It’s my fourth visit and I’m again seduced by Prague’s streets. Walking in the city is like stepping into an old pen-and-ink drawing. Gothic spires in light and shadow reflected in a river, cobblestones after rain, towers and lovers, and there you have it. What doesn’t show is the Czechs’ affinity with Americans. This city never lets me down, even when tourists’ backpacks jostle and there are long lines waiting to get into its teeming hot spots.
On this visit I confine my meandering to the city’s historic core, Praha 1, which is divided into five districts filled with mythical scenery and outdoor cafes. No need for trams because within this area I can walk pretty much everywhere, which is a big part of the city’s charm.
Located in Hradčany (Castle District) St. Vitus Cathedral, is Prague’s centerfold attraction. This masterwork was built in the 14th century and is the largest and most important in the country. To walk again through its bronze door and look up at the vaulted ceiling in the light coming through stained glass always guarantees a spiritual hit. Most impressive inside is the St. Wenceslas chapel, where relics of the saint are stored, but sorry, one can only view its paintings of Christ and semiprecious jewel treasures from the doorway.
This is pretty much also the case at the iconic Prague Castle where Kings and presidents and their ilk have their offices. It’s the biggest castle on earth and we, the commoners, may stroll the glamorous premises and check out the gardens. Admission price varies and there are student and senior rates.
Around the corner is the narrow Golden Lane, possibly named for the alchemists who once lived there. One reputedly died with a lump of gold in his hand but one can’t be sure he actually created it out of base metal. Some claim poor sanitation caused the streets to flow with urine and thus, Golden Lane. In any case, the place has really been cleaned up.
These attached houses have this year been painted in Easter Egg colors and are now generally spiffy. Originally built in the sixteenth century as houses for King Rudolf’s marksmen (who must have been pintsized guys) these are teensy houses with bitsy rooms. Some are outfitted as if for residences for castle staff in later centuries–seamstress, baker–and one, number 22, was where Franz Kafka did his writing in the early twentieth century. I can easily picture him writing his cockroach story here. Number 14 was inhabited by a fortune teller who predicted Hitler would die soon but didn’t predict that she would. The Gestapo came and killed her. Number 16 housed a Renaissance tavern, but note the modern egg display that looks like midcentury (20th) kitchen design. Other houses are small shops, selling everything from napkin rings to books to puppets. Puppet theatre was big in this country 150 years ago so marionettes are to Czechs as wooden shoes are to the Dutch. Everywhere!
At the end of Golden Lane is Daliborka Tower, named for its first prisoner, Dalibor z Kozojed, a popular supporter of the oppressed, sort of a Czech Robin Hood. He played the violin while waiting in a dungeon to die, touching the people of Prague, who brought him food, drink and sympathy. The authorities were afraid to announce the date of his execution, but finally, the music stopped. The famous Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana, turned this sad story into a famous opera, “Dalibor.” His statue stands near the Charles Bridge, which is pure romance at night. During the day, it’s stomping ground for musicians, souvenir mongers, and views of the Vltava, which flows under it. The river inspired Smetana’s beautiful piece of music, also known as “The Moldau.” It’s on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdtLuyWuPDs
Another composer, Antonin Dvořák, is famous for his New World Symphony; his likeness stands in front of Rudolfinum, Staré Město Strana, (Old Town), the Czech concert hall located on the right bank of the river. Programs and tickets for concerts are available online: http://www.ticketsonline.cz/
Among the city’s (and country’s) other claims to fame are its ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell , and its sklo, or glass. The beer is available everywhere, but for purists, look for one of the 180 pubs designated as tankovna where the beer is unpasteurized and reputedly more authentic. My Czech grandma drank it from a tumbler. (About $.90-$2.95 for half a litre, or just under one pint)
For the best of Czech glass, head to Moser, Na Příkopech 12, in Nové Mĕsto (New Town) or on Staroměstské náměstí, (Old Town Square.) That is the number one purveyor of lead-free glamorous, signed pieces ranging from small paperweights to museum-quality sculpture. The company was started in 1857 and Ludwig Moser could not have predicted that his glass would be a hot item on eBay in 2012. I discovered another superb glass designer, Karen Feldman, www.artelglass.com, who has a shop at 29 Celetná, nearby in Staré Mĕsto (Old Town.) Her pieces run anywhere between $50 to $5000. They’re outstanding.
Glass chandeliers? I found them at Erpet Bohemian Crystal, Staroměstské náměstí, (Old Town Square.) Thumbs up for the most expensive, at about $14,000, but I’d have to have it shipped and rewired. Too big for the powder room anyway.
