A November 2001 trip
to Prague by travelprone
Quote: Everyone wants to go to Prague! But everyone visits the same top sites. For three days we alternated between "highlight" sites and less publicized ones and felt our quality experiences occurred "far from the madding crowd" and that Prague’s layered with hidden riches that best unfold when you explore slowly.
By far, the superior way to appreciate Prague is to walk a LOT. Use trams or metro to get from section to section, and then explore that section by foot as much as time and energy permit. There are only 3 metro lines, A, B, and C, and yet it’s a good idea to have a small metro map with you when you get tired so you can chose the line that will have a stop nearest to your accommodation. Check www.dp-praha.cz.for the City Transport web site as parts of the Metro are still closed. There's an English button; don't panic. Just press it.
It is IMPORTANT to realize you can revisit the Castle area and your admission is good for three days EXCEPT for St. Vitus mausoleum, choir, and tower, the Royal Palace, the Basilica of St. George, and the Powder Tower, all of which can be visited only once with the Prague Card. However, only St. Vitus charges admission, which, at 120 koruny in high season, or 60 koruny in low, amounts to less than $4.00 0r $2.00 respectively. The above stipulations as outlined in the Prague Card booklet make it "clear", I think, that puzzling contradictions in policy still prevail as the Czechs strive to accommodate Western tourism standards.
Following the path of least resistance, we just followed the crowd to St. Vitus Cathedral. The first surprise that hit the eyes was the ebony exterior. We shouldn’t have been that surprised except that none of the photos we had seen in guidebooks showed St. Vitus as it is, a victim of neglect under Communist rule paralleled in our previous experience by a visit to Magdeburg, Germany in 1992, where we saw a worse example, the once-magnificent Magdeburg Cathedral, also black outside but also, unlike St. Vitus, stripped in its interior, a ghastly, denuded remnant of glory. Here, as elsewhere in Prague, at the back of the Cathedral, excavation was going on.
In the Cathedral interior, it is very dark in the areas not adorned with stained glass windows. Several photos we took were so dark we could not recognize later where they were taken. But, the Wenceslas altar in all its golden and bejeweled glory is certainly stunning. Also memorable was our visit to the crypt where Charles IV and the Hapsburg Rudolf II, the monarchs during Prague’s two "golden " ages, are buried. I noted that the great Charles had acquired four wives buried here all in one sarcophagus! The musty air conveyed to the senses that indeed St. Vitus and the castle complex is nine hundred years plus old, though not as old as Vysehrad, we were to discover. The last reconstruction of the Cathedral did not end till 1929, so what visitors see is the accretion of centuries that makes Prague such a delight.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 30, 2002
St. Vitus Cathedral
Prague, Czech Republic 11908
+420 2 2437 3368
Throughout our visit to the Old Palace, from the Ludvik Wing to the Land Rolls Room to the All Saints’ Chapel, we were struck with the darkness of these rooms and with historical reverberations. I recalled the accounts I’d read of the defenestration into the moat of Hapsburg officials who had angered the provincial Czechs, as I looked at those windows in the room with the throned seat of power. Days of imperial glory and days of provincial oblivion have marked Prague’s fate. Much of what the visitor sees must speak for itself; I feel strongly that reading about Prague’s history beforehand is necessary to fully appreciate what you see at the Castle.Just keeping the defenestrations straight is a job. The one from the Councillors' Room marked the beginning of the ruinous Thirty Years' War,an event well depicted in the City Museum.Reading sources I found useful for history were "Prague: Bohemian Rhapsody," a Passport Book by Roberta Bromley Etter, a photojournalist who lived in Prague for several years. Her book intersperses many color photos and maps with very solid, direct historical information,and several excerpts from Czech writers. Solid on history and fun to read is Sadakat Kadri's Prague in the Cadogan "Prague Budapest."
One of the surprises here is the presence of gardens that allows for breathers between explorations. And the views from the Hrad are breathtaking even when enshrouded in mist as the views were in October. This site is again a seat of real power; on the day of our visit, you could see evidence of the business of government going on, with some areas inaccessible to tourists, and gentlemen with briefcases in tow scurrying in and out of beautifully restored buildings. We did see the changing of the sentries, although the photo is a blur due to their quick pacing. Their spiffy, subtle blue uniforms, designed by the man who designed the "Amadeus" costumes, compliment their mostly youthful faces.
