“Prague never lets you go. . . this dear little mother has sharp claws”. So wrote Franz Kafka, the Czech Republic’s favorite writing son. And he was right. Within a few hours of arriving in Prague you’ll realize why this ancient Czech city is called the jewel in the crown of central Europe.
Prague’s crown jewels include a historic bridge with tall sculptures of saints lining its sides; lavishly appointed palaces; a surreal Jewish cemetery straight out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; and an ancient cobblestone town square with a beautiful astronomical clock framed by painted statues of kings and angels.
Throw in Romanesque fountains, a magical palace perched atop a hill, sculptured entryways everywhere you look, superb decorative art and history museums, welcoming people, great regional food, interesting gifts to take back home, and you have a superlative city that you’ll never forget.
Prague (or Praha as the Czechs pronounce it) is irresistible—it offers something for everyone—including the most jaded of sightseers. Its rare combination of well-preserved Medieval, Renaissance, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture reveals fascinating layers of history everywhere you turn—it’s an architecture student’s and historian’s dream.
Most first time visitors start at the Charles Bridge. Visit very early in the morning, or you’ll be standing amidst a bustling throng of sightseers. Vendors with carts and portable wire racks hung with paintings, photos, postcards and key rings peddle their wares–much as street sellers have over previous centuries. Musicians play lively tunes on old organs or haunting classical music in small string ensembles.
The Bridge is a sculpture museum. Enormous 12 feet tall sandstone carvings of religious icons, blackened by pollution from automobiles, stand every fifteen paces along both sides of its 569-yard length. The Madonna, St. Dominic, St. Thomas, St. Joseph, St. John, St. Augustine, and of course St. Wenceslas, look piously over you as you stroll along. Many of these statues are copies, the originals being stored in the National Museum.
The inspiring view from the top of the wedge shaped Bridge Tower looks out across the bridge over Old Town. As you slowly turn 360-degrees, you’ll spy tall, sharply pointed, copper church spires towering over what many historians claim is Europe’s best preserved city. The weathered green steeples and cathedral domes contrast prettily with the deep red tiled roofs of the ancient cream and white painted buildings.
And above it all, Prague Castle stands high above the city, staring down on it like a benevolent old grandfather, sunlight glinting off its thousand windows. You’ll spend most of a day touring the castle, constantly surprised and delighted by the changing architecture.
The Old Royal Palace provides a walk through the many eras of the castle. My favorite is the cavernous Vladislav Hall, finished in 1490, with a ceiling adorned with graceful gothic rib vaulting — it served as a marketplace from the 17th century.
After your palace visit, stroll down the shady, tree lined avenues of the adjacent Royal Gardens, in the shadow of the castle walls. Everywhere you turn, sculptured and manicured plants and trees form creative botanic art. And, Grecian and Roman sculptures and fountains dot the grounds.
The jewel of the gardens lies at the far end of the sloping gardens–the Belvedere–a beautiful white painted Royal Summer Palace. Slender ionic columns support gracefully curved arches. The summerhouse’s shuttered windows and unique green copper roof shaped like an inverted ship’s hull make it one of the finest Italian Renaissance buildings in Europe.
Back across the Vltava River in Old Town, the expansive Old Town Square stands much as it was from the 15th century. Walking around it, the towns’ history unfolds before you, reflected in the wide variety of buildings from different epochs.
Regarded as one of the finest public spaces in Europe, the square’s stunning highlights include elaborate stucco sculptures decorating the Rococo façade of Kinsky Palace, and the enormous bronze Jan Hus Monument standing before it, the square’s only statue.
The large blue and orange astronomical clock and calendar, mounted on the base of the Old Town Hall Tower, attracts huge crowds. Every hour, the 12 apostles, led by St Peter, move slowly between two windows on the clock face.
Below it, the round calendar, dating from 1490, shows pictures of the main activities held in each month according to the seasons. Most people are so distracted by the clock they forget to take in the pink façade of the Old Town Hall, with its gothic arches, and coat of arms.
The shops’ exquisite facades at the Southeast corner of the square boast entryway carvings with elaborate crests, curved Gothic arches, Baroque floral designs, and muscular Romanesque Lion designs. Don’t miss the beautiful Renaissance carved doorway to the House at the Two Golden Bears—a portal dating from 1590 with golden bears facing each other amidst ornate floral curlicues.
Prague’s ubiquitous cathedrals, their elaborate green, blue and red stained glass windows and towering copper spires and domes, and the unique Jewish cemetery and synagogues, reveal the city’s long history of religious tolerance through the ages.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. As you meander through this bizarre setting following a gravel pathway in the shade of tall trees, you’ll gaze in solemn wonder at the12,000 snaggle-toothed jumble of oddly shaped and different colored tombstones, leaning askew at all angles.
Dating from the early 15th century, this strange effect was created by several burial layers on top of each other, where older stones are lifted up from lower layers, looking like a surreal set from Lord of the Rings.
But art, history and architecture are not Prague’s only draw cards. With an appealing mix of friendly, English speaking people, unique gift shops piled with a kaleidoscope of souvenirs and irresistible marionettes, Prague is a shopper’s haven.
The marionettes fascinate children and adults alike. Running the whole gambit from renaissance courtier, court jesters, soldiers, sailors, pirates, witches, clergymen, clowns, cooks, kings and queens, dwarves, ogres, Satan, plus the entire Harry Potter cast, and even Charlie Chaplin. These carefully carved, painted and costumed wooden puppets are Prague’s unofficial icon–you’re bound to find one you can’t resist.
Prague has a reputation as a haven for food lovers with distinctive local dishes like the succulent, falling-off-the-bone roast pork, cabbage and dumpling specialties, washed down with delicious, cold Pilsner beers. I found the Krusovice Pivnice Viola restaurant, where I was served a 1-kilogram (2.2 pound) ham knee—soaked and cooked in beer. I couldn’t finish it, despite it being the finest ham I’d ever tasted.
Prague is no longer the inexpensive destination it was 15 years ago, as its populace learns the earning power of the tourist dollar. However, you’ll find historical and architectural treasures waiting to delight your eye around every corner, and upbeat people still excited with their newfound freedom.
The Czechs have a saying, “v’ude dobce, doma nejlip”, or “everywhere is good, but the best place to be is home”. So Czech out Prague—it will never disappoint you.
Written by and photos by Roy Stevenson for EuropeUpClose.com
Roy Stevenson is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Seattle, Washington. To view more of Roy’s travel articles go to www.Roy-Stevenson.com