Paradise for Lovers of Medieval Architecture
(Early morning stroll on Karlovy Most–Charles Bridge in Prague)
(A bird’s eye view of the beautiful city of Prague)
Almost everyone who has returned from Prague to tell the tale has raved about the astounding architecture of the city. And, as we discovered, following our first visit there, not without very good reason! There is little to disappoint in this amazing Eastern European enclave and tourists have been pouring in ever since the news got out.
Our Pension Albert was located in Nove Mesto or New Town but we were within minutes of the historic Wenceslas Square where in 1989, the Velvet Revolution, led by Nobel-Prize-winning playwright and first President, Vaclav Havel, declared liberation from Soviet Communism and announced the beginning of a new era.
This development divided the vast country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Never have the positive effects of political liberation been more visible, for Prague seems to have awakened amazingly from under the shroud of Communism and has developed into a sophisticated, buzzing metropolis, crawling with tourists from Western Europe who can’t seem to get enough of its history, culture, art, architecture and charm.
We spent one morning combing Wensceslas Square (left), wallowing in the tourist energy generated by the chic stores and designer boutiques. Though it has seen many artistic movements sweep across its territory, perhaps the most obvious is the influence of Art Nouveau that emerged in the late 19th century and was firmly established by the early decades of the twentieth. Of these, the most famous exemplar is Alfons Maria Mucha and we couldn’t miss a visit to the newly-opened Mucha Museum which completely enchanted Llew and Chriselle as much as it did me. Mucha started his artistic life as a commercial designer of stage sets and theater posters (in the same way that India’s M.F. Husain did!) and went on to become one of the most artistically influential figures of the century.
Realizing that the hordes of tourists made walking on busy streets almost unbearable, we rose early the next morning to explore Karlovy Most(Charles Bridge) over the River Vlatava right in the midst of the city where ancient stone statues of Christian saints give the setting a most distinctive quality (left).
This jaunt at sunrise, when we had the opportunity to take as many pictures as our hearts desired, led us straight into Mala Strana or Lesser Quarter where our first stop was the Church of Our Lady Victorious, site of the miraculous Statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague (below right).
Here again, we beat the crowds to worship at the ornate altar of this beloved of Catholic icons superbly displayed in a glass case. On a much grander note, the Baroque Church of St. Nicholas was equally moving. Our later rambles took us to Kampa Island where we explored the quaint, winding, cobbled lanes and stopped for the best hot chocolate in the world at Cukrkavalimonada, a small and very unpretentious restaurant tucked away in a hidden corner of the isle.
In the afternoon, we made the gentle climb on foot up Nerudova Steet towards Prague Castle where we visited the Gothic edifice of St. Vitus’ Cathedral with its formidable silver casket containing the remains of St. John Nepomuck (left) while the Chapel of St. Wenceslas was full of frescoes studded with semi-precious stones. This chapel also holds the door that hides the Czech Crown Jewels, considered so precious that they are not on display for the public. The Old Royal Palace was more interesting for its architectural and historical features than for the treasures it held, but it was shocking and amusing at the same time to visit it and learn about “defenestrations”–throwing enemies out of windows if one disagreed with their views!
It was at Golden Lane (right), a charming, tiny street with quaint little cottages in one of which the famous Czech-born German writer Franz Kakfa lived, that Chriselle was stung badly by a wasp, a matter that ruined the rest of the trip for her as she writhed with pain and discomfort. Everywhere in Eastern Europe, wasps buzzed around our meals at open-air restaurants, making their consumption very discomforting indeed.
Another very interesting part of Prague was Josephov, the Old Jewish Quarter, which contains a cemetery and several synagogues. Preserved by Hitler with the intention of eventually making it “the living museum of an extinct race”, the plan backfired brilliantly to enable the area to retain its pre-War ambience.
A walking tour of this area, especially its burial grounds (left) is truly stirring. We visited many synagogues and were introduced to the lifestyle of a talented, industrious and wealthy race whose success was the envy of all and led to their near extinction. Today, Josephov is full of chic restaurants, snazzy designer boutiques and endless groups of visitors whose fascination with Jewish culture continues unabated.
We saved the next day to explore Stare Mesto or Old Town, whose huge square in the very center of the city is the focus of all visitors whose heads are constantly raised to appreciate the intricacy of the gables and the roofs, the gargoyles and spouts, the corbels and the moldings, the life-size statues and figures that decorate the façade of each building.
Walking around Prague is like walking in a created world of the imagination—you have to occasionally pinch yourself to believe that you are in a real, functioning city and not on the streets of Disneyland or on the set of some Disney film! Here, the twin spires of the Church of Our Lady Over Tyne (above right) and the Old Town Hall Tower define the parameters of tourist interest. The Astronomical Clock (below left), a true medieval marvel, attracts hundreds of visitors at the tolling of each hour when an entire tableau of Christ and his Apostles made their appearance at the window and pivot around for the amusement of onlookers.
Each street that radiates off Old Town holds enchanting secrets of design. Building walls are covered with frescoes, streets are cobbled and studded with souvenir shops selling dazzling Bohemian cut glass, gourmet restaurants serve hearty portions of roast beef and pork coupled with dumplings, beetroot and cabbage that you relish to the accompaniment of live musical entertainment.
We spent an evening listening to a jazz trio at U Supa on Celetna Street (left) that was purely entertaining. The previous evening we had dined at Kavarnia Slavia, one of the most historical cafes in Prague, where Vaclav Havel and several other influential contemporary Czechs met regularly to plot and plan their liberation from Communism. The beer here is superlative. Pilsner was brewed for the first time in Prague and Pilsner Uruquell is the hot favorite. The Czech Republic leads the world (yes, they even beat the Germans!) in the consumption of beer and this was very obvious to us—we actually saw people drink large glasses of lager for breakfast at 9 in the morning!
(On the banks of the River Vlatava–left–and at the monument to Franz Kafka–right)
Our two week stay in Eastern Europe came to an end when we took the train from Prague back to Salzburg, a journey which ought to have taken eight hours and came with two expected train changes—one at Ceske Budjovice and the other at Linz. Except that in our case, as a result of rail track construction, this was how we reached Salzburg: Train from Prague to Ceske Budjovice; bus to Holkov, train to Freistadt; bus to Pregarten; train to Linz and then train to Salzburg. Miraculously, we were on time to pick up the train at Linz that got us to Salzburg, our final destination, right on schedule where we found that after two weeks, it was still raining! Oh well…you can guarantee a lot of things when you travel…but never the weather!
(At Prague train station at the end of our travels in Eastern Europe)