Dates: May 22nd – May 24th
Distance walked: 55.99km
Temperature high: 27°C
Walking from our accomodation in the Žižkov district into the old town was a real eye opener. Having been to cities the length and breadth of Europe this one truly stands out above them all due to it’s unique beauty.
The neighbourhoods away from the tourist infested centre are filled with rows of buildings each differing slightly in architectural design and colour patterns but maintaining an equal elegance. A welcome change from the uniform looking, grey appartment buildings which seem so prominent in many major cities today.
When we arrived in Old Town we were keenly looking forward to seeing the fascinating astronomical clock, in fact I made it the home page of www.theeuropeexperience.blog as it was the sight I was most excited for before we had even left at the start of April. Alas, as luck would have it when we walked through the winding, narrow streets and under the archway into the main square we were met by the Old Town Hall fitted with tiers of scafolding and a printed imitation of the clock draped down the side of it.
My loss however may well be your gain. The clock designed and built originally by Mikuláš of Kadaň and Jan Šindel in 1410 is currently undergoing renovation work to repair parts and restore it to it’s former glory after mistakes made during previous restorations. It is set to return in summer of 2018 so for anyone with an upcoming trip reading this and panicking, the clock should be ready soon! The closest we came to seeing the historic timepiece was an admittedly impressive chocolate imitation a few streets away.
Prague is a city with countless wondrous sights fortunately. Thus, not to be deterred, we regrouped in a nearby Czech restaurant Mlejnice with some traditional cuisine and cheap liquor and set off in search of the cities many other attractions. First up was Charles Bridge, the oldest and most famous of Prague’s bridges. The bridge has 16 arches, 30 Baroque statues and is only open to pedestrian access. Here you will find little jewellery stalls, caricature artists and local musicians pawning their CD’s and filling the air with sounds from a multitude of musical genres.
It’s easy to see why the area is so popular with filmmakers with an all encapsulating view of Old Town sights such as the Bridge Tower and the St Francis of Assissi Church as well as Malá Strana sights including the Prague Castle, all accompanied by the relaxing sound of the Vltava River flowing underneath. Add to this that Prague offers a cheaper location to shoot than closing a bridge in the likes of London, New York or Venice without sacrificing an iconic backdrop.
You may even get a sense of déjà vu when walking across the bridge or nearby the surrounding canals as they, along with other locations in the city, have featured in the likes of Mission Impossible, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Illusionist, Casino Royale and Amadeus. The filmakers behind these famous flicks all decided that the city, and in particular Charles Bridge, was the perfect backdrop to use during their principal photography.
Once we had navigated our way accross the hectic bridge we found ourselves in Mala Straná or Lesser Town as it’s known. Don’t let that name deceive you, these narrow, cobbled streets are home to some of the most historic sights in the city. Previously a quiet fishing town, it burnt down in 1541 and was rebuilt in the Baroque style and today is a glorious spot to discover within Prague. Located on a steep incline which seats the Prague Castle at the uppermost point within the hilltop Hradčany area, we hiked up street after street to get a night time view from the top.
On the way we passed U krále Brabantského, a medieval tavern that claims to be ‘the oldest pub in Prague since 1375’. I haven’t been able to find anything that legitimizes this claim however on popping our head in it certainly felt like we had travelled back in time. Dark, dingy stone walls barely lit up by flickering candles entrap lively groups of tourists who flock here for the medeival shows on offer in this ancient boozer.
We didn’t stay for a drink instead carrying on with our mission up to Hradčany. Our reward was the best seat in the house as far as views in this picturesque city go with the area offering a glimpse of the castle complex, comprehensive views of the townscape below and directly across to Petřín hill on which the Eiffel-esque Petřín Lookout Tower stands. An utterly intoxicating view and the perfect note to call an end to our first evening in the splendid Czech capital.
Day two in Prague began much the same way as the previous night had ended, with a long walk between our accomodation and Prague Castle. Those who make a morning or afternoon journey up through the steep streets of Malá Strana and climb the stairs leading up to the castle are rewarded with a mini-marketplace. A collection of wooden huts selling touristic trinkets, refreshments and alcoholic beverages and local cuisine cooked up in front of you in deep woks sits in front of the main courtyard of the castle complex.
