On and Off the Cobblestone Path in Prague and Environs: Four Days in the Czech Republic by Saul Schwartz

Prague is a vibrant European capital city with lots of atmosphere. It is a city rich with a repository of Baroque, Romanesque, Art Nouveau and Medieval buildings that stir the imagination.  Little remains from the dreary days of Communist domination (1948-1989), except for some brutalist movement buildings.  For example, one is now the large InterContinental Hotel near the city center.

In 1993, the central European Czech Republic split off from Slovakia. About 1.3 million of the country’s 10.5 million inhabitants reside in Prague.  My wife Fern and I really enjoyed our four day stay in June.

Our lodging at the Corinthia Hotel, PragueThe Corinthia is located within the same complex as a Metro Stop (Vysehrad), two stops from the city-center. This large hotel is at the top of one of Prague’s seven hills. The Corinthia has one of the nicest executive lounges, with local food delicsies throughout the day and evening, and a very friendly staff. Both the executive lounge and the large indoor pool on the hotel’s top two floors have breathtaking panoramic views of the Prague skyline, where we could view many of the city’s “hundred spires.” We particularly enjoyed the fully equipped fitness center which features both aerobic and weights options, located right next to a day spa. Daily breakfast buffets were extensive in variety (e.g., featuring four different granola options). The buffets included some Czech cuisine and were very tasty.Walking through Vysehrad (Day 1)Vysehrad means castle on the heights; it is a rocky outcrop above the river. We walked on the many streets paved with centuries old cobblestones. These streets were the castle grounds of the first Czech royalty princes and kings and a fortress for the seat of power. The first castle was built in the 10th century and was rebuilt many times.We toured the neighborhood’s largest structure, the Neo-Gothic basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The basilica’s twin spires can be seen from a great distance. The first church on this site dated from the 11th century. This version was rebuilt in 1903 after fires destroyed the original.  We also toured the area’s smallest structure, the tiny Romanesque Rotunda of Saint Martin which was built in the 11th century and is the oldest Christian house of worship in the Czech Republic. This tiny church was reconstructed in 1878.

We briefly strolled through the small Vysehrad national cemetery (dating from the 1870s), the last resting point of some of the country’s most famous figures and luminaries. We left the neighborhood through the Leopold Gate which contains decorative sculptures on the gate itself.

Although off of the normal tourist paths, this neighborhood contains enough sites to see for a full day. Once through the Taborska (Tabor) Gate we walked among the ruins of Charles VI’s restored Vysehrad’s fortifications from the 14th century. Vysehrad was originally fortified in the 10th century and redone again in the 17th century.

Far enough from the city center to be largely tourist free, Vysehrad is a peaceful neighborhood and it contains several small parks. Within the parks are several large restored statutes which represent figures from early Czech history. The statutes were originally on Palacky Bridge but were relocated after being damaged during US bombardment in February 1945. Stopping at the view points on the ramparts and fortifications, we enjoyed unrivaled views of Prague’s panorama, including many places overlooking the Vltava River from far above where we could see marvelous views of Prague’s spires.

Terezin (Day 2)

Touring the former ghetto and concentration camp is a sad and dramatic experience. Terezin is about one hour from Prague by car.  Originally Terezin was an historic fortified city built by the Hapsburgs.  The fortress town was conceived in the late 18th century when the Hapsburg Emperor ordered the construction of Theresienstadt, named after his mother Empress Maria Theresa.  Terezin was later established as a town in the newly formed Czechoslovakia.

Nazi Germany took over the town in 1940 and transformed it into a ghetto and later, a notorious concentration camp. Most of Prague’s Jews were moved to Terezin.  We saw the former prison cells, residences of the Gestapo and some of the extensive underground corridors.  At first Jews and political prisoners were imprisoned in Terezin and then deported by rail to various concentration camps in German occupied Poland.  As the war continued tens of thousands were killed there.  A very large number of Jews died in this camp after the 1945 liberation due to outbreaks of typhoid and malnutrition.

Landmarks of Judaism in a Medieval City – The Jewish Quarter, Josefov (Day 3)

In the 18th century the Jewish Quarter was named Josefov after Josef II who relaxed discrimination against the Prague Jews.  At the reservation center in Josefov, we purchased the Jewish Museum in Prague ticket which includes (1) the Old Jewish Cemetery, (2) the Maisel Synagogue, (3) the Pinkas Synagogue, (4) the Klausen synagogue, (5) the Ceremonial Hall, and (6) the Spanish Synagogue.  For an additional fee, we purchased an audio guide and were able to also tour the Old- New Synagogue.  These sites are closed to the public on Jewish Holidays and Saturdays.  Kosher restaurants are scattered throughout the Quarter with names like King Solomon restaurant and the Golema restaurant.

