Can you do a capital city in a day? Of course you can’t. You can however get a feel for a place, enough of an insight to determine whether you want to come back. We were travelling to the Czech Republic on a walking trip specifically to get beyond Prague, but as neither of us had seen the city, to fly in and head straight out again seemed a wasted opportunity so we managed to wangle an extra day’s freedom and booked ourselves a Sunday in the city.
We flew London Stansted (which for the non-Brits is quite a way out of London) to Prague with Easyjet. Because we wanted to guarantee specific flight times we booked in advance and paid approx. £150. This was in 2004 and prices will have increased since then, but if you can be more flexible or late-book you can still get a good deal. Flights both ways were comfortable, and on time. No frills, but on this short a trip (approx 2hrs in the air, you don’t need them). You will need your patience for checking in at the airport on the return trip. Very very slow.
Our airport transfers were part of the tour package, so unable to comment on general arrangements. Taxis seemed to be in good supply and were not being aggressive in seeking business. With a bit of forward planning we’re advised to take the airport bus to the first tram/metro stop, & the city’s your oyster from there. Obviously it depends on how light you’re travelling and you will need change for your tram ticket, correct fares only on board, but you can also buy at the local kiosk.
Hotels: Prague is a cosmopolitan capital with hotels to match. Top-notch-to-basic. We stayed at U SEMIKA, which is a little out of the real heart of the city but highly recommended. Sitting in a quiet street between Nove Mesto and the Vysehrad, it is two-minute walk from the tram stop, and an easy 20-minute amble along the river to the old town. Service was impeccable. English is spoken. Rooms and self-catering apartments are available – be careful in the latter though, some of them have interesting bedding arrangements: you may find yourself climbing a ladder to a tiny roofspace “cave”: surprisingly comfortable and definitely quaint, unless you’ve had one too many Povi and need to get up in the night! Accommodation is generally spacious, comfortable and pleasant. One word of warning to the less fit or able: the hotel does stretch over four storeys and there is no lift. As we did not eat in, I cannot speak for the quality of food in the evenings, but breakfasts couldn’t be faulted, and the physical arrangement of the restaurant suggests a wonderful evening atmosphere. There is also a courtyard terrace.
Guidebooks: essential. I have a loyalty to Rough Guides for the detail of their info, and the Prague section in their “Czech & Slovak” volume is to be commended. They can be chunky to carry about though, so just photocopy the bits you need. More manageable & with a special mention for on the hoof use-ability is the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Prague. Very visual: lots of street-maps and 3-D plans. Also full of useful hints & tips & recommendations.
42 HOURS IN PRAGUE
So, what did we do with it? Having checked into the hotel and concluded that we had lots of vague ideas but no real plan, we decided to do what any Czech would do. Go buy a beer! Just along the street is a simple bar, with shady tables outside, where we sat and considered the guidebooks and friends recommendations and our own inclinations. Our main conclusion was that not having a Plan was a Good Thing. We knew roughly what we’d like to do, and we were adamant that we didn’t want to cram it so only planning the next step after we’d enjoyed this one was the way to go. A “possibles” list.
More crucially we decided where to eat that night.
A little later we set out to walk into town, our objective being U Flecku. The aforementioned DK guide describes the food as “upmarket Czech pub fare”. Forget that. This is an experience. A touristy one to be sure ~ but still worth indulging in if it’s your first trip to Czech. The age of the place (circa 1500) is not really evident from the street, but an impression is gained immediately within the entrance hall. Make no mistake! This is a halle, not a lobby. It stretches way back, and rooms and stairs and lobbies lead off in all directions. Do wander. It is a veritable warren of a place, and has charms at every turn from the hidden courtyard to the performance “salon” with its stage for entertainments. Welcomed as lost lambs to the fold we were immediately shown into a large-ish, square-ish hall, with long banquets and benches and left to find our own space. It is delightfully medieval. No sooner were we seated than we were handed a liqueur (assumed to be Beccerovka, but not convinced on subsequent tastings) and shortly thereafter a mug of the house-beer. Dark & heavy. Not a stout, closer to winter ale, called Tmav locally it is akin to the Altbiers of Germany. In the event the warning is needed, none of this is free. You will spot a slip of paper appear at your elbow. This is the slate. All will be noted down in unintelligible scribble. On the upside, all is incredibly cheap by UK standards so don’t worry too much. Enjoy! As for the food, go with anything on the menu. Between us we had the beef (with dumplings and cabbage and cranberry) and the pork (with dumplings and other dumplings and cabbage)and it was very good. If tasting the traditional isn’t your thing, the menu was quite varied and what we saw (& smelt) of the dishes being sampled around us was all positive. My only regret about the place, was that I took the wrong night to do it. Tired after a day’s travelling is not the best way to enjoy this frivolity.
