In Prague and beyond...the Czech Republic offers unique culture, food and wine
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going. — Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Travel"
Prague and beyond
By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author and courtesy Czech Tourism
Prague—it's one of the newest spots on the European map to attract large throngs of visitors. After Prague, you can visit the entire country, which is now more tourist-friendly.
The Czech Republic, free from the control of the Russian Communist government since 1989, opens its arms to visitors—and they've been streaming to discover what this nation of 30,400 square miles and just 10 million people is all about.
What do we already know about this smallish country?
- Many Czechs are classical musicians, as they are known worldwide. On the other end of the musical scale, you have the Czech-born Jaromir Vejvoda and his famous Beer Barrel Polka, known to probably everyone.
- In the Middle Ages, the lands of the Czech Crown were the most powerful of all, and silver, mined in such areas as Kutna Hora, was one of the richest veins of silver ever discovered.
- Czech folk traditions are a part of the country's national heritage; folklore is featured in colorful local costumes, lively music and dance.
- The food is known worldwide, such as dumplings (to satisfy hard working peasants), cabbage, hot cross buns, roasted duck and goose, and a variety of decorated tarts stuffed with jams and fruit marmalades.
- And if you're a wine connoisseur...the wines from South Moravia are some of the best tasting around.
BEGIN IN PRAGUE
Begin your visit in Prague, with a population of 1.2 million. Most airlines fly to Prague's Ruzyne International Airport from the major cities of Europe. Airlines that fly there include Czech Republic Airlines, British Airways, Swiss International, Aer Lingus, Air France, KLM, Austrian, easyJet and Ryanair, among others.
I found a good rate of $698 roundtrip between Chicago-Frankfort-Prague in July, although the connections weren't ideal. Check around and you should be able to find favorable rates. Go to www.skyscanner.com, which will search 600 airlines, their routes and pricing for you.
You can also take the train from many major European cities; trains offered include the EuroCity, InterCity, SuperCity and Pendolino. The Pendolino, a high speed train, will take you in a swift couple of hours from Prague to other cities such as Olomouc in the east. Check schedules and prices at ww.raileurope.com. You can even rent a car that will be driven to the front of the station and waiting for you from Alimex CR. Go to www.alimex.eu.
Starting in Prague, hit the highlights, which are located in the Old Town, the Castle District, the Lesser Quarter and New Town. They say Prague is the City of a Hundred Spires--I believe it. Someone actually counted more than 500 now; the 100 count was taken in the early 1800s. It certainly is one of the most interesting cities architecturally in Europe--I kept looking up to see the unique tops of the buildings.
Here are a few of the highlights of the city:
- Prague Castle. Situated on a rock promontory over the Vltava River, this is the largest castle complex of any in Europe, covering seven football fields. Enclosed by Romanesque fortifications, work on it began in the 9th century, and through the years its additions grew haphazardly. Check out the castle's main gate, Mattias Gate, flanked by battling Titans. The cathedral of St. Vitus--the largest church in the country--founded by Charles IV, is truly a work of art, and a must-see. The changing of the guard occurs in the courtyard every hour beginning at 5 a.m. until midnight.
Changing of the guard at Prague Castle
The gardens of Prague Castle
Be sure to take time to visit the Royal Gardens while you are there--it features beautiful flowers, is well-maintained and worth a look. You can see the Summer Palace, the Singing Fountain, Chapel of the Holy Cross, All Saints' Chapel and the Basilica of St. George, among other highlights of the castle area. Be sure you have good walking shoes for this trek. It's a bit of a hike up the side of the hill (along the Royal Way) to get to the castle complex, but the hike up the street offers interesting restaurants and shops, and the view at the top is also worth the walk. It was in the castle complex where U.S. President Barack Obama gave an address to thousands of Czech people following his inauguration.
- Charles Bridge. This is where tourists want to go and be seen--it's a high point of any tour of the city. Built about 1400, it has been open to foot traffic only since the end of WWII. The bridge's popularity is due to the many ecclesiastical statues that line the bridge (although most of the statues are actually copies--the originals are in the National Museum). Despite the crowds here, this is the place to be, especially in the evening when the light starts to dim. Artists of all crafts set up their displays on the bridge to sell their wares.
- Astronomical clock. Master clockmaker Mikulas of Kadane gave the city a clock for the town hall in 1410, and 80 years later Master Hanus improved it with the astronomical clock. There's a long story behind the figures surrounding the clock. The Old Town Square here has been the city's primary square since the 10th century--it is a place teeming with people. See the Old Town Hall here, which looks like a row of houses. Also see St. Nicholas Church, Kinsky Palace, House at the Stone Bell and St. James Church.
The Municipal House, built between 1906 and 1912, is an interesting and unusual building conceived by 30 leading artists. Tours are in Czech and English with printed commentary in a number of languages. Also see the Jewish Cemetery, with as many as 12,000 headstones--and thousands more below earth--some dating from 1439. Enter the cemetery through the Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535.
In St. Wenceslas Square, you can walk through the Lucerna Passage, an elegant arcade, and take in the Church of Our Lady of the Snows, a church intended to be Prague's largest, but it didn't succeed because of lack of funds.
Other things to do in Prague (for only a few coins), include riding the street trams, a great way to see this architecturally rich city. Here you can find Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque , Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Cubism and Rococo styles, all blending together to mark this city as unique. At St. Henry's Tower, you'll see the 10-story belfry, the highest in the city, and get a good view of Prague. The clock on the tower features two cimbaloms dating back to 1577; after reconstruction in 2000, the tower was opened to the public.
Take a boat ride on the Vltava River when the sun goes down and the city lights come up--it can be very romantic. Board from the wharf Judita.
And be sure to sit at one of Prague's street side restaurants and have a drink--Czech beer is famous the world over--or enjoy a meal as you watch the people go by: it's very entertaining. As in most European cities, you can sit as long as you want and ask for the bill when you're ready.
LIST IS DAUNTING
The list of attractions in Prague is a bit daunting, and just about every attraction has an interesting history associated with it. From churches and palaces, to cafes to food to people (and even a good bit of commercialism), Prague is a required stop in the Czech Republic. To help you get around, buy a Prague Card, good for all public transport and free entry to a dozen major sites. The card also offers discounted fees to other sites. It's valid for one year.
Prague--a charming city that begs you to return once you have visited. They say if you rub the plaque at the base of the statue of Patron Saint John of Nepomuk at the Charles Bridge, you will one day return to Prague. I like that idea.
Prague--full of life and enough highlights to last a long time. You too may want to join the throngs visiting this romantic city. For more information, go to www.prague-info.cz or www.czechtourism.com.