Old Royal Palace
118 09 Prague 1 - Castle
Prague, Czech Republic 118 09
+420 (2) 2437 1111
Attraction | "Staromestske Namesti - The old Town Square"
Dominating this spot, the Astonomical (or as some argue, Astrological) Clock of Old Town Hall warranted photo-taking, but we did not stay for the hourly display of its dazzling parts in motion. Already partially obscured by others waiting to see this display, the clock is, indeed, beautiful, so my husband persevered and got some good photos of it from different perspectives. Since it is nearly seven hundred years old, the clock is really worth seeing for its plant and animal carvings represent masterly craftsmanship. And it really is an astrological, not astronomical, clock with its 12 signs of the zodiac. Later, we were to see the original calendar face of this clock at the city Museum. We did not take the guided tour of the Town Hall as its entrance was already stuffed with fellow tourists waiting to enter.
Other notable sites here are the Church of Our Lady before Tyn (Gothic) and the baroque Church of St. Nicholas. And, of course, there's the Memorial to Jan Hus,smack dab in the middle of this square, which more accurately conforms to one’s expectations of a "square,’ than Vaclavske Namesti does,and it attracts the highest crowd concentration. History is all around you in this square, but, if you dislike crowds, as I do, you only look at the exteriors. Fortunately, the exteriors are magnificent. The visitor should not miss this site because it juxtaposes so dramatically in miniature the old and the new, in a space more concentrated than Vaclavske Namesti.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 30, 2002
Old Town Historic Center of Prague
Prague, Czech Republic 110 00
Attraction | "St. George’s Basilica and Golden Lane"
Instead, we followed the crowd to the Golden Lane, where sharpshooter-defenders and goldsmiths had dwelt, passing right by the Alchemist’s Tower(which I had planned on seeing), which is just to the right in our photo of the lane. Then, we drifted to steps where we encountered the "new" Republic of individual commerce offering souvenirs and a dizzying assortment of glitter emulating a Western souvenir shop mecca but on a small scale and with products very artfully arranged. The puppets and marionettes were particularly tempting! This surprisingly astute way of separating the new commercialism from the hallowed and old struck us as fitting a people proud of their cultural heritage and careful not to sully the Cathedral and governmental edifices with too much proximity to souvenir stands.
Hradcany requires at least two visits of three or so hours each, I would advise. Consult a Hrad map often or you’ll miss some of the sites you’d planned to see. Explore Hradcanske Namesti and the Sternberk Palace with its collection of pre-nineteenth century art, and then, proceed to Loretanske Namesti and the treasures of the Loreta, both of which we missed by being sheep and following the crowd out through the southeast steps. The Hradcany area downhill from the castle is an area we regret we didn’t see.
St. George's Basilica
Jirske namesti, 33
Prague, Czech Republic 119 08
Attraction | "Wenceslas Square (vaclavske namesti)"
But, sadly, we didn’t explore the hotel’s ambiance because we had just become separated from our son who was to spend the rest of the day in Prague with no transport card and token Czech money in his pocket! That’s how crowded the square was. With anxiety, we went to the Amex office to get Czech money, the all-important Prague Card, the 3-day transport pass, and especially the useful booklet that accompanies the Prague Card. Without it, we would have never known about the Technological Museum and been able to navigate the rather labyrinthine way to it. Although I had read several guidebooks on Prague I found most inadequately prepared a visitor for coping with Prague’s treasures. Although Prague has become an immensely popular tourist destination, many guidebooks provide inadequate information about the city primarily because it is so packed with still hidden sights that the Czechs have not blatantly advertised.
Understandably, Prague’s release from Communist domination has colored most recent depictions of it, and guidebooks have tended to emphasize its late twentieth century transformation, especially at Vaclavse Namesti.
After our stop for wherewithal, we, of course, rushed like lemmings to the Hrad. At day’s end, we reconnected with our son at our hotel. He was limping from his long-range walking about this magnificent city and did not recover for almost a week. Prague can have that "must-see-it-all-at-once" effect on you. Yet, I think its joys reveal themselves to those who see it by simply strolling its byways, not just its main streets and squares. Visiting off the beaten path museums and sights not frequented by crowds (in Vysehrad, Mala Strana, Holesovice) allowed us to appreciate that seeing Prague’s "lesser" sights whets the appetite for a return visit . Prague is more than just its "top sites", like this historic square.
