Big City Tales

Prague – The Beauty of Bohemia | December 21, 2017

Prior to travelling to Prague in the fall of 2014, I had seen plenty of pictures and read many reviews about the city’s growing reputation as a must-see destination of choice over other European gems such as London, Paris and Rome. Having visited the ‘Big 3’ on my first trip across the pond, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical that Prague could somehow surpass them in esteem, especially Paris, the glorious City of Light, but my opinion changed. In no time at all, I was succumed by the Beauty of Bohemia!

Municipal House

I found it very fitting that Municipal House is located in Namesti Republiky (Republic Square) in the center of Prague. Not only was it once used as the primary residence of the King of Bohemia in the 14th and 15th centuries; its main balcony was where Czechoslovakia declared its independence as a country in 1918. In addition to its status as the city’s historical heart and one of its most architecturally stunning Art Nouveau structures, the building has evolved into a cultural landmark. The elaborately decorated Smetana Hall is the largest area inside of Municipal House and is used for concerts, festivals and ballroom galas. By day or by night, this Prague gem captured my attention, earned my admiration and drew me back more than once.

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Powder Tower

Located next to Municipal House is Powder Tower (also known as Powder Gate), one of the city’s original gateways that was constructed in the late 1400s. The Gothic-style tower is the dividing point between the Old Town and New Town districts. Originally called New Tower, the name was changed in the 17th century when the tower was used to store gunpowder. The tower has also been used over the centuries as a marker to measure the height of flood waters. Similar to many of Prague’s historic structures, it struck me that the tower is equally impressive at any hour of the day and there are many interesting angles to observe it from.

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Old Town

While Municipal House was where the modern country of Czechoslovkia was born, its medieval roots are found in the Old Town district. Old Town Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features a number of historical buildings and monuments, as well as a large open space for food vendors, entertainers, and craftspeople to utilize. As I happily discovered, it is the ideal place to sample traditional Czech dishes such as palicinky (pancakes), trdelnik (rolled dough), gulas (meat goulash), or knedliky (dumplings) and then enjoy your beverage of choice at an outdoor cafe with an amazing backdrop of Renaissance and Baroque building facades to ooh and ahh over. Along with satisfying my sweet and savory cravings, Old Town Square served up other visual delights to feast my eyes on:

  • Astronomical Clock – As the third oldest of its kind in the world, the clock draws throngs of tourists to the southern wall of the Old Town Hall building where they eagerly await the top of the hour to strike and watch the figures come to life. I particularly enjoyed the “Walk of the Apostles” and other moving sculptures. According to legend, if the clock were ever to stop or come to disrepair, the city of Prague would suffer dire consequences so there is a concerted effort to keep it fully operational for citizens and visitors to forever enjoy.
  • Jan Hus Monument – Located in the middle of Old Town Square, the Jan Hus monument honours the religious reformer who, long before Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses, was speaking out against egregious church practices. Even after being ex-communicated by the Pope, Hus continued sharing his message and amassed a loyal following which the Catholic establishment frowned upon. When Hus refused to renounce his beliefs, he was branded as a heretic and subsequently burned at the stake.
  • Kinsky Palace – Once the residence of the Kinsky royal family, the Rococo-style palace is now an art museum and showcases some of the country’s finest landscape paintings dating back to the 17th century. The building’s exterior is a work of art in and of itself with its distinctive stucco finish and highly eye-catching pink and white colour. Before it was converted into a museum, the palace was used as a German grammar school and counts Franz Kafka as one of its famous students. Sadly, the palace was also the site where Communist leader Klement Gottwald announced his party’s takeover of government in 1948.
  • Church of Our Lady before Tyn – Looking very much like a castle straight out of a fairy tale, the church’s two Gothic-designed towers stand 80 metres tall and are each topped with four spires. The church is also home to Prague’s oldest pipe organ.

