Prague - where squaring the circle and encircling the square are urban realities
When I was a student, I shall admit that we rioted in the streets. However, it was perhaps not as bad as the western media made out and we are very fortunate in our country and our capital city of Prague that we have remained largely undamaged over the years. At one time, we were the beating heart of The Holy Roman Empire but, being landlocked at the centre of Europe
has meant that marauding tribes from all points of the compass have driven through our country’s past, have played a minor influence on its fabric but have admired what we have and left it alone, undamaged.
The centre of the city is divided into ‘old’ and ‘lesser’ by the Vltava River, over which many bridges criss-cross, some of which are many years older than others. However, the city is blessed with fascinating old buildings, many of them with Gothic origins, filled with interesting and valuable artefacts. The Czech language is a bit difficult for many tongues to circumnavigate and, if you take my first name alone, which starts with a ‘J’, has accented ‘i’s’ and even the ‘r’, it is not easy for Westerners to pronounce, although ‘Georgey’ gets close to it.
Travelling to Prague became much easier after 1989, as there were no Communist controls to encounter. What was of appeal to visitors, at the outset, was our relatively low cost of living. Of course, we have a lot upon which to spend your travel cash. Prague was the capital of Bohemia and engraved crystal, glass, ceramics and amber are all local specialities that create strong income for us. Some of the finest chandeliers in the world were blown in this area and assembled by artists, who knew how to bend light and influence environments. However, the prices have always been keen and many of our shops know how to package valuables and send them safely to visitors’ homes, without incurring damage.
In the mid-1990s, it was still possible for four people to visit a small bar on Parizska (Paris Street), notable for its French-style coppiced trees and international designer shops, to enjoy a filling lunch of freshly-cooked artisan bread and a tureen of dill-enhanced potato soup. Along with pickled cabbage and borscht (beetroot soup), it is one of our national dishes and it would be accompanied by a large sharing jug of Staropramen pilsner (the local beer of Prague), all for less than £1.00 per head. It is more costly today but not by so much.
Of course, a lot has changed in the Czech Republic since it regained its independence. It used to be that a production line worker with Skoda, our national car company, was not merely highly skilled (many hold university degrees in subjects for which there are no employment prospects in their home country) but quite well paid too. The problem was that the Skoda employee
was earning just one-tenth of the salary of his counterpart in Germany.
It was not long before this situation became revised and fairly quickly all of the workers’ hourly rates increased quite dramatically, across other industries too. While this might have caused a few economic problems, it did not and we still attract many visitors to Prague, because they appreciate that we give them very good value for money for accommodation, food, drinks, entertainment and hospitality. A lot of former ‘stateowned’ properties, many of which were offices, apartments and houses, have now been repatriated to their rightful family owners, an action that has led to many Prague dwellers becoming quite wealthy in recent times.
Although we were attracting, according to some observers, the ‘wrong sort’ of visitors a couple of years ago, we appear to be rising above the criticism recently. In some ways, the vast numbers of stag and hen weekends were a consequence of a welcoming people, inexpensive alcoholic beverages and low cost accommodation. However, it was talked about a lot more than it occurred and we have enjoyed the patronage of many other nations, which has made us consistently the sixth most visited city in Europe. Living up to our Bohemian roots, Prague can boast a history of cultural diversifications, predominated by both writers and musicians, a factor reflected in the theatres, the university and other aspects of our beautiful city.
In a typical week, visitors can experience a Dvorak concert, played by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, held in the elegant Rudolfinum, on the right bank of the Vltava River, or a jazz ‘free-for-all’ in the centre of the Old Town. There might be a poetry reading in the Tyn Square, with the hottest disco and house music in one of the several clubs located just off Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti, which is more of a long boulevard and is the centre of the ‘New Town’, which is a bit of an age misnomer, and it is exceptionally busy).