Prague, Czech Republic 110 00
Only after the sale did she off-handedly mention that this particular garnet came from India. A little crest-fallen that my ring was technically not from the Czech Republic, I decided I was still satisfied with it because I liked its styling. Its price? - about $35.00. Whenever I look at it now, the ring reminds me of our all-too brief Prague encounter that intrigued me and left me wishing we had been able to stay there longer.
I have since done some research on garnets (which I should have done before our visit) and found out that not all garnets are red. Uvavorite is always green. Garnets can be colorless, or yellow, orange, gray, or even black or pink! The garnet is the Republic’s officially designated national gem, and Czech garnets are pyropes, whereas those from India are mostly almandine. Czech and Indian garnets both are red, from a ruby to dark red in hue. For a full discussion of garnets, check out www.mineralgalleries.com. and for glance at Granat’s catalog, refer to www.bohemiangems.com.
Dlouha Triada, 30
Prague, Czech Republic
Attraction | "The Jewish Museum –Pinkas and the Jewish Cemetery"
Most of the day, tour groups en masse clogged the narrow entrance to the Pinkas Synagogue that I felt, as well as the adjacent cemetery, best focused for the visitor the plight of Prague’s Jews, crammed into the severely restricted section of Josefov, named in hindsight for the Hapsburg ruler who allowed Jews some freedom within limits after a previous expulsion had showed their commercial talents were missed.
For the non-Jewish visitor, seeing the names of those exterminated by the Nazis that cover the walls inside the Pinkas, and then seeing the incredible pile-up of gravestones tilting on top of one another outside in the cemetery, portrays the precarious status of Prague’s Jews through the centuries. Unfortunately, during the recent August floods, many of the victim’s names and dates, as well as community origins, were obliterated, and the Pinkas had to be closed to visitors. Previously, I had read that when the "exterminated" list of Nazi victims we viewed on the Pinkas’s walls was done the last time, Communist leaders blocked it from completion for several years. The recent floods underline that Prague’s Jews were relegated to what was a less desirable, lower section of the city. Through the centuries, Prague's Jews faced oppression by fellow Czechs, Hapsburgs, Nazis and Communists!
The staircases within the Pinkas are very narrow and much of the Judaica presented will have special meaning only to Jewish visitors. But the Terrezin concentration camp drawings of the children confined there have universal appeal to all those who love children and lament the appalling arbitrariness of their destruction. You’ll remember the walls of names, gravestones topsy-turvy over each other, and the childish exuberance of these drawings because they all attest to the power of hateful might. Ironically, the Nazis preserved the artifacts we see today at the Jewish Museum. They planned to use these artifacts for a "Museum of An Extinct Race." Instead, these objects gathered from all over the Republic today offer "proof" that the Holocaust really happened. Check this website for more details, as Pinkas is due to reopen in August, 2003.
Jewish Museum (Židovské Muzeum)
U Staré školy 1, Josefov region
Prague, Czech Republic 110 00
(+420) 221 711 51
Of particular interest to us were the documents assembled to show the oppressiveness of the Nazi occupation and the assassination of Commandant Reinhard Heydrich that evoked horrendous retaliation - the annihilation of the town of Lidice. But the highlights of the museum include Anton Langweil’s meticulous 1:480 miniature model of 18th century Prague, on display in the center of its own room, and the copy of the original calendar face of the Orloj, the Astrological clock of Old Town Square Hall. Fortunately we had seen the clock and had become acquainted with Stare Mesto and Josefov as these areas look today; these objects were much more fascinating and meaningful to us than if we had visited this museum before we had seen those areas. We were able to see many changes from the past, most of which occurred during the nineteenth century with the compression of Josefov to create Parizka, specifically clear from looking at the model.
City Museums usually reveal the particular, distinctive "personality" of their subject; Prague’s history has been especially marked by boldly contrasting ups and downs. Invasions by foreign powers--Swedes, Austrians, Germans, Russians--have marked an often turbulent past throughout which the Czechs have survived, preserved, and embellished, what is now what I would rate as one of the most beautiful and treasure-filled cities of Europe.
Museum of the City of Prague
Na Porící 52
Prague 8, Czech Republic 180 00
+420 2 2481 6773
The latter site is still not publicized much, but the Lobkovic castle, winery, and restaurant there was one I researched on the web, read an article in National Geographic on, and wanted to see, as the lordly Lobkovics amassed a stunning art collection on display there, with the largest collection of Spanish paintings outside of Spain. The castle reverted after the Velvet Revolution to an American Lobkovic heir, then living in New York City. He accepted the challenge of this inheritance and has sought to attract tourism to the gem he has. See www.lobkowicz.org.for this attraction that also has Antonin Dvorak''s birthplace, now a museum, and is a feasible day trip from Prague.
