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Czech Republic: Cesky Krumlov, Hluboka Castle, Prague
Prague, Czech Republic: City of hundred spires
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Spires dominate Prague’s skyline. I didn’t quite count all of them, but do like to believe the numbers. Give or take a few, each spire has a story… rooted deep in history. As one walks around the Old Town, scars of war and uprising are bound to stir the soul.
Prague was the final destination of my tour in Central Europe. Accompanied by my wife, my sister and her husband, we took a train from Vienna, Austria. It was a 5 hour journey in the express train. Unlike our other train journeys, this time round we did not make a seat reservation. Previous experience taught us that seats are usually available… penny saved is a penny earned. Plus the advantage of boarding a nearest coach rather than finding the coach with your number on.
We boarded the train at 9:33 AM. At 14:19 we were in Praha hl.n. main station. Prague is also known as Praha. Most of the time the Euro currency doesn’t work in Czech Republic. It’s definitely a good idea to carry local currency. The official currency of the Czech Republic is the Czech Crown (Koruna), abbreviated as Kc. The international abbreviation is CZK. At the time of writing EUR 1 got CZK 24.
I made two major mistakes after alighting at Praha station. One, I changed my Euros at the station. There was a commission of 18%. Instead of getting Kc 24 for a Euro, I got just about 19. I later realized that it was quite normal to get between Kc 23 and 24 at many city locations. Two, I trusted the taxi guys. I was made to believe that a fixed fare rule applies from the station and the airport. And that it would cost me Kc 600 to be dropped at Hilton Prague Old Town which was to be my hotel for the next 3 days. I got sucked in. Looking at the distance, the taxi fare by meter would have been around Kc 150. Suckers!
In about 15 minutes we were at the hotel doorstep. Though the name of the hotel is Hilton Prague Old Town, strictly speaking the hotel isn’t in Old Town. It’s actually in the newer areas albeit on the edge. Well, this note is just for your academic interest. The location of the hotel is ideal. It’s within walking distance of everything – shopping malls, Old Town, the river, etc. The rooms were well appointed and the breakfast they served was excellent. Unfortunately, the service extended and the general attitude of the staff was definitely not up to the Hilton standards. I felt, they carried a little air… surprising indeed.
It was 4 PM by the time we freshened up and got ready to explore the charm around. I had engaged Eva Bartuskova to be our tour guide. Eva runs her own business under the name Sightseeing Prague. She was a management graduate turned tour guide. Like all tour guides she was thorough in her knowledge about Czech from various perspectives. However, what appealed to me most was her passion and involvement whilst showing us around. When she realized that I was keen in taking pictures that would capture the spirit of the town, she made it a point to make many detours through small but charming lanes of Prague. It certainly is a great advantage to have a guide like Eva whilst visiting new destinations. She has my recommendation and I wish her well.
We were to meet Eva at 6PM at the hotel lobby. That gave us 2 hours to be on our own. We walked to the Republic Square which was just about 200 meters form the hotel. This is one of the major squares in Prague with restaurants, public buildings, public transportation and shopping malls around. The little walk in the neighbourhood gave us our bearings. We were quite tempted to buy fine glass and porcelain that dominated show windows of many stores. Czech Republic is known for this. However, since shopping was not on the agenda of the tour, we were happy to return to the hotel with few water bottles. Talking of water, you will be surprised that finding still water is pretty rare in shops. Eva told us that the locals drink straight from the tap and if at all they want to buy water, they prefer the ones with gas… getting more for their bucks! Made sense.
As scheduled, we began our walk at 6PM towards the river. In about 20 minutes we were on the banks of River Vltava. Just across the appalling Ministry of Commerce Building was the boarding point for the river cruise. Our tickets were booked in advance, however, seats are not reserved. It’s a good idea to go ahead of time to be able to get your seat on the deck. Since we were just in time, we had to sit on the lower deck. It’s a 3-hour cruise and the cost per person is CZK 790 which includes a buffet dinner and a shot of Czech liqueur Becherovka. Vegetarians should be prepared to fill themselves with bread, cheese and some salads. For the carnivores (the Czechs definitely are), the choice is pretty elaborate. A live musician on the upper deck keeps everybody entertained. On board soft drinks, beer and spirits are available for a price.