Talking of large squares, try the Vitezne Square, at the crossing of Svatovitska and Evropska, where travellers making their way into the city from the airport will experience a roundabout that adds curves to the obtuse. However, for a not dissimilar trip into the unusual, you might find yourself dining in one of Prague’s most spectacular French restaurants, Celeste, which is on the top floor of Tancici Dum, or ‘the Dancing House’, which sits adjacent to the river. Codesigned by Vlado Milunc and avant-garde American architect, Frank Gehry, locals refer to it as the ‘Astairec and Rogers Building’.
It is the blending of ancient and modern that fascinates Prague visitors so much. However, as anyone crossing the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most, which dates to 1357) will affirm, its statues and icons are a thrilling backdrop to many billions of tourist photographs. Looking up from the bridge, the skyline is filled with the magical, fortified Prague Castle (Prazsky Hrad, founded in 870), within which is situated the government, the President’s quarters and the utterly beautiful St Vitus Cathedral (Katedrala svateho Vita), which was built in its current, Gothic form in the mid-1300s but is on the site of a much earlier church built in
At the entrance to the grounds, overlooking the spectacular Royal Gardens, is the wonderful restaurant Lvi Dvur (at U Prasneho Mosto 6, Castle District, Prague 1), which was built originally in the mid-1500s. To dine on a roasted half-boar, with accompanying vegetables, is a real privilege and a culinary delight. I urge you to enjoy at least one meal at Lvi Dvur, which will give you a true flavour of Prague, because we do have a reputation for providing wholesome food, in generous portions, which will blow off your socks!
Getting there: while it is possible to drive, or to arrive by bus (around £65 return), most visitors fly into Prague Ruzyne airport from around £150-£170 return). British Airways and its partners provide a daily service from Heathrow, or Gatwick, while Lufthansa, SAS and Brussels also provide services. London City airport works with SwissAir for its daily service.
Staying there: hotels are what you would expect of any modern European city, with the usual mix of international chains (Intercontinental, Forum and Radisson) with local possibilities. Of course, they know how to charge but many local hotels range from three-stars at Euros39/night to five stars at Euros105/night.
Being there: at the time of writing, the exchange rate was 29CZK to a Pound Sterling. Some of the city’s best restaurants are in the Lesser Town (Mala Strana), which is at the foot of Prague Castle. For little more than £20 per head, you can have the services of a professional guide, with a bus, which is advisable. A walking tour, including a boat ride that takes around six hours all-in is about £30 per head but includes snacks and refreshments too. Do not forget that the Prague Christmas market is renowned worldwide, so booking early is advisable.
Prague castle grounds facts
All visitors will love the regular ‘changing of the guard’ ceremonies at the main gates to the castle. In the light blue summer uniforms, or the dark blue and fur trimmed winter alternatives, the young soldiers are well drilled and very smart. They are chosen for their handsome looks. The view over the city of Prague is spectacular from here. Many of the public buildings allow access and there are restaurants and shops available. Apart from the Treasury within St Vitus Cathedral, which is truly wonderful, ensure that you also take a walk along The Golden Lane, home to hopeful alchemists, and visit some of the many shops and properties built into the castle walls. One of them was the home of famous writer, Franz Kafka, at number 22.
www.hrad.cz - the Czech President’s site is also a home to Prague Castle and its events.
You will hear much talk about beer, or ‘liquid bread’, as locals call it, during any visit to Prague. The town of Pilsen (Plzen) is around 56 miles west of Prague and is the home to Pilsener beers, the clear, golden lager type that instigated the development of similar light brews across Europe. Pils was invented here. One of the most famous is ‘Pilsener Urquell’, which was declared as the original brewery in Plzen. For many years, it was supplied to the UK as Part No. FP2750 with Skoda. Perhaps the most infamous legal case (of beer) was between Budweiser (part of Anheuser-Busch brewing of the USA) and Budweiser Budvar (of the Czech town of Ceske Budjovice). The US company was deemed to have ‘nicked’ the brand until the Czech company brought a rights suit against it and won. Czech beers of all types are now renowned worldwide.
www.pivovarskyklub.com - with over 240 different Czech beers available, worth a visit.
www.pivnigalerie.cz - is a great place to learn about Czech beers.
www.praguewelcome.cz/en/ - the best ‘where to’ guide of Prague.