Jews are thought to have settled in Prague as early as the 10th century.  Today the small district lies within the larger Old Town and is a rich repository of Jewish history.

The Old Jewish Cemetery is the largest of its kind in Europe. We felt that the jumble of crumbling and leaning tombstones is a moving memorial to Prague’s Jewish community.  It is estimated that 100,000 graves were built in layers on top of each other from 1439 to 1787, up to twelve layers deep.

Across the street from the cemetery is the gothic 13th century Old New Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in Europe.  This synagogue has been a place of refuge during pogroms.  This Orthodox synagogue still separates men and women, with the women sitting in the vestibule watching the services through windows.  We found it ironic that this congregation was originally called the New Synagogue until another synagogue was built nearby (that no longer exists).

Just down the street, the neo-gothic Maisel Synagogue is now a museum. It was built during the 16th century Golden Age of the Jewish Ghetto.  Mordecai Maisel was then the Jewish mayor and one of the richest citizens in Europe.  This building now features displays of Jews in the Bohemian lands during the 10th to 18th centuries (including religious artifacts, furniture and books).  Much of the collection had been looted by the Nazis from other synagogues, with the horrid intention of founding a museum of an extinct people.

Adjacent to the cemetery is the Pinkas Synagogue. Founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas, this synagogue is now a memorial to Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia.  The names and dates of death of approximately 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust cover the walls (including quite a few named Schwartz).  Equally moving, this synagogue features a touching exhibit of children’s drawings and writings while at the Terezin concentration camp during 1942 to 1944.

Maisel also commissioned the building in 1694 of the elegant baroque Klausen synagogue which also borders the cemetery. Klausen is named after Jewish houses of prayer and study.  This building now contains exhibits and prints featuring Jewish customs, festivals, family life and traditions.  The adjoining ceremonial hall explains the role of the Jewish burial society.

Several blocks away, the conservative Jewish movement still holds services, concerts and events at the Spanish Synagogue, featuring an opulent Moorish interior and containing an organ from 1880. Additionally, this building features displays on the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia.

Not all buildings within the Jewish quarter are open to the public. We were able to view from outside the original Jewish town hall that features a clock with Jewish letters.  Because Hebrew reads from right to left, the clock hands turn against the clockwise direction!

Prague Castle, Old Town and the Charles Bridge (Day 4)

Few cities embody the past as authentically as Prague. Our English language tour guide exemplified how Prague clings to its history with her unwavering passion for its colorful past.

During our guided walk through the Prague Castle (a UNESCO world heritage site), we learned that this fortress is really a complex of many impressive courtyards, palaces, churches and gardens. Outside the main entrance, two of the castle guards were wearing their blue summer uniforms, with impassive stares.  Once the seat of Bohemian kings, the castle now serves as the office of the President of the Czech Republic.  It is the world’s biggest castle complex.

Within the complex, the St. Vitus Cathedral may be Prague’s most distinctive landmark. The largest church in the Czech Republic, its spires can be seen throughout Prague.  Building of this imposing gothic structure began in 1344, but continued over almost 600 years!  The interior contains beautiful stain glass windows.  Outside the cathedral, an intricate mosaic of the Last Judgment from the 14th century shines in gold over one of the main entrances.  Gargoyles jut out over gutter spouts.

After leaving the castle, we walked across the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian only bridge (with gothic towers) which crosses the River Vltava. Constructed in the 14th century, the bridge contains a series of 30 baroque statutes (some of which are reproductions).  Crowded with tourists, there are many artists and musicians selling their wares on the bridge.  The 1700 feet long bridge connects the castle complex to Old Town.

We were told that the highlight of Old Town may be the mesmerizing Astronomical clock, dating from the 15th century.  On the hour, bells ring, cocks crow and a series of wooden statutes of apostles take turns popping through window openings.  Situated high atop the old town hall, the display is currently partially impaired by repairs to the building.  The hourly showing only lasts approximately one minute and arguably is overrated!

Final tips

Prague is a wonderful city, but we also enjoyed seeing some of the countryside outside of Prague. There is life beyond Prague in the Czech Republic. On the way back from Terezin, we made a brief stop in Litomerice and had lunch and a “mini” tour at a microbrewery. The microbrewery Minipovar Labut is located in the cellar of a small hotel. It has a nice brewery room with copper kettles and a limited menu that features local food.

When in doubt, try an Italian restaurant. We really enjoyed Pepe Nero, in Old Town just outside of the Jewish Quarter. The staff spoke English fluently. The breads, salads and pasta were tasty and inexpensive.The streets in the city center are mostly cobblestone so comfortable shoes are a must.

We used Czech coins for public restrooms (as the Czech Republic is not on the Euro), but most restaurants and museums took credit cards for payment.