Prague is a beautiful city that I was fortunate enough to visit twice. The second occasion I managed to rent an apartment there for a few days, which was an entirely different experience from staying in a youth hostel (and much more pleasurable, I might add).
The architecture of the place was one of the things that fascinated me enough to visit initially, alongside their more peaceful methods of revolution. I discovered that the Czechs had taken the ideas of Cubism that much further than painting and incorporated its ideals into architecture and design during the earlier part of the 20th Century. Clearly something I had to witness for myself. I also found some quite remarkable modern buildings there too, such as ‘Fred & Ginger‘, an office block that was designed to look like a dancing couple.
Another good way to learn a little more about the place and the people is through the novels of Milan Kundera.
With our intended trip to New York thwarted, Hazelle and I left England after a miserable wet June fortnight and found ourselves basking in a week of glorious Prague sunshine instead. Every once in a while, and against better instinct, one must resign oneself to becoming a tourist. We decided that we were happy to do just this and set off with a camera in one hand and a guide book in another.
Prague is undoubtedly a remarkably beautiful city. Much of its architecture has survived 600 years of European war and destruction. The city is fundamentally European, yet permeated throughout with a rich aroma of the East. Feeding off the River Vltava, many cobbled streets mingle and intertwine as trams rumble past each other. As befits such a romantic city, the place is awash with (mainly Western) young couples, walking arm-in-arm along the river, or sitting facing each other at a table in a bar or restaurant.
As one of the smaller European capitals, Prague runs at a totally different pace to, say Paris or London. It allows you to slow down to a comfortable walk. West of the river, in the Hradcany district, lies Prague Castle which houses the towering majesty of the Cathedral of St. Vitus (the foundation stone was laid in 1344 although the Cathedral itself was not completed until 1929). If you turn around on the Charles Bridge you’ll face the National Theatre, crested with its golden roof. Refused funding by the Austrian State who were partly ruling the lands at the time, the Czech people dug deep into their own pockets to fund this most impressive monument to a long-standing theatrical tradition (the current president, Vaclav Havel, was himself a playwright before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 swept him into power).
In the Old Town Square (one of the gathering places in the city), tourists and ‘Praguers’ gather on the hour around the Astrology clock, with its metal cockerels, bowing Apostles, and sword-wielding skeletons. The Jewish cemetery is another lure for the hordes of tourists that pour into Prague; it is a smallish area located in the former Jewish ghetto with an estimated 100,000 buried there, some twelve layers deep. The place evokes an awed calm and holds an air of clustered tranquillity. A former synagogue on the site has now been converted into a museum to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.
There are many ways to spend ones time in Prague – plenty of bars and cafes to chill in, museums and galleries to visit, tourist attractions to see. The Czechs have been subject to countless occupations through the ages and can on occasion be rather wary or weary of foreigners. However, most of the ones that we met were pretty friendly and helpful, and I’ve never felt safer on the streets of any other European city. English is fairly widely spoken although some German can also be useful if you don’t speak Czech. And Western money can go far. Our youth hostel was £7 per person per night, and of course the beer is cheap too!
So, was our Rough Guide a little more than just a rough guide? Along with the street map purchased at the airport, it was indispensable, and found its way into our hands on almost every twist of yet another cobbled street. From places to go in the day to places to places to stay in the night, useful phrases or a history of its places, basics to districts – all contained within those insightful pages.
‘OK, so we can’t find this place. Let’s go for a drink instead.’
‘Where d’you fancy going?’
‘I dunno. Let’s consult the guide book.’
And through a process of elimination, somewhere perfect for the mood of the moment can inevitably be found.
I think we’d all rather love to be able to do without such a tool and trek through our travels with an adventurous heart and a desire for self-discovery. We found though that to guide us through the sheer magic of Prague and to be able to get the most out of our experiences, we couldn’t have done without the firm parental hand of our Prague Bible.