CZECHING OUT PRAGUE
by Barbara Barton Sloane
Standing as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe (thanks to its location and over a thousand years of architectural tradition) Prague overflows with a rich artistic, musical and literary history. The citizens of Prague should be aptly proud as the city has recently been designated a World Heritage Site. But this city, by no means, lives on its illustrious past alone. It’s a modern metropolis. Here the past and the present merge with special symbiosis.
If you stand in the Old Square surrounded by what seems like every single tourist in Europe, you quickly realize that Prague is a prime vacation destination. But don’t let this discourage you from visiting. The very fact that visitors from all over the world come here makes Prague a vital, exciting and cosmopolitan city with great energy and style.
INSPIRED BY WINE
Vinohrady , which means vineyard , is a quiet, residential section of Prague, a mere 15 minute walk from Wenceslas Square, the heart of town, and yet light years removed from the crush of tourists. Here I discover a true Prague neighborhood. Moms pushing babies in prams, lovers walking hand in hand down tree-lined lanes, and everyone, it seems, is walking a dog.
A nice touch: there is an inviting park around every corner where one can rest on a bench under a shade tree while the kids flop around on the grass and clamor over slides and swings – a great way for them to work off energy and become a little more receptive to bedtime. Luckily I also find a comfortable Belle Epoque, five-star hotel, Le Palais . This hotel offers guests all the amenities of a deluxe property and, after taking a brief tour of it, decided this is where I’d make my home for the next few days.
One evening, after a day of serious sight-seeing, I checked out Le Palais’, a well-appointed spa/health club. Here you’ll find an ultra-steamy steam room and a hot, hot, hot sauna where one can truly unwind. Finally, the piece de resistance and something unique to this hotel: an aromatherapy shower. Don’t ask; you’ve just got to experience it for yourself, but suffice it to say, it’s a great way to end the day. Le Palais offers room service and a cozy bar and library open 24 hours a day!
Now, let’s go discover!
THE FIVE TOWNS
Prague is a virtual jewel, barely damaged by World War II. Settled by the Celts in 500 BC, it is made up of five towns: The Old Town, the Jewish Quarter, the Little Quarter, the New Town and Hradcany, the village around Prague Castle on the hill above the Little Quarter.
When one sees photos of the city, invariably in the background there’s Prague Castle . It seems to dominate every image. So, visiting the castle is numero uno on a list of things to do. It’s a bit of a trek up the hill to this site so if you go with toddlers, you might want to consider taking a taxi. "Tweens" and older kids will love every minute of the climb and beat you up the hill. Originally, the castle was the seat of Czech nobility and royalty. It is a monumental complex consisting of a palace, church, monastery and garden, all built in different styles. There’s plenty of sidewalk cafes and some fine restaurants to sample before leaving this area.
I highly recommend a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience: dinner at Allegro, the restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. The staff gave me the option of dining inside or on the terrace overlooking the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River. Not a difficult choice. Terrace dining was in full swing, and I found several tables filled with multi-generational families. The atmosphere was at once relaxed, jovial and gay. It was a balmy spring evening, the setting sun cast a golden glow over the city, and I could barely tear myself away from the view to scan the menu.
Luckily I did and had one of the most memorable dinners ever. I found myself heading back to the terrace’s rail to gaze at the beautiful Charles Bridge. It spans the Vltava River and joins Prague’s Old Town ( Stare Mesto ) with the Little or Lesser Quarter ( Mala Strana ).
If you go, do take a stroll across the bridge. You’ll enjoy the sandstone sculptures, black with age, that adorn both sides. This is the oldest of Prague’s bridges, built in 1357 by Charles IV. It was from this very bridge that St. John Nepomuk was thrown to his watery death by order of King Wenceslas IV for refusing to divulge what the queen had told him in confession.
The legend claims that as John drowned, five stars appeared on the water, and these five stars have become the symbol of the town’s patron saint. The bridge offers many opportunities to buy souvenirs and trinkets. Here, also, you’ll find lots of artists sketching portraits. I saw adorable 5-year old twin girls getting sketched, a rather tricky feat for this artist asking his small models to try be still. The portrait was coming along very nicely so evidently he was an old hand at sketching children.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
The roots of the Jewish Town reach down to the Middle-Ages, and happily the original network of streets is preserved. In addition to the Old–New Synagogue, the Jewish Town Hall and most of the legendary Jewish Cemetery have been preserved. The cemetery was founded in 1478, and the area was quite limited. Thus, for lack of space, the graves had to be made in several layers – there are areas with up to twelve layers and more than 100,000 souls are buried here.
The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Europe still in use. It was completed in 1270 and has endured much – from fires to pogroms. A stroll through this area is a fine lesson in the history of this city’s Jewish population through the ages.
Walking through Prague is like walking through a textbook of European architecture dating back from the tenth century to…. The Dancing House! Gazing up at this new building ( Tancici dum in Czech), I feel a touch of vertigo. It is wavy, round in some places, flat in others, and undulating all over. The Dancing House is the work of renowned architect Frank Gehry and it is a joyous piece of architecture. Kind of makes you feel like dancing!
The Old Town Square ( Staromestske namesti ) is the central meeting point for all of Prague’s tourists. Families - young, old and everything in between gather here. I stand in the center of the square and slowly turn around, admiring all the glorious, historic buildings that circle it. St. Nicholas Church dominates the square, a great example of both Gothic and Rococo styles. The buildings’ facades are pastel, ice cream colored, and
sidewalk cafes abound. Gelato anyone?
In this square, if you see a maze of people standing together, staring up at a tower, you’ll know you’ve found the medieval Astronomical Clock which dates from 1410. The figures are set in motion on the hour. Watching
these four little figures do their thing each hour is a very popular activity in Prague. I prefer people-watching myself and I have a ring-side seat as I enjoy my pistachio ice cream at one of the square’s sidewalk cafes.
Before I return to my hotel, I take a walk through Wenceslas Square. Founded initially as a horse market, today it is home to elegant restaurants, cafes and vendors selling everything from world-renowned Bohemian crystal to fun and colorful puppet shops, each puppet hand-carved and a true collectible. So, from a humble beginning selling horses, Wenceslas Square is now called Prague’s Champs Elysee.
BELIEVE IN MAGIC?
Take a walk through this city’s narrow, winding streets. You feel as though you’ve stepped back in time, and around the next corner you may just meet someone famous from Prague’s past. Isn’t that Franz Kafka, deep in thought, sitting on a bench under the chestnut tree? Oh wait, here’s Mozart, out for a stroll with some musician friends. Past and present merge. But back to reality. We’re in the here- and- now, present-day City of Prague. And yes, it’s magic.
If You Go:
Czech Tourism, www.CzechTourism.com/USA , Tel: 212-288-0830
Le Palais Hotel, www.palaishotel.cz , Tel: 420- 234 634 111
Four Seasons Hotel, www.fourseasons.com/prague , Tel:420-221 427 000
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