You could be in Prague for a month and still discover something new. Sandip Hor sees what he can in a mere three days.
Rail travel in Europe is convenient and comfortable. You bypass queues, delays and security checks associated with airports, keep your luggage with you, experience luxury on moving wheels and enjoy landscapes of tranquil European countryside, over a cup of hot coffee from the cafeteria. Surely European rail odyssey is a mind-blowing travel experience but when heading to a magical place like Prague, I wonder if the voyage can be scored above the destination.
Prague is acclaimed by its millions of visitors every year as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Spreading on both sides of the Vialta, its attractive landscape is sprinkled with countless palaces, cathedrals, towers, pavilions, public squares and colourful gardens displaying an extraordinary symphony of terrain and architecture, hard to stumble on anywhere else in the world. You could be wandering here for even a month and still keep discovering something unknown.
I exit Hlavní Nádraží, Prague’s main railway station, with a determination to see, in three days, why this is Europe’s most tourist-haunted destination. Accordingly, I devote the first full day to a walking tour with my guide Jindra.
Experiencing the millennium-old architectural silhouette of Prague, nicknamed the “City of Hundred Spires” because of hundreds of soaring towers, is like going through a textbook on European architecture, starting from Romanesque style at the beginning of Czech statehood through Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance versions over time, ending with Art Nouveau, Neo Classical and modern 21 century additions.
Dotted on the left bank of the river, Prague Castle, which has stayed as the seat of Czech sovereignty since the ninth century, generally ranks at the top of any Prague itinerary. It towers on the top of a hill, perhaps for its residents to keep an eye on what’s happening down below. We hike through cobblestone streets flanked on both sides by architecturally astute buildings of varied ages, overtake Strahov Monastery and Loreto chapel, and enter the largest medieval castle in the world through an ornamented gate, shielded by traditionally dressed Czech guards who are photographed more than any Hollywood celebrity. Inside we lose ourselves in a wonderful world of courtyards, palaces, convents, fountains, statues and gardens, obviously crowded with tourists totally absorbed by its scale and brilliance. The Royal Palace and the St. George Convent are a treasure trove.
Looming over the castle complex is St.Vitus Cathedral. The embellishments on the exterior walls are so artistic that one can spend hours watching them from all sides. Stunned crowds congregate at the Chapel of St.Wenceslas to see the artwork on the walls studded with semi-precious stones and gildings.
Heading downwards from the castle quarter, we trundle along the Golden Lane, a short and narrow alleyway, lined on one side with brightly painted tiny houses, granting the area a colourful facade. Named after the royal goldsmiths who lived here in the 17 century, the 15 century houses today are mostly shops selling books, souvenirs and famous Bohemian glass. Apart from a bright environment, the other draws of the lane are the two houses where the famous novelist Frank Kafka and Nobel Laureate poet Jaroslav Seifert lived.
Prague can also be named the “City of Churches”; there are almost 100 of them. Apart from St.Vitus Cathedral, there is St.Nicholas Church. An impressive example of Baroque architecture, its massive green dome dominates the landscape as a fitting symbol of Catholicism in 18 century Prague. Worth cherishing here is the fresco that adorns the luminous gleam of the 70m high dome.
Jindra talks about Emperor Charles IV, the most significant ruler of the land during the Middle Ages, who built a stone viaduct across the river, famously known as Charles Bridge. With the powerful silhouette of Prague Castle in the background, this iconic structure has never ceased to fascinate poets, artists and photographers. We soon cross this 520-metre-long pedestrian thoroughfare flanked on both sides with 30 decorative statues of saints, following the same historic route traversed by the Czech kings and find ourselves in the Old Town Square, a sprawling piazza surrounded by Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque structures. Originally a market place, it gained status of a town in the 13th century, when several palaces, churches, towers and administrative buildings sprung forth around a paved square.
“This is where the heart of Prague beats,” Jindra tells and she is not wrong. Engulfed in an energetic atmosphere, the entire domain is throbbing with life with people doing all sorts of things from shopping, busking, dancing, romancing, pub-crawling to tourists taking countless photos, while admiring the architectural genie and even jumping on horse-drawn carriages for a leisurely ride through the labyrinth of its crooked alleys, like a Czech noble did in the past.
Jindra ushers me to look at something touted as city’s pride. It’s the 600-year-old Astronomical Clock on the outside of the Gothic Old Town Hall. This piece of art and science features solar and lunar positions, monthly calendars, and a procession of 12 apostles at the strike of every hour, the latter being the crowd-pulling element.
A striking area of Old Town is the old Jewish quarter. The synagogue dating back to the 13 century is the oldest preserved Jewish shrine in Europe.
We go past the Municipal House, Prague’s most prominent Art Nouveau building before ending up at Wenceslas Square, a horse market during medieval times but now dotted with Neoclassical and Art Nouveau buildings and hordes of designer shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes touting present-day consumerism in a city that was under communists for over four decades.
Dominated by the National Museum building dwarfing a bronze equestrian statue of St.Wenceslas, the cobble stone square has been silent witness to many historical events, like the death of Jan Palach, a student who in 1969 immolated himself in protest against the Soviet occupation of Prague. As dusk sets in, we shift from past to present. I regret not having more time here.