“A change of scene is the best tonic in the world,”
Early one summer’s morning Elizabeth Handly and her husband, Pete, set out for their short 27th anniversary holiday to Prague for four crowded, intensely stimulating days in May. Elizabeth recalls the history, art, music and snippets from a table in Prague. “Here,” she explains, “there are obviously many cultural delights for a ravenous vulture such as myself, and the proximity to Europe makes travel to nearby destinations easy and affordable.”
– A Two Part Series –
“The flight from Stockholm to Ruzyne International Airport was simply two hours with Czech Airlines, a small local airline that I would certainly use again.”
It was also incredibly simple getting to our hotel: bus No.119 from the airport to Dejvická metro station (about 40 minutes), followed by a brief metro ride to Starometská , and a short walk to Hotel Rott, right in the heart of the Staré Město (Old Town). Thank you Angela for an excellent recommendation! I would also stay there again; adequate buffet breakfasts in a cellar, spotless brand-new bathrooms, and a comfortable, quiet room overlooking an inner courtyard. We also liked the efficient, friendly hotel staff. The building actually dates from the middle ages, as is illustrated on a large plaque in the foyer.
The time there is the same as in Sweden (and South Africa), CET, but it was much warmer, the Czech spring being further advanced than here in Sweden. Indeed, it became unbearably hot at times, with the city’s mediaeval sewers emitting malodorous vapours, mercifully masked by other more enticing aromas drifting across from the numerous side-walk cafés and open-air stalls.
After refueling with a quick lunch at Fridays (an American chain) – a rather tired chicken salad, topped with a coriander and lime dressing – we set out eagerly to re-acquaint ourselves with a city briefly visited ten years before. That visit had been part of a marvelous coach tour of “Eastern Europe” (more Central Europe, actually) with Insight Vacations.
It was immediately apparent that Prague has been even further “discovered” by the tourists than during our previous visit. Even in early summer this venerable city was unpleasantly crowded with tourists: the usual camera-swinging, pushing Orientals, vociferous Latins, many Russians, know-it-all Americans, and back-packing youngsters by the thousands. It is also clear that tourism is now the major industry here, and prices have soared accordingly.
The tourism infrastructure, while not as polished as that here in Stockholm, is well-organised and versatile, with guided walks, coach tours, and trips outside of the city to nearby places of interest, boat trips on the River Vltava, numerous amateurish concerts, and restaurants, café’s and shops overflowing with Czech wares and souvenirs. The entire Old Town district is crammed with shops selling crystal goods, garnet jewelry, and amber, wooden carved crafts and souvenir bric-a-brac.
On our first afternoon, we tried to escape the mêlée and heat of the narrow, winding streets for a while by taking a boat tour on the muddy Vltava River. I had been attracted by the shady striped awning above the top deck, and the possibility of cool river breezes. A pre-recorded voice announced the various sights along the way in an almost unintelligible stream of a dozen different languages, while a harassed waitress tried to serve beverages and snacks to the insatiable tourists aboard. But it is always useful to do an initial guided bird’s eye tour of a new city, whether by bus or boat, to get a quick orientation, and decide upon which places to focus.
Starting at the Čechův Most (Bridge), we passed the neo-Baroque Hanavský Pavilon, with a flamboyant cast-iron staircase, Strelecký Ostrov (island) with its old power station, the magnificent, neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum Concert Hall – home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (currently conducted by Eliahu Inbal), the National Theatre, and of course the iconic Karlův Most (Charles Bridge).
Prague’s most familiar monument, Čechův Most connects the Old Town with the Malá Strana (Little Quarter). It was commissioned by Charles IV in 1357 and completed in around 1400.
Charles IV was then the Holy Roman Emperor, and had chosen Prague to be his Imperial residence. He set out to make the city the most magnificent in Europe, thereby launching Prague’s “Golden Age”. He established the Charles University, and, a devout Catholic, built many fine churches and monasteries, all in the Gothic style. Amongst his other major contributions to the city were his town-planning schemes, including the reconstruction ofPrague Castle, and founding of the New Town.
The Charles Bridge was designed to replace the Judith Bridge, which had collapsed during a flood in 1342. It has since withstood many centuries of traffic – now only pedestrian – and many floods. Its durability is, according to legend, due to eggs having been mixed into the mortar!
The Bridge is lined with a cavalcade of venerable statues, most of which are copies, as the originals are safely housed in the Lapidarium and at Vyšehrad. They are mostly saints: Wenceslas, Philip, Augustine, Nicholas, Francis of Assisi, Ludmilla, Anthony, Christopher, Elisabeth, Margaret, Barbara, Joseph, a Pietá, etc. But it was wonderful to identify each with my DK guidebook, and to follow in the footsteps of many thousands of travelers over many hundreds of years. The Bridge is also lined with small stalls, each with a special yellow certificate, selling crafts, photographs and paintings, as well as ugly cartoon portraits. Why anyone would want their least attractive features highlighted for posterity is beyond me!
