A City For Walking
I have hung up my stilettos in the airy wood panelled room in Prague’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, awaiting an evening ballet performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the Statni Opera (State Opera), a must-visit, in Prague. Pulling on my sneakers instead, the most sensible item I have packed, I am ready to traverse the courtyards and cobblestone lanes of the picturesque East European capital of the Czech Republic. This is where old Bohemian legends and stories of vampires, knights and wild boars originated. Where native writers like Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka seduced the attention of the Western reading public. Where excellent local beer is imbibed in copious gallons and music rules the streets. Clearly, instead of a grim Kafkaesque landscape, I am faced with an intriguing city, pretty as a picture and beckoning to be explored and trampled upon, on foot.
Prague is indeed a city for walking. Having been advised to watch out for aggressive taxi drivers who take tourists for more than a ride, (though the trams and subways are efficient) I am happy to sidestep the cobbles, starting outside the hotel in the relatively quiet Mala Strana quarter or ‘Lesser Town’ founded over 700 years ago. In the distance are visible, the spires of the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle which broods over the city skyline, surrounded by crowds of jostling tourists as I discover the next day, winding my way up the picturesque street lined with souvenir shops and jewellery stores, while tourists on hired Segways or open-topped red vintage cars whiz happily past. But today, my guide, Dana Jungrova is pointing to the picture of a ‘golden snake’ and ‘little whale’ painted over the portals of the surrounding buildings, for houses here were traditionally identified in this novel manner. Traipsing over cobbles, we arrive at the Lennon Wall, famous since the Communist Regime for peaceful demonstrators to air their views and political discontent. Whitewashed frequently in those days, this is the only city wall that can be painted upon, though the original iconic image of Beatle John Lennon no longer remains. ‘Love is old, love is new, Love is all, Love is you…’ recites the graffiti today, illustrated with an enormous peace sign harking back to the rebellious ’70s.
Leaving the wall behind, Dana points out ‘Devil’s Creek’, over a water wheel where locals in love put a lock on the fence, to symbolise their commitment. Canals bestow a Venetian feel, almost, in this locality. We walk past the locked proclamations of love, passing souvenir shops hung with marionettes. I recognise the figures of actor Johnny Depp and US president Obama dangling colourfully on strings. And now, there’s Michael Jackson in miniature blowing in a stiff breeze. Puppets represent a 400-year-old tradition, where farmers, in the lean months carved figures and travelling through the villages, provided stories and entertainment. “After all, these ‘performers’ did not need to eat, sleep or be paid,” says my guide with stoic realism.
“Hold on to your wallets,” she now proclaims as we approach Prague’s most famous landmark, Charles Bridge, built by Czech king, Charles IV. Crowds surge past Baroque statues resplendent in the sunshine, performers, kiosks selling handmade jewellery, tourist groups in disarray. The architect was only 21 years old when he built the bridge and the story goes that he created a secret recipe for the cement mixture that incorporated egg whites and wine collected from all the villages around. It certainly worked since the bridge has withstood storms and floods without flinching. Today, it is almost a struggle to get across. But a pleasant one, for the Vltava River underneath is iridescent in the daylight and the ‘City of a 100 spires’ is laid out like a beautiful gem.
Prague is the only European capital where the panorama did not change for a hundred years, since Prague refused to fight in the War. A hot air balloon, hated by locals for its Disneyland feel, but beloved of visitors craving an aerial view, soars above the hills. To the right Dana points out the white riverside building where Mission Impossible was filmed. On the hill, the Metronome, like an enormous clock hand, ticks away the passing of time. It has been built on the site of a monstrous statue of Stalin that was exploded. The story goes that the sculptor who built it, committed suicide because people began to spit on him. On the opposite hill is just visible a small copy of the Eiffel Tower built in 1892, two years after the original. Prague denizens are proud of their tower which is four metres taller that the real one – but only if you include the hill, of course.
On the other side, a clown on stilts hands out brochures while men in sailor suits beckon for a river cruise. Viewing the city from the water provides an entirely new dimension but today, my sneakers continue in stride. The Old Town and city centre are protected by UNESCO. Gothic and Baroque facades of buildings reveal Prague’s cultural diversity. Souvenir shops line the narrow streets. Music is in the air, everywhere. “Every Czech, we say, is a musician…” Dana maintains. The Old Town is full of churches proclaiming concerts and recitals from silken banners. We now cut through the Klementinum, a former monastery and current library, past its Astronomical Tower which traditionally announced the lunch hour daily, past the city’s yellow and red flags atop government buildings and the famous Jewish Quarter. “Hitler’s plan to make Prague a museum of people who did not exist anymore ensured that the synagogues and cemeteries were not destroyed,” Dana intones. (But that’s another tour altogether….)
Six hundred stone buildings in the city had been demolished between 1890-1910, in accordance with a modernisation plan that envisaged an Eastern Paris with new-age buildings and wide boulevards. Fortunately for Prague and its teeming tourists, this plan could not be completed due to the War. We are now in what is locally called the ‘Little Square’ surrounded by historical houses. In the centre Dana points out a ‘cage of shame’ where offenders were trapped and displayed. (A popular city joke advises similar cages for politicians). The square is lined with convertible vintage cars, open-air taxis, remnants from famous pre-war car factories (Skoda, Tatra, Praga). The Little Square opens into the Old Town Square, surrounded by medieval buildings. The highlight is the Town Hall’s 15th century Astronomical Clock tower. A trumpet and a small tableau of skeletal death ringing a bell herald every daylight hour as 12 medieval carved apostles emerge from two windows. There is much cheering from the crowds though Dana intones that the astronomical drawings on the clock are today recognised as ‘nonsense’.
Pariska Street, the most expensive in Prague, is where all the luxury shops are. I only check out the inlaid-wood-panelled, state-owned Bohemian glass outlet, Moser, which is reputed to have created masterpieces for the British queen, for Windsor Castle. Earlier we had passed the refurbished 17th century theatre where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered and Milos Foreman filmed Amadeus. And onward to Wenceslas Square with the Museum of Natural History on the horizon. The site has been famous for revolutions and political changes as well as an open-air market (since 1232) called Havel’s Market, displaying fruits, vegetables, flowers and the ubiquitous souvenir stalls.
The Czech Republic offers some of the world’s best beers and I reckon that I have earned a pint of the light, golden-hued Pilsner Urquell that I have already learnt to relish. I climb onto a rooftop terrace to a restaurant nestled among the tiles and spires. This is certainly a different view of the fascinating city. There was a time when all the restaurants in what was then Czechoslovakia, were state owned with menus based on recipes from three government-approved cookbooks. Today however, the families in Prague feast especially at Christmas time on roast goose and barrels of carp, a delicacy. They drink beer for breakfast, fondly referring to it as ‘liquid breath’. And as for me, I indulge in great platters of meats and vegetables, washed down with a satisfying pint, as music floats up from the square and Prague Castle stands tall on the horizon.
Far and Away
Best time to visit: April to June and September, October.
Currency: Koruna (pronounced ‘Crown’) 1 Euro makes approximately 24 Koruna.
Language: The Czech language is very confusing and each word can mean several things. Ahoy, for instance, means hello as well as goodbye.
Souvenirs: Bohemian glass, marionettes, garnet-studded jewellery, crystal-beaded necklaces.
Relish: The world’s best beers. Also, operas, concerts and ballets at the National Theatre and State Theatre, among many others. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is housed in Prague.
History: The Velvet Revolution of 1989 brushed away 45 years of Communism. Czechoslovakia was split in 1992 and the present Czech Republic was formed.
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