Travel-weary as we were, we did leave early and indulged in a walk I will never forget. A simple riverbank stroll from opposite the Slovansky Ostrov islet to the Zelezninicni railway bridge; a walk we did in both directions several times over the day and a half, it is most wonderful just after dark. The lighting is wonderful. Looking back towards the city, with the Charles Bridge subtly underlit, and the floodlit castle on the hill, the rest of town not overly bright (you could see the moon and the stars), lights from hotels and boats reflecting in the still dark water of the river. There’s a surprising stillness down on the quayside, below the main traffic thoroughfare. There’s a cafe or two along here, an occasional lone angler, lovers hand-in-hand.
I’ve been in the city less than six hours and I’m in love with it. Whatever else happens this week is almost an irrelevance.
Sunday morning dawns with brilliant sunshine and birdsong. It’s a joy to be out early, in true tourist garb of T-shirts and shorts and clutching water bottles and guide books. Eschewing trams for the pleasure of the river we walk up into town, over the Charles Bridge heading for the castle. This we achieved far more quickly than I’d have done alone, for I’d have dawdled on the bridge and no doubt come away with armfuls of jewellery and art. An informal market selling craftwork necklaces and earrings and “pictures” of every kind from oils through watercolour and chalk to photography, all evocative, all wanting me to stop and buy. Touring with a non-shopper has its ups and its downs. The bridge itself is one of the icons of the City. Commissioned by Charles IV in 1357, it was for nearly four hundred years the only river crossing. For most of that period its only adornments were the towers at either end and a simple crucifix. The first statue wasn’t added until 1638. Fittingly it was of St John Nepomuk, who was thrown from the bridge on the orders of Wenceslas IV scarcely forty years after its construction. Over the course of the next two hundred years the trend continued until every pier of the bridge supported not only its weight of arch, but on each side of the carriageway an elaborate statue of saint(s) familiar or obscure. In this the bridge symbolises two of the joys of Prague, and of Czech generally. First, the love of the flamboyant, baroque, rococo, any style you can conjure look around you, above all look upwards, the buildings are all extravagant. I can almost see the architect sent away in shame who dared to leave a neat plane space on his facade. Then, for such a seriously secular country, there are churches and religious icons everywhere you look. Some glorious, some tumbledown, but all surviving, not all of them ancient.
First stop on the tourist trail has to be the Castle. This isn’t the medieval ruin that most English people associate with the word but a once-fortified, many-times rebuilt walled, town. It houses a convent and two churches as well as the magnificent St Vitus cathedral. There are palaces and artisan cottages and the presidential offices. There are days of exploration waiting in the galleries and museums and church interiors, for which we simply have not time enough. For now we contented ourselves with wandering the courtyards and alleyways, from the intricacies of the 14th century mosaic on the St Vitus’ golden portal to the plain solidity of the towers and gatehouses.
