[ SUNDAY TRAVEL ]
[THREE DAYS IN PRAGUE]
Step into 18thImagine a beautiful, ancient European city that looks like the 18th century never ended, with cobbled lanes, majestic Baroque palaces, fountains, gardens, a river crossed by foot-bridge, and no automobiles in its center to shatter the time-warp illusion. This must be Prague.
The capital of the Czech Republic
is called the "city of 100 spires," with
lavish old churches and palaces
amid bustling squares and cafés
By Dennis Callan
Special to the Star-Bulletin
Capital of the Czech Republic, Prague is one of the most picturesque, interesting cities in Europe and one of the few historic places on the continent not damaged by World War I or II, so the well-preserved buildings are the real thing.
Prague prospered as capital of the powerful province of Bohemia. During the 14th century it became the largest city after Paris, with the first university in Central Europe (1348) and a thriving economy that supported cultural developments. Religious wars in the 15th and 17th centuries created great turmoil, yet Prague's wealth and power grew.
For three centuries it was an integral part of the Hapsburg Empire, second only to Vienna in importance. Austrian nobility built up Prague and left many treasures behind. Today the palaces that line the main square and side alleys of the Old Town display Baroque facades, Gothic interiors and ancient Romanesque cellars.
"Modernization" within the last 200 years was limited to the graceful innovations of Art Nouveau in the early 20th century, found in dozens of elegant buildings. Economic stagnation under the Communists after World War II was unfortunate, but preserved the old buildings by default, since there was no money to rebuild.
The "city of a hundred spires" will impress you with its soaring churches and lavish palaces. Its lively squares and avenues give the city a festive atmosphere, and its concert halls, ballet and opera performances are world-class.
The Old Town, dating from the 13th century, is on the eastern side of the Vltava River, while the Lesser Quarter ("Mala Strana"), is across the river. Above it all, dominating the entire city, is Hradcany Castle -- formerly the residence of the kings of Bohemia and now headquarters for the president of the Czech Republic.
Prague is rapidly becoming a center of the arts, with similarities to Paris in the 1920s. A new kind of Left Bank Bohemian attitude is developing, and this presents interesting facets: new galleries, street performers and expanded museums.
Central Europe has not yet been fully discovered by tourists, so while it can get crowded during the summer, you can avoid the crush by traveling in May or September.
About two miles across, Central Prague can be thoroughly explored on foot in three days, with the occasional journey by tram to speed things along.
Day 1Orientation walk: Old Town Square, Charles Bridge
Old Town Square: Prague's center is surrounded by beautiful 18th century palaces, with the twin Gothic towers of the Tyn Church looming on one side and the Clock Tower of the Old Town Hall on the other. This square is busy day and night. Many of the old palaces have been converted into restaurants, bars and cafés, with outdoor tables spilling onto the square. It's nice for a drink and people-watching, but there are better places for a meal. Some of these cafés have barrel-vaulted cellars that were built a thousand years ago.
The Old Town Hall's Astronomical Clock has been putting on its show every hour for 350 years, with a dramatic display by the 12 Apostles who come marching past two windows on each side of the elaborate clock. This two-faced clock not only tells time but displays the phases of the moon, equinoxes, Babylonian time, painted seasons, the sun's rotation around the earth, various saints' feasts, zodiac signs, days and months.
Near the clock is the Town Hall Tower, which is worth the admission charge to climb the spiraling ramp that leads about 200 feet to the viewing gallery. From the top of this 650-year-old tower you get the best panorama of the Old Town, with its pattern of red-clay tile roofs spreading for a mile in all directions.
Another sight on the Old Town Square is St. Nicholas Church, a large, white, Baroque structure that hosts evening chamber music concerts. It's said that architecture is music frozen in stone, and it's always a delight to attend a classical concert in a Baroque church because of the excellent acoustics and visual details.
Palaces around the square show off 500 years of architectural styles: pointed Gothic, elaborate Baroque, even busier Rococo, rounded Romanesque, and more modern Art Nouveau.
The star of the square is the old Gothic visage of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, a symbol of the city with two pointed black towers sprouting with little turrets that make it slightly scary. Construction started in 1365, but renovations over the years resulted in a mix of Renaissance and Baroque altars, pulpits, stained glass, paintings and statues.