The view of the River Vltava from the Bridge, with its strange weirs, is truly magnificent. It is just a pity that one has to compete for good photographic opportunities against so many milling throngs.
Dinner was an error of judgment. A brief thunderstorm, and feelings of travel fatigue, led me to insist that we dine in the hotel restaurant. The veal, served “with root vegetables” and mashed potatoes, was rubbery and gristly, and liberally doused with a rich gravy. There was no sign of the vegetables, however, and the mash tasted ominously artificial. Further enquiry as to the whereabouts of the vegetables produced nothing but a curt response from a sullen waitress.
The storm soon waned, and a postprandial stroll through freshly washed streets revealed far more attractive culinary options elsewhere in the Old Town. It was light until well after 9pm at this time of year, with all the touristy shops still open for avid trade.
There is a plethora of Bohemian crystal shops – veritable Aladdin’s caves of glittering chandeliers, glasses, vases and ornaments, and jewelry shops with literally window after window displaying gorgeous garnet jewelry, amber and silver. Crafts included beautifully painted Russian stacking dolls, and exquisitely carved ornaments. I had the impression that, rather like our African craft markets, even with the enormous tourist trade, there were more fabulous goods and trinkets made than could ever be sold.
At 9pm we assembled – as do all the tourists upon the hour – at the foot of the famousAstronomical Clock which adorns the Old Town Hall. Dating from the 15th century, this other popular tourist attraction is based on the premise of a geocentric universe, with the earth at the centre of it all. To this end the clock does not so much tell the exact time, as indicate the supposed orbits of the sun and moon about the earth.
Three different kinds of time are, in fact, presented: Old Bohemian time, Babylonian time, and the time as we know it today. Also shown is the movement of the sun and moon through the twelve signs of the zodiac, which were of great importance in 16th century Prague. But it is the procession of the Twelve, quaintly carved Apostles through two little doorways above the clock that most attracts the tourists to this spot.
There are also the figures of Lust (a Turk who shakes his head from side to side), Death (who inverts an hourglass), Greed (a medieval stereotypical Jewish money-lender), and Vanity (who looks at himself in a mirror). At the end of the procession a wooden cock crows, and a real-live trumpeter high upon the upper gallery of the Old Town Hall Tower sends out his clarion call across the city. It was all very quaintly medieval and atmospheric.
On Monday morning, after a buffet breakfast offering cold cuts, salad fare, cereals, fruits, hot dishes and beverages, we set out for the Prague Castle district, strategically situated up on the hill overlooking the city.
On our way we encountered a delightful street market, selling, apart from delectable fruits, nuts and sweetmeats (nougat, Mozart kugeln and sugared fruits), beautifully carved wooden ornaments and crafts: Christmas decorations and hanging ornaments, prettily painted eggs, and toys. The most amusing were rows of marionette witches astride miniature broomsticks, each with malevolent little red electric eyes, scraggy hair, and tall witches’ hats. A clap of the hands set them in motion, kicking their skinny wooden legs and cackling like wicked fairy-tale hags.
Before ascending the many ancient stone steps up to the Castle, we fortified ourselves with strong coffee at a café looking across the Little Town Square, teeming with red trams and tourists. The view was dominated by the magnificent High Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, the masterpiece of father-and-son architectural team Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dietzenhofer, which they began in 1703. Unfortunately limited time (and Pete’s aversion to too many churches) meant that we had no time to enter its hallowed portals to enjoy the splendid statues, frescoes and paintings therein, all executed by leading artists of the day.
Once at the top of the Castle Hill stairs, predictably lined with souvenir peddlers, we had a spectacular view over the city, and were able to see why it has been called the “City of Spires”. There are literally hundreds of churches in Prague, each richly decorated within, and with an interesting history.
We were at first distracted from our main objectives of the Royal Palace and St.Vitus’s Cathedral by entrance into the Lobkowicz Palace. The entire complex on the hilltop has many palaces; apart from the main Royal Palace and Prague Castle: there are also theArchbishop’s Palace, and the Belvedere, Martinic, Černín, Sternberg, and Schwarzenberg Palaces. All rather confusing, as they are often all part of a single large structure.
The Lobkowicz Palace, begun in 1570, has an interesting story. It is one of the palaces that sprang up after a fire in 1541 almost totally destroyed the Hradčany area. But most of the present-day palace was built by Carlo Lurago in the 17th century, for the Lobkowicz family who had inherited it in1627. It was taken from the family by the Nazis during the WW II, then restored to them after the War, only to be “appropriated” from them again by the Czechoslovak Socialist government in 1948, whereupon the family went to settle in Boston.
With the fall of the Communist Regime in 1989, many properties were restored to their former owners (most likely so that they would become their responsibility.) Today the Lobkowicz Palace is run as not only a business concern – which doubtless pays for its upkeep – but is also a means of sharing their interesting heritage and valuable Princely Collections with the Czech people and tourists… see Part Two.
This article was first published in Showcook.com.