Checking out Prague
Go Prague: Boutique in size and romantic beyond belief, Prague is best explored on foot, hand-in-hand with someone, writes ALANNA GALLAGHER
PRAGUE, ONE-TIME heart of Europe, is one of the Continent’s most beautiful cities. Once the hippest post-communist place to explore, its reputation faltered as it was invaded by the stag and hen party brigade, the latest in a long list of interlopers to the Czech capital. But now that prices have risen, the beer is too dear and these pre-wedding parties have moved east.
This is good news for fans of the city and first-timers alike. Prague is like a living soap opera, a tale of conquest and creativity with breathtaking beauty, an immense sense of history and a rich artistic and musical past.
Boutique in size and romantic beyond belief, it is best explored on foot, ideally hand-in-hand with someone. Most of the Old Town is cobbled and requires really practical footwear to negotiate it.
Some of the big sights are free to explore. Prague Castle, for example, dominates the skyline and is wonderful to stroll through. Locals use the castle as a route downtown and for tourists the empty rooms that are free to see are not the most interesting interiors in the city. Pay your respects to the art nouveau work of Alphonse Mucha at St Vitas. His absinthe green glazing fills the third window on the left. The castle’s eastern ramparts and a nearby terrace are the places to pause and savour the panoramic views.
The sandstone facades and statues throughout the Old Town – be they baroque, gothic, art nouveau or soviet brutalist – are blackened by pollution, chemistry and pathos. This is a city that has seen invading Nazis, soviet tanks and velvet revolutionaries pass over its cobblestones.
The statues on on the world famous Charles Bridge look almost charred they’re so blackened by pollution. It adds to the city’s sense of drama although many of the originals are now in the Lapidary of the National Museum. Set on an east-west axis, in high summer the sun seems to set at the end of the bridge making it a very romantic place to stroll. You can literally walk off into the sunset.
The city sky is punctuated by church spires but, put off by the idea of masses of tourists desecrating their places of worship, some offer little more than grilles to peer through. To appreciate their glory you have to attend mass.
One such place is the Basilica of Our Lady, now dedicated to St Norbert, in the Strahov Monastery. Beautifully decorated with frescoes by Neunhertz, Mozart played its organ during his visit to the monastery in 1787. High mass takes place on Sundays and daily mass is at 6pm. It is not only an active place of pilgrimage but also a valuable museum and a famous library, still holding rare volumes, few of which are visible to the public.
The city has a rich literary past too, with writers from Kafka to Josef Capek, who coined the term robot in his play RURto French-based Milan Kundera all resided in the capital at one point.
As well as exploring its past Prague has a burgeoning contemporary scene kick-started by the completion of the Dancing House, also known locally as Fred and Ginger, by Croatian-born Czech architect Vlado Milunic in co-operation with Canadian architect Frank Gehry.
Contemporary art is thriving too. Galleries are mushrooming in artists’ apartments and on street corners. Vernon Projekt, located in the display window of a former store on the corner of Janovský and Hermanova streets, was conceived as a space for “absolutely free” experimentation, in which artists can think through their works and bring them to completion.
Monika Burian, the woman behind Vernon Projekt, also looks after some of the city’s most interesting contemporary artists. One rising star is Pavel Roucka, a former canoeist. His work graces the walls of Allegro, Prague’s only Michelin star restaurant. Dox, the city’s contemporary art museum, is another essential new Prague experience.
Czech cuisine is also being reconsidered. In a city where food is not part of the celebrated experience the lumpen dumplings that are in every tourist establishment have been reworked to create allegorical taste sensations by the Czech cuisine revival. This is being spearheaded by Michelin star chef Andrea Accordi at Allegro, and chef Oldrich Sahajdák’s at La Degustation Bourjois Bohême. Both restaurants should form part of any gastronome’s itinerary.
No Irish trip to the city would be complete with a visit to the church of Our Lady of Victory, on Karmelitská Street in Lesser Town. Home to The Child of Prague, a statue we were once devoted to and best known as the heavenly host you pray to, to guarantee good weather on your wedding day, the child Jesus has almost as many outfits as Barbie. Its 200 ensembles change according to the season of the church year.
Often called the Paris of the east, the locals have adopted a similarly jaundiced view of tourists. Many at best tolerate rather than appreciate you being there. They can appear less than thrilled by your presence, as if you are simply another unwelcome guest to add to their very long list of gate-crashing invaders.
And in a way you are. In 2010, European Cities Marketing ranked Prague fourth of its top five European cities in respect of bed nights generated by international tourists – behind big names like London, Paris, and Rome.