The statue in the center of the Old Town Square is the monument to Jan Huss, a religious reformer who was burned at the stake in 1415. Huss was a hero and martyr for the Czech people.
Evenings are lively on the square, with people streaming into cafes and concerts, or watching street performances. It is well-lit and safe.
Charles Bridge: The next most entertaining sight in Prague is this bridge spanning the Vltava River (also called the Moldau). To get to the bridge, just follow the crowd, heading past the Clock Tower into the narrow Karlova ("Charles") Street, the most congested pedestrian street in town.
Along the way, souvenir shops in this touristy stretch will tempt you with T-shirts, crystal, beer steins, puppets, toys, jewelry and trinkets.
The bridge joins the two historic sections of town, the Old Town and the Mala Strana, with a graceful design that includes 30 statues of saints. Construction began in 1357 and was finished 50 years later. The Baroque statues, added in the early 18th century, were based on the work of Bernini at Rome's Ponte Sant Angelo.
Walk up the Bridge Tower on the Old Town side for a spectacular view over the rooftops and river ($2 admission).
Old Town, South: Stroll the quaint back streets south of Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square. Immerse yourself in 18th century architecture amid a fascinating labyrinth of narrow alleys, little squares, charming old buildings, unique shops and inexpensive restaurants. There are numerous tunnels and mid-block passages through buildings and courtyards that can lead to glimpses of behind-the-scenes life.
Starting from Charles Bridge, notice the Clementinum, a group of buildings with courtyards, towers and chapels. Built in the mid-16th century, this was headquarters for the Jesuits, who were leading the opposition against the Reformation. For the next 200 years, this building complex kept growing into the second largest structure in town, after the castle. There are frequent concerts in the small Chapel of Mirrors. From the Clementinum, cross Karlova street and head south.
There are amazing bargain restaurants here. The cost of living is much less than European averages, but prices in the tourist restaurants and nice hotels are high -- so try to find a place where locals go. Czech cuisine is based on meat, potatoes and dumplings. For lighter meals, look for Country Life, a vegetarian cafeteria, on Melantrichova, a block south of the Old Town Square. One of the most interesting blocks near here is the large open market along Havelska.
Old Town, East: A little alley to the left of Tyn Church will take you to the Tynska neighborhood with two streets and the large Ungelt courtyard, connected to the streets by pedestrian arcades. Continue to the church of St. Jakob (St. James), a large Gothic church with a Baroque interior, covered with elaborate statues of saints and angels. It is the second longest church in Prague.
Walk three more blocks to Namesti Republiky, a large square with several notable institutions and a metro station. Prague's largest department store, Kotva, is here in an ultramodern building four stories high and filled with nearly anything you could want.
The Pariz Hotel is here, a good place to stay. Across the street is the Municipal House, one of Prague's cultural centers, featuring a major concert hall and an excellent restaurant, all set in the most dazzling Art Nouveau building in town, with a golden-mirrored prismatic exterior, topped by several incongruous domes.
Standing next to the Municipal House is the Powder Tower, another ominous Gothic fortification. Pay the $3 admission and walk up this tower for views over the clay tile roofs of the Old Town. Two streets leading out from this tower are Celetna and Na Prikope. Both are for pedestrians and are lined with shops, bars and restaurants. Celetna has some of the oldest buildings in town, its Gothic structures embellished with Baroque faces, while Na Prikope has contemporary architecture mixed with the old.
Music is one of the great delights of a visit to Prague, where there are probably more concerts nightly than in any other European city. Costumed hawkers appear all over town passing out leaflets to promote performances, and churches set up tables touting their shows. One of the best concerts halls is the famous Estates Theater, where Mozart conducted the premiere of "Don Giovanni," which will be performed nightly from July 13 to Aug. 26.
Day 2Hradcany, Prague Castle, Mala Strana, St. Nicholas
Spend the day on the other side of the Vltava River, exploring the huge castle and the old sections of town. It is a mile uphill from the Old Town, so take tram No. 22, and get off at the Strahov Monastery, marked by a statue of astronomer Johannes Kepler. You could also take a standard bus tour.
