A May 1997 trip
to Prague by actonsteve
Quote: This may be the most beautiful city in Europe. A real quilt of magnificent architecture with delicious food and a fascinating history. One city you will want to return to is this special one set along the banks of the Vltava.
Hotel | "The Villa David - one of my favourite hotels"
But the star attraction was the restaurant. The waiters and staff were such fun and the food terrific. Although I wasn''t sure how they had time to cook it, as it always seemed like they were having such fun in the kitchen. The Korunna was so low, it was only five years after the fall of the iron curtain, that I could dine out on steak in beer sauce every night. And my mouth still waters at the thought of the Rudolf II steak washed down with a tasty Bohemian white wine...
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 28, 2001
The Villa David
Prague, Czech Republic
To reach there take the excellent subway to Mustek (Museum) or Staromenska and walk to the river. The best approach is always from the river and you will be surprised how clear and wide the Vltava is. Once you reach the riverbank spread before you will be one of the most photogenic sights of Europe. Spanning the river is the medieval stone expanse of the Charles Bridge (Karlov Most)with dark spired towers at either end. Even from the river bank people will be visible crossing to Mala Strana and also the coal black statues of the saints that line the bridge. But its the heights of Mala Strana on the far bank that catch your attention. What can compare with the redness of the medieval roofs as they rise in a great sweep to Hradcany Castle. The great white Hrad is stretched along a hill with the dark spires of St Vitus Cathedral poking into the air from behind its towering walls. But it is the colours that are the most astonishing - red, yellow, white, light mauve and the emerald green of vegetation in what must be one of the greenest cities in Europe.
But your first stop will probably be the Charles Bridge. It's start on the Nove Mestro side is at Male Namesti. Its entrance is guarded by a brown tower which soars above the square overlooking the equestrian statue of Charles IV and the scarlet brickwork and bright green dome of Sv Francis Cathedral. As you walk onto the Most the view is stunning and the atmosphere festive. Numerous buskers dot the alcoves, artists purvey scenes of Prague from the stalls and everyone is caught up in the crowds. You can examine the black statues from up close or watch the river surge underneath. The popularity of the Bridge is such as that crowds really build up in summer. And you can almost crowd-surf from one side of the river to the other.
As you approach the Mala Stana side you can follow the crowds up to Hradcany Castle or explore the lesser quarter. One surprise as the bridge arcs over the island of Kampa is a working medieval watermill still churning the waters. But my advice is to lose yourself in the winding medieval streets of Mala Strana. Over by the French embassy on Maltezke you will find a wall daubed with a graffiti mural of John Lennon. Dating from the sixties whent this was drawn as a symbol of freedom against the communist authorities - the mural is peeling but worth a look. And if you wander down to Kampa the island contains a green park with stone quays where you can watch black swans swim in the river.
But my great find in Prague and a secret not known to many tourists were the Valshenskja palace and gardens (see photo). To find them go to the colourful square of Malostanske Nam and see where the tramlines disapear on its eastern side. There is a gap in the wall here which will take you directly into the gardens - and they are exquisite. Created by the bloodthirsty Count Waldenstein, one of the most powerful warlords in Bohemia, they are are an amazing baroque parkland. They contain trimmed hedges, carved topiary, lines of green classical statues, nymph filled grottoes and tinkling fountains. At the far end stands the palace of Waldenstein which has been converted into government offices but the loggia leading to them has frescoes of the siege of Troy on its ceiling.
One of my favourite places in Prague, I'm not sure I should be sharing, it was one of my secrets....
If you are already staying in Stare Mestro then it will be an easy walk away, and if you are coming from the Charles Bridge then it will be a walk down twisting Karlova which now is a gauntlet of tourist shops and crowds. But you will spill out onto Staromanske Namesti at its western end and this is the best end to start an exploration of the square. Before the great cobbled football pitch expanse is the Old Town Hall, a black medieval building topped by an astrological clock. Tourists gather underneath the clock to watch figures move and chime every hour, and the houses on either side have baroque facades often decorated with frescoes or statues.
The southern side of the Nam is made up of buildings equally as beautiful painted pink, sky blue, white and light green containing shops and pavement cafes but your eyes will be drawn to the eastern side of the square to the spires of "Our Lady of Tyn" church (see photo). Built behind shops and townhouses this is the most striking church in Prague. It's building is straight and sharp, but its spires are set at angles and are like great spikes reaching for the sky. My travel companion came up with a great description for the church..."witchy..."
