I had heard of Prague’s splendid old World charm. But I was unprepared for the city’s dizzying variety and historical compression of architectural centuries at each street corner and with each turn of my head. Good thing we could explore its astonishing richness of Romanesque, medieval, baroque, renaissance, gothic and art nouveau building wonders, by bike and on foot. Of course, we could not miss out on some of its stunning cathedrals and museum collections.
During Peak Tourist Season and IFA Soccer Craze
We were there last year for 4 days with an interlude of another 2 days at the UNESCO Heritage site, the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov. Not only were we in Prague during peak tourist season in June, but also in the midst of IFA soccer fan crowds glued to jumbo tv screens mounted in old public square, to watch championship playoffs.
Though we stayed in staid sounding Best Western Pave, the hotel was also plunked in a historic neighbourhood. Just next door was a pub with gold filigreed sign, where we heard at night, the raucous cheering and conversation. There must have been also an IFA tv screen tucked somewhere at the bar. Clean and modern with a curving iron wrought and wood rail and pseudo-marble steps, this chain hotel suggested a previous independent hotel of some vintage.
Lost in Wonder –Literally
It’s amusing to see Prague’s official tourism web site which emblazons one of its information sections: “How Not to Get Lost”. Obviously we weren’t the only ones. Normally, Jack has good wayfinding geo-spatial sense in strange cities and places where we’ve travelled far and wide. However in parts of Prague’s Old Town and New Town, we did get slightly lost since neither of us could even guess at Czech letter script to memorize old street names properly. But getting occasionally lost for fifteen minutes or so nearly daily, was negligible time lost for seeing along our cobblestoned way, fantastic decorated building facia, gargoyles, stained glass, mounted sculptures, murals –it’s an architect’s, art lover’s and historian’s dream. If not that,
Prague is a beguiling teacher on over 900 years of European architectural history, just by wandering around slack –jawed in area of less than 10 square kilometers.
How could any ex-Prague citizen find any of our North American cities as artfully intriguing? There was the Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square Tower where upon the strike of clock tower bell, the painted and gold figurines of 12 apostles moved. The Tower dates back to 1338. We would pass by it several times, to walk from one pedestrianized street, old square to another. Cycling in an enjoyable way, was abit useless among these crowds. Besides, you would miss out on seeing the city’s building splendor up close.
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When we had one of our first dinners outside in a public square, St. Nicholas Cathedral loomed above us, less than 10 feet away. Unfortunately it was closed and somehow I forgot to revisit the place when it was open since I got distracted by the magnificence of St. Vitus’s Cathedral (which I described earlier in another blog post with photos of its dazzling stained glass art). Or another nearby church-convent, St. George’s Basilica where to the one side was St. George’s abbey dating from 972 with preserved Romanesque mural paintings of several abbesses, a rare thing to see a female church order painted on a large scale inside churches.
Another time, as we strolled yet another narrow, clean street, we passed by suddenly some Cubistic-like buildings. Prague was like that: frequent, unexpected delight of structures from different eras intermixed along the same street, as well as sculptures, carvings and fanciful metalwork adorning building entrances, windows or roof eaves.
I wondered how on earth the city secured the funds to restore its national heritage buildings. It must be an ongoing process of grant applications and lobbying funding bodies and philanthropists.
Evening with Baroque Music
To lure tourists with its cultural arts, nearly every day there were a few classical music concerts. How could we as baroque music fans, resist? So we treated ourselves with tickets, to a live chamber concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Pachabel’s Canon at Municipal Hall. The Hall was a stodgy shaped building but was wonderfully embellished with art nouveau art pieces both inside and outside its walls. That evening less than 100 people attended the concert in a cavernous musical hall that could seat well over 800 people. But no matter, the soaring music lifted us along with also distractions of the building’s interior.
In tune with the spirit of cultural arts, we winded through the Museum of Musical Instruments, Prague’s City Museum, National Museum and a building near St. Wenceslas Square which I cannot remember its name, that featured soaring ceiling and wall art nouveau murals in expansive public meeting rooms.
We did the slow typical stroll across Charles Bridge, first built in the 14th century with over 12 statutes which are now replaced with copies. After drinking in the panoramic sight of terra cotta roofed buildings and winding narrow cobblestone streets, we spent time at the Prague Castle, Sternberg Palace and the cathedrals mentioned earlier.
Cuisine More Heartiness than Gastronomic
No doubt we were in heavy tourist areas which most likely obscured whatever better Czech cuisine we could have had beyond dumplings, meat, strudel and heavier cakes than what we had in southern Germany. Or just mediocre Italian or even Asian cuisine. Only pure pragmatism of cycling with double pannier weight, prevented me from buying tempting Czech wine since we still had over a week in Copenhagen ahead of us. After all, Czech wines are not often found in Canada.
Jewel that Survived War and Revolution
It’s even more astounding that Prague’s architectural and artistic magnificence has survived several waves of political revolution. Most recently after World War II, the Czech Republic was part the Soviet Communist bloc before its final dissolution in the early 1980’s. Not surprisingly, in 1992 the whole historic city core of over 800 hectares, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Prague overwhelms you with her magnitude of visual history, time layers of artistic inspiration and craftsmanship, all jammed side by side, along its narrow cobblestone twisting streets. Even after 5 days there, we knew we had not seen all of this wonderful empress of European cities.
Further Reading (and Photos):
Becker, Jack. Cycling in Prague. In Third Wave Cycling Blog, Jun. 26, 2010.
Chong, Jean. Come and Get Your Dumplings: Some West-East Comparisons. In Cycle Write Blog, Jul. 25, 2010
Chong, Jean. Stained Glass Art: A European Sampler of Refracted Light and Colour. In Cycle Write Blog, Jul. 17, 2010. More photos of this artwork in St. Vitus Cathedral and in Municipal Hall.
Official Prague Tourism site.