Strahov Monastery: Here you will find two beautiful library rooms, richly decorated with paintings and statues from ceiling to floor. Founded in the 12th century, the complex has grown to include a church, cloister, monastery, research institute, museum, disco, restaurant and the library. The two rooms that will delight you are the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall, with an amazing Baroque ensemble of carvings, ceiling murals, gilt frames and inlaid wooden architecture.
Hradcany: Go through the gates beside the monastery to a small staircase tunnel that will lead you down to Pohorelec. This street is the heart of Hradcany, formerly an independent town associated with the castle, now one of the most historic areas of Prague. An open arcade ends up at Cernin Palace, home to the Foreign Ministry. Across the way is a pilgrimage church called Loreto, with a reproduction of the Virgin's house from Nazareth.
You will come upon more palaces, some converted into museums. The Schwarzenberg Palace is covered with illusionist sgraffito geometric painted designs, in an Italian style that has been adopted by Prague. The palace contains a museum of military history with coverage through World War I. Across the square is the Archbishop's Palace, and in the middle of the square, the impressive Column of Our Lady, constructed in 1726 to commemorate victims of the plague.
Art lovers might visit the National Gallery, in Sternberg Palace just behind the Archbishop's home. There are famous artists, including Brueghel, Durer, Goya, El Greco, Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, Picasso and other cubists, but the Swedes wound up with most of the great pieces back in the 17th century.
Prague Castle: This is where the city began, with foundations that reach back to the 9th century. Primary sights in the castle are St. Vitus Cathedral, the Royal Palace and Golden Lane. Additional sights include the Picture Gallery, with a collection of mostly Czech painters and some Old Masters, and a historical museum in the Lobkovicky Palace. Behind the cathedral is the Basilica of St. George, built in the heavy Romanesque style a thousand years ago. Buildings in the complex are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A combined ticket costs $6, with the picture galleries extra. In general, fees to enter historic buildings and museums are about $2.
St. Vitus Cathedral takes its place as one of the great Gothic churches of Europe, with pinnacles soaring high above the nave, 400 feet long and 200 feet wide. Built over a 600-year period, this church has accumulated a variety of art treasures, including Renaissance and Baroque tombs, paintings and statues. A chapel encrusted with jewels contains the crypt of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of Prague. He was a prince who ruled for 16 years, until 935, when he was assassinated by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel.
The cathedral's stained-glass collection features Gothic windows and 20th century windows, including an Art Nouveau section by Alfons Mucha. Don't miss the two-ton silver tomb of St. John Nepomuk, covered with angels carrying his soul heavenward, designed by Fisher von Erlach of Vienna.
Note the pointed arches of three large doors on the side, called the Golden Portal, which had been the main entrance until the nave was extended in the 19th century. To the right is the Royal Palace entrance.
One room inside the Royal Palace makes the price of admission worthwhile. Vladislav Hall, built in late Gothic style 500 years ago, has an amazing rib-vaulted ceiling that spans the 200-foot length of this chamber. It is where kings have been crowned and other great ceremonies held. It was used for jousting tournaments that featured knights on horseback, and functioned as a market and public gathering place.
The Castle's final attraction is Golden Lane, a row of houses in a quaint back alley that were once occupied by royal alchemists, who failed to turn lead into gold but did make progress in developing modern chemistry. This lane is always crowded with tourists and, as in all crowded tourist areas, watch out for pickpockets.
Mala Strana: Walk downhill to Mala Strana ("Lesser Quarter") a historic neighborhood that feels like a peaceful village from times past. You have a choice of two staircases, the easy route straight down the Old Castle Steps, or through the Garden on the Ramparts to a staircase that will deliver you into the center of Mala Strana.
Mala Strana is less than a square mile so you can see much of it in an afternoon. Like the Old Town across the river, many of the buildings date to the Gothic period, with most of the exterior designs completed during the Baroque era. It has remained pretty much the same for 400 years, making this an intact jewel, a time capsule of what cities looked like.
The quickest route could take you through in a half hour, past St. Nicholas Church and onto the Charles Bridge, then across to the Old Town -- but you would miss its charms, so slow down. Start with the Wallenstein Garden, a block from the foot of the Old Castle Steps. It is a green oasis with fountains, statues, a Rococo pavilion, with benches, all arranged with the formal symmetry of the Renaissance.