Separating the church from the Nam are the white and pastel facades of the townhouses and the great rose-coloured roccoco front of the Goltz-Kinsky palace. The arcades underneath house a number of shops including a bookshop which used to belong to the Kafka family. The bookshop holds a small exhibt on the author's life and the complexity and frustration of Prague life which used to find its way into his works. The northern part of the square contains the monument to the Protestant Martyr Jan Hus. This grey statue is surrounded by a sea of pine hedgerows, probably meant to represent flames as he was burned at the stake for his beliefs. Nearby a number of stalls have been set up so you can peruse a brassblower with a real forge, a candlemaker and a number of yiddish marionettes. But the most beautiful building on the Nam has to be Sv Nicholas Church (see photo). You may be all baroqued out by now but this church is rather lovely. It is an enormous white/cream confection with domes and stain-glass windows with each ledge and niche decorated by jet black statues of the saints. Very photogenic and very beautiful.
If you have had enough of tourist Prague head down Zeletna and you will find yourself at Musek metro. Stretching south from there is Wenceslas Square (yes, him of good king fame, you may find yourself whistling the tune...)This very long square is flanked by turn-of-century buildings and is filled with car-showrooms, airline offices, department stores and jewellry shops. It sweeps up to the domed National museum whose vast wings enfold an equestrian statue of King Wenceslas (see photo). This square has seen everything before - medieval markets, Habsburg troops, Soviet tanks, Nazi occupiers - all the way to the velvet revolution of 1989. Stand here, and if you can, imagine the tremendous crowds cheering Dubcek and Vaclev Havel on the balcony and the end of forty years of communist rule.
Josefov is named after the enlightened Austrian Emporer Josef II who lifted most of the restrictions on jews and allowed them to live peaceably in the empire. Here they lived in the ghetto between Staromanske Namesti and the river. During the 19th century, despite attempts at assimilation, Josefov contained over 40,000 jews. By the time of the Anschluss in 1938 there were over 90,000 living in Josefov. As soon as the Nazis took over Czechkloslovakia they issued anti-semitic edicts and in 1941 the first transport of jews was sent to the camp at Terezin. By the end of the holocaust, 77,000 had died in the death camps and the survivors who came back to Prague at the end of the war numbered 8,000. A significant number of these joined the communist party only to fall victim to Stalinist anti-semitic purges during the 1950's.
To understand what Prague has been through during the 20th Century a visit here is a must. It is, however, well on the tourist trail and you can follow the crowds down Pariska. where you turn left for Josefov. As a tourist attraction the area is not too delicate (yiddish marionette's anyone?) and you can buy a combined ticket for three of the most important synagogue's - the Klausen, Old-New and Pinkas. The Klausen contains the most memorabillia including photos of the old ghetto, and priceless menorah and Torah's. One of the curators explained to us that the reason they have so many judaica still here is that Hitler was building up a collection on a deviant race here in Prague, something to justify his actions to the world when they had all disappeared.
Around the corner in Siroka is the Pinkas synagogue, when you enter they give you a little disposable skullcap (mine kept blowing away on the wind) and inside are 77,000 names enshrined on the walls along with their date of birth and date of transportation to the camp. The whole synagogue was covered in names from floor to ceiling. Most were born in the 1880's but I spotted some from the 1930's meaning they were children! Horrible! You leave the Pinkas synagogue through the Old Jewish cemetery which is a high-walled area smothered in hundreds and hundreds of hebrew headstones. The earliest ones go back to the 1530's but they are stacked against each other like playing cards. Along with rooks cawing overhead this is a very atmospheric part of Prague.
To have a breath of fresh air after Josefov - head for the river.The honeystone medieval streets will take you past the baroque concert hall the Rudolfinium, where a flyer-giver will no doubt be hovering dressed in 18th costume. But you can walk all the way to the Vyserad fortress along the riverbank. And you will be stunned that there is so much greenery in a capital city. But Prague, despite it's shadowy past, is a city of colour. It's townhouses are painted bright yellow, pink, blue, lemon, mauve, jet black and emerald green - all festooned with cherubs and statues. This maybe the most colourful city in the world.
Architecturally, it is one of the best looking buildings in Middle Europe. But it was not built by the Czechs but by the Hapsburg Austrians when they moved the capital of their empire away from Vienna in the 16th Century. It was the Emperor Rudolf II (after whom a good steak was named) who led Prague into its golden age from the castle. It was he who built the great white/grey roccoco walls that scale the castle and stretch 500ft along the crest of the hill. He was the one who populated Prague with astrologers, mystics and alchemists and took to walking around the grounds with his pet lion, Ottokar. But after his death the centre was moved back to Vienna, and Prague became yet another capital swallowed up by the Hapsburg Empire.
