Czech It Out

BY Stephanie Miller

Walking through the streets of Prague is a juggling act. You watch your feet to prevent catching a heel on the cobblestone-lined streets while simultaneously craning your neck to catch a glimpse of the dazzling architecture. Prague is unique in Europe because its wonderful historic buildings were spared the ravages of war. Structures that date from the Middle Ages to the era of Art Nouveau are everywhere above the city a spire sits atop an onion dome adding to Pragues dramatic Eastern European feel.

I arrived in Prague in early April when the city was still wrapped in its winter chill. I was thrilled to discover I could board a plane in Atlanta at 7:30 p.m. and wake up in Prague the next morning at 11:00. The direct flight gave me an opportunity to get a good nights sleep without having to change planes while bleary-eyed in some Western European capital. Opting for a car service pickup at the airport allowed me to avoid the notoriously feisty Prague taxi cab drivers.

I joined up with my sister-in-law Ryna who was also there visiting her son who was studying abroad and we headed off to one of the four neighborhoods in Central Prague the Castle District which lies at the summit of the city and is the home of Prague Castle. Just getting there was half the fun.

We crossed the Vltava River at the Charles Bridge the busiest spot in Prague for more than 600 years. The 1 673-foot bridge is lined with statues of Christian saints. The thoroughfare itself is crammed with artists selling hand-made wooden barrettes photographs of the city hand-painted earrings and marionettes. Caricaturists claiming to do a likeness in 10 minutes ply their craft 20 feet from a competitor promising the same results in only five. Musicians play classical music with an open box at their feet to catch falling coins. And always there is the colorful sound of blended languages floating across the bridge Chinese Russian English Spanish. At night when the vendors pack up they put their wares into handcarts to push home. No vehicles are allowed on the ancient bridge.

And there are none in the vicinity of Prague Castle. Weary travelers wheel their rolling suitcases up the cobblestone-lined hills to reach their pension and then carry their luggage up more steps leading up to the giant castle at the summit (for the faint of heart a tram gets you to the same spot without breaking a sweat). The panoramic view of the city from these heights is like none other in the world. Spires hills and churches are laid out like a patchwork quilt nestled among the lush green hills and the Vltava River snakes lazily through the city.

Ryna and I hitched onto the tail end of an English-speaking tour and learned about the fantastic hilltop complex that makes up Prague Castle which is one of the biggest castles in the world (and where the Czech kings Holy Roman Emperors and presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic have had their offices. The crown jewels of the Bohemian Kingdom are kept there.) The linchpin is St.Vituss Cathedral the largest and most historically important building of the complex and the seat of religious and political life since A.D. 926. Inside are stained glass windows by the renowned Art Nouveau artist Alfons Mucha. In 1997 Pope John Paul II stopped there on his third visit to Prague in seven years.

The Castle District is surrounded by the second Prague neighborhood Lesser Town which is crammed with places to drink Pragues world-renowned (and inexpensive) beer and to buy Czech handicrafts.

Nearby is the Franz Kafka Museum a shop-of-horrors look into the life of the tormented writer born to a city where Czechs Germans and Jews all staked out their turf. The museum shows the effects of the city and its people on Kafkas short life. The audio mix of fragments from a waltz birds cawing and doors slamming play in the background as floating images and soft lighting add to the surreal feel of the exhibit.

The Lesser Town area is filled with wonderful restaurants including At Knights of Malta where we descended into the cellar of this 16th century burghers house to dine on local carp. We were able to see the waterline marked by the great flood of 2002 the worst on record which devastated much of this and the Old Town area.

After the long descent from the Castle we had a 20-minute walk back to our hotel the Eurostars David famous like so many European hotels for its breakfasts. The next morning we woke to platters of fresh cheeses and meats surrounded by sliced pieces of fruit of every hue. The breads ran from heavy wheat loaves to freshly baked chocolate-filled croissants. The hot-foods table was laden with quiches grilled vegetables and seasoned scrambled eggs. The coffee tasted as though the beans were harvested and roasted right before dawn. The hotel staff seemed to know it was their job to fortify us for the miles of walking to come.

In Prague walking is what you do. On our second day we walked to the citys most popular district Old Town which dates back to the early 9th century. Old Town grew outward from its square Old Town Square a massive open area lined with restaurants (crowded with outdoor seating) the famous Powder Tower and the picturesque Astronomical Clock. The square grew in importance as Prague established itself on the central European trade routes.

