Travel: Proud to be Prague

By Mike Yardley

Magic, golden, mystical Prague sends the tourist brochures into superlative overload. This Bohemian city is a smorgasbord of stunning architecture, from Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque to Neoclassical and Cubist.

Unshackled from the claws of communism, the Czech Republic's rising status as a powerhouse tourist destination continues to surge.

Prague's cultural appeal has not been compromised, and preserving the city's fairy-tale architecture has become a concerted labour of love.

Free of traffic and surrounded with spectacular historic buildings, Old Town Square is one of Europe's finest public spaces and has seen some remarkable moments in history, including Hitler's arrival address and the announcement of the Communists' takeover.

The square was a medieval town's marketplace, and was also the spot where criminals were hanged and martyrs burned at the stake.

The delightful Old Town Hall was first built in 1338, and features a variety of architectural gems from over the centuries. The soaring tower will give you the best panoramic view across the city. At the base of the tower be sure to admire the colourful astronomical clock.

Built in the 15th century, the clock depicts the sun revolving around Prague. When astronomers later discovered that our globe actually revolves around the sun, Prague's rulers refused to have the clock changed.

Every hour a procession of wooden saints emerge.

Charles Bridge fully deserves its status as the world's most fairy-tale bridge. Built for Prague's much-loved King Charles IV in 1357, the bridge is covered with sculptures and statues.

The beautifully ornate and imposing gothic tower at the town end of the bridge was an integral part of Prague's medieval fortifications. Havelsky Market is one of Prague's oldest surviving markets, and is popular with tourists.

Traditionally a fruit and vegetable market, most of the fresh produce has been squeezed out by the demand for hand-made marionettes. Puppet theatre has a rich history in Bohemia, and Prague has a vibrant puppet-making cottage industry. This market is definitely the place to buy one. Nearby, the National Marionette Theatre presents regular child-pleasing puppet shows and explains the history and development of these puppets over the centuries.

For a taste of the modern post-communist Prague, Wenceslas Square is the city's new beating heart. The vibrant boulevard bursts with new hotels, restaurants and cafes. It's also home to one of Europe's great opera houses, State Opera, the National Museum and the main train station.

Prague's history began with the Castle, founded in the 9th century high above the Vltava river. It is the largest ancient castle in the world, and its sprawling complex of churches, chapels, halls and towers has remained the seat of power for Czech rulers over the centuries, including the powerful Habsburgs, Nazi invaders and today's President. So exploring the castle can be an intimidating experience. Grab a guided tour.

Changing of the guard also takes place at the main gate every hour, with the main parade at noon.

Favourites within the castle are St Vitus' Cathedral and the Old Royal Palace. The palace, home of six centuries of kings, has many artworks and furnishings on show.

Beneath the magnificently vaulted ceilings of the palace, Vaclav Havel was sworn in as the democratically elected Czech leader, following communism's collapse in 1990. This Christian bastion of Bohemia is exemplified in the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas.

He was later canonised, and St Wenceslas is buried here. Occasionally, on state anniversaries, the saint's skull is put on public display.

Sublimely photogenic Nerudova St is Prague's famously steep, narrow thoroughfare that leads to the castle and is named after Prague short-story writer Jan Neruda.

Until the introduction of house numbers in 1770, the city's dwellings were distinguished by signs. Nerudova's houses have a splendid selection of these, featuring symbols, emblems and heraldic beasts.

They are fascinating to peruse, as each sign indicates the profession of the occupant in1770.

- Hamilton News

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