THE MANY PLEASURES OF
by Stuart Haggas
(Page 2 of 3)
Those without the benefit of a tour
guide could do worse than follow the Royal Way,
the traditional coronation route of the Bohemian Kings.
It begins beside dramatic Powder Tower, built
in the late 15th century as part of the old towns
defenses, and ornate Municipal House and Smetana
Concert Hall, one of the finest Art Nouveau buildings
in Europe. The Royal Ways regal silver signs direct
you from here through Old Town and up to Prague Castle
via Charles Bridge, but dont be afraid to let
Pragues alleyways lure you away from this breathtaking
but congested tourist route, because an unorthodox detour
will likely reveal charming churches, courtyards, and
other crowd-free nooks and crannies.
While on your walking tour, make sure
to stop and admire the Charles Bridge (Karluv
Most). Construction on the bridge began during the reign
of Charles IV, King of Bohemia. Being one of Pragues
most evocative landmarks means its associated
with a fair amount of folklore. Previous bridges crossing
the notoriously turbulent River Vltava were swept away
by raging flood waters, so legend tells how astrologers
looked to the stars to establish the most fortuitous
time for work to commence. The moment they chose was
in 1357, on 9 July at precisely 5:31 A.M., which can
be interpreted as 135797531a palindromic sequence
of ascending then descending odd numbers, and a story
that seems worthy of a place in The Da Vinci Code. Although
Dan Brown didnt mention Charles Bridge and its
mathematical heritage in his best-selling novel, the
bridge is frequently cited elsewhere in popular fiction,
often as a clandestine meeting point for Cold War spies
during Soviet times. Despite being the scene of some
action in Mission: Impossible and xXx, nowadays spies
have been usurped by street vendors, caricaturists,
buskers, and tourists.
Across the bridge are the cobbled streets
of Mala Straná (Lesser Town). When the
River Vltava breached its banks in 2002, this ancient
neighborhood was inundated with flood water, the ground
floor of many historic buildings submerged. Extensive
renovations have been completed, but you can still see
marks left by water damage on some buildings.
There are many first-rate restaurants
hereabouts, like upscale Kampa Park and bohemian
U Modré Kachnicky. For inexpensive, gay-friendly
refreshments drop by funky DownTownCafé Praha.
Mala Stranás streets wind
steeply up to Hradcany, a neighborhood dominated
by hilltop Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad). Dating
back to the ninth century, the castle complex incorporates
monumental St. Vitus Cathedral, the Presidential Palace,
and numerous art galleries and government buildings.
Vadim brought me here in time for us to watch the Changing
Of The Guardsnot as spectacular a ceremony
as in other cities like London, but once Vadim had brought
me up-to-speed on a rumor that some of these guardsmen
were allegedly caught in and out of uniform in a recent
gay porn movie, the whole event attained a more erotic
and alluring subtext. According to gossip, the offending
guards were dismissed, and the footage shelved to avoid
further scandal and embarrassment.
Another charming and contemplative neighborhood
is Josefov. Thanks to a plan by Adolf Hitler
to retain Pragues old Jewish quarter as a macabre
living ethnographic museum, the narrow streets, old
synagogues, and cemeteries of Josefov survived Nazi
occupation. Today its traversed by upscale shopping
street Parízská, lined with designer stores
including Dior, Hermès, and Salvatore Ferragamo,
plus some of Pragues leading restaurants like
fashionable siblings Barock and Pravda.
As well as international brands, youll find home-grown
designer talent nearby, including leading Czech menswear
designer Jozef Sloboda. His jeans line Gorgeous
Guy has a fun selection of t-shirts and sexy branded
underwear that are perfect for clubbing.
A must-buy in Prague is Bohemia crystal.
One renowned brand is Moser, founded in 1893, and beloved
by Englands Queen Elizabeth II and American queen,
Liberace. Jewelry made from locally mined garnets is
another ostentatious option. Those with more contemporary
tastes should seek out Kubista. Housed alongside the
Museum of Czech Cubism in the 1912 cubist-style landmark
Black Madonna House, Kubista sells sought-after
Czech furniture from the first half of the 20th century,
plus more affordable re-issues of cubist ceramics, vases,
Exploring Prague can be a sensory overload.
This is why stylish Hotel Josef is designed as
a detox for over-stimulated travelers. One of the few
contemporary constructions in the medieval center, it
consists of two new buildings facing onto a tranquil
landscaped courtyard. Czech-born architect Eva Jiricna
rejected extravagant designer gimmickry in favor of
practical, neutral spaces that maximize space and light
without sacrificing comfort or luxury.
The hotel proved such a critical and
commercial success that once completed, attention switched
to transforming sister Hotel Maximilian into
an equally soothing space. Inspired by Pierre Chareaus
acclaimed La Maison de Verre (House of Glass) in Paris,
Eva Jiricna has reconstructed an original art deco building
into a functional, light-filled hotel containing classic
modernist furniture by the likes of Eileen Grayaltogether
earning it a place on the Condé Nast Traveler
Hot List 2006. Unlike many design-led hotels, striving
to become a destination in their own right, both Josef
and Maximilian recognize that the best of Prague is
beyond their walls. Instead of boasting fashionable
lobby bars, theres a simple self-service honesty
bar. Although room service is available, neither has
a restaurant offering lunch or dinnerthe added
benefit of this is that the sumptuous breakfast buffet
in both hotels is generously served until 11:30 A.M.
weekdays, 12:30 P.M. weekends, so theres no rush
to get out of bed if youve been partying all night.
If you prefer something more overstated,
the lavish Carlo IV is regarded as Pragues
most opulent option. Dont let its grandiose ambiance
fool you, however, for it was until recently Pragues
main post office and a bank, reborn as a deluxe hotel
in 2003. Still, this transformation makes for some unique
features: the old bank vault now houses an intimate
cigar bar, and although vintage wines and fine cigars
are the only valuables in here nowadays, the original
safe doors remain intact.
For a genuine taste of Pragues
old grandeur, visit nearby Art Nouveau gem Evropa.
Once the hotel in Prague, the Louis XVI furnishings
and stucco ornamentation have shabbily depreciatedits
faded glories not helped by the fact that the once coveted
location on Wenceslas Square today puts it in the middle
of Pragues most tawdry tourist-trap, alongside
fast-food chains and low-end retailers by day, and neon
and strip shows by night. Still, it provides a sense
of history for a budget-friendly price.