In the August floods, damage was done to Cesky Krumlov, which everyone we met, locals and other tourists, insisted we should see. Might have been, should have done--it’s all part of the aftermath of our recollections of Prague. Prague is still very reasonable in cost to visit if you stay in a small, non-chain hotel outside of Stare Mesto and eat in restaurants not repeatedly listed in the guidebooks. That Prague is a bargain by our standards accounts for it being such a desired destination for so many who can afford it. See my "Bohemian Bargain" journal on Prague for hotel and restaurant information.
But it is, above all, stimulating to visit because it has such a wealth of cultural assets to offer the visitor who prepares well for an amazing trove of riches preserved from the past. You’ll enjoy Prague if you explore it slowly, develop strategies to avoid crowds at the major sights, and go off the beaten path now and then to just see what the Czechs have achieved despite a very checkered past,in places like Vysehrad and the Technological Museum, which I wrote about in my "Historical Prague" journal. For museums, check out www.praguesite.com; for shopping, www.talkingcities.co.uk./prague.
Prague is complex; there’s so much to see after you’ve seen the guidebook highlights. Our usual preparation of extensive reading was not enough to allow us to cope with the actual effects of crowds at the most well-known sites. Just to get onto Charles Bridge was a struggle; frustrating was the inability to linger and just look at the statues up close. Most are copies, I rationalized; instead we enjoyed the views of the river from this vantage point and the interesting weir nearby.
We did enjoy a different Prague from what most tourists experienced. Our decision to stay in a small hotel outside of Stare Mesto was an excellent one. Each night we had a "nightcap" at the reception bar and conversed with three young men who rotated as night clerks. Pavel, our first night clerk, was particularly informative, as we discussed the difficulties of the Czech language and the English, which he spoke very well. We talked about the crowds, sights we wanted to see, computers, social and economic changes in a democracy--all in a relatively informal way.
We were very fortunate to visit the Technological and City museums that most tourists overlooked, as we could really pause and see evidence of Prague’s historical heritage and substantial Czech technological achievements. Prague is undergoing a gigantic transition; the August floods brought with them additional challenges to ongoing restoration. The Metro had to be closed as several stations were flooded. The unique restoration labs of the Roztoky Museum of Central Bohemia and reserve collections of the Technological Museum on Invalidovna were flooded. Vulnerable were the low-lying areas near the Vlatava, notably Holesovice, Karlin, and Josefov. Even before the floods, places were subject to closure for repairs that locals in the tourist industry were unaware of. The well-informed, helpful hotel staff was surprised to hear from us that the Petrin funicular was closed ahead of its usual closing at the end of October.
As a museum lover, I was frustrated by the National Gallery’s practise of locating their art collections in various buildings throughout the city. Missing the Sternbeck, Loreta, and St. George’s Convent collections particularly upset me. When I discovered what I’d missed, we didn’t have time for another trip to the Hradcany. We were due in an almost museumless Paris the next day, Saturday, the day allowed for check-in at our apartment rental (Never on Sunday). Little did we know a strike of museum workers would limit us to gazing at the outside of the Louvre, Orsay,and Cluny. That’s travel for you. Armed with knowledge of what was closed in Paris, we still could not have stayed in Prague and forfeited a week’s apartment cost.
We’ll return; Prague’s popularity daunts you at times, but its complex appeal is undeniable. There’s so much more to see after you’ve seen the top sights. We didn’t "go crazy", as the Lonely Planet Guide to the Czech Republic states anyone will who tries to see this city in "only four days", but we were often frustrated by crowds and confused by inadequate descriptions in guidebooks we’d read. I don’t fault the guidebook writers totally; Prague IS complex. The Czechs are new at blowing their own horns, though they’ve caught on to many Western ad ploys.
Since we had not a single "bad" meal in Prague, we would not wish to economize by renting an apartment as we attempted to do unsuccessfully before our first visit. Prague food is an absolute bargain and we like Czech food. We also liked our small, snug hotel at about $140.00 a night total for a single and a double and buffet breakfast each day; we weren’t too "far out" as it was quiet but near enough to the action centers. However, next time, we "need" to find a small gem of a hotel in Mala Strana because we really liked what we saw there. And I’d like to see the Dvorak Museum we passed by so many times on our way to the Cybeteria on Stepanska which we walked to daily from our hotel.