The most stunning city of East Europe shows off it Baroque past in style.
Keep your eyes open just a slit if you ride out of Praha Ruzyne airport during the rush hour. The cabbie might skirt the traffic and take a bypass to reach the town centre, and the sight of Soviet-style functionality along the way could turn the heartsomersault of joy into a backflip ending in a fiat fall.
First, a tip: before exiting the airport, smile at any fellow arrivals who catch your eye. You have a 90 per cent probability of meeting them in the historical centre of Prague; a few new friends cannot hurt.
Given its tiny size, the Czech Republic can probably lay claim to a world record for having the most number of supremely photogenic edifices per square kilometre. There are enormous castle complexes all over the country —in the south, Cesky Krumlov, with its famed Masquerade Hall of Rococo paintings that cause optical illusions; in the southeast, Zdar nad Sazavou, an ecclesiastical complex in the shape of a 10-pointed star; in the east, Kromeriz, with spectacular gardens and a collection of great European art. The historical centre of Prague, a Unesco World Heritage site, has the lionshare of the astound ing architecture seen around the country, and everyone, locals and tourists alike, gravitates towards it.
This city centre has three main sections —the 12th century Old Town (Stare Mesto); the 13th century Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana); and the 14th century New Town (Nove Mesto). On the left bank of the Vltava river, which cuts through the city, is Mala Strana and the Prague Castle, the largest defined castle complex in the world. On the right are the Old Town, including the Jewish Quarters, and the New Town including the Vysehrad castle. The cityfocal point is the 15th century Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), Baroque Christian statuary decorating its sides..
It normal speed, it should rake five minutes to cross the Charles Bridge. But at any time of the day or night, the crossing can take half-an-hour, as you will want to linger. In the day, the bridge is choc-a-block with tourists and makeshift stalls of local artisans selling paintings, jewellery and handicrafts. The best souvenir shopping in Prague is to be had on this bridge, not in the dozens of shops selling Made in China tat in the Old Town lanes. At night, the views on all sides are magic, the yellow glow of the street lamps gilding everything. The jazz band that plays to afternoon crowds on the bridge makes way now for classical violinists.
Stand here facing the Old Town and you see two imposing structures in the distance on either side; they represent the attrition that marked Czech life under German dominance. The golden-roofed National Theatre (Narodni Divadlo), inaugurated in 1881, is the Czech people s assertion of their cultural independence under the Habsburgs. It took four decades and aid from every Czech to build this magnificent opera house. In retaliation, the German-speakers began work on their own cultural hub, and in 1888, the New German Theatre, now the Prague State Opera, opened for its first show.
Modern Prague has reinvented this legacy of art and craftsmanship. The noted glass artist and architect Borek Sipek creates mind-boggling pieces —from enormous chandeliers to wine glasses that could double as cen trepieces —even as the souvenir stores sell conventional Bohemian crystal; E.daniely, one of the first labels to dress East European women in designer togs after the fall of the Soviet Union, is still acquiring fans; shelves at the design shop Modernista are stacked with some of Europemost cutting-edge output; the lifestyle chain Manufaktura keeps a bit ot ”in everything from toys to heavenly bath and body products.
The creative philoosophy ex tends to some of the Prague hotels. The most interesting story is that of Augustine, a luxury property on land owned by the adjacent Augustinian St Thomas Monastery. The three-level Tower Suite, with 360° views of the city, has been constructed our of monks’cells. Of the hotel s two bars, one used to be the refectory, and the other was the cellar of the monastery s brewery. The original 13th century building design is visible in many parts of the hotel.
Pragueliterary past is as important as its architecture. The best-known name in this chapter is of Franz Kafka. The author of The Metamorphosis and other stories born out of his surreal imagination lived and died here, and worked as —of all things —an insurance official! The chronicle of his tormented mind is told in a riverside museum.
Outside the darkness of Kafkapsyche, the town centre is dripping with warmth and charm. Walking around it endlessly is one of the chief pleasures of a bright day. And people do, all the time. This is where the probability of meeting the new arrival comes in. The lanes are lined with cafes, where hours are whiled away over beer. Should you lock eyes with someone nursing a pint alone, sit down across him, and start your own Prague story.