There has been a settlement on the site of the city for over twelve hundred years and it has served as home to countless kings and rulers, including a stint as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. How could we possibly pass up an opportunity to ponder this past? We couldn’t.
After learning just how hard finding a hotel can be when trying to read signs in Czech, even in a small town like Kutná Hora, we decided to stay on the outskirts of the big city and use the subway to go exploring.
This plan still yielded a few minutes of lost wandering, but overall was a fine idea. We found a large, hostel-like, high-rise hotel, dating back to the communist era, two blocks from a subway station.
This “suburb” was dominated by looming, rectangular cinder block artifacts that have been dolled up in eye-burning-festive colors in an attempt to cover up their ominous factor. We dubbed ours “Fine Communist Hotel.”
Spartan would be a good description for the rooms, nothing but a bed and a desk in a small cubicle with bare white walls, a shared bathroom and well worn indoor-outdoor type carpet. There was a highlight though, a bright blue rotary dial telephone right out of 1969. Needless to say, we didn’t attempt to make any calls.
The Czech Republic‘s communist period was different from many of the “Iron Curtain” countries, it was not forced upon them and was fairly short lived.
After WWII the Czech people were so impressed by the Soviet Union freeing them from the Nazis that in 1948 they freely decided to join with the Slovaks, emulate the Soviet form of government and form Czechoslovakia.
The experiment began to sour by the sixties and an attempt to soften the communist rule was passed in 1968. This didn’t go over too well with the USSR, who then occupied Czechoslovak, as an example to any other communist bloc countries who might get any ideas about reform.
Finally in 1989, with the Velvet Revolution, the Czechs broke free from Soviet control and agreed to split with Slovakia to become two independent countries.
Those forty years – out of the centuries of Prague‘s existence – hardy define it, but left a few obvious relics behind. Fine Communist Hotel is one of those – and they stick out like sore thumbs.
The Prague subway system is certainly no relic though. Clean, quick, cheap and convenient, there was nothing not to like about it.
We popped up from underground at the Muzeum stop and found ourselves smack in the middle of throngs of people in Wenceslas Square. Once the site of a horse market, this square is named for the “good” King Wenceslas of Christmas Carol fame.
He became the patron saint of Bohemia after ruling through most of the tenth century and is immortalized in an equestrian statue that dominates the square. Local legend says that should things ever look hopeless, the statue will come to life and the good king will lead the people to victory over their adversaries.
From the statue we followed the square, which is more like a broad boulevard, several blocks toward the Old Town. This stretch is lined with fine restaurants, high end retail and fabulous pre-communist hotels intermingled with fast food, crap shops and bars. It struck us as the Times Square of Prague.
The huge divided avenue abruptly ended and passed into the narrow stone streets of Old Town. Suddenly we went from bright lights and big city traffic to a medieval village. This historic part of the city is perfectly preserved and we felt like we’d somehow stepped into a time capsule.
The Old Town, bounded by The Vltava River to the north and west, and New Town on the east and south, was Prague for the first or five or six centuries of her existence.
It struck us that very little had changed. Sunlight could scarcely reach the ground between the tightly packed buildings, maybe that’s why when they were built they called the period The Dark Ages. Then we burst out into the open daylight of The Old Town Square.
It was like stepping inside a fairy-tale picture book. The plaza seemed especially huge because of the contrast with the narrow streets leading into it.
But size is not what makes the square so impressive, that task is accomplished by the remarkable architecture enclosing the space. Best known of the buildings are the Old Town Hall, with the world’s oldest working Astronomical Clock on its tower, and the Týn and St. Nicholas Churches. We took in every building, famous or not, because they are all treasures.
While we were gawking, the delicious aromas of classic Czech street foods wafted over to us. We became like cartoon characters following a gossamer scent trail to find its source. Sometimes our feet didn’t even touch the ground. Ah, there it is, a cluster of booths, let’s see what they’ve got.
The first booth was roasting traditional Prague ham, pražská šunka, on a spit over an open fire. The smell was staggering. Cured and smoked ham has been a staple of the Prague diet for around five hundred years and the locals were lined up to get ’em some.
We joined the queue.
When we finally got our paper plate, sagging with juicy slices and served up with rye bread and mustard, it was well worth the wait.
Edibles spinning over an open fire seemed to be the cooking method of choice – dessert was being served up in the next booth over in the form of rotisserie sweet rolls called Trdelník.
These gastric goodies originated in Slovakia, but the Czechs held on to Trdelník when the countries split.
We watched enthralled as two Czech girls rolled dough onto steel poles , put them over the coals, pulled them off the bars at just the right moment and rolled them in sugar – all without ever missing a beat in the heated argument they were carrying on. Their fighting didn’t harm the flavor of these tasty toffee flavored treats.
Off to the east of the square we could see the Powder Tower, marking the gate between the New and Old Towns. New is strictly a relative term. Prague’s New Town began over six hundred years ago, so it is only new compared to Old Town, which is twice that age.
Being more interested in the really old stuff, we headed toward the river and the famous Charles Bridge that would take us to Prague Castle. This route took us through the Jewish Quarter, known as Josefav.
The area has gone from settlement, to walled ghetto, to near extinction, to tourist attraction through the ten centuries of its existence.
When the Nazis invaded Prague during WWII, it was expected that they would destroy Josefav altogether, instead they decided to preserve the cemetery, town hall, ceremonial hall and several synagogs as an “exotic museum of an extinct race.”
Fortunately their plans were foiled.
Crossing the Charles Bridge was an adventure in itself. This ancient stone span has become Prague’s meeting place, street theater, art gallery and supernatural structure.
Legend has it that saint John of Nepomuk was hurled off the bridge for protecting the confessions of a queen from a jealous king. Now if visitors rub his statue, they will one day return to Prague. So rub we did, along with almost everybody else on the bridge.
Upon a large hill, across The Vltava, the Prague Castle looms over the city.
The castle has been the home of Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors and presidents of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic since the first fortress was begun here in the year 870.
As we topped the hundreds of steps leading up the hill, we entered what The Guiness Book has heralded the largest castle in the world. Inside, it felt more like a walled city than what we would normally think of as a castle.
Two huge cathedrals, The Basilica of Saint George and the Basilica of St. Vitus, along with countless palaces and halls are within the ramparts. That made it hard for us to get a feel for being “inside” a castle.
Prague Castle remains the seat of government for the Czech Republic and there is a noticeable military and security presence.
Decked out in full-dress finest, the soldiers add to the overall fantasy-land feel of the place.
We stumbled upon a military band, in full dress, welcoming dignitaries as we made our way out through the west gate. While the band played, the changing of the guards was enacted with much pomp and circumstance.
Pretending it was all for us, we mingled with the dignitaries and parade waved to the curious gathering before heading down another giant staircase.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com