Prague | Prague, Czechoslovakia

Posted by on November 26, 2002

Prague is one of those destinations that not only lives up to its considerable reputation, but also quickly surpasses it when you see it in the flesh. For the past ten years or so, people have been talking about “discovering” Prague. It is no longer possible to discover Prague BEFORE it’s discovered, but it is still an unusually beautiful city to explore.

We were billeted in a newly restored Hotel called (in English) The Golden Star. It was right on the ancient route up to the breathtaking Prague Castle (a city within itself). For most of the folks with us, the views of the city from their rooms were staggering. For us, the view was of a wall, albeit a castle wall. Such is the luck of the draw. The hotel was otherwise fine, with comfortable rooms, brand new shiny bathrooms, and friendly staff who were most accommodating. The hotel, named Zlata Hvezda in Czech, is at 48 Nerudova, almost to the castle. The location made getting to the castle easy, but made getting BACK from the center of the city much more difficult, (even though) it was only a few minutes walk to the Charles Bridge, (since the route back was ALL uphill.)

We were traveling with a group of passionate music lovers, and Prague is full of music. You can attend classical concerts several times a day, and many of us did. These tended to be short concerts of less than an hour, at lunchtime and at about 5 PM, in addition to the huge variety of regular evening concerts on offer most all yearlong. We managed to attend three concerts while we were there, and could have heard many more. There are musicians playing in the streets all over Prague, including the famous Charles Bridge. Then again, almost everything you can think of happens on the Charles Bridge, including pick pocketing. Long-since designated a pedestrian bridge, it is so crowded most of the time that the city fathers are thinking of charging admission to cross it.

The city is as beautiful as any city I have ever seen, from the point of view of buildings and architecture. Its natural beauty is limited to the mighty Vltava River, which divides it, and the hills surrounding the river valley. The Castle with its Gothic cathedral crowns the “left bank.” When all the castle buildings are lit in the evening, it is a fairyland of spires and medieval rooftops.

Charles IV was principally responsible for the glorious urban development of Prague. In the 14th century he started the process of making Prague an important city. A good many of the buildings I saw seem not to have changed since then. Mostly spared in World War II, Prague has in recent years had much Czech government money invested. It seems to be paying off in the swarms of tourists who flock to the city from all over the world. We were there in April, which is NOT the height of the tourist season, when it gets oppressively crowded.

We heard the obligatory Smetana concert on our first evening in Prague, conducted by Mirian Nemcova. I was most impressed by this formidable young woman’s control of the orchestra, though I found the music in Prague to be, in general, of lesser quality and less sophisticated than in Berlin or Salzburg. Here the musicians seem to play what people want to hear as opposed to Berlin and Salzburg, where they attempt the very difficult and esoteric, quite successfully.

After the concert, we had a lucky ride up the rainy cobbled streets toward our Golden Star, and found a pub right in our square where a dark beer and a plate of smoked salmon topped off the evening.

We had bussed from Berlin to Prague, a daylong journey, which gave us, the opportunity to see the country and to observe quaint customs, such as the Czech prostitutes waiting at the border for the (wealthier) German truck drivers. The sad image of those young women standing in the rain has stayed with me all these months.

The next day we had a tour of the oldest part of Prague with a tall blond Prague native named Hannah, who had a charming accent, and was full of more information than I could possibly absorb. In the Old Town Square, a young man dressed as Mozart, (there were many, all carrying placards advertising concerts) momentarily distracted me, and we became separated from our group. The square was so crowded it reminded me of tour groups in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. We never saw our group again, until I suddenly remembered that we were all to meet at the Inter-Continental Hotel to get our bus ride UP the hill. You can now see my motivation in running all the way to the Inter-Continental.

We had a treat for dinner that evening, a group event at the Obecni Dum, which is the painstakingly restored Art Deco municipal building containing many restaurants. This is a tourist destination, and the food was certainly so-so, but the company was good, and the chance to explore the building worthwhile.

Early Monday we walked up to the Castle to try to beat the crowds. The St. Vitus Cathedral was ominous and jammed already. This poor saint was tortured at the stake by his own father for becoming a Christian.

After a full morning just scratching the surface of the buildings and museums of the Castle, we walked down to Kampa Island in the Vltava, to have a special lunch at Kampa Park, one of the highly rated restaurants of Prague. It is directly on the river, and afforded pleasant views of the restored buildings that now comprise the Four Seasons Hotel, just across the river. If you have lots of money, and like elegance and a fabulous location, this is definitely the place to stay in Prague. It is stunning and very handy, but at about $300 base price for a double, it is expensive by Prague standards, and mine.

I checked out other hotels and restaurants, attended two more concerts, and had a walk in an apple orchard in full bloom. My favorite memory of Prague is of the terraced South Castle gardens, by which one can meander down to the river level of the city. Part way down we discovered a path that led to an open terraced restaurant, where we enjoyed a view, a quiche and a glass of white wine. This proved to be part of a hotel called “U Zlate Studne” which cascades down the hill through the gardens. If you stay here, you are up near the castle, but you can take the elevator back up the hill from the center.

Betsy Shequine finds physical convenience more and more necessary on her journeys, and wonders if it is a sign of inflexibility or reality.

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