Surprises from Prague
Two weeks ago I added one new country to the list of countries I’ve visited: the Czech Republic. The count is now up to 35 countries (see the map here) and it’s been a while since I’ve been in a country where I had absolutely zero understanding of the language. That’s not me being boastful, it simply shows up how limited my travelling has been in the last year or so! It completely threw me off balance and I had to fully embrace the “tourist” label that I had not way of avoiding.
I spent a week in Prague, although I only really had two days for exploring the city as I was on a workshop for the rest of the week. So, how do you go about sightseeing and digging beneath the surface of the city’s rich history with only 2 days on your hands? Armed with guidebooks I soon discovered that, although the city is relatively small and can be seen mostly on foot, two days are simply not enough to see everything that took my fancy. The key is to then prioritise what you simply can’t miss. And one of the best ways to see the top sights in a short space of time is to adopt that tourist label plastered all over you and join a walking tour.
I’ll admit, no local would ever take a walking tour around their own city – it is not exactly the best way to blend in with the natives. You will stick out like a sore thumb as you follow behind your suitably colour-coded tour guide. But when time is of the essence, it’s okay to take a shortcut and tag onto one of these walking tours. The one we happened to sidle up to was run by Discover Prague Walking Tours (in yellow) and gave us a 2 ½ hour tour of the Old Town, the New Town and the Jewish Quarter. The guide, Simon, happened to be English, but according to their website they do also have a Czech guide.
The free walking tour leaves everyday at 11am and at 2pm from the Old Town Square, just in front of the (vastly overrated) Astronomical Clock. On the hour, the clock chimes and a rather creepy spectacle of moving figurines representing Vanity, Miserliness, Death & Pleasure come to life. However there is the pretty interesting legend that the town council were so proud of their clock that they ordered the creator be blinded, so as to prevent him from making a similar clock in any other city! The history of the Czech Republic is overflowing with brutal acts of savagery over the ages and it seems there hadn’t been a single minute of peace until quite recently.
(Tip: click on any of the photos below to open a gallery)
We were led around the Old Town Square, learning about the history of the grand towers of Church of Our Lady in front of Týn that loom over the square and the many, many, many, decades of bloodshed that the city has been witness to, predominantly fighting over religion. We then crossed over to see the famous Charles’ Bridge, catching a glimpse of Prague Castle and the Malá Strana neighbourhood directly below it.
If European cities were a necklace, Prague would be a diamond among the pearls. – Anon.
Back to the tour, we then headed toward the Jewish Quarter and we suddenly found ourselves in Paris. Having been a cramped and filthy ghetto for 800 years, the Jews were finally allowed out and it was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century, to be replaced with Parisian buildings and tree-lined boulevards. Paradoxically, it’s now one of the most expensive areas in the entire country and is inhabited by foreign designer boutiques and sports cars. Our guide claimed that Pařížská Street is the seventh most expensive street in the world to rent property on, although I find this highly unlikely. He also claimed that Wenceslas Square was the seventh biggest square in the world. We concluded that he just has a thing for the number 7, because in reality it’s only the 64th biggest square in the world… Aside from the Parisian architecture, thee Jewish quarter does have a few signs of its previous identity, those being a few synagogues and a tiny cemetery. Tiny though it may be, it’s been crammed with bodies over the centuries, with 12 layers of graves piled upon graves, home to an estimated 100,000 bodies, although only 12,000 tombstones are on show.
The rest of the tour took us into the New Town and chronologically we also moved forwards, learning about the city’s fate during WWII and the communist era, and its subsequent transition to the democratic nation that it is now. We took in the Church of St James’ (inside you’ll find a human arm that’s been hanging there for centuries, since it was chopped off the burglar who attempted to steal some jewels from the Virgin Mary statue), the modern Wenceslas Square with the National Museum standing majestically at one end, and the tour ended up outside the Estates Theatre. While 2 ½ hours does seem like a trek, Simon gave us a mid-tour rest in a cute café in the Jewish Quarter.
It’s the legends, anecdotes and humour that make any free walking tour, and as long as you’re lucky with your guide and are prepared to embrace being a tourist, then they’re a great way to see the city with little time to spare. There are of course other walking tours, which you can find by visiting the TripAdvisor website (but please don’t take a Segway tour!). If I’m generally adverse to big tour groups, then you can only imagine my thoughts when I see a bunch of westerners scooting around a historic city on Segways – it’s practically sacrilege!
With the main sights under our belts, we headed off to explore Prague by night. I was happy to not encounter any stag dos, although I can see why Prague is a good destination for that, as the alcohol, especially the beer, is wonderfully cheap. By night we headed to a variety of bars, including the eclectic Chapeau Rouge, Nebe bar, and the Karlovy Lázně club. From a musical point of view, none of these absolutely wowed me, but are fun for a short visit.
And last but not least: Prague Castle. I forced myself out of bed early the next day to see Prague Castle in the beaming sunlight and the views over the city were simply spectacular. It was a lovely, serene ending to my brief visit and challenged my preconceptions about the Czech Republic. Having little experience of former Soviet states, I was expecting to find a country in great disrepair, crumbling at every corner, as I found Cuba back in 2007. But Prague, in particular the area around Prague Castle, Malá Strana, left me pleasantly surprised. It’s a fully developed country, it’s well-kept and most of all, it’s retained its intriguing architecture and medieval beauty.
Although slightly overrun by tourists, Prague has a romantic charm that will seduce anyone and would be ideal for a romantic retreat. If the rest of Eastern Europe is anything like it, then I can see myself going East more often…
Hey Virginia, great article! Congratulations on the idea of getting up early to see the castle. We always recommend the Charles Bridge early in the morning, and the Prague Castle late at night. The only way to see the Prague Castle during the tourist season is through the Deer Moat and the Royal Gardens. Otherwise you’ll just go where the crowds take you.
And one note about Czech: the modern Czech language is very difficult by design – it was brought back to life from a virtual coma in the late 19th Century as part of the effort to gain independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it was made difficult to show that even a small nation can handle a language capable of expressing the most complex of ideas (like the despised German). However, we’ve been living with the consequences ever since. So don’t worry about having zero understanding of the language. Many Czechs often feel the same way 😉
I wish I had known about the Deer Moat & Royal Gardens before I went! Although all of the gardens I tried to visit were closed for the winter… And that’s so interesting about the Czech language – I would never have imagined that a language could be engineered that way… I’m glad you like the article!