“Kde se pivo vaří. Tam se dobře daří.” (Where beer is brewed, life is good. – Czech proverb)
After a very early start, I land at 8:15 a.m. at Václav Havel International Airport, the airport of the Czech capital Prague (or Praha in Czech). That is just over an hour after we took off from Amsterdam Airport. Although the Czech Republic, created in 1993 after the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia, joined the European Union in 2004, the country is not part of the Eurozone. So after I land, I get Czech crowns first and then I go into the city by bus and metro.
Prague has a long and eventful history, starting in the ninth century with the construction of Pražsky Hrad, or Prague Castle. In the sixteenth century the area that is now the Czech Republic became part of the Habsburg Empire and in 1583 Prague became the empire’s capital instead of Vienna. I have three days to explore this old city and I start in Nové Městó, which means ‘new city’. Which means new compared to Staré Městó (Old Town), because Nové Městó is not really new: it dates back to the fourteenth century. Its construction started in 1348, but most of the current buildings date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
After having coffee at Globe Bookstore and Café, I walk down Resslove Street, where I get a first look at the Vltava, the river that runs right through Prague. Prague is known for its old architecture, but here on the corner by the river is a striking modern building: the ‘Dancing Building’ built in 1996. I walk along the promenade, first called Rašínovo Nábřeží and then Masarikovo Nábřeží, with its stately facades dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When you get to the Legii Most (Legion’s Bridge), you can see Karlovo Most (Charles’ Bridge) ahead, and on the other bank of the river Pražsky Hrad, where the pointed towers of St. Vitus Cathedral rise above.
On the corner of Masarikovo Nábřeží and Národni Třída is Prague’s National Theatre dating back to 1881. Via the shopping street Národni Třída I arrive at the northern end of Václavské Námeští. Although námeští means ‘square’, it is more like a long, wide boulevard. Many historical events have taken place here, in 1918 the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic was celebrated here and in 1989 the fall of communism. After the police brutally crushed a student protest, Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel declared here on 17 November 1989 that the communist regime of Czechoslovakia had come to an end. A month later, former dissident Havel became president.
Along Václavské Námeští, named after Duke Václav of Bohemia (who lived in the 10th century), there are beautiful buildings, such as the Hotel Evropa with its striking yellow facade, and the Wiel House decorated with murals. At the end of the boulevard is a large statue of Václav on horseback and behind it is the National Museum of the Czech Republic, built at the end of the nineteenth century (which has unfortunately been closed for renovation for some time). In front of this building, Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1968 in protest against the invading Soviet troops. In Lucerna Palace, one of the shopping arcades along Václavské Námeští, I come across one of the strangest works of art I know: a large hanging statue of Václav on horseback, but the horse is dead and hanging upside down, leaving Václav sitting on its stomach. Weird…
After lunch I walk to Hlavní Nádraží, the main station of Prague. The old central hall in Art Nouveau style is very beautiful. Then I walk back via Karlovo Námeští (Charles Square), over the Jiráskuv Most to the other side of the Vltava, where my hotel is. After showering and changing, I sit down at a bar table by the open doors at the Kolkovna Olympia bar-restaurant. Kolkovna is a nice bar, with mainly locals. Tonight they empathize with the Czech under-21 football team, which plays (and wins) against Serbia. I order a typical Czech meal and a Master, a very tasty copper colored Czech beer. Na zdraví, in other words: cheers!
The next morning I get up early to view the Karlovo Most, or Charles Bridge. During the day the 500 meter long bridge is just as busy as Times Square on Saturday afternoon, but early in the morning it is still quiet and you can enjoy the beautiful bridge in peace. The Czech king Charles IV ordered the construction of the bridge in 1357. The bridge was completed in 1390 and until the nineteenth century the bridge was simply called ‘stone bridge’. On both ends the beginning of the bridge is marked with gates and along the bridge are statues of all kinds of saints. After admiring the bridge, I go back to the hotel to have breakfast.
After breakfast I walk past the memorial for the victims of communism, a work of art consisting of human images in various states of decomposition. Then I walk to Malostranske Námeští, the main square of the Hradčany district, north of Malá Strana, which is divided in two by the St. Nicholas Church. Despite the fact that there are several large churches in Prague, the Czechs are anything but a religious people. In contrast to, for example, Poland, where 90% of the population is Catholic, in the Czech Republic only 20% of the population is religious. The vast majority are atheist or agnostic.
