August 27 – Sept 1, 2007
City Reports are columns of subjective review over several categories on the city I have just visited for the first time. The fixed categories are “Photogenic”, “Attractions”, “Cost” and “Intangible”. Other categories like “Day trip”, “Food”, or “Nightlife” will be addressed if applicable.
I didn’t know what to expect from Prague. On the one hand, I have friends absolutely waving about the town, saying it was by far the most beautiful city in Europe. But warnings about unbearable crowd, petty crimes and unhelpful locals, especially coming from travelers we met along the way, had kept our expectations in check.
Perhaps because of sheer luck, none of the expected problems occurred during our week in Prague. Yes, many other people were in town during the same time, but that was similar to many other popular destinations during the high season in summer. Comparatively, we felt Paris and Florence had even larger crowds. Stories about theft in the subway or on the light rail trams didn’t happen to us either, and walking around town at night felt perfectly safe. It didn’t hurt that we paid only half for accommodation and food compared to Paris and Florence.
So what makes Prague special?
Prague’s beauty immediately won us over. As we watched the sunset on Kampa Island, we wondered out loud how could this city be so beautiful. We were in Paris and Florence the previous week, but Prague stood above even such formidable competition. I am not suggesting Prague is a more worthy destination than the other two cities, as the Czech capital doesn’t have nearly the same historical or artistic value. What Prague has going for it is an eye-catching historic centre. Unlike the blue and gray tone of Paris or the yellow and orange tone of Florence, Prague doesn’t have a singular colour tone that defines the town. Rather, its Art Nouveau architecture mix-and-matches like a field of wildflowers blossoming into different forms and colours.
Old Town Square
Until the 19th century what’s known as Prague now was actually consisted of four separate towns, each with its own town square. They are now known as the Castle Quarter, Little Quarter, Old Town and New Town. The main tourist trail is between the Prague Castle through Charles Bridge to the Old Town Square, which is always packed to the gills with tourists.
So Old Town Square, home to Prague’s most well-known attraction the Astronomical Clock, is where we begin this rundown. Like its name suggests, an astronomical clock is a medieval-era device used to display astronomical information, such as the relative positions of the sun, moon, zodiacal constellations. Prague’s, assembled in 1410, is the oldest still-functioning astronomical clock in the world. The rest of the square is a mixture of architectural styles, including the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn and the Baroque St. Nicholas Church.
Compared to the circus that’s the Old Town Square, I much preferred wandering the Old Town’s empty streets and alleys. It was easy to lose the crowd in the Old Town, as most people, for some reason, seemed content to spend all of their time at the Old Town Square, especially in front of the Astronomical Clock.
Within the Old Town is the Jewish Quarter, the only part of Prague before WWII where Jews were allowed to reside. Much of the ghetto was demolished from 1893 – 1913 to make way for Old Town’s expansion, and today only six synagogues and a cemetery remain as testimony to a bygone era of Jewish existence.
Right next to the cemetery is the Jewish Museum where a section is dedicated to the drawings by children kept captive during WWII in Terezin Concentration Camp, about 60km north of Prague. The drawings all showed a common theme – to escape the darkness and be free again. None of the children survived the Holocaust.
Almost everyone who visits Prague will do it once – crossing the Charles Bridge from the Old Town to the Little Quarter or vice versa. Until 1841 the Charles Bridge was the only mean to cross the Vltava River. Today there are plenty of alternatives, but the Charles Bridge remains a tourist favourite. The current structure was completed in 1402 to replace the version damaged by flood sixty years before. While the bridge is in Gothic style, it is decorated by 30 Baroque statues on both sides.
The Castle Quarter contains the 70,000 m2 Prague Castle, one of the largest in the world, and within the castle compound are important civic and religious buildings such as St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, Vladislav Hall and various royal palaces. This is not a homogeneous complex – the Romanesque St. George’s Basilica was commissioned in the 10th century and the Gothic St. Vitus took almost six centuries to complete, picking up various styles such as Renaissance, Baroque and even Art Nouveau along the way.
Two things stand out here – Alfons Mucha’s Art Nouveau stained glass windows at St. Vitus and the stunning view over Prague at the lookout leading to the stairs down to the Little Quarter.
Little Quarter is the heart of historic Prague, linking the Castle Square to the Old Town through Charles Bridge. There isn’t much attraction in the Little Quarter, but invariably we would come back here for dinner and drinks after a day of sightseeing in other parts of town.
We spent only two hours in the New Town, the largest of the four districts. We began at Wenceslas Square, the heart of the district. Many immigrants from North Vietnam congregate in this area. Czech Republic was a leading destination for Vietnamese who chose to study abroad during the Cold War years and many stayed behind after their studies. We passed by many shopping arcades selling cheap goods, the Mucha Museum (which was closed) and the Dancing House. Those short on time can give the New Town a miss.
When I think of Czech Republic, three things always come to my mind: beer, stag party, and the Sedlec Ossuary. After three days in Prague drinking beer and avoiding rowdy Brits, the time had come to complete the trifecta.
I don’t have a bone fetish, but anyone who does must have their mind blown away when they step into the tiny chapel. In the 1800s, a carpenter named František Rint was asked to perform a task of organizing the bones of 40,000 human who were buried at the ossuary. He decided instead to not let his considerable artistic talents gone to waste and rearranged the remains into delicate objects such as chandelier or coat-of-arm.