From these displays of power and wealth we crossed the Vltava into a different world entirely. The Jewish Quarter was an enclosed ghetto hundreds of years before Hitler, a yellow circle badge of shame imposed in the 16th century precursing the later 6 pointed star. The slums of the ghetto were cleared as a sanitation measure in the late 19th century though a number of the synagogues survive, as does the cemetery. There is a charge for entering the cemetery and queues do form. It is, however, a sobering, thought-provoking experience. Entering via the Pinkas Synagogue we are asked to respect the sanctity of the site and men are required to cover their heads (a paper kippah will be supplied, but baseball caps or sunhats are accepted). Inside a hush descends. The foundation dates back to the 15th century. The vaulted central hall, and the later women’s gallery now serve as a memorial to Czech Jews imprisoned in the Terezin camp, whence many were deported to the extermination camps. The walls of the hall and the gallery list the names of those who did not return. My guidebook quotes the figure 77,297. What that number means in terms of real people, families, individuals, men, women, children, strikes home when you see each name written, floor to ceiling on these high walls. There is a sort of stunned semi-silence, as some search out family names, but most process slowly around picking out a name here and there and trying to absorb some kind of meaning. In an upper floor a small gallery houses pictures and note books from the children at Terezin, each one accompanied by three dates: birth, transportation to the camp and last known record. The time between the latter two dates averaged about two years. There are few where that last date is omitted in favour of the word “survived”. It is a moving exhibition. The emotion in the quiet of that small gallery was palpable. Exiting the building into the cemetery itself, I expected an air of relief and an instant burst of noise, but there was none. Visitors processed around the roped off footpaths, conversation still felt inappropriate. This was the only burial site for the Jews for 300 hundred years. There are some 12,000 headstones crammed in, the burials are said to lie twelve deep. Some 100,000 are believed to lie here. Certainly the ground has been built up well above the level of the pathway. There is a sad beauty in this shaded sun-dappled spot, long Hebrew inscriptions on ancient stones crowded in, some places leaning on each other for support, in others where this more space, simply leaning where the ground has shifted and settled beneath them. Metaphors that don’t need explanation.
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Still surprisingly quiet (what was there to say?) we allowed ourselves to be refreshed by a late and slow lunch on the tree-lined Parizska, warm baguettes and cold beer and lots of people watching.
Later the Old Town Square lost some of its dignity by the presence of a large bouncy castle. In itself the square is a romp through architectural history: elegant, five-storey buildings, their narrow facades compensated by large and numerous windows and simple pastel decor…the rococo Kinsky Palace…the gothic Church of Lady before Tynart nouveau on the Ministry buildingbaroque at St Nicholas The surprising thing is that the mixture seems to hold together. It should jar the nerves and yet it seems to meld into a pleasant whole.
The clock struck the hour. The apostles duly processed above the figures of greed and vanity, death and the Turk (a symbol of lust apparently) and we felt we’d absorbed as much of the city as one can in a single day.
Our route back through the New Town did not inspire. Wenceslas Square, scene of protest and demonstrations since the 19th century is a wide, busy commercial street, towered over by the statue of Wenceslas and on our visit by numerous modern sculptures (some with more humour than taste). The tiny memorial to the victims of communism’ marks the spot where Jan Palach set fire to himself in January 1969, followed by Jan Zajic a few months later in protest at the Russian occupation. For all its historical resonance, this is a spot to pass through, not one to linger. Perhaps we had simply explored enough for one day. Certainly we were glad to regain the riverbank and amble back to U Semika. No peaceful stroll on this occasion though, from across the river tonight’s music festival contribution was an uncomfortable mix of African drums and punk vocals.
Somehow we did find the energy to return that evening, but completely failed our aim. If U Cerneho Orla still exists, we could not find it. Instead we settled into a quiet restaurant, the full name of which is lost to me ~ located at the end of the arcaded terrace on the corner of Malostranske Namesti. Traditional Czech food, generously served in simple calm surroundings was what we’d been promised even if we weren’t in the right place.
Prague on the other hand is absolutely the right place ~ one I can’t wait to return to. At every turn there were places I wanted to discover in depth. There were areas we didn’t go anywhere near. The following morning we took our final views over the city from the high ramparts of the Vysehrad, fortress of the first Czech king in the 11th century and I noted one more place that we barely tasted, one more “next time”.