Guest post by Saurav Bhattacharya
Prague, the Baroque jewel in the heart of Europe, is one of the most romantic cities in the world. The city of a thousand spires—as it is so fondly called—has experienced contrasting historical periods, whose vestiges are visible even today. From centuries of Bohemian rulers to the Hussite wars and the invading Nazis and Soviets ruling the roost to finally the Velvet revolution—which imparted the sense of free spirit to the city that has survived till date—the city has in the recent times become a much sought-after experience for tourists. The medieval cobbled streets; the hidden squares decorated with quaint cafés; arthouses and puppet shops; strolling down Karlův most (Charles Bridge) at dusk; holding a Trdelník laced with chocolate in one hand; whilst enjoying the beautiful skyline of the famous hill-top castle—umm…romantic much?
Top things to do
Walk the Royal Way
The Royal way was the traditional route that the Czech rulers used during their coronation ceremonies. It starts off at the magnificent Municipal House at Republic Square that used to be the seat of the Czech kings. To the left of the Municipal House stands the Powder Tower, whose unusual name comes from the time it was used as a storehouse for gunpowder. Leading out from the Powder Tower is one of the oldest streets in Prague, Celetná, which is lined by beautiful gothic or Romanesque houses. This street then leads up to the Old Town Square, which features buildings of varying architectural styles depending on the period of history during which it was built. Notable mentions are the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Hussite church, St. Nicholas’s Church and the Old Town Hall that houses the oldest functioning Astronomical Clock. Right at the center of the square stands the statue of Jan Huss, the founder of Hussitism, an important figure in the Bohemian Reformation, which laid down the foundations of Protestantism (Czechs are primarily atheists or Protestants). Moving out from the Old Town Square, one has to enter the narrow medieval street named Karlova, which leads straight into the Charles Bridge or Karlův most. Charles Bridge, the 14th century stone Gothic bridge, crosses the lazy Vltava river and connects the old town square with one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Prague, Malá Strana or the Lesser Town.
Visit the Prague Castle and Kafka’s house
The Royal Way further continues down and leads to the St. Nicholas Church of Lesser Town Square. Climbing up the hill leads to the charming Nerudova street that has a number of traditional Czech restaurants, cute shops selling beautiful wooden products, souvenirs and artworks, wooden puppets and the delectable Trdelníks. The street ends at the bottom of a flight of stairs that leads straight to the Castle entrance.
The Prague Castle, a UNESCO world heritage and the largest castle in the world, is an eclectic mixture of various architectural styles (Romanesque and Gothic influences) as it took several centuries to complete the castle as it stands today. The castle is home to one of the most beautiful and the most important churches in the Czech Republic, the St. Vitus Cathedral, the insides of which are decorated by beautiful stained glass windows dating back to the early 20th century and houses the tombs of Czech kings, queens and patron saints, most notably St. Vitus. Other places of interest inside the castle grounds are the Golden Lane and the Palace Gardens.
The Golden-lane, which consists of diminutive brightly colored houses that once belonged to servants, goldsmiths, and seamstresses, now act as museum shops and a museum of medieval armory. Most notably, the Czech writer Franz Kafka stayed in the house number 22 of Golden-lane from 1916-1917, where he wrote many of his classics. The Palace Gardens are a manicured set of beautiful Renaissance gardens that overlook a wonderful panoramic view of the city.
Walk in the Jewish Quarters
The Jewish Quarter or the Josefov is located in between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River. Although the Jewish Quarter today has become a fashionista’s paradise with high-end brands, such as Prada, Gucci, Rolex, Cartier, it continues to hold the remains of centuries of Jewish persecution through the Prague Jewish Museum and the Old Jewish Cemetery, that now functions as a museum. Each misshapen tombstone in one of the oldest Jewish Cemeteries in Europe cries out different tales of fire, flood, disease, and segregation. The Jews in Prague at the time were not allowed to bury their dead outside the ghetto and the Jewish faith prevented them to remove the already buried. This meant that the Cemetery is home to several thousand dead bodies that were buried in several layers one on top of each other, which explains the dense array of gravestones.
A moving experience is a visit to the Pinkas Synagogue, which was converted to a memorial for the deceased Jewish Holocaust victims after World War II. The synagogue also serves as a museum for the drawings and paintings made by the Jewish children in the Terezín concentration camp. These children were given drawing lessons in secret by a woman named Friedl, in order to give them an outlet to express themselves. What resulted were disturbing accounts of life in the ghettos from the children’s’ perspectives. All of these children were later sent to Auschwitz.
Visit the Markets
The best time to visit Prague is spring when the weather is inviting, the royal gardens are in full bloom and the Easter Markets are underway. The main markets are at Wenceslas Square and the Old Town Square (this being my favourite) and a smaller one in front of the St. George’s Basilica inside the Prague Castle.
The markets consist of wooden huts that are colourfully decorated and that sell ceramics, wooden toys, scented candles, dolls, puppets, jewellery, embroidered laces and table clothes and the greatest symbol of Easter, the Easter eggs in different designs and colours. You may also get to see old Czech women dressed in traditional gowns hand painting the Easter eggs with a mixture of watercolours, bee’s wax or stickers. Traditional foods, such as gigantic spit roasted hams, juicy barbecued sausages, cakes and the hot sugar coated pastries called Trdelníks, can also be seen on offer. Accompanying all these, are the famous Czech Beers, Pilsner or Urquell, which I believe are the best in Europe (Sorry, Germany!!).
However, if someone finds the air too chilly, a cup of hot mulled wine would do no harm.
During Easter, makeshift stages are set up in the Old Town Square where folk singers and dancers, who’ve travelled to Prague from all over the country, perform. Finally, the celebrations end on Easter Monday, when men come out with their Easter whips or Pomlázka—willow twigs that are braided together with colourful ribbons. They roam the streets gently tapping women on the back, which is said to bring good luck and health to the women. In return, the men are gifted Easter
eggs that the women have made beforehand and carry around with them. (Institutional flirting? Bride hunting expeditions? You don’t fool us)
Where to eat
Prague is a haven for food enthusiasts with restaurants that serve traditional bohemian dishes as well as modern cuisines located in an around the Old Town Square, the Wenceslas square and all the narrow streets that radiate out from these. But the best and the more pocket friendly options would be in Malá Strana – be it the succulent beef cheeks and the beef goulash with bohemian dumplings at U Zlaté Podkovy or the roast duck and the roasted pork ribs in plum sauce at U Tří jelínků or the traditional Czech dish Svíčková, which is beef baked in cream sauce and served with bread dumplings, wild cranberries, and whipped cream, at Malostranský Hostinec. The chocolate and vanilla Trdelníks or the blueberry variants are also a must eat.
Where to stay
The best location to stay in Prague would be on the Nerudova street which lies exactly halfway between the castle grounds and the Charles bridge, with the Old Town Square being just a 20 min walk away. My personal recommendations are Little Quarter Hostel and Hostel Santini.