Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

Prague: A Little City with a Big Heart

The taxi sped past nondescript buildings and wide expanses of green grass on either side of the highway from Ruznye Aiport to the City of Prague. N and I spent much of the half-an-hour feasting our eyes on the trees – they were turning color and the leaves gleamed a brilliant yellow in the early fall sunshine.

Then suddenly, as we followed the gentle curve of the road down a slope, we saw Prague on the other side of the two-way street beyond a low-lying stone wall. The view lasted thirty seconds before the trees and the stone wall rose to block the view entirely, but we’d caught a glimpse of what was in store.


Prague nestles around the Vltava

The late afternoon sun lay shimmering on the blue expanse of the Vlatava and lent a golden glow to the bright orange roofs. Steeples and spires and chimneys rose above, and neat little rectangular windows peeped from underneath the roofs.

The taxi drove on and soon Prague presented itself in all its splendor as we crossed one of the 16 bridges across the Vlatava to our hotel. We checked in, had an early dinner and turned in to get over the jet lag that was catching up.

The next morning, fortified by a hearty breakfast and light jackets, N and I collected a walking map from the concierge, left V to attend to work and headed out toward Prague’s Old Town Square. We walked about twenty paces out of the hotel and headed right back in. The cold air quickly penetrated our poor defences.

Ten minutes and an additional layer of sweaters and caps later, we found ourselves passing a couple of modern office buildings and under the highway that skirted our hotel. Paved roads gave way to cobbled streets. A brisk ten-minute walk on Na Porici, a broad two-way street broken in the middle by tram tracks and lined by old buildings converted into stores and apartments led us to this,


The Municipal House at Namesti Republicky

the Municipal House. As we approached it, we saw young men and women handing out flyers. I took one of them and saw announcements for concerts. They were performances of pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Handel. I looked regretfully at the man who handed me the flyer, pointed to N and shook my head, “Sorry, we can’t go. We have our son with us.” He said, “No problem, children are free.”

What? I did a double take. A western classical music concert in a place like that and they not only allowed children, but for free? He nodded. So we took a few more flyers and happily continued on our walk to the Old Town Square promising ourselves that we would make time for one of those performances.

Right next to the Municipal House is the 15th century Powder Tower built originally to serve as an entrance to the Old Town and later comissioned to hold gun powder during conflicts in the 17th century (hence the name).

 


The Powder Tower led us into Old Town where we found this restaurant with outside seating.

 

The owner had thoughtfully lined the seats with fur. Looked very inviting to our cold, aching feet, but it was’nt lunch time yet.

 

So we pressed on and came to this open air market that’s open every day and stocks everything from flowers to wooden toys to clothes and condiments. We bought two kinds of fudge at the shop above.

 


A Fruit Seller at the Open-Air Market

We passed by and passed through many doorways such as these on our way to the Square. We had walked into the building through the far doorway and found ourselves in a big courtyard with the center open to the sky. When we walked out the little passage we saw this.

It was obvious that the Czech took immense pride in their city and their buildings. The centuries old facades of their buildings were scupulously maintained. We saw scaffoldings and construction sheets on many of the buildings. Apparently the maintenance works go on all around the year except during the winters and during peak tourist season.

The city streets always wore a just-swept look. One sight that was memorable was the one of two city workers carefully prying cigarette butts out of the millions of crevices on the cobbled streets with their brooms on to the pans.

And there were many, many cigarette butts. As we walked around, we saw so many people smoking that N blurted out, with his palm against his nose, “Mama, this is such a smoking city!”

 

The city is also replete with narrow streets such as those below.

 

It is so easy to imagine Sir Lancelot galloping up this street or villagers click-clacking their way up and down these streets in their wooden clogs.

 

We meandered our way through the doorways and the streets and came here, to the Old Town Square.

 


Church of Our Lady in Front of Tyn

The Church in the background is the Church of Our Lady in Front of Tyn which is where Tyco Brahe is apparently buried.

If anything vies with the cleanliness of the city for my admiration, it is the fact that this little country produced so many luminaries – Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smettana, Franz Kafka, Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera – and their achievements (at least those of the musicians) are celebrated in the numerous concerts that take place every day to packed houses. We came across more men and women handing out flyers for more concerts in more concerts halls as we continued our walk. More about the concert we attended in another post.

Another thrilling discovery was the pleasure of riding on the roads of the Czech Republic. We took two day trips, one to the west of Prague to the hotwater springs of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and one in the region of Bohemia to the splendid castle at Cesky Krumlov. More about these road trips in another post as well.


Guides Holding Up Signs for Walking Tours of Prague

At the end of the first morning in Prague, after about three hours of walking, we found ourselves at the Rudolfinum, the home of the Czech National Orchestra.


Rudolfinum

Some of the names in Prague – Centrum, Rudolfinum, Klementinum (the University) are very evocative of Asterix and Obelix!

 


Dvorak Stands Watch Over the Rudolfinum

We tried to take a tram back to the hotel but found that we had to buy tickets in advance at one of the metro stations or at newspaper stands.

So we trudged back and tried to follow a straight line back to the hotel which was hopelessly unsuccessful. We got so lost that towards the end we were walking on the very narrow sidewalk on the highway near the hotel than under it.

But by early evening, we had recovered sufficiently to head out again, with V this time. We took at taxi to the Prague Castle.


The facade of the castle as seen from one of the bridges across the moat

The Presidential offices are housed inside the castle.

 

The 14th Century St. Vitus’ Cathedral is an integral part of the castle. The beautiful stained glass windows and the high ceilings are awe-inspiring.

As we made our rounds of the cathedral and prepared to head out, we saw an arrow pointing up one of the towers. 287 steps later (N climbed up every single one of them, but V had him on his shoulders on the way back), we were amply rewarded with spectacular views of the city.

 


The Dome of St. Nicholas Church

One of the most interesting streets in Prague is Golden Lane within the Prague Castle grounds. Originally built for the palace guards, the tiny houses along Golden Lane were eventually taken over by goldsmiths giving the street its present name,

and still later by some well-known writers, including Franz Kafka who apparently lived in House No. 22 for a few months. The houses are so tiny they are almost claustrophobic. Now these houses have been converted to shops that sell trinkets, books and souvenirs for the thousands of tourists who pass by here every day.

 

We walked down a long slope of steps from the castle back to the city. Tiny shops such as this one sellling wooden toys and art work line one side of the steps.

There is music everywhere in Prague. Two violonists and a cellist serenaded patrons at a restaurant just past the Powder Tower. We asked them to play “Volare” and they played “I Did it My Way”. I don’t know if there was a hidden message in that….

 


Musicians playing Czech folk music on Charles Bridge

 


On the street (Celetna) from the Powder Tower to the Old Town Square

 


On Charles Bridge again

Charles Bridge, the most famous of the 16 bridges that straddle the Vlatava, connects Old Town with Mala Strana, the Little Quarter that nestles just below the Prague Castle. The bridge was originally built without any of the statues and successive kings added the statues as they saw fit.

The most famous and sought after statue on Charles Bridge is the one of St. John Nepomuk. He was apparently arrested for having displeased the king, tortured and then thrown over the bridge. A legend says that if you wish to return to Prague, then you should touch the dog at the base of that statue.

 

Well, the smooth, burnished apperance of the dog should be some indication of how popular that legend is.

For the record, all three of us touched the statue. To echo N’s words, Prague is smokin’!

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2009 by in Blog, Personal Essays, Travel Writing and tagged , , , .
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