Prague! Now this was something new.
The city went on my must-visit list a few years ago, after I saw enough pictures of the gorgeous buildings, all the architecture. Have I mentioned I’m a sucker for gorgeous old architecture, the kind you don’t see in America? Yeah. These are pictures I took during our first walk within the city, as we dragged our suitcases to the B&B. (Click the photos for a much-closer inspection.)
But I soon learned that despite the Old World feel permeating the city, Prague offers a wholly different experience for tourists than Italian cities do.
Rome, I observed, tolerates its tourists. Prague welcomes them with open arms.
Of course, I must disclaim that we stayed within central Prague, and I can’t regret that. I tried a Prague language CD and phrasebook in advance, but acquired almost nothing of it. I’ve been spoiled in studying Spanish and Italian — those two languages are not only very similar to each other, but not that far off from English. It’s nothing like the experience of studying a Slavic language.
Fortunately, practically everyone in Prague speaks English, and well enough to help tourists on their way. I hadn’t realized this before I arrived, but like other Eastern European cities with cheap currency, Prague has long been Europe’s party city. And like with any other favorite party destination, this has not always been to its advantage. I learned how in the last century, British and Irish tourists in particular treated all of Prague as a souvenir, theirs for the taking if they were only able to pry it off and fit it in their luggage. Some art installations and memorials had to be moved indoors to save them from such dismemberment and export.
Despite these stories, I felt comfortable in Prague, not like I was a pesky parasite in their midst. Even though some tourist elements are a nuisance (like the Segway tours, whizzing between sidewalks and roads), others increase the appeal, offering a wild visual array of possibilities for your visit.
And though I don’t have my own pictures of the establishment, I recommend the Bed Lounge, a cocktail and hookah bar with an underground room that offers clean white pillows and cushions for full-length lounging as you watch TV.
I also advise you to do at least one tour, because that’s always more rewarding than wandering around with a guidebook in one hand and a map in the other. Sandeman’s New Prague Tours offers a great free tour, and you may be persuaded to take an additional one afterward.
If your guide is Tijo (a psychology major working as a tour guide while improving his Czech), he will give you his own imitation of the underwhelming clock show that runs every hour. He will also advise you to stand with your back to the building and watch the crowd instead of the clock, as that will prove better entertainment, especially if you already know what happens in the show.
In the same square, he will point out one building that didn’t survive WWII, but was sliced cleanly down the side, right through the windowframes. (Look closely at the right edge of the center reddish building.)
He will tell you how the Nazis occupied Prague during the war, and 30,000 Czech citizens led a surprise revolt to save their city. For three days they held off a far greater number of Nazi soldiers who, unlike the civilians, were armed with tanks and artillery. It impressed on me that despite how America (and Hollywood in particular) loves to vilify the Nazis, we don’t have nearly the same cause as a country that actually suffered Nazi occupation.
Tijo will tell you who got thrown out of this window, several centuries ago, and what that was all about.
He will deny that this statue is a tribute to any of the pop culture characters that might come to mind when you look at it.
He will explain the cause of the Powder Tower’s color, an explanation I cannot recall exactly now. Possibly they just stopped bothering to clean it, figuring it looked more impressive this way.
He will lead you to the Jewish quarter and show you their own clock towers. Have you ever seen a Hebrew clock?
He will show you a WWII memorial, hopefully set against such a peerless blue sky as the day I saw it.
Tijo will end the free tour on the banks of the river with a pleasing view of the castle, which entices you to tour it in the afternoon. And yes, there’s a small version of the Eiffel Tower to the left.
“Have a seat,” Tijo said. “You probably won’t find any heroin needles or condoms in the grass.”
If you do go on the Prague Castle tour, you will walk through the courtyard of the castle, to a large stone square where you may watch the changing of the guard every hour. On hot summer days, a vehicle may drive around in circles, spewing cool water over the crowds to cool you off. Imagine it well, for I have no pictures.
You will also get a nice up-close look at the St. Vitus Cathedral, including any scaffolding…
St. Vitus also features gargoyles.
I didn’t capture a good full view of the cathedral, but it’s worth sharing, even from other sources:
After the cathedral, Tijo will take you to a nice little cafe featuring an elegant waiter permanently fixed outside.
And you will get a chance to take lovely panoramic photos of the red-roofed city.
If you are a good tour group, Tijo will also share the secret dais with you. When you stand on the center dais and speak, others won’t hear your voice echo, but you will. And your lips tingle, like you’re speaking close into a microphone. Science has an explanation, though it remains mysterious to me.
When the tour ends, you will once again navigate the city on your own, choosing your own amusements and refreshments. Or searching for the recommendations from your tour guide.
U Rudolfina is a Tijo-recommended restaurant, and it provided everything I wanted in authentic-seeming food (how can I judge, after all) that was utterly delicious. My mouth wanted more than my stomach could hold. I’d love to return there, if ever I go back.
The menu also was a treat.
We also enjoyed visiting Cafe Imperial, with all its lovely art deco design. An expensive meal, but worth doing.
Prague also boasts Europe’s largest Hard Rock Cafe.
I was impressed by their barbecue sandwich (yes, even after experiencing a lifetime of Texas barbecue), while my traveling companion was surprised by the manager’s American practice of visiting tables to greet diners and to ask about the service and food.
Despite the dire warnings about pickpockets on Charles Bridge, and Tijo’s advice to visit it only in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, I think it’s much better to go see it when you can actually see things. The crush of people was no worse than Rome or the journey to Pompeii.
Clearly, the best occasion for walking Charles Bridge is with a dramatic gathering of storm clouds for a background.
Another sight of Prague, more modern and unexpected, is the Fred & Ginger Dancing House.
Rather than a house for dancing, it is an architectual tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Look closely. You’ll see.
One final recommendation is Tricafe, a little cafe that joined my must-visit list after I saw their TripAdvisor profile advertised them as a dolphin-friendly property. I was not disappointed — well, no dolphin sightings, but they do have delicious breakfast food and bookshelves with books for trade or purchase. We spent a couple hours there, sipping our drinks and reading. Very peaceful and everything I want from a cafe.
Despite one afternoon of rain that drove us into a (gasp) T.G.I. Friday’s, I can only hope you have the kind of weather we did in Prague.