The first time you visit a new place, as you stroll along its streets, taste its food, and surrender yourself to its uniqueness, it’s as if you are a child riding a bicycle for the first time. Breathless and exhilarated, you swallow big gulps of air and absorb the sights and sounds around you. Everything is touched with a golden gleam, and memories of a place will always hark back to that first moment you fell under its spell.
Last summer my husband and I explored Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, for the first time, but it won’t be the last. We had just spent a few days in Cesky Krumlov, a charming town to the south in the Bohemian countryside, but now we were ready to taste city life, to dive into Prague’s culture and history, to find out more about the Czech spirit that has lifted this small country from beneath the weight of oppression time and time again. After a few days seeing its sights, we found ourselves enthralled by this centuries-old city and began to understand why the people of Czech feel such passion for their homeland—for now we feel such passion, too.
DOORWAY BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
Prague, which means threshold in Czech, is in fact a doorway between east and west, a fitting metaphor since the city, indeed the country of Czech Republic, has for centuries been pulled between opposites. Most recently Prague was the literal doorway between the forces of communism and freedom. But an amazing thing happened in 1989: the people of Prague assembled peacefully in Wencelas Square and demanded that the Communists give them their country back. They got what they wanted—without a single shot being fired.
The Velvet Revolution, as it came to be called, had its beginnings in a tragic event, however. In Prague’s Museum of Communism, Peter and I learned about a young university student named Jan Palach who set himself on fire in 1969—and later died—to protest the Communists’ presence. Twenty years later during a commemoration of his death, Jan got his wish, and Czech citizens received their independence. A moving film at the museum depicts the events surrounding the communists’ withdrawal and prompted a few tears and an incredible respect for the people of this small, spirited country.
As Peter and I walked along the ancient streets of Prague, swarming with tourists and residents alike, I found it astonishing that in barely twenty-five years, this city had reconnected with its glory and grandeur. Stunning buildings in every imaginable architectural style appeared clean and freshly painted, a far cry from the dilapidation and decrepit state of the city during the decades of communist rule.
One example of a building that has regained its status as an icon of Prague’s happier times is the Radisson SAS Alcron Hotel, where Peter and I stayed. Built in the Art Nouveau style around 1930, the Alcron attracted aristocrats and celebrities who stayed in its lavishly decorated rooms and dined in its exquisitely appointed restaurant, La Rotunde. Even during the communist takeover, the hotel—owned by the state—continued to provide elegant accommodations to visiting dignitaries. However, the property eventually suffered from neglect and fell into ruin. In the late 1990’s, the Alcron was refurbished in the original Art Deco style and today once again reigns as one of Prague’s most popular hotels.
THE ROOFTOPS OF PRAGUE
From our room, comfortable and spacious, Peter and I could look across the rooftops of Prague and see Prague Castle towering in the distance, which we decided to explore during our first full day in the city. After an incredible breakfast buffet in La Rotunde, Peter and I caught the metro to Prague Castle, an enormous complex and the seat of government since the 12th-century. The castle includes palaces, a huge cathedral, a convent, a monastery, even a small town spread out on Golden Lane, which housed the trades people who kept the castle running for the Bohemian princes ruling from its royal rooms. Author Franz Kafka lived on Golden Lane for a time.
Peter and I entered the castle complex from the rear after hiking up a few flights of stone steps, which afforded panoramic views of Prague from lofty heights. Arriving early as our guide-book suggested, we were among the first to enter the cathedral and marveled at the stained glass windows, one of which was designed by Alfons Mucha, a Czech artist known as the founding father of the Art Nouveau movement. Elsewhere in the castle complex we made a pilgrimage to Franz Kafka’s home on Golden Lane and admired another gorgeous view of Prague from our table at an outdoor café next to the castle square.
In fact, one of my favorite activities in Prague was sitting in outdoor cafes with Peter, simply relaxing and enjoying the ambiance of the place. We sat in at least a dozen cafes during our three days in Prague, sipping beer or wine or coffee and watching the world walk by.
