Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis
It is possible to avoid the crowds in Prague, but just barely. You can get up at the crack of dawn, and brave the chill and eerie fog to walk across the Vitava River on the Charles Bridge, where only the statues of St. Francis and the Madonna or perhaps the ghosts of Kafka and Kundera will be infringing on your space. Or you could try waiting until somewhere around two in the morning, when most of the revelers have gone home, and the magnificent Church of Our Lady in Tyn stands alone in the Stare Mesto Old Town Square, bathed in illuminated golden light. You most likely won’t find any ghosts here, but possibly will be interrupted from your solitude by a character or two who has had a bit too many pints of that fabulous Czech beer. No, unless you come to Prague in the dead of winter you will most likely be sharing her with thousands of others, but that’s okay, because even the masses can’t detract from the Grand Dame of Europe.
Prague is a staggeringly beautiful gem of a city full of architectural wonders, an open air UNESCO World Heritage museum in which over 1500 of the city’s 3500 buildings have been appointed as cultural monuments. Most of the fantastic Gothic and Baroque edifices were built in the 14th Century during the reign of Charles IV, who was the Holy Roman Emperor as well as the King of Bohemia. Iconic monuments such as the Charles Bridge, which was the only span connecting the castle and the old town, and the castle’s towering St. Vitus Cathedral, largest church in the Czech Republic and coronation and burial site of the kings of Bohemia, are living and breathing monuments to history and tradition.
Thousands of visitors ascend daily to Prazsky Hrad, the Czech name for Prague Castle, which sits imposingly on a hill above the city, and actually predates the cathedral and some of its other structures by some 400 years, having had its first masonry done in the 9th Century. Most come to gawk at the gilded towers of St. Vitus, marvel at the detailed painted glass windows, and be stupefied by the sheer size of it all (the castle is larger than seven football fields). Scowling gargoyle statues snarl and hiss from perches up on the cathedral domes, while down below, pastel blue uniformed soldiers (whose outfits were designed by the Oscar winning Amadeus costume designer) perform an elaborate changing of the guard ceremony each noon, to the delight of the masses.
Across the Vitava River, more masses faithfully make their way to the base of the Astronomical Clock Tower in Old Town Square, which dates from 1410 and has survived everything from German invasion to Soviet tanks. Legend has it that Prague will suffer should anything happen to the clock, and thousands of visitors line up to watch the hourly chiming in which the skeleton figure of Death comes out to strike the time, while a jester clad trumpeter sounds off reveille from high atop the tower.
The surrounding square feels more like an urban Disneyland than a city, as the buildings are so perfect, with jaw dropping Gothic church spires, baroque, neo-classic, and Renaissance architectural masterpieces, and a sea of red tiled roofs blanketing the whole area, under which the world’s cutest cafes and restaurants snuggle into romantic street corners and cobbled alleyways.
It’s not just the tourists that you share Prague with, but its past as well. Kafka, Prague’s most famous son, spent his life here, and his various apartments and residences are enshrined throughout the old town. Kafka spent time at the Café Louvre, whose doors have been opened for pastry and fine coffee since 1902, and Albert Einstein, Milan Kundera, and former playwright and President Vaclav Havel have also graced its confines, some mighty fine company to be sharing a corner table with.
If all the tourist numbers get too much one can always retreat to the various hillside parks that rise throughout the city along with the tranquil garden oases that dot the riverbanks. It is here that one can find some of Prague’s best beer gardens, and like its architecture, when it comes to a pint of brew, Prague stands far above the maddening crowd. Czech beer is renowned in Europe, as the Czechs have been brewing beer since the 12th Century and have the highest beer consumption per capita rate in the world. Ranging from the hearty Pilsner Urquell and Budvar brews to the premium micro brewed craft beers made by small independent restaurant/pubs, such as the knockout 33% X Beer offered by U Medvidku, a local eatery and brewery that is packed every night with tourists and locals alike. At $2 bucks a pint for some of the best beer in the world, Prague also has to be one of the cheapest countries in the world for a night out on the town.
You can get some privacy and a bit of Prague all to yourself in some of its best boutique lodgings. In the Rocco Forte Augustine Hotel where seven buildings surrounding the cloisters of the 13th century St. Thomas Church and Monastery have been converted to Prague’s most elegant property, you can book the fabulous Tower Suite and wake up to the sunrise hitting Prague Castle, with a 360-degree panoramic view of the city available without even having to get out of bed. True to form, the hotel even has its own brewery, housed in the cellar of the former monastery.
Some visitors lament not coming to Prague 15 years ago, when it was still a sleepy unknown in Eastern Europe, but frankly, that’s a bit of wasted energy and a fool’s paradise. Join the queue and come see Prague today, you’ll be just as happy as the smiling camera toting goon next to you.
The Augustine Hotel: Prague’s premier accommodation choice, located in the heart of Mala Strana, between the historic Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. Romantic, elegant, and highly recommended. Letenská 12/33 Tel: (420) 266 112 233 http://www.theaugustine.com/
U Medvidku: one of Prague’s oldest traditional pub restaurants, boisterous, busy, and with plenty of good authentic Czech food and beer at great prices Na Perštýn? 7 Tel: (420) 224 211 916 www.umedvidku.cz