Sometimes a cab ride, like the one I took in Prague, is an adventure unto itself. Although the railway station was only a few blocks from the Iron Gate Hotel in the heart of Old Town, the confusing journey along the city’s historic cobblestone streets took almost 25 minutes, and in the dark of night there were moments I questioned where I might end up. By day, however, all was revealed. Our driver had been a Formula One master of Prague’s complicated, one-way, labyrinthian network of back alleys that crush up against buildings, cower beneath gothic architecture and wind around picturesque squares.
Prague’s beauty is unparalleled, largely because it is one of the few cities on the continent to have avoided the destruction of war. Then, hidden away behind the Iron Curtain for years, western modernization never reached its perimeter. As a result, Prague reflects almost an in-tact history with architecture running the gamut of Roman, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance influences, alongside Cubic and even Soviet styles in its massive churches, cathedrals, castles, palaces, theatres, and bridges.
The Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava River, is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. First constructed of sandstone blocks in 1357, it stretches almost six football fields in length, and links Old Town to New Town. Anchored by two magnificent towers on either end, and with more than 70 sculptures on its deck, the bridge is home to an army of plein air artists, musicians, and street vendors, so that the crossing is packed with diversions and photo opportunities. Then there are the various statues to rub for good luck, including the strikingly handsome rendition of King Charles VI. Rumoured to be gay–his four marriages were all dubious and politically motivated, Charles so preferred the company of men, he banished women from the castle – even as servants, and left a legacy not only of beautiful architecture, but also for establishing Prague as one of Europe’s most gay-friendly destinations.
It’s a fairly steep climb over cobblestones and up stone stairways to historic Prague Castle so leave your stilettos at home. As the largest castle complex in the world, Prague Castle is impressive, and includes St. Vitus Cathedral nearby, seat of the Archbishop of Prague and the resting place of several saints, kings, princes and emperors of Bohemia. Be sure to visit Golden Lane (Zlata ulicka), a picturesque street of tiny 16th century houses, built to dwarf-scale because the small area had to accommodate 24 families. The street earned its name from the alchemists who once lived there; it most famous residents include writer Franz Kafka and prophetess Madame de Thebes who the Gestapo killed because she foretold the end of Nazi rule.
Whether on the climb up the hill, or the meander down, the many cozy tea-houses, artisan galleries and one-of-a-kind shops are a delight, especially those specializing in character marionettes. Prague is, after all, home to the National Marionette Theatre that stages innovative family-style productions including Mozart’s Magic Flute and Don Giovanni.
Crossing the Charles Bridge back into Old Town, veer right and head to the Jewish Quarter (Josefov), a poignant section of the city that dates back to the 13th century. The buildings here are among the best-preserved Jewish historical monuments and synagogues in Europe, and include the Old-New Synagogue and remnants of the Jewish Ghetto from World War II.
Though parts of Prague are very modern, Old Town Square is still its hub. Dating back to 1091, this large, open space is flanked by colourful pastel buildings and historical statues, the Town Hall with its Astronomical Clock and tower, and the Church of St. Nicholas which hosts classical concerts most evenings. Tickets are about $25.
Day and night, the square pulsates with activity: Tourists browsing the many market stands; Czech workers grabbing a hot-off-the-cart salted pretzel or sugared donut for lunch; and all manner of people watchers at the many open-air restaurants.
If you’ve time to get lost, take any one of the narrow alleys that lead off from the square. Some meander to street markets packed with candy stalls, fresh produce and puppets. Others might weave past a street musician playing a grand piano (no kidding!), an open doorway to a flower-filled inner courtyard, or unusual architectural sconces and statues. Prague is a photographer’s dream destination at the best of times but meander its labyrinth of one-way streets on foot, and that’s when the real adventure begins.
Photos by Chris McBeath