There isn’t an overarching religious or philosophical purpose with the site, only the results of a man using other people’s leftover as his legos and doing whatever he wanted with them. The place sounds more creepy than it is in reality. Just try not to think too much about the quiet nights when Mr. Rint, working alone under a flickering candle light, picked up and carefully wiped the dust off a piece of pinkie bone and stacked it atop another.
After accomplishing my main goal, we rode the local bus to Kutna Hora’s old town centre. Kutna Hora, home to a large silver mine, was once a bustling commercial and political centre that rivalled Prague. Its fortune declined precipitously after the mine was flooded in 1546. Today it is a small provincial town with much of its buildings in a crumbling state despite receiving a World Heritage Site designation since 1995.
We hardly saw anyone else around town. Kutna Hora offers a different look of Czech Republic from Prague, one that isn’t completely refurbished in order to attract tourists. We didn’t have time to join the silver mine tour, but we did visit the St. Barbara’s Church, one of the most famous Gothic churches in central Europe and a symbol of Kutna Hora’ status during its heyday. Ironically the church began construction in 1388 when the production of the mine was beginning to dwindle; the final building was about half the size of the original design and was completed at last in 1905.
When I did my research on Czech Republic, Český Krumlov was always high on everyone’s “must see” list. Why all the hype? Using the common words associated with this little town, Český Krumlov was “able to transcend crass commercialism and retain and enhance the authenticity of the place”. Called me a skeptic, but I have a hard time believing a little town with tourist money as its major income can transcend tacky souvenir shops and other form of crass commercialism and retain any authenticity. A city? Maybe. A small medieval town everyone is already talking about? Highly likely.
With an introduction like this, surely anyone can tell I was disappointed. Not that there was anything wrong with the place, where in fact Český Krumlov is as picturesque as advertised. Yet beyond the recently renovated facade of the buildings, the clean and tidy bridges and alleys, and the meandering river where tourists rafted, something was missing in this town – just like many other well established tourist spots on the beaten track. Unlike Kutna Hora, where locals did seem to go on with their daily lives, Český Krumlov was devoid of locals shopping for grocery or chatting at the front door porch. There were only two type of people in the street – tourists and shopkeepers/guides. Walking around for awhile, one couldn’t help but wondered how many residents actually live in the town’s soaped up medieval buildings.
Český Krumlov’s location along a meandering river and its little hilltop castle is probably as close to a fairy tale setting as one can get. After several days in Prague, however, we became too jaded to appreciate the beautiful backdrop. The town was said to be packed with tourists at all times, although it was quite quiet on the day we visited. The only thing memorable we did was touring the castle’s Baroque theatre, built in 1776 and one of two such building still standing in Europe.
Prague is not a gastronomic hotspot. We did have the best overall food on our trip there, but that was more because we had poor luck in Paris and Florence. Prague’s dining scene was a mixed bag – we ran into a string of bad restaurants until finding a decent one called Všebaráčnická rychta in the Little Quarter. Its baked pork shank matched great with the cheap local beer.
Czech cuisine is heavy on meat and carbs. Some staple dishes are svíčková na smetaně (Marinated sirloin) with dumplings, guláš (meat stew) and vepřo-knedlo-zelo (roast pork). How much you like the food depends on your tolerance of heavy meat dishes with little supplement of vegetable.
Czech beer is well-known around the world, and we probably drank more beer than water during our time in Prague. Locally produced wine was almost as cheap as beer, but the two bottles of white we did try offered nothing more than a faint sour taste.
In general accommodation was 50% cheaper in Prague compared to London, Paris and Florence. We stayed for €60 a night at Aparthotel City 5 in Andel, a 15 minutes tram ride away from the Castle Quarter. Besides the neighbourhood’s many porn shops, a few blocks from our apartment was a shopping arcade where we stock up on snacks, beer and daily amenities at reasonable prices. Dining out generally was around €10 or less per person.
Less than twenty years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Prague has become one of the hottest destinations in Europe. There might be some rough patches here and there which expose the city’s communist past, but for the most part Prague has, for better or worse, integrated seamlessly into the capitalist world.
It was hard to get a sense of Prague when all we did was hopping from a point of interest to the next and generally stayed inside the tourist bubble. Much of the historic centre has been turned into a hollowed out tourist zone – I am on record of saying I am not a fan of Paris, but the French capital still manages to maintain a sense of cultural integrity while welcoming tourists multiple times more than Prague.
Hitting a few bars is a direct way to get a slightly more authentic look at daily Czech life. Czechs are not particularly opened to tourists who don’t speak their language, but at least their love for beer is one thing that translates beyond language barrier.
I would argue Prague is now one of the best places to visit on a trip to Europe for the first time. As one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and located at the geographical heart of the continent, it is cheap, easily navigable, extremely photogenic, and superficial. I mean that as a compliment. Think about it this way – it is impossible to see a city like Paris or London properly in a mere few days. You need to devote a consider amount of time and money to get a good read on those metropolises. Prague, on the other hand, is a place you can enjoy its Art Nouveau architecture for a few days, drink some good beer and attend a few concerts; when it is time to leave there won’t be a lingering feeling of missing out on something essential. There are more refined destinations in Europe, but temper your expectation – very few places measure up to Prague’s gorgeousness.