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Czech out Prague!

Prague is a perfect blend of Cubist, Baroque, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, of ancient and modern arts and local food, and the best way to ‘take in’ all of this is on foot

Czech out Prague!

May, I would say, is the perfect time to fall in love with Prague. At least it was for me. Just the right bit of cold (a light sweater was enough), mercifully no rain and the days long enough to pack in a lot of sightseeing.

Strewn with a mix of Cubist, Baroque, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, you won’t mind getting lost in its narrow cobblestoned maze of medieval alleys. It is little wonder Prague has been nicknamed the ‘city of a hundred spires’ – tall steeples help you navigate the Unesco-listed old town. Prague has emerged from its turbulent past and the Velvet Revolution to overthrow the Communist government in the former Czechoslovakia and has charmingly made its way up to rival Vienna, Amsterdam and even London, shaking off its label as a city for ‘pre-wedding, high-spirited’ shenanigans.

Best of all Prague can be ‘done’ walking. Its main attractions are neatly balanced between the east and west banks of River Vltava, in four districts. The Prague Castle sits perched atop a hill; below which is Mala Strana (Little Quarter) reached by iconic Charles Bridge from Stare Mesto (Old Town). The city can easily be navigated through an extensive and easy-to-understand metro, electric-powered tram and bus network, using just one ticket for all three which can be bought from corner stores or even souvenir shops. The overhead hanging cables of the tram often mar the view.IMG_2208

Prague has something for everyone… for foodies (try their authentic pickled cheese served with fried bread or home-made ice cream), history lovers, photography buffs and art and music aficionado. And for those looking for modern art pieces, at one of the squares, there’s a huge kinetic head of writer Franz Kafka made by Czech artist David Cerny. Comprising 42 rotating layers of stainless steel, it reveals Kafka’s distressed personality that shaped his life. There are some more creative, perhaps controversial, sculptures by Cerny speckling the town.

Unfortunately, the Astronomical Clock, built in 1410 in old town square in the Bohemian heartland, is under repair, and replaced with an LED screen. Orloj as it is called is being given a new lease of life by clock master, Petr Skala, and should be back measuring the time of the day by the end of August. While snaking your way through the narrow alleys and pastel-toned buildings, the milling crowd mostly of Japanese tourists will automatically lead you to the famous Charles Bridge, the city’s signature statue-line stone bridge, that links the Old Town with Malá Strana since 1357.

It’s literally flooded with tourists, some gathered around street artistes performing music, dance; others standing at stands set up by hawkers selling hand-made jewellery, souvenirs etc. Artistes painting caricatures with the bridge as the backdrop are happily putting the finishing touches. But if the daytime is full of gaiety; the late-night walk over the bridge is mesmerizing, with full view of the well-illuminated Prague Castle.

On the other end of the Old Town Square is the massive monument of Jan Haus, built to honour a Czech religious reformer who questioned the Catholic Church, that looks magnificent when lit up in the night.

But there is little need to hurry back towards the famous bridge. You will be drawn towards shops filled with Bohemian glass (remember Swarovski crystal!), chocolateries and ice cream parlours ensconced between souvenirs and antique shops. And if you can steal your eyes off the spires and facades, and even some beautiful lamp posts, for a few minutes, look down and observe the incredible patterns on the town squares (or as we call them in Urdu — ahata) and check out the circular designs made out of stones mostly in charcoal and ivory colour. Even the drain tops are worth a glimpse!

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So before heading towards the bridge for some magical views, you may want to stop at one of the shops selling Trdelník. These are thick hollow, cone-like shells made of dough, grilled, then dusted generously with sugar, grounded walnut and cinnamon and filled with ice cream.

Be careful crossing the squares to get on to the pavements as to your amusement or annoyance, you will, at some point in time, come face to face with passenger-powered beer-bikes driven by young screaming men making merry.

While the inside of numerous churches and cathedrals, even the National Theatre that is celebrating its 150th anniversary, are breathtaking; even on the outside, in fact at every corner, rooftop and entrance of buildings, you will find sculptures made of marble or stone of saints — even gargoyles protecting or holding up the buildings. Most have been wrapped in a metal netting to protect them perhaps from birds or vandalism.

But if there is one place not to be missed (after Charles Bridge) it is the 9th century Prague Castle. If you’re not willing to go early in the morning or after 3pm, then be ready to face the crowd and stand in a never-ending queue to get into the St Vitus Cathedral. The castle complex is huge and, according to Wikipedia, it occupies an area of almost 70,000 square metres (750,000 square feet) and is amongst the “most visited” places in Prague attracting “over 1.8 million visitors” each year.

Most guidebooks will tell you this Gothic cathedral took 600 years to complete. It will leave you speechless when viewed from a distance and breathless up close. For most it is the ornate tomb of St. John Nepomuk, a Czech archbishop, designed by an Austrian in 1736, using two tonnes of silver.

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You may want to visit the old castle, walk past the moat and the royal gardens and from the high walls you can get a wonderful bird’s eye view of the city with red tile roofs…

But Prague is not only about visual arts and history or lagers. The city has a rich tradition of performing arts. You must experience the marionette (one of the country’s greatest traditional handcrafts), ballet or opera performances just to get a taste of the Czech culture.

Ambling along the river bank under the two-toned foliage, which runs through the centre of town (notice the love locks on the wrought iron fence on Staromestska side of the Vltava) and across town for two days and you will understand why Thai massage salons are doing such a roaring business in the old town! There is just too much walking and you need proper walking shoes.

But wait! Prague is equally welcoming for those who are unable to tour the city on foot. They can see the top sights sitting comfortably in Czech vintage convertibles from as far back as the 1928-1935 and be regaled with facts, stories and anecdotes of Prague by the driver who will also act as your guide. Another way would be to explore the Old Town by horse-drawn carriages.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim

Zofeen T. Ebrahim
The author is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

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