To walk through Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, is to be a witness to the major cultural and social currents that have swept Europe down the centuries…

As I clap my hands, the wicked troll in the display window bursts into raucous laughter. Marionettes have had a long history in Bohemia, dating back to the times when touring troupes would stage plays in town squares to entertain the little ones. We are on Karlova Street and can’t get enough of the witches, devils, Frankensteins and princess puppets dangling from the rafters of shops!

Our apartment is a modern penthouse with glass on all sides and a view of an ancient 13th century church and the Franciscan gardens. We are in the heart of Prague, a stone’s throw from the old town square. We stop dead in our tracks at our first glimpse of the Old town Square — home to the Astronomical Clock and the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, two of the city’s magnets. A welter of alfresco cafes, a band playing music, artists peddling their wares and a crowd which almost makes us believe there’s a rock concert happening! Horses clip-clop across the cobblestones — the old Town square takes me back to a child’s world of fairy tales!

Unlike other European cities which were bombed and razed to the ground during the Second World War, Prague has been lucky enough to stock-pile centuries of history. The centrepiece of the square is the monument to the preacher Jan Hus, who was excommunicated and burnt in 1415, for his radical views on the Church. The Astronomical Clock dates from 1410, and is designed to show the movement of the sun and moon through the zodiac, and the months of the year. At the stroke of the hour, thousands of digital cameras go up, in an attempt to capture this masterpiece — the Astronomical Clock is truly medieval architecture and engineering come alive!

Witness to history

We walk to the Wenceslaus square, the scene of the most defining moments in Prague’s history — the Nazi occupation, the communist takeover and the Velvet revolution. Today it’s a stylish scene of cafes, bars and glitzy shopping! We visit the Museum of Communism (which, in a bizarre twist, is wedged between a casino and MacDonald’s!) showcasing the political past of this city, through memorabilia and photographs. Karluv Most or Charles Bridge across the River Vltava, the iconic landmark of Prague, is next on our agenda. This medieval pedestrian-only bridge is a carnival of souvenir stalls, caricaturists, camera-toting tourists, and musicians of all kinds — we watch entranced as a wine-glass artist plays some enchanting Beethoven scores. The setting is ethereal — the city of a hundred spires, with its spectacular Gothic towers, under the watchful eyes of about 30 baroque saints lining the Bridge. Walking past souvenir shops and cafes, we are enticed upwards by the greenish dome visible halfway up the hill. This exquisite neighbourhood, called Mala Strana or the lesser quarter, was home to the merchants and craftsmen who worked in the royal court. The streets here are composed of steps, and filled with baroque mansions, wine taverns, beer halls and avant garde galleries. Across the French Embassy here, we are surprised by the John Lennon wall covered with 20th Century graffiti. The youth of Prague, during the Communist regime, were spurred by John Lennon’s lyrics and they painted this wall with their feelings and emotions. We read a poignant message on the wall which says, “People don’t die, they turn into flowers”.

Other-worldly

Hradcany, the seat of Czech royalty for centuries, centres around the Prague castle which is a collection of buildings, churches, and monasteries packed with Bohemian history! This otherworldly 18-acre castle is touted to be the world’s largest ancient castle! We are entranced by the St. Vitus cathedral with its flying buttresses and exquisite stained glass and the old royal palace with its exquisite vaulted ceilings where the coronation of all the Czech kings used to be held and now the Czech presidents are sworn in. This used to be the venue of jousts and knights’ tournaments too! The touristy Golden Lane looks like it was lifted out of a Walt Disney set — a row of tiny houses which were built into the castle ramparts during the 16th century and served as dwellings for either guards or the craftsmen including alchemists who tried to make the eternal elixir!

Different strokes

If gold leaf and baroque is not your style, there’s always the Pivo or beer! Czechs have the dubious distinction of being the greatest guzzlers of beer per capita! Andrej, a young student that we meet at a local pub over a glass of Pilsner Urquell, regales us with the benefits of beer-drinking — reduces the effects of ageing, great nutritional value and prevents Alzheimer’s! We also gorge on Trdlo (and stand in serpentine queues) which is dough wrapped on hot rollers and dipped into sugar, vanilla and nuts! Just when we start thinking that Prague is all baroque and beauty, we visit the Josefov (the Jewish Ghetto) for a dose of sobering history. The Jewish town has the oldest remaining Jewish burial ground in Europe and contains almost 20,000 graves in a very small plot of land. To cope with all the bodies, more earth was brought in and the corpses were layered as many as ten times deep. The craggy gravestones at different angles present a surreal picture! The Pinkas Synagogue was established in 1479 and has the Memorial of Victims of the Holocaust. Its walls are inscribed with the names of about 80,000 Jewish citizens from Bohemia and Moravia who died in concentration camps.

Walking through Prague is like walking through history. The architecture is amazing, ranging from baroque and neo-classical to modern and cubist. The majority of the buildings in Prague are in great condition. We see constant restoration projects almost everywhere. The Czechs are culture vultures, and music means everything to them. In 1787, Mozart premiered ‘Don Giovanni’ at the national theatre here, and loved this city that celebrated his work! Today, one can catch a church concert for a few korunas. We are back on Charles Bridge — this time we are catching a jazz concert. And after that, who knows? Maybe to a pivnice (pub), or maybe down the Vtlava on a boat-cruise to view the magical skyline for one last time!

The writer is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.

Fact file

Prague’s Ruzyne Airport is the country’s main international airport and lies about 15 km northwest of the city centre.

Prague is serviced by two international stations and there are connections to Vienna, Budapest, Berlin and other European towns from here.

Prague has an excellent Public Transit System which includes Tram, Bus and Underground Metro.

Hotels and Apartments for all budgets can be booked on the Internet.

The currency here is the Czech Koruna (Kc).

Visit Charles Bridge, Mala Strana, Astronomical Clock, Prague castle, Petrin Hill and the Strahov Monastery. If time permits, visit Jewish Town.

Buy the Prague Card, an all-inclusive ticket to 40 of the city’s attractions and entire transport system, valid for three consecutive days.

Eat Trdlo, the local sweet available in street stalls, traditional pancakes filled with jam or fruits and don’t forget to taste Goulash and drink some Pivo or beer at a local Pivnice.

Shop for multi-hued nesting dolls, garnets, marionettes and Czech glass and crystal.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012