The tourist mecca of Old Town is the world-famous medieval Astronomical clock. l always look closely at its adornments, which can seem a bit confusing. There are three basic parts to the clock, originally created in 1410: There’s a calendar dial representing months, an astronomical dial representing the sun and moon, and the popular wooden apostle statues and a representation of Death–when small trap doors open and they march out on the hour. I enjoy this spectacle for the fun it is, and skip walking up the clock tower steps, although there’s a nice city view at the top. According to my guide, in these crowds it’s also time watch my wallet.
Pickpockets hang out wherever tourists gather, like Wenceslas Square, Václavské náměstí, (New Town) which is the business hub of Prague. This was the city’s beating heart my first visit, and now it’s more the beating heart of cash registers, with too much chain store action. The chains also proliferate at the Palladium, Náměstí Republiky 1, (New Town) which used to be an army barracks, and is now a five floor pink palace full of shops and restaurants, many whose names I recognize . Chain stores also line Pařížská, the high-end shopping street, the one in which one finds Dior, Cartier, Rolex et al, priced higher than airport duty-free.
To look at older stuff, I head over to Antique Vladimír Andrle at Křížovnická 3, very near the Charles Bridge. I admire a 14 karat gold 19th Century chiming pocket watch priced at $11,000. The shop also has many less expensive timepieces, and everything else: a vase, icon, ring? My January birthstone is another Czech staple, garnets are here and everywhere.
The shop is one of Andrle’s several locations, and this one is located in the Four Seasons Hotel, (www.fourseasons.com/prague) considered to be one of the two best here, along with the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com/prague).
This time I was happy to stay at the Buddha Bar, a small and sexy hotel created by a tech-maven with a movie-set sensibility. Red lacquer, gold serpents, red sheer curtains, and black terrycloth bathrobes– the designer obviously had a hot Mandarin romance on his mind. My room had a drawer of chilled wines in the fridge as well as a comp espresso coffee maker. And, the staff was wonderfully obliging when I needed yet another tutorial in remote controlling the draperies, bathtub-view TV and, no kidding, the toilet/bidet.
For budget hotels my guide praised the well-located the Leonardo (www.hotelleonardo.cz), a few steps from the Charles Bridge.
I asked to see the best contemporary art galleries and my favorite was the museum-like Kampa, U Sovových mlýnů 2, in Malá Strana (Little Side). The gallery is devoted principally to Czech art and is in an area with an overdose of bucolic charm. With its Kampa Park, Devil’s Brook canal and Michael Gabriel’s welcoming red horse sculpture, it all makes for a good way to spend an aesthetic afternoon.
At a random coffee stop at a courtyard cafe, I also stumbled across a cute cottage gallery, the Hradčanská Galerie at Hradčanské námĕstí 12 (Castle District). It features the work of another Czech, Josef Kalousek, and one painting I wish I’d bought. The gallery owner is friendly and speaks English, as everyone in Prague seems to these days.
Even the smallest restaurants’ menu choices come with a translation. When it comes to Czech food I say, “when in Rome…” and indulge. My guide recommended Alcron at the Radisson Hotel, Štĕpánská 624 (New Town) as one of the city’s tops, but for a more casual dinner, I found the new and lively, LaRepublica, Jakubská 8, (Old Town) near my hotel, very Czech, pubby and fun. Our waiter Honza looked cute in his red vest and there was a four-piece oompah band on a balcony that happened to be playing “Hello Dolly” as we walked in. If they’re playing American show tunes, and a main dish can be had for ten dollars, what could possibly be bad? (Well, the smoking. Be warned, people are still lighting up everywhere, including restaurants.)
Another memorable dinner was at the Plzeňská Beer Hall Obecní dům, Námĕstí Republiky 5, (Old Town) reached by going down a long flight of stairs in a gorgeous Art Nouveau building. Inside is a large space filled with Tyrolean chairs, bright lights, and a typical Czech menu. The nation’s favorite dish is Svíčková Na Smetaně, which is a sirloin bathed in a sauce made from root vegetables. It’s traditionally served with dumplings and cranberries. Our dinner, served with one beer and one wine came to a total of about $39 for both. Also, the bread served here and everywhere is dense, dark and outstanding.
I did eat a non-Czech lunch at La Finestra, Platnéřská 19, Staré Mĕsto. It’s top of the line Italian, near the Charles Bridge and next door to a specialty deli. I never got to the new vegan/vegeterian Maitrea Restaurant, Týnská Ulice 6, (Old Town) It’s highly regarded and reasonable, at about eight dollars a dish.
Next time! It’s what I always say when I leave Prague, where I was born in a house where there is now a florist shop, where the Párky, the grilled frankfurters, are the best in the world and the 100-year old car, the Skoda, is still going strong. Next time I’ll save my shoes and try the Segway: Vlašská 364/2, Malá Strana (Little Side), explore the gay Vinohrady district and the Jewish Quarter, learn more Czech. For now, Děkuji for thank you and Prosím for please will have to do.