It may have been because our feet were refusing to comply or because after two days, we were gasping for some non-Gothic air. What-ever the reason, it was in a Prague street that we succumbed to the best foot massage – right in the middle of Franz Kafka country.
It’s not what one should fly to the Czech Republic for. But let not the travel literature and 10-things-to-do-in-Prague lists limit you either. Prague (or Praha) is like your favourite film – you can watch it from any scene and every time you’re surprised to discover something new.
Going like Clockwork
Like all travellers, we had done our homework. But nothing can prepare you for your Prague moment. Mine happened on the second day. After checking for weather updates (130 Celsius with cold winds), we tumbled out of our room on to one of Prague’s busiest streets near Old Town square.
Following the swarm of tourists and ignoring the many cafes (Prague’s famous beer, Pilsner Urquell, would have to wait), the cobbled streets and baroque facades, we reached the Square. That is when I saw the mass of heads looking upwards.
They were all staring at the towering Astronomical Clock or Orloj. The medieval clock tower has an astronomical dial, with the positions of the sun and moon and a calendar dial representing the months. The real pageantry begins when it’s time to announce the hour. This is when four carved figures around the dials come to life. They represent Greed holding a bag of money, Vanity with a hand mirror, the Turk symbolising entertainment, and the most interesting, Death, a skeleton that rings a tiny bell to signal the hour.
Blast from the Past
The square is also where we met our guide, who took us on a long but exhilarating walk of Prague. She first pointed to the Gothic two-spired Church of Our Lady before Tyn on the other side of Old Town Square. The church spires end in golden globules (something we notice across Prague). We were told that these contained building maps so that in case the structure was destroyed, it could still be rebuilt.
We next skipped through Prague’s most expensive street – Pariska – with the best-dressed people and even better dressed windows. Past the Rudolfinum, the stunning neo-Renaissance home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, we found ourselves on one of Prague’s many bridges. Our guide told us that on January 1 each year, local men, in a show of bravado, jump into the Vltava river below. Last year, she said, the temperature on that day was -60 Celsius.
She also pointed out to a giant metronome (a pendulum that indicates tempo of a piece of music) that stands in the exact same spot which once played host to the tallest Stalin statue in the world. That one was dynamited out of existence in 1991 once the former Soviet Russia broke up. But the metronome’s position continues to be a massive reminder of the country’s Communist past.
Up the steep slope
Just beyond the bridge, in the Mala Strana (Lesser Town) area, lies the expansive Wallenstein Palace. Built in the Baroque style to rival Prague Castle, it houses the Czech Senate. Manicured gardens aside, the compound has a wall that looks like it’s all skulls and bones. But these are just artificial stalactites.
The way past these gardens to the castle (Pražský hrad) district is dotted with a wine and beer garden, all excellent spots to take a breather. It was here that I had my Praha moment. After having climbed the broad steps, I turned to look at the view. And it was from this vantage point that the city with its thousand spires and the Vltava with its bridges opened its cobbled heart to me.
The world’s largest castle compound is an architecture obsessor’s 3D dream. Every possible style is contained within this area. The haunting St Vitus Cathedral is a stellar Gothic example; the Basilica of St George is styled in the Romanesque tradition. The castle also houses a monastery and museums.
I’ll be back
The Czech Republic may have shrugged its communist pall, but we were looking forward to walking down Wenceslas Square. The broad Boulevard, now Prague’s commercial centre, was the location of many protests during the Velvet Revolution. But it doesn’t take long to go from let’s-down-some-beers to let’s-look-in-awe. A 20-minute walk away is the Jewish Quarter (Josefov). Once a thriving ghetto, it is a reminder of a chilling past.
Our three and a half days in Prague, were just about enough to skim the surface. But if one has to devour each layer, it’s important to view the city like that earlier mentioned favourite film.
From HT Brunch, November 6
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