The city of Prague sits at the crossroads of Europe, and many have travelled through its cobblestoned streets, from the Irish Franciscan monks, to the Nazis and on to the marching Russians. And now, Ed Leahy.
The city of Prague sits at the crossroads of Europe, and many have travelled through its cobblestoned streets, from the Irish Franciscan monks, to the Nazis and on to the marching Russians.
And judging by the numbers and nationalities waiting for the clock to strike ten, the tradition of a foreign influx is alive and well in the Czech Republic's capital city.
The clock in question is the Astronomical Clock and is one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Hundreds flock to the Town Hall on the hour to see the old timepiece, which dates back to the 15th century and is found on the side of the Gothic tower where small statues of the 12 apostles appear in small windows at the top of the clock.
On either side of the clock a Skeleton, a Turk, a Miser and a figure representing Vanity come to life. When all the apostles have presented themselves to the crowds below, a cockerel crows and the clock chimes the hour.
The clock tells Central European, Old Bohemian, Babylonian and Stellar time and once the hour strikes, a guard in traditional dress appears from atop the tower and treats the crowd to a blast of his trumpet.
The views from the top of the tower make the traipse worth your while as the Old Town Square is a hub of activity from dawn to dusk.
Less than a five-minute saunter away is another of Prague's most important landmarks, the historic Charles Bridge, which spans the broad, majestic Vltava River.
The bridge is the oldest in Prague and is 516 metres long and 10 metres wide, resting on 16 arches, with a tower at either end and trumpet players to match.
Getting there relatively early in the day, I was able to enjoy the short stroll across, taking some time to check out some of the many buskers in action and to get caught up in the obligatory superstitions associated with the historical site – these include granted wishes for touching certain monuments along the bridge and linked to a vicar who was thrown into the river below for not divulging the queen's confession.
Needless to say, Charles Bridge is busy with tourists from mid-morning to late afternoon, so if the bridge gets too busy to negotiate, which it often does, then a panoramic view of the bridge can be enjoyed from the river bank or from the adjacent bridge.
You will have to cross the river at some stage to visit Prague Castle – the largest castle in the world, dating back to 870 – where several days could be spent taking in all the attractions and tours on offer.
St George's Basilica and Convent, the Imperial Stables, the Golden Lane and the Prague Castle Picture Gallery are some of the many sites worth seeing, while the small but scenic vineyard just outside the castle gates is the oldest in the Czech Republic.
Elsewhere on this side of the river, the Franz Kafka museum is well worth a visit, as is the John Lennon peace wall, which is more symbolic than aesthetic. You'd be wise to make sure you pay a visit to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, which is home to the small but significant Infant Jesus of Prague or the Child of Prague as he is known throughout the homes of Ireland.
The 19-inch wax statue of the infant Jesus is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, while replicas of the statue are sure to be found in the suitcase of every Irish bride-to-be to ensure there'll be good weather on the wedding day.
After a day of wandering about the castle and the surrounding area, and before attempting to get back across the bridge, a coffee was called for and it was pure fluke to stumble across Café Kafka on Míšenská, which served excellent teas and coffees with a range of tasty treats to get you from lunch to dinner. The café is plain and simple with basic wooden furniture but an hour here with book and coffee will soothe the soul and feet as you escape the hustle and bustle of high season in Prague.
Once the main attractions have been checked off the list, another few days will confirm Prague's place as one of Europe's great cities.
Wandering the compact city centre – split into three parts, the old town, new town and lesser town – is like a ramble through the centuries. Prague's buildings, monuments, statues and symbols are steeped in history with tales of occupation, martyrs, religious uprisings and revolutions.
Classical and communist reminders are dotted throughout the city, while a walk through the Jewish quarter brings another period of history into play, where, in the post-war years, the Pinkas Synagogue became a monument to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia.
The names of 77,297 Holocaust victims are written on the walls of the synagogue. The exhibition also includes a collection 4,500 children's drawings from the Terezín ghetto from 1942-1944.
The nearby Municipal House is a fine art nouveau building and houses a huge concert hall as well as a French restaurant, believed to be one of the city's finest establishments, while the adjacent Hybernia Theatre – a former Irish monastery – is another place to catch a classical or contemporary show.
On the short walk back to the Old Town Square, you should pass through The Ungelt (Tyn Courtyard), a former fortified merchants' courtyard and customs house, while the neighbouring Kinský Palace, dating from the mid 18th century, houses part of the National Gallery.
Architecture enthusiasts are spoilt for choice throughout the city and two of the most intriguing buildings are at the modern end of the city's construction scale.
The Dancing House or 'Fred and Ginger' is a Frank Gehry collaboration, located along the river and was completed in 1996 on a site that was vacant since the bombing of Prague in World War Two.
The building appears to defy the laws of physics and resembles a couple dancing, while a rooftop restaurant offers spectacular views of the river below and the city beyond.
Slightly older but no less impressive is the House of the Black Madonna located on Celetna Street, which now houses the Museum of Czech Cubism. The building is an impressive example of the use of cubism in architecture and dates back to the turn of the twentieth century.
The museum tour can be completed quickly but be sure to take time to enjoy the Grand Café, located on the first floor of the building.
Coffee and Czech cake, surrounded by pretty flower boxes and shrouded in mid-summer sunshine, while watching the world pass slowly by below - it's just a normal afternoon in the City of 100 Spires.
Nightlife in Prague
The area around the Old Town Square is very lively with a range of Czech and themed pubs. Traditional restaurants are located throughout the city centre and menus are cheap with pork, beef and dumplings dominating. After a couple of nights of traditional fare, a fine alternative was enjoyed at The Bohemica Old Town Bar & Restaurant located in the Barceló Hotel, where chef Chef Jan Schánil has created a very interesting menu of modern Czech and international cuisine. Several lively bars kept the night going closeby, with some very tasty cocktails at the Buddha Bar to finish. An Absinthe Bar is also located just off the Old Town Square, where you can indulge – at your own risk – in a wide range of Absinthe-inspired options from mojitos to ice cream.
Away from the fine local Pilsner, marionette shows are renowned in Prague, as are the Black Light Theatre productions, while top quality classical music performances take place throughout the city and ticket prices can be slashed as the show nears opening times. Elsewhere, the jazz scene is vibrant in the city with several pubs and jazz boat options available.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Jalta Hotel, which is situated in the historic Wenceslas Square area of the city. The location is ideal for exploring the city as the Old Town Square is no more than a five-minute walk. The hotel building was built in 1958 and is listed, as it is a prime example of designed socialist realism. The hotel restaurant Como is located on the ground floor with a good mix of traditional and European options. www.hoteljaltaprague.com
Getting to Prague
Aer Lingus operates flights from Dublin to Prague five times weekly. One-way fares start from €54.99 including taxes and charges. For more information on fares and schedules and to book, visit: www.aerlingus.com.
For more information about Prague, visit: www.czechtourism.com.
All photos courtesy of Czech Tourism.
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