Prague is everybody’s idea of what an old European city should look like; with its picturesque spires and cobblestone streets, it is redolent of a bygone era. When I saw it for the first time, standing on Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, it had an ethereal quality.
The antique street lamps and enigmatic statues around me were enveloped in mist, and up ahead on an invisible hill was a tiny city that glowed warmly and seemed as though it sat on clouds. It had a castle with towers and turrets, straight out of an illustrated fairy-tale book… and it seemed as though any moment Prince Charming would pick up the glass slipper shed by a fleeing Cinderella.
Prague is a fairy tale city in more ways than one. Its buildings have survived the ravages of time, withstood the blows of the World War II and the unkind hand of the Communist regime. Unlike neighbouring cities Bucharest, Warsaw and Berlin, it was spared not just the pummelling by enemies, but also the imposition of Stalinist architecture. Prague remains a jewel encased in the most eye-catching blend of Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque styles.
A walking city
Prague’s many neighbourhoods are best explored on foot. From Josefov, the historic Jewish quarter, the old town, Stare Mesto is steps away. The Tyn Church and its twin bell towers in the central square remain a huge draw and people await the hourly show of the 15th century astronomical clock when the figures of Christ and the apostles emerge one by one.
The square has some delightful cafes and side streets lined with bookshops. Across the river lies the new town, Mala Strana. Its higgledy-piggledy streets and charming homes topped with a sea of terracotta rooftops see many a shutterbug lost in their midst. My favourite street is the sloping Nerudova Street, named after Jan Neruda, the famous Czech writer.
On the adjoining hill, Prague Castle makes its presence felt, as it looms above everything else. It soon dawned that the castle is used by the president and the government, not Cinderella and Prince Charming. St Vitus Cathedral with its flying buttresses and Wenceslas Chapel, I hoped, were hiding Rumplestiltskin somewhere.
Prague is so breathtakingly beautiful, with first rate museums, a lively restaurant scene and streets untroubled by traffic, that my complaints about the large numbers of cavorting stag groups attending bachelor parties and uninspired cuisine (goulash, dumplings and potato pancakes) were only half-hearted.
Czech history is filled with small victories where the peoples’ ingenuity and guile stood up to tyranny. Milan Kundera, in his book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being tells us how the people of Prague changed the street signs to confound the Soviets. In an earlier era, when the Austro-Hungarian rulers forced the German language on them, they’d get together for unsupervised puppet shows that were conducted in Czech and Slovak.
Puppetry is still a popular tradition here, and I was fortunate to catch a rip-roaringly funny rendition of Don Giovanni at the National Marionette Theatre. Prague’s many churches fell to disuse when the Soviets stifled religious beliefs. Today, the resourceful Czechs have turned them into concert halls, their upkeep ensured by sales of tickets. Snatches of classical music waft through doors and courtyards — there isn’t an evening in Prague where you won’t find an ensemble snatching at your heartstrings.