially liked the suites, but hardly felt there was much point in paying the extra when we wouldn't be in the room very much (well that's the excuse for the meanness!!). We chose a large, spacious top-floor room with all usual facilities, and were very comfortable. As it was the low season, and we knew from the Internet that lots of hotels were offering discounts, we wangled a reasonable discount there, too! And the breakfasts were so large we did without lunch almost every day!

City of Prague, view from castle hill, Malostrana View of the City of Prague

A quick unpack and we went out to explore the immediate area around the hotel. Prague city centre is divided into four main "towns", and so we explored our "town", Staremesto. It was just two minutes walk to the main square with its enormous astronomical clock tower and twin-steepled Tyn Church. The range of buildings around the square, mediaeval through to baroque, was quite a sight. The astronomical clock does all kinds of things when the hour chimes, and we also climbed (and took the lift) to the top of the clock tower for the views over the city. We wandered around the lanes and visited an exhibition in the town hall at nightfall. We walked as far as another of the "towns" (they are all very close, and within easy walking distance), seeing the famous Wencleslas Square, the scene of many uprisings towards the last days of communism in the country. And then we found a little vegetarian restaurant for dinner. Already an intense first day.

Again on the Saturday we spent most of the day in Staremesto, enjoying just wandering along the streets and lanes with the most beautiful, well-restored buildings almost on every corner. We ended up at the Municipal Hall, built at the turn of the century in Art Deco style. We had a cup of coffee (and shared a sandwich - we did treat ourselves to a bite that day, though were far from hungry after the mammoth breakfasts) in the sumptuous salon, but unfortunately we couldn't look around very much as there were no (guided) tours until the Tuesday afternoon. We especially wanted to see the lavish Smetana concert hall, and even considered booking for a concert the following night, but the concert was clearly a tourist thing - a chamber orchestra playing everything from a movement or two from Dvorak's New World symphony to Vivaldi and Gershwin - and so we decided against it.

Our next stop was the Alfonse Mucha museum. Mucha was the leader of the Art Nouveau movement, and although he came from Prague and worked a lot in the city, he achieved fame in Paris. The museum was very interesting, and we spent more time there than we'd bargained. Our plans to visit another museum had to be abandoned as it had got rather late, and also we felt we'd be overdoing the cultural intake. Instead we browsed round nearby some shops and department stores. It was interesting to see the goods on sale and prices. Most things are a good bit cheaper, though the Czech Republic is fast becoming Western-Europeanised, ready for its joining the EU next year.

The restaurant we'd chosen from the guidebook that evening was a bit of a walk away, and then closed when we got there! The weather was also changing, with a bitter wind blowing that evening. So we dived into another restaurant, even if we were a little unsure about it. It turned out to be very good, though a bit pricey (by that I mean more or less our kinds of prices - most other places were about a half or two-thirds of what we might pay in W. Europe).

Prague, Malostrana, looking up towards cathedral Prague, Malostrana

We had decided to spend the Sunday exploring Malostrana - the small "town" over the other side of the river with the castle. It was a fascinating walk, over the statue-lined Charles bridge, through the town with its twisting, climbing streets, again lined with beautiful buildings. The cold wind was still with us, but we stopped off to see the incredibly ornate baroque church of St. Nicholas (where we could climb up to the first-floor gallery and organ loft), and a little bar for a warming cup of coffee.

Prague, St. Nicholas Church, Malostrana Prague, St. Nicholas

The castle is more of a fortified town, in some ways on the style of Edinburgh castle, but larger - in fact it is the largest ancient castle in Europe. We walked through the royal/presidential palace into the first of the four main courtyards. A wing of the palace houses an art gallery, but we didn't stop to visit as its collection of paintings didn't sound so attractive. Instead we walked through to the second courtyard with the very tall Gothic cathedral, which we had a good look around. The third courtyard led to the old royal palace, which also merited a tour. Parts of it were mediaeval and had very interesting ceilings. The old records department was a different and fascinating insight into royal administration hundreds of years ago.

Prague Castle, Goldsmith's Street Goldsmith's Street, Castle

The fourth courtyard houses the old church of St. George's, rather bare inside. And behind this church lies the area where nobles and palace officials had their living quarters. We walked inside part of the castle walls, looking out to the city below. One little street in this part of the castle is called the Goldsmith's Street, and his a series of tiny little shops built onto the castle wall, now mainly selling souvenirs. We were looking around in one little shop when we heard thunder, and saw that a blizzard of snow had suddenly started to blow up outside. We stayed in the shop for longer than anticipated, then found a small coffee shop. We were in need of a sit down, and half an hour later, the storm had blown over and we were back to blue skies again! We slowly meandered back to the hotel (though our walk across the bridge was far from slow because of the icy cold wind that had returned) and found a highly-recommended Afghan restaurant for our dinner (we enjoyed the food, rather like un-spicy Indian food).

We spent most of Monday exploring another "town", the former Jewish ghetto. Prague had the largest concentration of Jews of any European city before WWII, and the Jews in the city experienced more discrimination, deportation and decimation than others. Now the Jewish population in the city is relatively small, and a number of the synagoges and public Jewish buildings have been turned into a series of museums. A single ticket allows entry to them all. We first visited a very small synagogue where walls are lined with the names of all deportees who were killed in the concentration camps. There were over 100,000 victims from the Czech Republic, so the sheer scale of the lists was awe-inspiring. Upstairs rooms had a grim exhibition of children's drawings from the camps.

Prague, Jewish Cemetery Prague, Jewish Cemetery

Next visit was to the Jewish cemetery and a synagogue housing a series of exhibits about the Prague Jewish Burial Society - something like a masonic lodge which, as well as assisting mourners, had quite a cultural and entertainments programme! A third converted synagogue housed precious religious objects, many of which were beautifully made. Some of the silver scroll-handles and Torah shields were particularly intricate. A break for a warming cup of coffee (it was sunny, but icy cold most of the Monday) and then a visit to the gift shop before we took in another little museum telling all about Jewish life in the ghetto. Lastly we walked on to the Spanish Synagogue (so-called because of its intricate Moorish decorations) which housed a display on the history of the Jews in Prague (and Bohemia - I discovered that the word "Czech" is simply another way of saying "Bohemian").

All of that had taken much longer than we'd expected, but it had been a fascinating insight into a unique culture. As it was getting dark, we spent an hour in a local department store, buying a few things to bring home (like some very reasonably-priced Bohemian glass beakers), and browsing around a local supermarket. Our dinner that evening was not such a success. It had started snowing, and so we didn't want to walk too far, and the fish and vegetable stew we had in a nearby restaurant was mainly composed of thickly sliced onions!

After breakfast and packing, we had an hour and a half to do a last bit of wandering around our "town" before going to the airport. We didn't go far, as it was snowing again, but Carla at last found herself a CD of Czech-Hungarian gypsy music, and we bought a couple of bottles of Absinth to bring back (Absinth, of course, used to be very popular throughout Europe - the very potent drink is now banned in most countries as regular swigs can lead to insanity!).

And then it was time to leave the city - though our guidebooks are still full of things to see and do for another time - and get to the airport. Again it was an easy trip back, and we felt well-refreshed for all (or, at least, most of) the chores that awaited in the weeks ahead.

Prague, Changing of the Guard, Castle Prague, Changing of the Guard




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