Wenceslas Square

Located in Prague’s New Town district, Wenceslas Square is primarily a hub for commercial and cultural activities. The long boulevard that extends from the National Museum to the border between New Town and Old Town reminded me of the Champs Elysees in Paris with shops, cafes and throngs of tourists intermingling with the city’s business crowd. One of the major landmarks is the Wenceslas Monument that stands in front of the National Museum and includes a statue of Saint Wenceslas (patron saint of Bohemia), as well as four other Czech saints. The area is also a frequent gathering place for social demonstrations and civic celebrations.

While I was familiar with the classic Christmas carol called “Good King Wenceslas,” I did not realize that during his lifetime, Wenceslas only held the rank of duke. It wasn’t until after his brutal death at the hands of his jealous brother that he was posthumously granted the title of king and recognized for his pious nature and good deeds.

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National Museum

The main building of the National Museum was unfortunately closed to the public due to a major reconstruction project that was underway when I was there in 2014, but the grounds were open to walk around. At the base of the stairs leading up to the museum’s entrance I came across the Jan Palach Memorial. Palach was one of two university students who self-immolated in a suicide pact to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quash liberal reforms being proposed at the time by Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Prague Spring movement. The bronze cross marks the spot where Palach and his friend, Jan Zajic, chose to commit their radical acts. To this day, people come to the site and lay flowers in a sign of remembrance and respect for the ultimate sacrifice made by Palach, Zajic and others who desired political freedom.

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Prague Castle 

Situated in Hradcany (Castle District), the Prague Castle overlooks the Vltava River and also holds the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest ‘coherent castle complex’ with a total land area sprawling over 70,000 square metres. As I was forewarned, appropriate footwear is a must and ample time is required to wander around this massive wonder.

The Gothic-designed St. Vitus Cathedral, home of the Archbishop of Prague, is one of the most identifiable landmarks within the castle complex and is easy to spot from a distance with its nearly 100 metre high main tower dominating the skyline. The church is the largest and oldest in the Czech Republic and is the final resting place for many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors.

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In addition to St. Vitus Cathedral and other churches, the castle complex is also a myriad wonder of palaces, grand halls, towers, sculptures, gardens and museums. The President of the Czech Republic lives in the complex and presides over the country’s affairs. The Prague Castle Guard protect the main entry way of the courtyard leading into the Matthias Gate that was erected by its namesake, Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1614. Similar to other major European castles, tourists are treated to frequent changing of the guards ceremonies.

One of my favourite parts of the Prague Castle day tour I took was walking through the St. Wenceslas Vineyard that cascades down the hill towards the Vltava River.  The cobblestone pathway was littered with freshly fallen leaves just starting to change colour with the advent of fall’s crisp, cool air.

I also took a ‘Prague By Night’ tour that included a stop at Prague Castle where the St. Vitus Cathedral glowed in tones of rich gold and spotlights cast spectacular shadows of presidential monuments. The view of the castle complex from afar was also awe-inspiring with light reflecting off of the river water below.

Charles Bridge

Up until 1841, the only way to cross the Vltava River from Old Town to Prague Castle was via Karluv Most, the Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV. The bridge is constructed of stone and is over 600 metres in length. Its many features include three guard towers, 16 arches and 30 statues. Whether I was experiencing the market-like bustle of the bridge as a pedestrian or admiring its architectural style from a riverboat (along with a bevy of swans), I could not deny the utter charm and timeless appeal of this historic bridge.

Vltava River

Commonly referred to as the “Czech national river,” the Vltava is 430 kilometres in length and flows through the center of Prague. There are a total of 18 bridge crossings within Prague, the aforementioned Charles Bridge being the most famous, and there are numerous boat tour operators offering morning, afternoon and evening launches. I chose to enjoy an afternoon tea and dessert tour and it hit the spot!

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One of the highlights of the river cruise I took was viewing the Metronome (high on the hill in Letna Park) and the Svatopluk Čech bridge with its gorgeous Art Nouveau styled arches and soaring column-topped angels.

Angels in the sky

The Beauty of Bohemia

After a week touring around the heart of Bohemia, I went from skeptic to firm believer that Prague is the new Paris! It’s just as pretty; it’s just as bright; it’s lights will take away your breath at night. Yes, the Beauty of Bohemia is quite a sight and the locals sure know how to show it off all right!

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