The reduction in stag and hen parties should have the locals breathing a sigh of relief but sometimes they just want their city to themselves. And who could blame them. It is a beautiful city, and because of that everyone wants to come and experience it themselves. Visit in May or June before the crowds get overwhelming.
Get there: Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Prague five times a week. Fares from €29.99 each way.
Prague where to . . .
Value: the Crowne Plaza Prague Castle (ichotelsgroup.com or tel 00-420-2-26080000) is in the grounds of Strahov Monastery on the edge Prague’s old city walls. The hotel is reasonable and roomy and within walking distance of the castle. Doubles from €111.50.
Mid-market: enjoy an art nouveau experience at the Radisson Blu Alcron Hotel (radissonblu.com or tel 00-420-2-22820000) which has been restored to its former glory and includes glittering chandeliers, rich Italian marble and creamy milk glass highlights throughout. Doubles from €200.
Upmarket: the boutique Aria Hotel (ariahotel.net or tel 00-420-2-25334111) is a charming establishment, spread through three baroque buildings, with each floors designed around a different musical theme. Doubles from €275.
For something altogether more private book No 46 (no46prague.com or tel 086-2631465), a private apartment renovated by Irish photographer James Fennell and his interior designer wife. From €250 per night.
Value: for an authentic local pub experience, one that hasn’t changed since 1989, visit Cerneho Vola (The Black Ox) at Loretanske namesti 1, a favourite of former president Vaclav Havel. The décor is basic and thick with cigarette smoke. It’s a place where the occupants, inspired by Westerns, turn to give you the once over as you come through the door. Dine on simple meat and cheese platters and enjoy great beer. Tel: 00-420-2-20513481.
Mid-market: trade up and lunch at Allegro, at the riverside Four Seasons Hotel, where Florentine chef Andrea Accordi is offering a two-course lunch for a good value €26 to celebrate the hotel’s 10th anniversary. The lunch menu at this Michelin star premises is offered daily until 3pm. Also a great place to sample good Czech wines. See fourseasons.com or tel 00-420-2-21427000.
Upmarket: Explore the best produce in the Czech Republic under the tutelage of chef Oldrich Sahajdák at La Degustation Bourjois Bohême. Savour Czech culinary art from the end of the 19th century tweaked for the 21st century. The menu will delight those jaded by goulash and dumplings. See ladegustation.cz/en/ or tel 00-420-2-22311234.
Landmark: Prague is a city of music. Local artists include Dvorak and Mahler while Mozart and Beethoven both spent time in the city. Enjoy an evening opera or classical concert within the landmark walls of Prague Castle at St George’s Basilica (pragueexperience.com). Ticket prices from €25 upwards. For serious classical concerts, such as the Czech Philharmonic, buy tickets in advance of travelling at ticketpro.cz.
Museum: the National Museum offers two architectural experiences for the price of one. Choose from the glorious neo-Renaissance building at the top of Wenceslas Square, designed as an architectural symbol of the Czech national revival or the dark soviet brutalist property, one-time parliament of Czechoslovakia during the communist era. It became part of the National Museum in 2009. Buy a combination ticket to view both. Tel: 00-420-2-24497 111 or see Nm.cz.
Religious: the old/new synagogue in the city’s Jewish Quarter is Europe’s oldest active synagogue and one of the city’s earliest Gothic buildings. Still active today it offers pause for thought. The region once had 120,000 Jews. The number now registered with the community in Prague stands at 1,800. Tel: 00-420-2-24800849 or see synagogue.cz.
Out of Prague
Cesky Krumlov: a historic town in southern Bohemia and a Unesco World Heritage site, the tower in the frescoed castle offers panoramic views across the town. A visit to its baroque theatre is a must. Ask about also visiting Orlik Castle, one of the Schwarzenberg’s homes which offers exceptional interiors and armoury rooms to explore. A 10-hour round trip costs from €94pp on praguedaytrips.com.
Karlovy Vary: also known by its German name Carlsbad, is a spa town favoured by wealthy Europeans such as Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, and Peter the Great who promenaded the colonnaded streets while taking the waters. It is also home to a film festival. A 10-hour round trip costs from €94 on praguedaytrips.com.
Karlstejn Castle: built in high Gothic style, it was intended as a royal treasury to safeguard the royal treasures, especially King Charles’s collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Roman empire. The Holy Rood Chapel has more than 2,000 precious and semi-precious inlaid gems adorning its walls. A five-hour round trip costs €53 on praguedaytrips.com.
The marketplace on Old Town Square offers beautiful hand-painted eggs and twisted willows, once used by Czech menfolk as a courting ritual. The market runs till the end of May.