Our cruise departed at 7PM. For the next 3 hours we would be peacefully cruising along the river enjoying our drinks, dinner, music and Prague sights as many famous Prague attractions border the river… passing under the Charles Bridge, Old Town on one bank, and the Lesser Town (Mala Strana) on the other, the Prague Castle, the National Theatre, Vysehrad Fortress amongst many others. One of the attractions is also the water lock. Boats have to wait their turn as the lock pumps the water in the lock for the ships to rise to the main river level. It’s exactly the opposite on the return journey. Off the 3 hours, nearly 45 minutes is spent in the water lock itself… creating an opportunity for passengers to make friends and enjoy music competitions with passengers on other boats, sticking to each other, waiting their turns. Our boat won a few rounds!
By 10PM we were back on the landing dock. And by 11PM we were in our beds… ready for the long day that Eva had planned for us.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning we were ready to begin our exploration at 10AM. I think the best way to explore a destination is on foot. And Prague was no exception. Of course, as a tourist you won’t need to walk the entire city but definitely the major attractions, that give the city its character, can definitely be negotiated. And at hand public transport is always there.
Prague has an excellent network of buses, trams and the underground trains. A tram ticket that’s valid for 30 minutes costs Kc 24. In these 30 minutes you could take as many stops as you want. Our plan for the day was to visit the Prague Castle first because that was located on a higher elevation and then walk down to explore other sights. We took tram number 14 just opposite to our hotel. 2 stops later we changed to tram 22 that took us all the way up to the castle. For the next 7 hours we would we walking. The sun wasn’t kind. A hat and a bottle of water that was constantly refilled were a boon.
Since Prague Castle’s foundation in the 9th century, it has been developing throughout the last 11 centuries. Originally the castle was the residence of Princess and Kings of Bohemia. Since 1918 it is the seat of the President of the Republic. Visitors have access to the Old Royal Palace, St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert Cathedral, St. George Basilica, Mihulka Powder Tower, Golden Lane and the Royal Garden. At the time of my visit I witnessed the Changing of Guards. Not as elaborate as the one at Buckingham Palace, London but exciting nonetheless.
The Palace rampart offers excellent view of Prague. We used the steps to come down. We got excellent view of Lesser Town. Green domes standing out from crowded red roofs make for a great picture.
We walked through Lesser Town’s Wallenstein Garden which was home to sala terrena, bronze statues and peacocks. The sala terrena was built in 1627 by Andrea Spezza. It is 30 metres high and it has three arcades. There are fresco paintings and stuccoes by Baccio Bianco, depicting scenes from the Trojan War.
Next, we visited statues of the peeing men. In a little square in front of Kafka Museum are situated these very extraordinary statues. These statues were created by famous Czech artist and sculptor David Cerny. Statues represent two bronze sculptures (clearly both male) peeing into their oddly-shaped enclosure. However they are not just peeing, with the stream of water they write quotes from famous Prague residents. They move realistically by means of an electric mechanism driven by a couple of microprocessors swivels the upper part of the body, while the penis goes up and down.
We then walked to Charles Bridge. Founded in 1357 by Charles IV the construction was commenced by Master Otto and finished by Peter Parler in 1402. The exact time of laying the first foundation stone is known because the palindromic (odd numbers ascending and descending) number 135797531 was carved into the Old Town bridge tower having been chosen by the royal astrologists and numerologists as the best time for starting the bridge construction - 1357 9th July at 5:31AM. The bridge has many statues the most famous being of St. John of Nepomuk. Visitors can place their left hand on the relief and make a wish. Amen.
