How magnificent Europe’s architecture and cities were before the bombings of the 20th Century, and Prague remains one of the principal Grand Ladies of Europe, revealing a looking glass into the past, yet full of modern conveniences and wonders also. We were there for three wonderful days in October for the beginning of a Viking River Cruise on the Elbe River, where we learned about Eastern Europe, its privations, its war sufferings and devastation, and the magnificence of the opulent lifestyle of kings, queens, dukes, and emperors of the past ages, while the common people suffered an unimaginably difficult life. We walked the same cobble-stoned streets where horses hooves of the Crusaders trod in the 11th century. Each stone in the mighty walls and streets could tell many a story.
Our Hilton Prague Hotel was beautifully located near the bend in the Vltava River at the north end of the central city next to the Jewish Quarter and in walking distance to nearly any historical site one could wish to visit. The city is easy to meander, laid out into five distinct districts: The Jewish Quarter, New Town, Old Town, Little Quarter, and Prague Castle and Hradcany, and many tours are offered to each, but we found it fun to wander on our own. Most people speak excellent English, so language was not a problem. Traffic is considerate, and although there are many cars, the air felt clean. We brought the city its earliest snowfall ever…but it just added white frosting to the beauty of the historic architecture and lovely fall leaf color.
After arriving in the early hours of the afternoon we struck out in the direction of the Jewish Quarter and on towards Old Town. Our first impression was one of wonder at the city feeling a certain sense of classical mysticism with the castle on the hill overshadowing the city of narrow, cobble-stoned streets and medieval buildings with tall spires reaching into the sky around each turn. We were drawn on into the labyrinth by the desire to see what was around the next corner, encountering many small squares and surrounding shops and cafes. When we reached the river, we found ourselves at the beautiful Rudolfinum concert hall with its Neo-Renaissance style. From the bridge crossing the river near the Rudolfinum we could look down river to the 14th-century Charles Bridge and up at the Prague Castle and the marvelous St Vitus’s Cathedral overlooking the Little Quarter on the west side of the river. As we stood taking in the scene, we were struck with a feeling that we had come from our modern Western world of Walmarts and McDonalds into a Harry Potter world of fantasy and imagination, and we were enchanted at being able to be in a place like this.
Returning through the Jewish Sector we followed the historic and sad path of many tribulations endured through the centuries, and the old Synogogue and cemetery are quite interesting. The independent specialty shops along the street as well as the open air market are among the most unique and varied in the city. You can buy cheap souvenirs or quite expensive Bohemian blown glass or beautifully colored and etched elaborate glassware, fine jewels, especially garnets mined in the Czech Republic.
Our next day in Prague had us first wandering into what is called New town, with its many different styles of buildings showing the various periods of architectural elegance through from the 14th-century to the present. “New” did not necessarily mean modern, since much of new town was founded in 1348 by Charles IV. At that time this part of the city was carefully planned out with three central market-places years ago and so named at that point in time! In the late 1800s much of this part of Prague was demolished and then completely rebuilt and developed. At the head of the long boulevard of Wenceslas Square stands the impressive National Museum building, completed in 1890. The sandstone buildings from local quarries have darkened with age, but that seems to add to their appeal. Many very modern shops with high fashion clothing and items were in this section and much nightlife.
We found the typical Czech food of goulash and cabbage as well as the hearty breads and, of course, their pride: Pelzner beer. The pork dishes and chicken are also excellent, as are all the soups and fabulous desserts. We found the food to be very tasty and service good whether we were in the most non-descript pub (where they hang on a little flag of your country on your table to show the waitress which language you speak) or in fine dining restaurants. We relished the Czech food with gusto!
After spending some shopping time in the New Town section, we wandered back through the Jewish Quarter and crossed the Vltava River to the Little Quarter by way of the bridge at the Rudolfinum and visited the Kafka Museum, exhibiting a very detailed and extensive collection of pictures and manuscripts and information about the life and writings of the noted author Franz Kafka, who grew up in Prague. His museum has wonderful exhibits and souvenirs for those who appreciate his works. Many Bohemian writers and artists had sojourns here and are revered all over the city in museums and galleries.
Nightlife in the Little Quarter abounds in this section with restaurants, pubs and theaters. We chose a cafe with typical Czech dance and music performance of lively courtship dancing in coloful historic peasant dress. The music was joyful and fast paced with flute, cello, guitar, and hammered dulcimer. The cloth covered mallets of the player flew over the loom-like brass strings so rapidly we could only see a whirling blur, and the music was beautiful!
Just as fascinating is the Old Town section of the city with its wonderful square and Town Hall with its Astronomical Clock. Old Town became a market area in the 13th-century and grew into a central section of the city linked to the Little Quarter section by the Charles Bridge. The Prague Castle area is the highlight of the city, and you could spend a whole day and not see it all. The majestic beauty of the architecture is a wonder to those who choose not to tour inside to see the art treasures and jewels here. It is all beyond description to see how the royalty of Europe once lived! Exquisite stain glass, mosaics, scuplture, gold-leaf embellishment, murals, art collection, fountains, huge expanses beautiful in every direction, and magnificent gardens were all part of the typical royal life. Amazing! But, even though Disney has made every little girl want to live in a castle, visiting one at any time of year makes us appreciate our heating systems and indoor plumbing! Castles are COLD! Especially on a snowy day! But it is wonderful to imagine being a princess for a day!
The most impressive buildings of Prague are lighted at night, so save an evening for walking across the Charles Bridge, where you can view the city along the river from both sides, in all its illuminated wonder. Concerts are plentiful and attending one in any of the magnificent concert halls or cathedrals is the experience of a lifetime. Along the Charles bridge you’ll find, day or night, many souvenirs, crowds, and street performers, all having fun and loving this beautiful city. We certainly did!