Prague is weird and wonderful! It is difficult to overestimate its charms. Spires rise up from buildings, stabbing at the sky with artistic inspiration. Shopping is downright unique. Our most memorable stops were Absinthe dispensaries, to hand-made puppets, to Czech street food, and classic artisan glass ornaments.
Don’t forget the delicious Czech beer (pivo)! The city bustles with hordes of tourists searching for that quintessential European capital experience. Around each corner is a musical performance, snake-charmer, or dance group. Deep in the heart of Europe, this place has many nicknames: “the mother of cities,” “city of a hundred spires,” “Golden Prague,” and simply “Magic Prague.” There is real magic in the air here.
Arrival from Budapest by train was a scenic 4 hours. The Airbnb we found was on the beautiful Pařížská Street in Old Town. Pařížská Street represents a parade of architectural styles used by Prague artisans at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when several dozens of apartment buildings were constructed including Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Noveau styles.
Both sides of the street are lined with alleys full of life. Walking down Pařížská Street, the elegance of the French capital from where it got its name (“Paris”) is evident. Prague has managed to escape all major wars and disasters, so its architectural style forms an unbroken tapestry from one age to the next, unique in the world. I suspect Paris may be secretly jealous of this place; “the mother of cities.”
This part of town is very luxurious. It hosts fancy café lounges and fashion boutiques, watchmaker and jewelry brands. A large Nespresso retail store was across from us. The rents of apartments and shops in this locale are one of the top 20 most expensive worldwide. Yikes! From our apartment it was an easy 5 minute stroll to the Old Town Square.
Destiny in the Stars
Setting foot in the Old Town Square you realize that now you are truly in the heart of Prague. The towers of Tyn Church, the Astronomical Clock, and the Baroque arcades winding into mysterious boulevards give the entire square an otherworldly feel. We sat in the middle of the bustling scene and took it all in. Why hurry? This is what we came for!
According to Czech legend, Princess Libuše determined exactly where along the forested banks of the Vltava River a new Castle and town should be built. “I see a great city, whose glory will touch the stars.” Rudolph of the Habsburgs was born in Vienna. At the ripe old age of 20, he became King of Hungary and Croatia, followed soon after by Bohemia. King Rudolph is best known as Czech history’s greatest eccentric.
He was obsessed with art, alchemy, and the occult. World-famous men of the stars frequently appeared in his Prague Court, including: Tycho Brahe and his assistant Johannes Kepler. Brahe is in fact buried in the crypt of Tyn Church, right in the Old Town Square. We walked to the end of the square, and pondered just how many strange characters passed by the old astronomical clock before us.
The clock is an astrolabe – a kind of analog computer, which shows the apparent position of celestial bodies in the sky. It’s possible to read what zodiac sign the Sun is in, the Sun’s distance above the horizon, the time of its rise and set, the days of solstices and equinoxes, and lots more. The hand with a small golden star shows astral time. Moving figures of the twelve Apostles complement the clock, who parade by at the top of each hour.
The Charles Bridge
The best time of day to visit the Charles Bridge is very early in the morning. We arrived to find it almost empty, except for a small group of schoolchildren. Other times of day there are so many tourists that you can barely make it across to the other side. The bridge was built in the 14th century and is adorned with 75 statues.
The oldest is the St. John of Nepomuk statue. St. John was the court priest of King Wenceslas IV. Legend has it that he was killed by request of the king, because he refused to tell the king about the queen’s confession. More likely the reason is that he invited a bishop to Prague who was the king’s enemy, something there is good historical evidence for. Touching the statue is a Prague ritual. It is supposed to bring good luck and to ensure that you return to Prague soon.
Absinthe and Rooftops
Prague has multiple Absinthe bars with varying recipes. Be warned, however. Not all are equal. We really enjoyed a place called “Absintherie.” Jazz piano notes danced out into the streets as we approached. Live music with moody atmospheric green lighting made for a great experience!
The staff was very knowledgeable about the different types of Absinthe. Denise opted for the green ice cream, and I tried a traditional French variety. The drink is made in a wide variety of blends; distilled French and Swiss are the best. It is meant to be sipped and enjoyed, not downed like a shot (This means YOU Americans!) We then headed for the river and proceeded to find our way up to the rooftops. The view of the city at night was wonderful!
Prague Castle / St. Vitus Cathedral
Word must be out on the beauty of Prague Castle and St. Vitus because last time we saw so many tourists was in the middle of St. Marks Square in Venice. Nevertheless, a trip through the Castle is definitely worth it. Founded in 880 A.D., this is the largest medieval castle in all of Europe! Imagine the generations of Kings of Bohemia ascending the throne to rule throughout the centuries.
You may think that St. Vitus and the Castle are the same thing, but that is not the case. The 18-acre castle grounds contain a mix of palaces, churches, great halls, apartments, a monastery, viewing towers, fortifications, museums, art galleries, and a unique set of 11 ancient homes known collectively as “Golden Lane.”
Alchemists and goldsmiths used to live here, and even today you can browse a series of shops and museums. Denise didn’t have to ask if I was going to climb the tower, and I didn’t have to ask if she was going to climb too! We must be getting to know each other!
Legends and Mysteries
Prague is a city overflowing with ghost stories and legends. You may have heard of the Golem? That Jewish legend was born in Prague. It is said this artificial man was created from clay by the mystical scholar Rabbi Löw in order to serve him and protect the ghetto. According to the tale, the Rabbi hid the Golem in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.
Imagine wandering the ancient streets of Prague at dusk after a scrumptious meal. One wrong turn finds you staring into a dark empty street. Where did all the tourists go? Suddenly aware that you’re being watched, you spin around and see an impossible sight. A towering man of clay glaring at you through his unnatural red eyes – RUN!
Another great Prague legend surrounds the painting known as “The Death of St. Francis Xavier” found in the Church of St. Nicholas in Lesser town. The mystery of this painting is the key to impossible riches. It is said that whoever is able to decipher its secret while contemplating the painting will receive enormous wealth. So throw away those lottery tickets and come view the painting!
On one of the pillars of the Charles Bridge is a column with the likeness of Knight Bruncvík. Long ago, Bruncvík rescued a lion from a fierce dragon, and the lion proceeded to accompany him throughout the Czech lands.
This is how the lion became part of the emblem of Czech Royalty. Bruncvík’s incredible sword was embedded in one of the pillars of the bridge after the death of the Knight, and the sword will appear again when the Czech nation experiences its worst tragedies.
A Restaurant to Remember
For our last night, we decided to splurge on a nice dinner. Some locals we met recommended “Field” for its excellent quality Czech / European cuisine. In addition, it was a very close walk from our Airbnb. Everything was perfect. Presentation, service, decor, menu, wine pairings, etc. You name it, they nailed it! As we left, we realized there is so much in Prague left to discover. Theaters, museums, operas, nightlife, and more. There are a thousand reasons to return.
Next time we look up at the stars, we’ll be thinking of Prague.