St. Nicholas Church: Follow the tram tracks to arrive behind St. Nicholas, an amazing, early 18th century church. Prepare yourself for a dizzying display of architectural pyrotechnics! It is the most Baroque display in a Baroque city, so the Dientzenhofer clan of artists had to ratchet up the effects to impress their townsfolk. Everything seems to move in this enormous display with murals that trick, statues that seem to be marble but are not, in a smooth flow of architecture topped by the highest dome in town, 230 feet. Painted arches blend with real corners so you don't know what is real. This is the Jesuits at their Counter-Reformation best, with Italian style converted into a Bohemian rhapsody.
Emerging, look up at the façade to appreciate the convex and concave lines, based on the work of Borromini in Rome. Climb the church's bell tower for a spectacular view over the city. There's a small admission charge. You also pay a few dollars to enter the church, for it is now considered a museum.
There are more adventures in Mala Strana. Take a half-mile walk up Nerudova Street, then down a staircase to a lane that leads past several embassies, including our own, and delivers you back to St. Nicholas.
Walk toward Charles Bridge on Mosteka, a busy shopping street, into a quiet section along Misenska Street. Pass under the bridge through an arch that leads you to Na Kampe square, its garden surrounded by old palaces.
Walk through to the lush green park of Kampa Island, sometimes called "Little Venice" because of the canal that runs alongside its waterfront houses. Stroll under a canopy of trees. An old water wheel still turns on the side of an abandoned mill, which is your signal to cross the bridge over Devil's Creek, leading to the mainland.
One of the best restaurants in town is nearby on Nebovidska Street, The Blue Duck (U Modre Kachnicky), and it is relatively expensive. There are three small dining rooms, each with its own decor, excellent service, and delicious traditional foods. Call ahead as they are very popular. An excellent alternative for outdoor dining is Kampa Park restaurant on the water's edge with a postcard river view of Charles Bridge and Old Town.
After dining, stroll across the Charles Bridge and continue to the Old Town Square, which will be booming until the wee hours. You can cap off the day with some marvelous music. Along with the classical venues, you can often find traditional Czech folk music and dance performances, especially in the Theater of the Municipal Library on Marianske nam, west of the Old Town Square.
Day 3New Town and some museums, Wenceslas Square or take a day trip out of town
New Town and some museums: You have seen most of the important sights of Prague, but there is more, especially in a large section founded in 1348, but still called the "New Town." The main sights in the New Town are Wenceslas Square, the National Museum and Charles Square. This section has a mix of new and old buildings, so the illusion of living in the past is not as strong here, but there are still many wonderful places of interest.
Wenceslas Square: This is a major landmark in the shape of a wide boulevard stretching half a mile, lined with shops, restaurants and hotels. It has always been an important gathering place, such as during the peaceful democratic revolution in 1989, when it filled up with the million that lived in Prague. It is always busy, from the Old Town end filled with outdoor shopping stands, upslope to the National Museum which anchors the other end.
The sidewalk craft vendors open early. If you have any interest in Art Nouveau, walk one block to the Museum of Alfons Mucha, Panska 7, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Mucha was the master of early 20th century poster art, typically featuring beautiful faces surrounded by swirls of dreamy flowers. There is also an interesting video display about his life, and an excellent gift shop in the lobby.
At the top of Wenceslas Square is the National Museum, built in the late 19th century in a heroic neo-Renaissance style. Its collections are antiquated but appeal to those interested in geology, insects, stuffed animals and Czech ethnology. It is definitely worth entering the lobby to appreciate the spectacular staircase and rotunda, which you can see without paying the $2 admission -- and there is a perfect view looking down along Wenceslas Square, with a decent cafe on the terrace offering light snacks. You can also appreciate the majestic statue of Wenceslas on his horse at this end of the square.
It is only a six-block downhill walk to Charles Square, a large green park in the midst of the New Town. It gives a view of typical residential neighborhoods. You will find excellent beer all over town, but there are certain beer halls that are institutions, such as U Fleku, one block beyond Charles Square, at 11 Kremencova. They have been brewing their own dark beer since 1459, in a delightful setting with several indoor rooms and a shady garden with communal tables, and a couple of oompa bands.