It’s worth the trip there alone however we found it to be a welcome pit stop to grab some breakfast before exploring the castle grounds. Inside these grounds there are no less than ten different points of interest, you can pick and choose which ones you want to visit and buy a ticket accordingly. We opted for circuit B which grants entry to St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, the Old Royal Palace and the Golden Lane all for 250 Czech koruna (around £8).
Visually, the cathedral is the most stunning structure within the complex and perhaps even Prague itself. Inside the Gothic building are intricate and colourful stain glass windows, beautiful zig-zaging Parler’s vaults (named after the pioneering sculpter and architect who designed and built much of the cathedral) as well as the bodies of many Bohemian kings, most notably Wencelaus I.
The former Duke of Bohemia died in 935 and was elevated to sainthood and posthumously declared king due to the magnitude of his legacy as a good natured and righteous man. After being murdered by his younger brother, his remains were eventually transported to St. Vitus Cathedral where they remain today entombed in St. Wencelas Chapel. The room is not open to the public however you are able to see inside from an open doorway.
After roaming inside the grandiose chapel we toured the other sights which whilst they may not be as impressive, are also steeped in a rich history. For instance, house number 22 in the Golden Lane is where the sister of celebrated author Franz Kafka once stayed and the writer used the location for his work for several years.
We returned to the streets Malá Strana where our tour of historic sights continued. We visited Lennon Wall, a monument to the Fab Four frontman which has been graffiti laden since the 1980s, at the moment the wall is mostly expletives and indecipherable layers of scribbles however there are still glimpses of Lennon-inspired artwork near the top. Next we visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious which is home to the Infant Jesus of Prague, a wooden figurine depicting baby Jesus holding an orb with a cross. A famous, diamond encrusted sight which is much beloved among locals and much sought after by tourists.
In the late afternoon we returned to Old Town where we spent the evening. We gawped at the peculiar and well hidden Sigmund Freud statue which hangs high above the heads of oblivious passers by. Artist David Černý designed and created the provocative piece in 1996 and the work has allegedly caused concern among people unaware that it was a statue. Should you spot the precariously perched psychoanalyst, hang around with Freud and take some time to ponder the meaning behind it.
On our final morning we started the day with a brief trip to the farmers market which pops up four times a week in the Žižkov district where our accomodation was situated. Unfortunately we had largely ignored the spirited district, which is full of dinky cafés and trendy bars, only passing through on our daily treks to the city centre.
However today we were compelled to linger a tad, attracted by the alluring smells effusing from various succulent meats cooking within the myriad of stalls. We staved our appetite for now instead feasting only with our eyes within the pop up market which appears in front of the unique Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord.
We made our daily hour long march to the Hradčany district where we snacked on more delicious food from the wooden food stalls before about-turning for the banks of Vltava. Our intention was to enquire about a cruise on the river, always a fun activity to lazily pass some time in a city which sits on the banks of a major river.
Prague Venice cruises were the company we opted for, small mahogany boats which hold around 15 passengers and provide an hour long cruise of the Vtlava and Devil’s Canal along with a drink and snack for 340 Czech Koruna (a little over £11). Our captain and guide was actually from Bournemouth, England however was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the river and Prague itself.
One of the most interesting tidbits was that the river used to freeze every winter and locals would swarm on the surface to skate and play ice hockey. This continued until the 1950s when weirs and dams were built making freezing much less likely. Furthermore we discovered that the area known as Devil’s Canal used to be a place of squalor where sewage would flow into however is now the most affluent area of Prague with canal side real estate commanding high property values.
After a relaxing and informative hour on the river we grabbed a local favourite, the trdelník on our way back towards the main square. A sweet tasting delicacy popular among Central European countries which is made from dough wrapped around a stick and cooked over hot coals whilst coated in sugar.
Prague is rife with trdlo stalls selling these delicious snacks which have a subtle cinnamon flavour and can be filled with ice cream, chocolate, caramel or fruit. If you do not have a sweet tooth then you can even buy a savoury trdelník filled with anything from pulled pork to mozzarella and tomato.
Our final evening in the city was spent getting a taste of the famous nightlife. Stag and hen do’s are abundant in Old Town helping the locals contribute to the record for highest beer consumption per capita in the world, a record which the Czech Republic holds. We hung around only for a few hours though dipping into Irish pubs, jazz & blues joints and even the discrete top floor apartment-style bar, Unijazz. We called it a night before it really came to life as we had an early flight to catch the following morning for our next stop, Eindhoven.