Charles IV reign was characterised by a transformation in the nature of the Empire and is remembered as the Golden Age of Bohemia. He promulgated the Golden Bull of 1356 whereby the succession to the imperial title was laid down, which held for the next four centuries. He assured his dominance over the eastern borders of the Empire through succession treaties with the Habsburgs and the purchase of Brandenburg. He also claimed imperial lordship over the crusader states of Prussia and Livonia. He made Prague the imperial capital, refusing even at the insistence of Petrarch to move to Rome, and he was a great builder in that city, which bears his name in so many spots: Charles University, Charles Bridge, and Charles Square. Prague Castle and much of the cathedral of Saint Vitus, by Peter Parler, were completed under his patronage. Finally, it is from the reign of Charles that dates the first flowering of manuscript painting in Prague. In the present Czech Republic, he is still regarded as Pater Patriae – Father of the country.
Charles Bridge connects Lesser Town with Old Town. One end of the Charles Bridge is the Old Town Tower. It’s the last part of fortification of the Old Town. On crossing the bridge we grabbed a sandwich and a can of Diet Coke and resumed our walk exploring the charming Old Town.
Walking through narrow paved streets with houses rising on both sides we saw Jesuits order – schools & libraries. Now, a library and a meteorological observation center – that has been functional every day since 1775 uninterrupted.
We continued our journey visiting the New Town Hall; Municipal Library and it’s Book Well; Little Square; Old Town Square; Astronomical Clock; Old Town Hall; Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas Church and John Hus Monument. Nearly every house that we crossed had a character of its own. Remarkably, their signs. Carvings of wheels, bears, eagles, flowers, bells, frogs, etc. gave an identity to the homes. In the good old days it would have been easy. “Hey, see you under the green Frog at 5”!
Just so you know, with a 1.2 million population, Prague the Capital of Czech Republic, is the largest city of the country. Though the city has so many cathedrals, churches, basilicas and synagogues, majority of its population don’t follow any particular faith.
The Astronomical Clock calls for a special mention. The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the only one still working. The clock mechanism itself is composed of three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; "The Walk of the Apostles", a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures—notably a figure of Death (represented by a skeleton) striking the time; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. We were at the clock at 3PM to witness the action. It was an interesting experience.
Our next destination was a visit to the Jewish Quarter. Enroute we crossed the Estates Theatre (Oldest Classical Theatre – Mozart had his first show Don Giovanni out here); Karolinum (Charles University – the oldest in Eastern Europe) and the Medieval Lane.
The Jewish Quarter in Prague, known as Josefov, is located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River. Its torrid history dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish community in Prague was ordered to vacate their homes and settle in one area. Over the centuries more and more people were crowded into the area, as Jews were banned from living anywhere else. Restrictions on their movements and the trades they were allowed to conduct underwent constant change.
The Jewish Quarter, or the Prague Jewish Ghetto as it was later to become known, also endured a lot of structural changes, the latest of which was a vast redevelopment of the area between 1893 and 1913. Its present appearance dates mainly from this period. The hardship that this community went through wrenches the heart.
Off the many buildings we had the opportunity to see the Franz Kafka’s birth house; Parisian Street (luxury brand stores); Spanish Synagogue; Old-New Synagogue; Jewish Town Hall (with a clock that moves backwards – Hebrew language is read right to left); Old Jewish Cemetery (graves in layers – over 100,000 people buried since the 14th century till the end of 18th); Ceremony Hall and Spanish Synagogue (believed to be one of the most elaborate ones in Europe); Pinkas Synagogue (memorial of the victims of the holocaust and Maisel Synagogue.
On our way back we had to cross the Old Town Square again to reach the Municipal House; its French restaurant and the Square of the Republic.
It was 5PM and we were indeed tired. But that didn’t stop us to take a go at Palladium one of the largest and the finest shopping malls in Prague. We reached our hotel by 6:30PM to get ready for the evening show “Legends of Magic Prague” a new multi-media production from Laterna Magika to be staged at Narodni Divadlo (the New Stage of the National Theatre). The show acquainted the audience with more or less known legends, woven in the body of the city of Prague.
We reached our hotel at about 10:30PM. A good night’s rest was much needed. Tomorrow we would make a 350 km round trip to Cesky Krumlov.
Prague Image Gallery Photo viewer
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