You might also visit the old Jewish section of town, called Josefov, a mile from Charles Square. Not much is left of the Jewish Quarter, which was a victim of urban renewal in the early 20th century, but there is the famous Old Jewish Cemetery, the second-most visited landmark in town, with 20,000 burials, 12 deep in a one-block area. The other attractions are the Old-New Synagogue, reputedly founded in 1270, and the Jewish Town Hall, with a Hebrew clock that runs backward.
That covers Prague, and you can see why UNESCO protects this amazing collection of wonderful historic buildings as a World Heritage Site.
A day trip out of town: An alternative plan for this third day is a day trip into the countryside to visit some of the small towns, especially Cesky Krumlov, which is so scenic, it could be worth sitting on a bus for six hours. It has a castle on the hill and an Old Town surrounded by a long bend in the Vltava River. It takes about three hours to get there on a guided bus tour, so plan to spend the whole day on a trip that would also stop at a few other lovely towns along the way, like Ceske Budejovice, where Budweiser beer was first brewed.
IF YOU GOHere are places to stay and places to eat when in Prague. Prefix phone and fax numbers with 011-420-2 when calling from the United States.
Hotels>> Hocall Palace: Panska 12, Praha 1; phone 2409-3111, fax 2422-1240 (our favorite)
>> Hocall Pariz: U Obecniho domu 1, Praha 1; phone 2219-5195, fax 2422-5475
>> Hocall Inter-Continental: Nam Curieovych 43; phone 2488-1111, fax 2481-0071
>> Hocall Meteor Plaza: Hybernska 6, Praha 1; phone 2422-0664, fax 2421-3005
>> Hocall Ambassador: Zlata Husa, Vaclavske namesti 5-7; phone 2419-3111, fax 242 26 167
Restaurants>> Kampa Park: Riverfront dining with view of Charles Bridge, Na Kampe 8b, Prague 1-Mala Strana; call 5753 2685.
>> Palac Kinskych: Classic Czech cuisine, at Tynska 3, Prague 1-Old Town; call 2481 0750.
>> Palffy Palac: Grand old dame of Prague dining, at Valdstejnska 14, Prague 1-Mala Strana; call 5753 1420.
>> Parnas Continental: An elegant setting with gorgeous views of Charles Bridge and the castle, at Smetanovo nabr. 2, Prague 1; call 2421 1901.
>> Restaurant Sarah Bernhardt: Hocall Pariz, U Obecniho domu 1, Prague 1-Old Town; call 2219 5900.
>> U Kamenneho mostu: Czech and French, at the Old Town end of Charles Bridge, at Smetanovo nabr. 195, Prague 1; call 2409 7100.
>> V Zatisi: Perhaps Prague's favorite restaurant, at Liliova 1, Betlemske namesti, Prague 1-Old Town; call 2222 1155.
>> Kolkovna: Czech traditional, at V kolkovne 8, Prague 1-Old Town; call 2481 9701.
>> U Bile kuzelky: Czech, with a strolling accordionist, at Misenska 12, Prague 1-Mala Strana; call 5753 0880.
>> U Modre kachnicky: Nebovidska and Michalska 16, Prague 1-Old Town; call 2421 3418.
>> U Fleku: Beer hall dating back to 1459, at Kremencova 11; call 29 64 17.
Tour services>> Cityrama: Phone 2223 1538, fax 2223 2429
>> Pragotur Guides Centre: Phone 2448 2562, fax 2448 2380
>> Prague Information Service, Old Town Hall: Phone 2448 2018, fax 2448 2380
>> Na Prikope 20: Phone/fax 2422 6097
>> Prague walks: Phone/fax 6121 4603
>> Prague Steamboat Co.: Phone 2491 7640, 2493 1013; fax 2491 3862
>> Andel 3W Prague Hocalls & Tourist Services: Phone 573 27860, fax 573 27862
>> Prague Sightseeing Tours: Phone 231 4661, fax 231 8017
Web sites>> www.abaka.com
Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" television series, shown at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, repeating 9 a.m. Wednesdays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, and writes a "Three Days in ..." the first Sunday of each month explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places. View the companion TV episode this week.