Luckily Prague is an inexpensive city, so all this café-sitting didn’t dent our budget too much. Food was also very affordable. We dined one lazy afternoon in a café by the river on two appetizers and two drinks apiece, yet our bill was only $10. Czech Republic, which recently joined the European Union, will adopt the euro in 2009, and I predict prices will go up then. In the meantime for a world-class city, it’s surprisingly easy on the wallet.
Although public transportation is readily available—trams, metro, and buses criss-cross the city—Prague is pedestrian friendly. Peter and I spent a lot of time wandering its cobblestone streets, wondering what we would find around the next corner.
One tourist attraction we felt obliged to see was the astronomical clock in the Old Town Hall on Prague’s Old Town Square. Every hour the clock reveals a momentary parade of the twelve apostles followed by a rooster crowing to mark the hour and then the show’s over. Peter said, “What’s this—a joke on the tourists?” We laughed and wandered to a nearby market, where Czech crafts, amber jewelry, and colorful puppets decorated booths, competing for tourists’ credit cards.
Another popular attraction in Prague is the Charles Bridge, built in 1367, which spans the Vltava River and provides superb people-watching opportunities. Vendors on the bridge vie for your attention, offering to paint your portrait or sell you a souvenir. In thick crowds it’s smart to hold your purse close. We discovered an unzipped pocket on Peter’s knapsack, which we’re sure a thief undid hoping to find something of value within. In our case, he walked away empty handed.
At the foot of the bridge on the western end, Peter and I stopped for a bite at a café on a peaceful, leafy square. We shared garlic soup, pungent and tangy, and then sampled a traditional Czech dish of pork and dumplings. The pork was served in a savory sauce that reminded me of Hungarian goulash; the dumplings, however, were unlike anything I’d ever tasted, almost like wet bread. Not my favorite, I decided. A green salad proved a perfect antidote to the pasty dumplings, and we washed our food down with delicious Czech beer.
One evening we found ourselves in a hip restaurant in the city’s New Town section. Called Kogo, the restaurant catered to a well-dressed crowd of young professionals whose animated enthusiasm and smiling faces seemed to ensure we would find our meal as stimulating and pleasurable as they found theirs. Our expectations proved true. I chose paella, served in a steaming hot pan with seafood sprinkled atop a bed of saffron-flavored rice. Peter, who must have needed a serious dose of protein, ordered the mixed grill, a sampler of meats that satisfied his carnivorous appetite.
Long after finishing dinner, we lingered over our candle-lit table and talked, sometimes falling silent, watching the people around us and wondering what it would be like to be in their shoes, to live in this vibrant city and feel the passion that seemed to glow from somewhere deep within.
CELEBRATING ITS HISTORY
Prague is renowned for its music festivals and performances, as well as for being the adopted city of Mozart. Peter and I decided to pay homage to Mr. Mozart by attending an opera. Turns out we were able to see a performance of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre, the same venue where Mozart premiered this very opera. During the performance, I kept thinking about the wealth of culture this city has known. No wonder its people feel such pride and strive to promote its heroes and protect its place in world history.
The opera was intriguing, managing somehow to be traditional and modern at the same time. The plot, of course, chronicles the legendary lover, Don Giovanni, and how his drive to conquer and seduce women ultimately leads to his ruin. Modern touches punctuated an otherwise traditional performance in the form of actors portraying Death, Love, and Revenge. Love, dressed in red with gossamer wings, was a hoot and provided wonderful comic relief.
The opera, which we enjoyed on our last night in Prague, seemed a fitting choice for a final activity. A cohesive combination of old and new, the opera symbolized the modern Prague and its ability to connect the past with the future by enjoying the present moment. By celebrating its history—the good and the bad—and learning from its mistakes, the Czech Republic offers lessons to other countries burdened by oppressors. This little country is a success story in more ways than one and stands on the threshold, welcoming the future with outstretched arms.
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