The downfall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe has benefited the world in many ways, but none more so than allowing Western travellers like me to visit the extraordinarily beautiful city of Prague. However, communism’s collapse in the region has augmented one serious repercussion: the inundation of American tourists (the irritating variety) to Prague. Consequently, areas of the Old Town can feel as cramped with vacationers and dawdling tour groups as the narrow streets of Venice, at least in the summer holiday season. Fortunately though, since Prague serves a national capital and is occupied by local residents, it is possible to escape the hordes and identify that Prague is still fundamentally a real city (unlike the movie-set of Venice). Prague is probably the only destination that the majority of foreigners visit in the Czech Republic, but the city’s aesthetical value makes it an outstanding representation of the country.
The city is divided by the Vltava River, with the Old Town situated on the right bank and Prague Castle occupying a hill crescent on the left bank. These two central areas of Prague are connected by the famous Charles Bridge, which until 170 years ago was the only structure that traversed the river. While the bridge’s structural integrity is challenged daily by the volume of tourists pouring over it, the side streets surrounding the bridge on the left bank are surprisingly sedate. Nick and I stayed at a hostel located in a pleasantly quiet street; and yet it was just one minute’s walk from Charles Bridge and a major tourist thoroughfare. This was an incredibly picturesque district with colourful buildings, exuberant baroque churches and the magnificent Wallenstein Palace and gardens that now houses the Czech Senate.
We joined another free city walking tour in Prague, although unfortunately our leader was not as captivating as our extraverted guide in Berlin. I suppose I cannot entirely blame his less than inspiring performance, since he was dealing with substantially weaker material (I mean, historical events in Berlin have affected the whole planet, while events in Prague have affected… well, basically just the Czechs). Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the three hour tour around the Old Town which provided a valuable introduction to the city (even if Nick didn’t). Several of Prague’s most iconic structures were projects initiated by King Charles IV in the fourteenth century. Charles is widely venerated as the “father of the nation” and ruled Bohemia during a rare period of independence. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor and established Prague as the imperial capital. Bohemia was subsequently dominated by the Austrian House of Hapsburg, until the conclusion of World War One. The newly formed Czechoslovak Republic was invaded by Hitler and the Nazis devastated one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities in Prague. In the late 1960’s, communist Czechoslovakia introduced progressive reforms to the delight of the public. Moscow responded by invading with a quarter of a million soldiers to impose the desired repressiveness. Apparently the Czechs have generally forgiven the Germans for the atrocities committed in World War Two but they still universally hate the Russians. It is wonderful to hold an Australian passport because everyone seems to think of us an adorable nationality from Down Under, while naïve to our historical and current foreign policies. On a lighter note, Prague has a history of throwing people out of windows, perhaps due to the excessive quantities of alcohol they consume.
The Old Town of Prague is composed of exquisite and magnificently preserved buildings that represent a variety of architectural styles. Such a moniker may also be applicable to Paris, but what differentiates Prague from the French capital in that respect is that every building exudes a distinctive character. This is partly because of the potpourri of vibrant colours that are used in the façades. The centre is the enigmatically named Old Town Square, which several prominent and spectacular buildings border. These included the twin-spired gothic Tyn Church, the dramatic baroque St. Nicholas Church and the gothic Old Town Hall. The latter boasts Europe’s most overrated tourist attraction (determined by an online poll): the Astronomical Clock. Every hour, wooden puppets suddenly saunter past a window sill on the tower to mark the beginning of a new hour. I found it to be rather quirky, even if my companion did not. The square is surrounded by a matrix of narrow and cobblestoned streets that evoke the Old World charm. The most scenic area to view the Old Town is on the opposite bank of the Vltava River or while crossing Charles Bridge. The 621m long bridge rests on 16 arches and is phenomenally over 650 years old. There are remarkable gothic bridge-towers on either bank that feature roofs with elongated length. The pedestrianized bridge is lined with thirty baroque statues and is surely the city’s most attractive attribute.
Prague Castle is considered to be the world’s largest palatial complex. Its strategic positioning above the Vltava allows it to command exceptional views over Prague and the complex can be seen throughout the city also. While it was originally founded as a fortified castle in medieval times, additional structures have continuously been constructed on the site by subsequent ruling dynasties which has transformed it into the sprawling and confusing hotchpotch of buildings it is today. Consequently, Prague Castle does not feature a homogenised architectural style; which makes it difficult to identify that it is one singular entity. Renaissance palazzos seem to be the most prevalent building typology on the site, although St. Vitus Cathedral is certainly the most iconic. The construction of the Gothic Cathedral was initiated in the fourteenth century but halted a hundred years later from the outbreak of the Hussite (incarnation of Protestantism in Bohemia preceding Martin Luther) War. In the nineteenth century, efforts to complete the cathedral finally recommenced and it came to symbolize Czech national pride (in the context of heightening Germanization of Bohemia’s culture because of Hapsburg rule). The cathedral is notable for its slender flying buttresses with pinnacles and its colourful roofing.
The area of Prague known as the “New Town” is actually much older than even the discovery of the Americas, although there were noticeably newer structures in this neighbourhood than the Old Town. I am reluctant to use the term “modern” to describe buildings there because most were still of Renaissance and Baroque designs or were from the Neoclassical and Art Nouveau periods in the nineteenth century.
Literally every restaurant in Prague seems to promote itself as serving “traditional Czech cuisine”. Since no one has a clue as to what that entails, I don’t understand why it is absolutely necessary for each establishment to flaunt this disclaimer. Nevertheless, we unsurprisingly found ourselves in “traditional Czech restaurants” and discovered that the food is ultimately very similar to German and Hungarian. Intriguingly, on Czech menus the weight of meat in each dish is listed; and it is usually considerably lower than what you would expect to be served in an Australian restaurant. At a local beer garden on the first evening, I had roast beef in gravy with sour cream and cranberry sauce which was served with the ubiquitous accompaniment of bread dumplings (basically just moulded white bread). On the second evening, we both exploited the relative inexpensiveness in the Czech Republic by ordering half a duck each. It was actually the delicious plate of sides that I was most impressed by and included potato dumpling, bread dumplings, fried onions, white cabbage with apple and red cabbage)\. We went to a pub where the quality of the food had evidently suffered from its booming success. I had a disappointingly bland helping of goulash, which is a Hungarian stew that should have lots of paprika mixed through (but didn’t). The bacon dumpling, a ball consisting of an unidentified carbohydrate with bacon, was rather nice at least. Just prior to departing Prague, we went to a restaurant beside our hostel (coincidentally called “Lokal”) which differentiated itself from competitors by claiming that the food is freshly prepared and not laden with fats. This proved to be one of the most memorable meals I enjoyed in Europe. For entrée, I had the best sausages I ate in Europe, two spicy pork sausages (“from our butcher”) with shavings of fresh horseradish and homemade mustard. This was followed by beef in delectable paprika-based gravy with mouth-watering potato dumplings (the highlight). The Czechs officially consume more beer per person than any other nationality on the planet. Consequently, cheap and excellent Czech beers are readily available throughout this drunken capital.
Its amazing how in twenty-five years Prague has transformed from an isolated city within the communist block to a capitalistic tourist destination attracting an avalanche of Westerners. The crowds are certainly justified as Prague easily ranks as one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. Ultimately though, I found that there wasn’t plethora of things to do. So basically Prague was an inversion of Berlin! Prague is definitely a must-see of Europe.
This means I am only eleven days behind in my writing. Remember it ballooned out to twenty-seven days just three weeks ago. Jolly good effort Liam!