Via Nerudova Street I arrive at Pražsky Hrad, the castle where the Czech kings used to reside. The first fortress was built here in the ninth century and during the next centuries later kings rebuilt and expanded the castle. Pražsky Hrad is the largest ancient castle in the world and covers over seven hectares. You enter the fortified complex through the main gate, with large statues of fighting titans on either side. The complex has several courtyards, which are surrounded by stately buildings and palaces and connected by gates. As soon as you get to the third courtyard, you come across the immense facade of the St. Vitus Cathedral, which is especially impressive because after the gate you stand immediately right in front of it. Construction of the cathedral began in 1344 and was not completed until 1929. From the Pražsky Hrad you have a beautiful view of the city.
From the castle I walk to the Valdštejnská Zahrada (Wallenstein Gardens), a series of gardens laid out in the seventeenth century around a palace that now houses the Czech Senate. The gardens, with bronze statues of Greek gods, are an oasis of calm in the city. Detail: the images are copies; the Swedes stole the originals in 1648 and they are now in Stockholm. Back at Malostranske Námeští I sit down on a terrace to have lunch. Another Czech dish, this time with an Erdinger weissbier.
After lunch I walk on the Kampa peninsula, a small neighborhood around a square, where today are all food stalls. Kampa is also home to the John Lennon Wall, a wall where, during communism, there was not only an image of Lennon, but also all kinds of political graffiti. Even though the authorities kept removing them (both Western pop music and political propaganda were banned), they kept coming back. Little is left of the original images and texts, now the wall is mainly decorated with texts applied by tourists.
I stroll along the river through Na Kampě (Kampa park), and down the streets of Malá Strana, an atmospheric neighborhood with cobbled streets, stately houses, parks and restaurants and cafes. In the middle of the Vltava river lies Strélecký Ostrov, an island that consists almost entirely of park and where the inhabitants of Prague enjoy a relaxed Sunday afternoon on the grass and along the water, while a band is playing on a stage and a tent of beer and sells snacks. After relaxing in the park for a while, I walk to Kolkovna Olympia (already my favorite pub), where I sit outside this time.
My last day in Prague I start again at the Charles Bridge. The tower on the side of Staré Městó marks both the beginning of the Charles Bridge and the entrance to the old town. At the top of the tower you have a beautiful view of Staré Městó, Nové Městó, the Vltava and Malá Strana on the other side. Near the bridge is the Klementium, a Jesuit complex of buildings from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, including an astronomical tower dating from 1720. The National Library is now housed in the Klementium. The main square of Staré Město, and one of the busiest places in Prague, is Staroměstské Náměstí, with the Old Town Hall dating from 1338. The main attraction here is the astronomical clock from the fifteenth century. Every hour a bell sounds and the twelve apostles parade past two windows above the clock, while a crowd of tourists has gathered in the square. On the side of the old town hall, Staroměstské Náměstí is a small park with trees, the rest of the square is the venue for festivals and demonstrations, surrounded by beautiful buildings and a large statue of Jan Hus.
Via the old streets of Staré Městó I walk to fifteenth century Prašná Brána (the Powder Tower) and past the Obecní Dum (the concert hall), a richly decorated Art Nouveau building from the early twentieth century. In ancient times, Czech kings followed the Královska Cesta (the Royal Route), from the Powder Tower via Staroměstské Náměstí over the Charles Bridge to the castle, to be crowned there. After all these sights I walk a bit north to eat at restaurant Lokál. Afterwards I go to the Prague Beer Museum, which is not a museum, but a bar – also popular with residents of Prague – where they have thirty different Czech beers on tap. The Czechs drink more beer per capita than any other nation. And they’ve probably been doing that since beer was invented in 1842 in the Czech town of Plzěn. The beer (pivo in Czech) most drunk here is světlé (light beer), but you can also get tmavé (dark beer) and Czechs sometimes order a half-and-half. On the beer bottle, the alcohol percentage is not stated here, but an indication in °, for example 10° (desítka) or 12° (jedenáctka), the first being lighter and sweeter and the second fuller and more bitter.
What better way to end a city trip in Prague than with a beer tasting in this café? You choose five types of beer that are served in small glasses (not the large 400 or 500 ml glasses that are standard here). I taste the Konrad, Kášter, Kvasar, Merlin and Lucky Bastard. Very nice, and tasty. A nice end to a very nice city trip. Prague is a great city, with many beautiful buildings, a relaxed atmosphere (despite the many tourists), countless restaurants and good beer. As far as I’m concerned, Prague deserves a place on the list between Paris, Rome, London, Berlin.