TRAVEL

The following article was originally published in Asian Correspondent.

Prague, Czech Republic

Wenceslas square

Wenceslas square. Photo by writer

Rustic buildings line the street, looking more like museums and churches than the hotels, stores, offices and fast-food chains that they are. Underfoot are cobblestone pavements, in some parts cracked but, as old lore has it, are likely to endure for centuries because the sandstone was mixed with egg yolks to strengthen the mortar. Al fresco cafés and restaurants, tables laden with baskets of plaited buns called calty, dot the boulevard. This is Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, known to bohemians and romantics as “the crown of cities”, “mother of cities”, “city of a hundred spires” and “the golden city”.

Centrally located, Wenceslas Square is the commercial and cultural hub of the city center and starting point of most tours. Down the long and wide avenue towers the massive statue of St. Wenceslas, its back to the Národní—Prague’s National Museum, housing over 14 million works of art, music, books and other works.

In the Middle Ages the square was primarily a horse market and venue for public celebrations but Jan Palach immolated himself there in 1969 to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a memorial to him, a wooden cross was embedded on the cobblestone near a bronze bas-relief and commemorative plaque.

Palach cross

Palach cross. Photo by writer

Today, the square is a virtual cacophony of buildings reflecting architectural influences from neoclassical to baroque. Medieval houses stand side-by-side yet unique from each other in design and color, displaying bas-reliefs and murals from which their names were derived—“At the Unicorn”, “At the Stone Virgin Mary” and “At the Stone Table”.

Down Wenceslas square toward Revolucni are cozy inns and pensions, some as affordable as 45 euros per day, inclusive of free breakfast and unlimited Wi-Fi time. Off Revolucni is Na Frantisku, offering an unimpeded view of the Vltava River. On this street stands the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, with the nave of St. Salvador Church peaking behind it.

Old Town
At the end of Celetna Street is the Old Town Square, where prominent Bohemian families once resided. Here the dark turrets of the Church of the Virgin Mary Before Tyn tower over the pale-hued Golz-Kinsky Palace.

Book shop along Celetna

Book shop along Celetna. Photo by writer

Off Celetna 5 is the courtyard of an Italian restaurant ensconced in a cul-de-sac within the premises of the Tyn Vicarage. At the other corner is a book shop and art gallery, one of the countless that reflect the Czechs’ love of art and literature.

The area forms part of the Royal Road where processions were held during the coronation of Czech kings. Located here is the Astronomical Clock and the Old Town Hall. The pseudo-gothic Powder Tower—so called because it was a gunpowder storehouse in the 17th century—and the art nouveau Municipal House are almost seamlessly connected and yet starkly contrast each other. Inside St. Nicholas Church, meanwhile, is a 19th century crown chandelier of crystal glass and artfully intersecting ellipsoids on its nave.

The steps of the Rudolphinium afford a spectacular view of Prague Castle. Built in 1876 initially as a picture gallery, museum and conservatory, it now houses the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

Charles Bridge
Arguably the crowning glory of Prague is Charles Bridge. Entering through the Old Town Bridge, baroque statues on the balustrade come in sight—from the Madonna with St. Bernard embraced by cherubim, to the Czech martyr St. John of Nepomuk. Painters, craftsmen and musicians surround the area, hawking their art for a few Korunas, their features resonating that of Italians, Austrians, Frenchmen and Spaniards invited to Bohemia in the old days to entertain the aristocracy.

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge. Photo by writer

Quaint diners and souvenir shops line the underside of the bridge, which can be reached going rightward exiting from Lesser Town. Walk onward, against the usual direction of tourists, and the road narrows, giving way to well-trodden grass and patches of earth that rise to a low hill.

The Vltava flows and ebbs to the side of the hill. Near the riverbank, white swans up to three feet high glide by, fearlessly snatching pieces of bread from children’s hands. Along the hill are worn benches occupied by locals, mostly in pairs, engaged in intimate conversation. Clearly, this is not a spot marked for tourists. Beyond the swans and children and lovers on benches, on the opposite bank of the river, ferries soundlessly pass under Charles Bridge.

Prague Castle
Pražský hrad or Prague Castle is the world’s largest and, some say, grandest of ancient castles. Constructed in the 9th century at the time of Prince Boivoj, it is now the seat and residence of the head of state. The castle is perched high on a hill, which takes about half a day to reach via the Chateau Stairs.

Passages open up on both sides of the stairs, revealing the astonishingly baroque Loreta, Basilica of St. George and gothic Cathedral of St. Vitus. Perhaps the oldest part of the castle is the Old Royal Palace, former home to Bohemian princes and kings. All Czech presidents were invested on “the rider’s staircase” while banquets were held at the Vladislav Hall in the palace centre.

Descending the hill from the Opys viewing deck down the New Castle Stairs, the Garden on the Ramparts can be seen. Spread out down below is a cornucopia of blooms and trees that is the Paradise Garden.

Beyond that is a panorama of cathedrals and towers, bridges and riverbanks, gardens and waterways. Finally, the perfect place to breathe in the air that once filled the lungs of ancient queens and kings, soak in the sights that perhaps inspired Mozart and Kundera, and simply marvel at the grandeur that is Prague.

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