Prague: A place of fairy tales

By Kevin Hart

Kevin Hart discovers scenes of ancient splendour in this grand and historic city.

Prague by night. Photo / Thinkstock
Prague by night. Photo / Thinkstock

The Czech people have been very much part of the ebb and flow of history - often despite their best efforts to avoid being embroiled in it. Their sometimes wretched lot has included, more recently, being subjugated by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The Czechs, in their unlucky location, have, as often as not, responded with a shrug of resignation rather than the revolver. Invading armies have come and gone, rarely leaving an imprint.

As a result, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is largely untouched by the ravages of history.

Unlike most of the cities of central Europe, it has not suffered successive waves of destruction and rebuilding. It is much as it was in the Middle Ages, a city that may have sprung from the pages of a fairy tale.

Prague, unlike most other major cities, is also remarkably compact. All its main features are no more than a stroll away. The local public transport system is complex and not worth taking the time to learn about.

All of which explains the city's increasing, and deserved, popularity with tourists as the Czechs complete their switch of focus from East to West.

There is plenty of evidence of Prague's brushes with history. Take the town hall in the centre of Stare Mesto (the old town). One side of it was destroyed by a United States Air Force bomb during World War II. Apparently the pilot mistook Prague for Dresden, hundreds of kilometres away.

Luckily Prague's famous astronomical clock, on the other side of the building, survived unscathed. The man who created it was not so fortunate. According to legend, he was blinded when he finished the clock in 1490 to prevent him making something equally exquisite elsewhere.

The town hall, built in 1388 and the dominating feature of the Old Town Square, is, in fact, an excellent starting point for visitors.

Crowds gather early to watch the clock, with its elaborately carved figures, go through its paces on the hour. Then it is up the town hall's 60m tower to get the best view of Prague's web of narrow, cobbled streets and multitude of spires.

At ground level again, there are 27 crosses etched in the cobblestones, one each for the Protestant nobles executed there for rebelling against Catholic domination.

Today, the Czechs regards such matters of religion in much the same way as a neutral foreign policy reflects their attitude to other historical excesses: atheism is often listed, however incongruously, as the country's main religion.

Much of Prague's grandeur relates to the city's prominence during the Hapsburg Empire's salad days of the 18th century. The city briefly replaced Vienna as the seat of Hapsburg power, and the likes of Mozart were enticed to live there. Mozart's opera Don Giovanni was composed and first performed in Prague.

Indeed, as much as the city has been a bashful player in history, it does not hide its musical heritage under a bushel. There are plenty of concerts - especially performances of works by Dvorak and Smetana, Prague's favourite sons. Concert-goers are spoilt for choice.

For concert-hall grandeur and magnificence, there is the Municipal House with its centrepiece, the Smetana Hall, and the dignified Rudolfinum, the home of the Czech Philharmonic.

Small chamber ensembles play frequently at many different venues.

Best of all, most of the concerts, whatever their description, are relatively cheap, and often only an hour long.

The city's major drawcard is its imposing guardian, Prague Castle. It's easy to get there across the Vltava River and is a comfortable climb. The walk is across the Charles Bridge, a statue-bedecked structure that is a byword for history and romance.

The castle, begun in the 9th century and said to be the world's biggest ancient castle, remains the Czech seat of power - complete with a changing of the guard on the hour.

And though there are a variety of packages to see the many breathtaking sights within the complex, I recommend the complete tour.

The centrepiece of the castle is St Vitus Cathedral. The church, an immense Gothic stature - the main tower soars 100m - has superb stained-glass windows in a variety of styles.

Other standouts in the complex are the Powder Room, the former ammunition store which houses a military museum, and the Golden Lane, once the site of artillerymen's tiny homes and now a collection of popular shops.

The castle museum has a superb array of treasures dating back to the time when, before the arrival of the Slavs, Celts peopled this region.

Make sure you have plenty of time to spend at the castle - it's not a rush job. Nor is the return journey through quaint lanes, where shops stock Bohemia's famous glassware and crystal.

St Vitus is only one of many grand cathedrals in Prague. This is nirvana for those who like to poke around grand buildings. The church of Our Lady Before Tyn, just off the old town square, is perhaps the pick of the other churches. It has distinctive twin spires and dazzlingly ornate altars.

Other churches have equally imposing features. St Nicholas, on the town square and the venue for many concerts, has a magnificent chandelier suspended a staggering distance from its domed ceiling.

Prague's other major meeting place is Wenceslas Square, which overlooks Nove Mesto (the new town). This was once the centre for the medieval horse market, and it is now lined with shops. In December, it becomes the main centre for the city's Christmas market.

But history is never far away. It was here that Czech students tried to stop advancing tanks as a Soviet chill settled over the short-lived 1968 Prague spring.

At the top of the square, there is a memorial to Jan Palach, who protested against the invasion by setting fire to himself there.

The bottom of Wenceslas Square leads into Na Prikope, Prague's main retail centre. The shops compare well with other European capitals - proof of the Czech Republic's rapid transformation since the downfall of communism and its current economic buoyancy.

Better still, the prices are unlikely to faze New Zealanders. Nor will the cost of incidentals, including food and drink. The beer, goulash and dumplings are great.

Prague is no longer one of Europe's well-kept secrets. But its increasing popularity is yet to detract from its appeal. The people are friendly and helpful. A guided walking tour is a good way of getting a feel for the main features and layout of the city.

After that, it is a stroller's delight. An embarrassment of riches in a largely unspoilt state are all within easy reach.

CHECKLIST

Eating out: Czech cuisine can be heavy with lots of meat in a sauce served with dumplings, potatoes or rice, and sauerkraut, always accompanied by a glass of beer. International cuisine is also readily available.

The most famous Czech drink is beer (pivo) and the best-known is Pilsner, a half-litre glass often being cheaper than a Coke or cup of coffee. If you would like to taste an original Czech liqueur, order Becherovka, a bitter-sweet, yellow herbal drink.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies to Frankfurt. Lufthansa Airways flies from Prague to Frankfurt.

Staying there: Try the K+K Fenix Hotel.

Tipping: Tipping is fairly common in cafes, bars, restaurants and taxis so it's a good idea to keep some small change handy.

Further information: See czech-travel-guide.com.

Kevin Hart's trip to Prague was organised by House of Travel with support from Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa.

- NZ Herald

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