The square has a checkered history in the political life of the country. It is the site of the founding of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918 followed by the occupation by the Nazis in 1939. The Soviets arrived there to oust the Nazis in 1945 only to return as invaders in 1968.

Town squares have played a significant role in the history of Prague. The Czechs celebrated the return of their government in 1989 at nearby Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution which saw the ousting of the Communist government in favor of a free Czechoslovakia led by playwright and national hero Vclav Havel.

The story of Prague continues with the “Velvet Divorce” on January 1 1993 when the Czech and Slovak Republics separated leaving the Czech Republic free to join NATO in 1999 one of the first Soviet-bloc states to do so as well as the European Union (EU) in 2004.

Entry into the EU significantly altered the economic status of the country although it is still using the Czech Koruna as currency rather than the Euro until the economy stabilizes. As a result food and services are more affordable though luxury items and electronics are more expensive.

Shopping in and around Old Town is a journey through jewelry stores selling the garnets and fine Bohemian crystal which are among the countrys largest exports. One jewelry shop owner showed me the true Czech garnet a very small stone. The larger pieces are set with multiple small stones rather than one large one which is not native to the country. Another great find was Prada-like leather goods from Czech designer Bambas. The one-of-a kind pocketbooks covered with colorful primitive images are hand-painted in the Czech Republic.

Another landmark in the area is Havels Market an outdoor market set amongst incredible architecture. Great for gifts the market is filled with fresh produce as well as gift items.

For a pittance you can also listen to classical music to your hearts content in and around Old Town. We stopped into a church to hear young people from Norway perform. The music was heavenly as was St. Nicholas Church with its gilded interior and frescoed ceilings. The hospitable guard seated us next to a space heater inside the chilly church. Unfortunately the heater sputtered and went out after the first half-hour leaving us to shiver in our overcoats.

Nearby is Pragues Jewish ghetto. Originally walled off it is now indistinguishable from the rest of the city but for the hordes of tourists who make their way through the narrow streets. The moss-encrusted cemetery is Europes oldest Jewish burial ground. Every square inch is filled with tombstones since Jews were not allowed to be buried elsewhere. Nearby is Europes oldest temple the Old-New Synagogue built in 1270. It is as dazzling in its simplicity as the nearby Spanish Synagogue is in its opulence. Around the corner at the Pinkas Synagogue is a stunning tribute to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia killed by the Nazis. Upstairs is a collection called “Childrens Drawings from Terezin ” a moving depiction of loss and hope through the eyes of the children of the camp.

A short walk from the Jewish ghetto is the magnificent Municipal House home to the Prague Symphony. The Art Nouveau building built between 1906 and 1911 was paid for by Czech citizens. It opened after an extensive facelift in 1997 and draws gawking spectators from around the world. We enjoyed “hot wine” in its elegant period caf decorated with chandeliers and gilded sculptures.

Perhaps our favorite adventure was a short visit to Cesky Krumlov a fairy-tale city in the south of the Czech Republic. UNESCO designated the well-preserved town a World Cultural Heritage City.

After a run-in with the Metro police en route to the bus station (corruption left over from the Soviet era is still alive and well) we traveled through the lush Czech countryside. A sign reading “Castle for Sale” flew by our window. The bus dropped us off a short walk from the town. From that vantage point we got our first glimpse of the picturesque town with its very own castle in the sky and the lovely Vltava flowing by open-air restaurants and picnic grounds.

We stayed at the Hotel Růe a 16th-century Jesuit monastery updated in Renaissance finery. From its bedrooms and patio the view of the river and the orange-tiled rooftops is stunning.

Everything is a short walk away and there is hardly a vehicle in sight. We walked up the rocky hill to the Česk Krumlov Chateau the second-largest castle in Bohemia and explored its grounds and buildings. One of our favorite meals was at an old-fashioned Renaissance pub named Krčma Markta where a roaring fire roasts local meat and fish and the meals are served at long wooden tables. Thirty dollars with tip seemed very reasonable for the two of us to stuff ourselves with chicken and fish potato soup and beer. My meal even came with a glass of slivervitz a potent fruit brandy popular in Eastern Europe.

After all this food the waitress who spoke no English showed us the path to descend into town. We walked down the rocky slope and concrete stairs with the starry sky above us and the castle wall illuminated by soft lights floating above the city. It was a magical ending to a trip out of a favorite fairy-tale book.