Text and photographs Ilse Zietsman Additional photographs iStockphoto, supplied Prague is Baroque, it’s Art Nouveau; it’s a dreamy city with a festive atmosphere. It has twisting cobbled streets that curve in every direction; it has original medieval house signs, 17th-century pubs, cathedrals, synagogues and palaces. It has those inevitable legends of ghosts and golems (Jewish folkloric inanimate beings) although, having listened in vain, I have never heard the cries of the phantom baby under Charles Bridge. AMBLE THROUGH OLD PRAGUE The Czech Republic’s capital is fairly unique in the sense that it allows you to walk between its major sights in a matter of minutes: from Wenceslas Square (Václavské námestí) in New Town (Nové Mesto) in the south east to the Astronomical Clock (Pražský orloj) on the southern wall of the Old Town City Hall in Old Town Square (Staromestská námestí) in the centre of the city and from Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto, along Karlova street, across the Vltava River via Charles Bridge (Karluv most) to the castle district in Malá Strana in the west. Charles Bridge, a landmark in the city, warrants more than one visit, preferably at different times of the day: early morning when everyone else is still asleep; midday, when musicians entertain the tourists; at night, when party goers and twinkling lights lend a special charm to the bridge. A wondrous skyline of turrets, spires and ancient rooftops rewards you once you have climbed one of the defence towers on either side of the bridge. Thereafter walk a few blocks along the Vltava River – on the Old Town (Staré Mesto) side – to the Dancing House, also known as Fred (Astaire) and Ginger (Rogers). Once you have bought your sundowner at the little bar downstairs you are permitted to take the lift to the roof with its unforgettable view of the architectural confusion that typifies Prague. All roads lead back to Old Town Square, the heart of the city. Every hour tourists and Czechs gather under the Astronomical Clock to watch its moving figures, including Death tolling his bell. It has been said that Prague has about 200 churches and roughly 800 pubs. Of these there are various cathedrals, churches and synagogues that should not be missed. Two St Nicholas Cathedrals are worth seeing – the incredible baroque St Nicholas in Malá Strana, a few blocks west of Charles Bridge, and the other at Old Town Square. You will also find the Church of Mother of God before Týn, a Gothic church partially obscurred by arcaded houses, on the square. Another Gothic cathedral, St Vitus, is within the grounds of Prague Castle and its surrounding town of yesteryear. While you’re there, take an amble down Golden Lane, a little street in the castle complex with tiny, colourful cottages. Franz Kafka penned some of his works in number 22, a bright blue cottage fit for a gnome. Prague – or, more accurately, Bohemia – coined the word ‘defenestration’ so don’t forget to stop by the Ludwig Wing of Old Royal Palace (Starý královský palác) where the most notorious defenestration (the act of throwing someone from a window) took place. A THIRSTY BUSINESS In 2003 Praguistas drank 7.7 million hectolitres of Pilsner Urquell. It’s no wonder then that Czechs have a vast vocabulary to describe drinking, being drunk and suffering from a hangover. If you’ve had too much to drink, ‘you have a monkey’ (mam vopici); you are ‘as drunk as a Dane’ (zlitej jak dan) or merely ‘under the picture’ (být pod obraz). You have ‘turned to mush’ (byt na kasi) after you have been ‘drinking like a mushroom’ (nasavat jak houba). Head home while you are still able to ‘slither like a snail’ (plazit jako snek) or the next morning you will feel as if ‘you can be swept up like leaves’ (muzete si byt zameten jako listi). If you’re not up to a night of drinking, you will find that Czech menus inevitably feature goulash (guláš), succulent pork (veprové) and schnitzel (rízek). What I do not expect to see on so many menus is duck (kachna) and carp (kapr). The usual accompaniments to these dishes are krokety (fried béchamel dough croquettes), potato or knedlíky (dumplings). Some places do not serve vegetables at all except for a garnish of pickles. Don’t miss an opportunity to indulge in boršc (beetroot soup) as a starter and kaviár if you feel like splurging. Many dishes include garlic (cesnek) and onion (cibule). When I’m in the mood for a late night I go to listen to jazz, funk and blues at grungy Jazz Republic; AghaRTA, a small yet comfortable jazz venue housed in a 14th- century stone basement; or Reduta, which was a centre of the beautifully named Velvet Revolution – the independent movement in the late 1980s. One of Reduta’s many claims to fame is that Bill Clinton once played there. MEET THE GREEN FAIRY Since independence Prague has blossomed without losing any of its old charm. Czuppies (Czech yuppies) frequent the four-star Design Hotel Yasmin Prague, which is in walking distance of all the major sights in Old Town. In 2012 its Easter display in giant glass cubicles featured ostrich eggs and daffodils. No-one should go to Prague without visiting an absintherie, however. Acquaint yourself with the taste of absinthe and with the ‘green fairy’ that accompanies the experience. Absintherie Franz Kavka sqr is the most central: face the Astronomical Clock, walk towards your left hugging the buildings until you see a bicycle leaning against a wall on Franz Kafka square. Absintherie serves countless cocktails with a dash – or more – of absinthe: try the mojito or a Martini or a Slippery Nipple shooter. As you walk uphill from St Nicholas Cathedral (the one in Malá Strana) along Nerudova street you’ll find the weirdest absintherie of all. Absinth Shop (with an in-house bar), situated soon after Nerudova street becomes Úvoz street, claims to serve kosher absinthe ice cream and extreme ritual drinks. The interior with its downright eerie mannequins is a sight to behold. Absinthe spoons and other paraphernalia are also available. Trendoids recline on white beds while sipping cocktails at Bed Lounge, just off Old Town Square. This is one of the few places in the world where waitresses make beds instead of clearing tables when their customers leave. Barock, in Josefov, is rated as one of the best restaurants in Prague and, with its elegant black-and-white interior, is frequented by the who’s who of the fashion world. Bohumil Hrabal, the much-loved Czech author of I Served the King of England, once said, ‘My credo was always delight, bliss, longing’. Precisely what I experience while wandering these streets. Delight at the magnificent architecture throughout Old Prague; bliss whether sipping mulled wine, biting into a wurst roll from a street vendor or merely wandering down subtly lit alleyways at night; and longing, which I’m certain I’ll feel as soon as I return home. WHEN IN PRAGUE STAY
- Hotel U Zlatého Jelena, also know as Golden Deer Hotel, vies for best hotel location, being virtually on Old Town Square.
- A spacious apartment in Kozí Street, Josefov – with South African owners – is available for a minimum stay of one week.
- Enjoy afternoon tea and sumptuous cakes from a treat trolley at Kavárna Obecní dum, one of Prague’s most opulent restaurants. Its high-ceilinged Art Deco room has twinkling chandeliers.
- Some of the most hip and happening restaurants overlook Charles Bridge, notably Kampa Park and Hergetova Cihelna.
- At Pražský most u Valšu traditional Czech dishes and uniquely brewed beer can be enjoyed.
- Take yourself back to yesteryear by sipping a glass of wine at Grand Hotel Evropa in the glorious Art Nouveau bar.
- Book a ticket for ballet or opera at the National Theatre/Narodni Divadlo at a fraction of the cost of a ticket elsewhere in Europe. Go for a theatre box seat for an added experience.
- Discover everything you ever wanted to know about Franz Kafka at the Franz Kafka Museum, which is visible from Charles Bridge as you approach.
This article was originally featured in the July 2013 issue of House and Leisure.