Prague is the biggest city in the Czech province of Bohemia, but it was never on our priority list. After all in common English, a Bohemian is a freaky non-conformist. So, when my Brother-in-law proposed a 2-day family trip, we asked “what could this place offer a genteel tourist?”. Yet, we reluctantly agreed, since he is a Soviet-trained soldier who is savvy about East Europe. It turned out that he was wrong for a delightfully different reason: 2 days is absolutely inadequate to appreciate its charm! [♠This led me to an important discovery: Please see Note 1 at the end]
Why not Prague?
You cannot miss the scenic River Vltava which runs through Prague. Or Praha. That Slavic word means a river-crossing — over R. Vltava, of course.
As a river-civilisation, it has flourished since prehistoric times and the Roman era. But it reached its pinnacle in 2 glorious bursts. The first leap was under the 14th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles-IV. In his times, only Rome and Constantinople could rival the glory of Prague. Then, under the Hapsburg Kings (16th to 18th centuries) it was Europe’s cultural capital, second only to Vienna itself. Astronomers Johann Kepler and Tycho Brahe lived here; Painter Arcimboldo (a precursor of sorts to Dali & Dadaism) produced his best works here.
And yes, the greatest Hapsburg ruler was a woman: Maria Theresa lifted Bohemia (and Hungary too) to great heights during 1740-80. Maria’s husband, King Francis I was nominally her “co-ruler”, but was patently incompetent. Yet, Maria was hopelessly in love with him, though what the Iron Lady saw in him is anybody’s guess. My own (utterly bohemian) theory is that he was good in bed! Yes, she produced 16 children by him while solving complex national problems. Our local guide mischievously observed that she was lactating for 21 of the 40 years that she ruled! Superwoman!
Indeed, Prague is an ocean of culture and history — here we were, trying to absorb it in a bucket of 2 days!
We find a good guide
We stayed at the Leon d’Or Hotel, an old-fashioned place with huge comfortable rooms in the centre of Old Prague.That made it easy to take a walking tour of the historic city. Sarah had arranged for a guide, Ashley, to meet us at the hotel. I expected her to be a sober Czech girl, but Ashley turned out to be a very energetic, very Australian young man, with a romantic history. He came as a tourist to Prague, fell in love with the city AND a local girl: he married and never returned! Also, Ashley’s mother is Hungarian making him a complete world citizen!
Walking with Ashley was fun. He adapted our walking route to the weather (it rained intermittently), the traffic, and our interests. He knew where to stop for food and beer, and he showed the best spots to take photos. So here’s “Prague according to Ashley”.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Beethoven & Mozart produced some of their brilliant works here. Guess what, the Estates Theatre, was just a stone’s throw from our hotel! Mozart’s famous Opera, Don Giovanni, was premiered in this very place! That was our first stop.
Old Town Square
A stone’s throw from the Hotel on the other side, (uh, this was a different stone ) was the Old Town Square. It was built around the 13th century. It’s the kind of place where you can happily spend a whole day without getting bored. A narrow street connected our Hotel to the Town Square. The moment we crossed it, we were greeted by a brilliant 15th century Gothic Church: Church of our Lady before Tyn.
Then, there was the Town Hall itself with its imposing Tower. The Tower is home to the oldest surviving Astronomical Clock (1410). It is a primitive planetarium showing the position of the Sun, the Zodiac, the phases of the Moon, the Equinox and heavenly events. The Tower and Clock are a remarkable piece of Bohemian craftsmanship!
On one side of the Town Hall is the house where the German writer Franz Kafka lived — a very Bohemian man who wrote of ‘kafkaesque’ situations — not my favourite! But the house has Sgraffito murals that are strangely captivating!
Behind Kafka’s House is the beautiful baroque church of St. Nicholas. When we reached there it was drizzling heavily, but it was still a magnificent sight!
It was still raining when we walked to the Jan Hus monument. (Hus was a protestant reformer who was executed for his faith). Also, on the right you can see the lovely Kinsky Palace.
By late afternoon the clouds had cleared and the winter Sun showed up. Quickly, the square filled up with people and talented street musicians entertained us.
The Czechs have no religion, and…
Prague was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, then the cradle of the Protestant reformist movement (Jan Hus ) and always a centre of a vibrant Jewish community. But the average Czech is an atheist (post communism, about 80% profess atheism). Yet, they have done well to preserve their lovely religious heritage. See this Jewish Synagogue, for example:
…They understand secularism
At the Charles bridge there is a huge statue of St.John of Nepomuk. According to legend, King Wenceslaus-IV (successor of Charles-IV) was jealous of his own wife and suspected her fidelity. So he commanded her priest, John Nepomuk, to reveal what she said in the confessional. John refused: the king had no authority to command a priest to break his vow of confidentiality; the Church and State were two independent spheres! Imagine, secularism in 1393! Wenceslaus promptly drowned him in the Vltava, instantaneously making him a religious and political martyr. It is believed that touching the martyr’s statue brings one’s wishes come true.
Charles Bridge and the missing wife
The overwhelmingly popular attraction in Prague is Charles Bridge over the River Vltava. After the old Judith bridge collapsed, King Charles-IV’s ordered a new bridge. As per royal astrologers’ advice, the project commenced at 5:31 am on 9th July 1357. Interestingly, 135797531 is a numerical palindrome! The bridge was finally completed in 1402. The bridge offers an extraordinarily beautiful view of the river, so it is always overcrowded! Suddenly, amongst the sea of tourists, street artistes, pickpockets and beggars, Anu & I got separated. Initially I was nonchalant, (because Anu is the smarter traveller); then angry (“how could she do this?”); and finally, PETRIFIED. After several eons (Ashley observed that merely an hour had passed), Anu reappeared on the horizon. That’s when the charm of Vltava (and Anu) hit me.
The Charles Bridge connects the Old Town to the hill where the Prague Castle is. The castle has its origins in the 9th century, but successive rulers (including Charles-IV) have enhanced it.
One part of this is occupied by the President of the Czech Republic.
Another part houses the beautiful St Vitus Cathedral, built in the Gothic style during the reign of Charles VI (1344). It is an imposing structure with high spires (97Metres), ribbed vaults, brilliant stained glass windows and a mosaic laden facade. My only regret was that we did not have enough time to soak in its beauty!
As we exited the Palace, the ramparts offered a panoramic view of Prague City! This was the crowning glory of our walk: we saw what King Charles-IV would have seen nearly 700 years ago !
♠ After years of travel-experience, I have established 2 theories:
Kowie’s Paradigm: The number of days that you need to explore a city is one more than what you have budgeted for in your Travel Schedule
Kowie’s Paradox: After you have factored Kowie’s Paradigm in your Travel Schedule, the number of days you need to explore a city is two more than what you have budgeted in your Travel Schedule.
The featured photo in the Home page is Rudolfinum: an auditorium cum Gallery built in 1855 in honour of King Rudolph of Austria.