(View of Old Town Prague, from Petrin Tower)
Prague (pronounced and spelled Praha on local maps) was a city I’d wanted to visit for almost 2 decades, ever since the Iron Curtain collapsed at the hands of the Velvet Revolution. But as is often the case, life happens and my plans kept being postponed. Still the idea of visiting Prague was firmly set and as we finally were approaching the Hlvani Nadrazi train station, completing our four hour rail journey from Vienna, I felt a tingle run up my leg (with due apologies to Chris Matthews) on seeing some of the Prague landmarks I recognized, like the spires of St. Vitus and our Lady of Tyn Cathedrals. I was really looking forward to our upcoming week in the capitol of Bohemia and the Czech Republic. And I was not to be disappointed by this fantastic city (with the one exception outlined below).
Prague was fortunate enough to have escaped the bomb damage of World War II which devastated so much of the European continent and is one of the best preserved medieval capitols in Europe. It is a delightful city to explore on foot and has something to please almost every taste. There are beautiful old churches, great architecture, wonderful performances of classic music and opera, the world’s best beer (my Canadian and Belgian friends might argue with that assertion) and terrific food. Once visited it’s easy to see why Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
(Charles Bridge at dusk, Prague)
The heart of Prague, both metaphorically and geographically, is the Charles Bridge. This beautiful 600+ year old Gothic stone structure dates to 1357. It is almost a half kilometer in length and is decorated by 30 baroque religious statues. This bridge is the ribbon that ties together the four districts of the town. It’s where all tourists flock to and with good reason because it’s unique and set in a beautiful landscape. Visit the bridge at different times of day and walk across it a number of times to enjoy the changing light on the bridge, the river, its statues and the surrounding city. While it’s often crowded with street artists, artisans and tourists during the day, it’s nearly deserted early in the morning or late at night. If you feel energetic climb the steps of the one of the Bridge Towers for great views of the bridge and city. For a different experience take a boat cruise or rent a row boat to travel the Vltava River around the Bridge and to appreciate it from an ever changing perspective.
(Vendors and Tourists on the Charles Bridge, Prague)
Modern day Prague historically was four separate towns that several hundred years ago started growing together forming today’s city of over one million people. To help with orientation imagine Prague as a clock, with the Charles Bridge at the center of the clock face. When facing north, from 12-3 o’clock portion is the Old Town, from 3-6 o’clock is New Town, from 6-9 o’clock is the Lesser Quarter and from 9-12 o’clock is the Castle District. These are somewhat crude approximations but I think for illustrative purposes it works.
1) Old Town (Stare Mesto). Located on the east bank of the Vltava, it’s been the historic core of the region since the 10th century. Formerly a walled fortress, some remnants of this wall persist (notably the Powder Tower). If you can find a place to stay here, you have an ideal location from which to visit Prague as this is where most tourists like to hang out. If you like interacting with locals you’re better off staying in the Little Quarter or New Town.
(Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Old Town Square, Prague)
Old Town Square has been a market since the 11th century. It’s almost always crowded with tourists; for example, when we were there live feeds of World Cup Soccer matches were projected on to large screens (coupled with food vendors and a lively crowd, it was a fun place to be). The Square’s centerpiece is a memorial to Jan Hus. Hus lived a century before Martin Luther and was a professor and priest who condemned the Catholic Church as corrupt and tried to evoke local religious freedom. For his efforts Hus was martyred by fire (Martin Luther later completed the Reformation Hus had sparked).
(Prague Astrological Clock, Old Town Square)
As you continue around Old Town Square stop by the unique astrological clock in the City Hall tower which always attracts a large crowd as it strikes the hour. The clock itself was mostly intended to show the phases of the moon and seasons. Travel up the City Hall’s tower (by stairs or elevator) for great views of the Old Town Square and all of Prague. As you leave the Old Town Hall look for the 27 white crosses on the ground immediately in front of it. This marks the place the Hapsburgs killed 27 noblemen in 1621 in hopes of getting locals to accept Hapsburg rule.
(View East from City Hall Tower, with Old Town Square and
Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Prague)
Also located by the square is the elegant Gothic Church of our Lady before Tyn (with the grave of astronomer Tycho Brahe adjoining the alter). This church is especially impressive when it is lite by floodlights at night. Visit the Church of St. Nicholas off the square; originally Catholic, now a Hussite place of worship, it is a popular venue for concerts, as are many of the old churches in Prague. We attended a beautiful organ/tenor/soprano concert at the St. Francis of Assisi Church right beside the Charles Bridge.
(Estates Theater, where Mozart himself premiered "Don Giovanni", Prague)
Within the Old Town you will also find the Estates Theater wherein Mozart himself presented the original performance of his masterpiece, Don Giovanni. The Old Town also features the Municipal House, a lovely Art Nouveau building which is home to the Prague Symphony Orchestra.
(Prague's Historic Jewish Cemetery)
The Jewish Quarter (Josefov) lies within the old city. It is said to be the best preserved historic Jewish site in Central Europe. A tour of the Jewish Quarter includes 1) The Pinkas synagogue which is memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia; over 80,000 names are etched onto it’s walls. The second story has a moving display of children’s art from the Terezin concentration camp. 2) Jewish Cemetery which has over 12,000 tombstones in the small plot of land allotted to the Jews to bury their dead. We found the cemetery, with its crowded toppling tombstones, to be a surprisingly moving sight. 3)Ceremonial Hall exhibits methods Jews used to deal with the dead and dying. 4) Klausen synagogue highlights Jewish customs and traditions and Maisel and Spanish synagogues highlight the history of Jews in Bohemia and Moravia. A separate admission is charged to see the Old-New Synagogue, an 13th century synagogue we found historically fascinating. For example, this synagogue had two thickened vaults in which Jews stored their tax money before giving it to the king (they were the most heavily taxed people in Prague). We found our visit to the Jewish Quarter to be a half day well spent and unlike anything we’d ever encountered during our travels.
(this post will be concluded in part 2)
For an extended high resolution slide show of Prague, please go to this link. The slide show is at the bottom of the post. Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.