It is a minute before noon on a partly cloudy day in Prague’s Old Town Square. A large gathering of tourists have been milling around the area for about ten minutes watching the Medieval astronomical clock of the old town hall, waiting for any sign of movement from the beautifully carved statues or the twin doors above the clock face. As the tourists wait, men and women dressed in 18th century costume hand out flyers for the many operas, classical music concerts and the ever-popular torture museums. The clock strikes twelve and the statues come to life – the skeleton rings his bell and the musician plays his lute – the twin doors open and the twelve apostles make their rounds peering down at the crowd below…
Prague is no longer the secret of backpackers and expatriates. It has become a must see for any European getaway and rightly so, the city is breathtaking to behold and has a charm that even wave after wave of tour groups cannot detract from. Gothic spires, copper onion domes green with age, frescoed facades and a castle dramatically perched above the city will get you hooked. Prepare to stay longer than expected.
Winding streets lead into Old Town Square, dominated by the impressive gothic spires of the Tyn church. Baroque facades are painted in vibrant pinks and yellows and the stark Jan Huis monument looms over one end of the square. The Astronomical clock of Old Town Hall is the oldest of its kind in Europe; the creator was supposedly blinded, so he could not make another. It is quite complex looking and it would have been a spectacle to see the clock come to life as it does every hour, back in the fourteenth century.
Close by is the Josevov, the old Jewish Ghetto. The narrow streets of this former walled off part of Old Town were once the stomping grounds of the Gholem, the clay man created by Rabbi Loew to protect Prague’s Jews. Whether you believe the story or not, Mary Shelly liked it so much she used it as inspiration for her classic Frankenstein. Pay your respects by placing a pebble on the Rabbi’s gravestone in the Jewish cemetery.
The long straight and broad avenues of the New Town seem reminiscent of the famous boulevards of Paris. However, this street plan predates the other grand boulevards of Europe by nearly five hundred years. New Town is not exactly new since Wenceslas Square dates to about 1350. The square is the shopping center of Prague and is bordered by the National Museum and Radio Free Europe on one end and the Havelske Trziste – an open-air market founded in 1232 on the other. In New Town the old meets with the new: Medieval bars lie below art deco buildings, discos thumb their music all night and casinos are ablaze in neon.
To cross the river, most visitors use the Charles Bridge, the oldest in Prague and by far one of the most beautiful in Europe. Its watchtowers on each end offer breathtaking views of the City’s domes and spires close up. Carved statues line the way from the Old Town to the Mala Strana -Lesser Town, across the river. The Bridge itself is clogged with tourists and hawkers selling paintings and jewelry. Mixed in are Prague’s best street performers, which vary from piano playing marionettes to the city’s only Czech Dixieland band.
Across the bridge and above the river lies the Hradcany Castle, the seat of the Czech government and the most dramatic spot to view the city. Prague has been called the “city of one hundred spires”, from the view at the castle, you will realize it is a severe understatement. In the middle of the castle grounds lies the St. Vitus Cathedral, which houses the tomb and chapel of St. Wenceslas – of Christmas carol fame. The Chapel is adorned with brilliant paintings and inlaid with large gemstones. The Cathedral itself is home to vibrant examples of stained glass and an array of gargoyles stare down from gothic spires and buttresses. Along one of the ancient battlements lies the Golden Lane, a series of quaint cottages that once were the home of alchemists employed by the Holy Roman Emperor. House number five was the home of Czech author Franz Kafka for a brief time. Today arts and craft shops make this unique area home.
During the day tour groups and day-trippers overflow around the city’s main sights, trying to see as much as possible before having to leave. But at night the city is for lovers. The tour groups are gone and the castle is illuminated, the gothic spires of St. Vitus Cathedral are aglow and shimmer on the restless waters of the Vlatava. It is true that tourists rule the city by day, but those who decide to stay in Prague experience the more fulfilling joys of just getting lost. There is a real thrill in discovering a different neighborhood each day or rounding a corner to discover a pub that has been serving customers since the Middle ages. That is real traveling, and Prague does not disappoint real travelers. Tourists leave with a few snapshots and fewer memories; travelers become enraptured with Prague and vow to return.