This is my fourth visit to the “Golden City” and again I’m seduced by Prague’s streets. Walking in the city is like stepping into an old pen-and-ink drawing. Gothic spires in light and shadow, reflected in a river, cobblestones after rain, towers and lovers, and there you have it. What doesn’t show is the Czechs’ affinity with Americans. This city never lets me down, even when tourists’ backpacks jostle and there are long lines waiting to get into its teeming hot spots.
On this visit, I confine my meandering to the city’s historic core, Praha 1, which is divided into five districts filled with mythical scenery and outdoor cafés. No need for trams because within this area I can walk pretty much everywhere, which is a big part of the city’s charm.
Located in Hradčany (Castle District), St. Vitus Cathedral (Prazský Hrad. Tel: +420-257-531-622. www.hrad.cz/en) is Prague’s centerfold attraction. This masterwork was built in the 14th century and is the largest and most important in the country. To walk again through its bronze door and look up at the vaulted ceiling with the light coming through stained glass always guarantees a spiritual hit. Most impressive inside is the St. Wenceslas Chapel, where relics of the saint are stored, but sorry, one can only view its paintings of Christ and semiprecious jewel treasures from the doorway.
This is pretty much also the case at the iconic Prague Castle (Castle District. Tel: +420-224-373-368. www.hrad.cz/en), where kings, presidents, and their ilk have their offices. It’s the biggest castle on earth and we, the commoners, may stroll the glamorous premises and check out the gardens. Admission price varies and there are student and senior rates.
Around the corner is the narrow Golden Lane, possibly named for the alchemists who once lived there. One reputedly died with a lump of gold in his hand, but one can’t be sure he actually created it out of base metal. Some claim poor sanitation caused the streets to flow with urine and thus, Golden Lane. In any case, the place has been cleaned up.
These attached houses have, this year, been painted in Easter egg colors and are now generally spiffy. Originally built in the 16th century as houses for King Rudolf’s marksmen (who must have been pintsized guys), they are teensy houses with bitsy rooms. Some are outfitted as if for residences for castle staff in later centuries, and one, number 22, was where Franz Kafka did his writing in the early 20th century. I can easily picture him writing his cockroach story here. Number 14 was inhabited by a fortune teller who predicted Hitler would die soon but didn’t predict that she would. The Gestapo came and killed her. Number 16 housed a Renaissance tavern, but note the modern-egg display that looks like mid-century modern kitchen design. Other houses are small shops, selling everything from napkin rings and books to puppets. Puppet theatre was big in this country 150 years ago so marionettes are to Czechs as wooden shoes are to the Dutch. They’re Everywhere!
At the end of Golden Lane is Daliborka Tower (Castle District), named for its first prisoner, Dalibor z Kozojed,a popular supporter of the oppressed, sort of a Czech Robin Hood. He played the violin while waiting in a dungeon to die, touching the people of Prague, who brought him food, drink, and sympathy. The authorities were afraid to announce the date of his execution, but finally, the music stopped. The famous Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana, turned this sad story into a famous opera, Dalibor. His statue stands near the Charles Bridge, which is pure romance at night. During the day, it’s a stomping ground for musicians, souvenir mongers, and views of the Vltava, which flows under it. The river inspired Smetana’s beautiful piece of music, also known as “The Moldau.” It’s on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdtLuyWuPDs.
Another composer, Antonin Dvořák, is famous for his New World Symphony; his likeness stands in front of Rudolfinum, Staré Město Strana (Alsovo Nabrezi 12. Tel: +420-227-059-227. www.ceskafilharmonie.cz), the Czech concert hall, located on the right bank of the river. Programs and tickets for concerts are available online: www.ticketsonline.cz
Among the city’s (and country’s) other claims to fame are its ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell (www.pilsner-urquell.com) and its sklo (glass). The beer is available everywhere, but for purists, look for one of the 180 pubs designated as tankovna where the beer is unpasteurized and reputedly more authentic. My Czech grandma drank it from a tumbler. (About $.90-$2.95 for half a litre.)
For the best of Czech glass, head to Moser (Na Príkope 12, Nové Mesto.
Tel: +420-224-211-293. www.moser-glass.com/en) in Nové Mĕsto (New Town) or on Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square). That is the number one purveyor of lead-free, glamorous, signed pieces ranging from small paperweights to museum-quality sculpture. The company was started in 1857 and Ludwig Moser could not have predicted that his glass would be a hot item on eBay in 2012. I discovered another superb glass designer, Karen Feldman (www.artelglass.com), who has a shop at 29 Celetná, nearby in Staré Mĕsto (Old Town). Her pieces run anywhere between $50-$5000. They’re outstanding.
Glass chandeliers? I found them at Erpet Bohemian Crystal (Staroměstské náměstí 27. Tel: +420-224-229-755. www.erpet.cz/crystal). Thumbs up for the most expensive, at about $14,000, but I’d have to have it shipped and rewired. Too big for the powder room anyway.
The tourist mecca of Old Town is home to the world-famous medieval Astronomical clock. l always look closely at its adornments, which can seem a bit confusing. There are three basic parts to the clock, originally created in 1410: There’s a calendar dial representing months, an astronomical dial representing the sun and moon, and on the hour, the popular wooden apostle statues and a representation of Death march out when small trap doors open, striking the time. I enjoy this spectacle for the fun it is, and skip walking up the clock tower steps, although there’s a nice city view at the top. According to my guide, in these crowds, it’s also time to watch my wallet.
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