The best advice I can give is get there before 10 o'clock, before the crowds and tour buses start to gather as it is immensely popular. The nearest metro was Malestranka and it is a ten minute walk uphill to the gates of the castle. The actual walk is a pleasure as it is via steep stone alleys which give nice views of Mala Strana as you ascend. The gates of the Hrad are guarded by sinewy giants posed in twisted combat but once you are past the first courtyard you are in the Hrad properly. To pass into the second courtyard takes some effort as there will be a gridlock of tourists in front of you. This is because as you pass into the second courtyard you will be struck by the gothic facade of St Vitus Cathedral and the tourists there will be too busy angling their cameras to let you pass. The front of St. Vitus is magnificent and you will find yourself craning your neck to view the two towering spires. Inside is very crowded, with high gothic columns, and a stained-glass ceiling letting in blue and red light into the sandstone interior.
If you have had enough of the crush in St. Vitus then explore the huge courtyard that surrounds it (see picture), the offices of Vaclev Havel, the Czech President, are on the southern side. But in the courtyard is the roccoco Royal Palace. This was the residence of the kings of Bohemia and in places goes back to 900 A.D. and is far less touristed then St. Vitus. Inside you enter through a horse-ramp and the ceiling of the Vladislav hall is vaulted and carved with a number of frescoes showing the coats of arms of many noble families. But the highlight for me was the viewing platform looking south from the Hrad over Mala Strana to the river. The brilliant green of the terraced gardens were just below us followed by the rolling roof-tops of the medieval houses all the way down to the Charles Bridge - gorgeous!
The sky above me at this point was like a medieval vision of hell, all black clouds rolling and boiling. I sought sanctuary in the Basilica of Sv Jiri which was coloured in striking scarlet sandstone. Numerous statues and saicophagai were housed in the basilica including one of Sv Ludmilla who was memorably strangled by her own daughter (I wonder what brought that on?). And behind the basilica is Zlata Ulicka (Golden Lane), a row of dolly-mixture coloured cottages tucked up against the north wall of the Hrad (see photo). They looked exceptionally twee in this narrow lane although it was hard to get a really good look due to the crowds. The rain came down again turning the lane into a sea of waterproof's and squeals, so I stood by an arrow slit and waited for the deluge to subside.
When the rain subsided, the gardens surrounding the Hrad smelt fresh and green. The view from them was incredible and I would take a bit of time to relax after the Hrad and take in what must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world...
Once you have seen the Hrad you can follow the legions of tourists back down Nerudova and back to the Charles Bridge or explore the rest of Hradcany. If you cross the square, Hradcanske Nam and walk past the Museum of Military history you will find yourself in a world away from the tourist crush. The area is full of medieval and renaissance houses, long neglected under the communists and now being repainted to their natural bright colours. One building which is as glorious as the day it was constructed is the church of 'Our Lady of Loreto'(see photo). As you approach from the rear from Loretanska, stone steps lead down to the front facade. The steps are flanked by twenty jet black statues of the saints, each touched with gold. This contrasts with the gold and white facade of the Loreto with its clock and bulbous belltower.
To enter costs about 500 korunnas and you will emerge in a green courtyard surrounded by white marble cloisters. In the centre of the courtyard was a marble tomb containing a relic from the Virgin Mary. But the best part of the 'Loreto' was the transept and nave with a whirlwind of cartoon-like cherubs and angels spiralling out from the altar. The Loreto treasury was housed underground and contained gold holy icons behind bullet-proof glass. The most tasteless of these were by the Viennese. If you want a more sobering sight once you leave the Loreto across the square is the epic Cernin Palace. This 150ft long white/yellow roccoco palace was the headquarters for Reichprotektor Heydrich during the Nazi occupation of Prague. He was assassinated by a joint Czech/British commando force near the Vltava and in retaliation the Nazis wiped the village of Lidice from the face of the earth.
If you continue west along Hradcany, things become more rural, which is rather extraordinary when you think that you are in the middle of a capital city. A clue that you are approaching the Strahov monastery will be the number of white-robed monks in the vicinity. The dead giveaway for us was seeing a number of people smoking near the approaches to the monastery, obviously a vice that the abbott does not approve of. But the monastery itself is reached through a poplar grove and is open to the public. When we were there in 1995 it had only just re-opened, most of its monks were thrown into prison during the communist era. But now you can wander its courtyards and cloisters and pay money to see the famous Philosphical hall and library.But I had found another distraction and it looked like a gap in a hedgerow offered another way down to the Charles Bridge so I set off to explore.
Stepping through the hedgerow was like entering another world. The trail descended through a colossal green vale in the middle of Prague. It's western side was the forested green slopes of Petrin hill. And the eastern side were the orchards, vineyards and market gardens of the Strahov Monastery - everything glistened and smelled fresh after the rain, it was completely deserted and very very quiet.....
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