By Marilyn Baron
We arrived in Prague after a five-hour train trip from Berlin. It was a comfortable ride in the first-class cabin and we had lunch in the dining car. We stopped at the Dresden station, but didn’t go into the city.
The October weather was overcast and cold for almost our entire visit, but I’m sure in the summer, the atmosphere is wonderful. The guidebook describes Prague as a magical and melancholy city and when you’re in Old Town you feel like you’re in a fairy tale because the winding, picturesque cobblestone streets and well-preserved historic buildings add to the city’s renowned beauty and mystique. The jaw-dropping night views of the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle when the city is lit are beyond words. In fact, you can’t adequately capture it with a camera. One night we ate at a wonderful Continental restaurant called Bellevue and my window seat provided a picture-perfect view of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. Thirty Baroque statues adorn the bridge. Touching one is supposed to make your fondest wish come true and ensure that you’ll return to Prague. I hope I do return and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.
The good news was my husband used his Starwood Points to get a free hotel stay. The bad news was the hotel was not centrally located and we had to take cabs to get the popular sights and restaurants in the Old Town Square.
Prague cabs are the city’s dirty little secret. Cheating customers is their way of life. In fact, our concierge even apologized and called them thieves. Our first experience with Prague cab drivers was at the Prague train station. We walked up to a driver and he charged us 500 crowns or korunas—about $10 too much, we later learned, for the short ride to our hotel. There is no negotiation and there are no meters. We had forgotten that the Czech Republic is not part of the Euro zone, so Euros aren’t used in Prague. You are warned never to take a cab from Old Town Square. So I recommend you stay in Old Town and eat there and you will only have to take a cab to and from the airport or train station. We asked the concierge to call a cab when we needed one and the restaurants call their own drivers to take us back to the hotel at a preset rate. The hotel and restaurant drivers are very courteous and the cars are in good shape.
We took what was billed as a 6-hour walking tour, which turned out to be a 7 ½-hour tour and it was so comprehensive it covered what the guidebooks recommend seeing in four days. And for an out of shape person like me, it was torture. But it was really a great tour. It started at the Astronomical Clock in the town square. It was a fascinating experience. On the hour, a skeleton rings the bell, 12 Apostles come out of two windows, a gold cuckoo chimes and a live trumpeter plays. We had been warned that this is a perfect time for pickpockets, since everyone is looking up. But the crowds weren’t that bad, since it was fall.
We learned that throughout history, the Czechs have been experts at torture. They even have a Museum of Torture. As our guide explained, people have been drowned in the Vltava River, the Czech Republic’s longest river, thrown out windows from the castle (defenestration) or shot in the Town Square for religious reasons. Not to mention they “rewarded” the man who designed the town’s premier tourist attraction, the Astronomical Clock, by blinding him so he could never recreate anything so unique for another town. No good deed goes unpunished. Remind me never to invent anything in Prague.
Then we toured the Jewish section and saw the exteriors of six synagogues and the Jewish Cemetery. There are only about 1,600 Jews left in Prague. We saw the Franz Kafka House (he’s the local hero) and a neat statue based on one of his short stories and his museum is supposed to be great. We strolled down Parizska Street (without the accents) (as in Paris) home to trendy, expensive and well-known designer boutiques and restaurants, patterned after the Champs Elysee.
We took a romantic 40-minute boat trip on the Vltava River to Prague’s Little Venice, had lunch in a Medieval restaurant dating from the 15th century to sample a typical Czech meal (Czech, please), took the bus up to Prague Castle and walked back down to the Charles Bridge. Many movies are filmed in Prague.
We bought some Bohemia crystal jewelry as gifts (Prague specializes in garnets and amber) and some Czech chocolate and a painting. The guidebooks say if you’d like a painting of Prague that isn’t a cheap knock-off bought from Charles Bridge… and my husband elected to buy a cheap knock-off, but we thought our painting looked pretty good. There’s also a neat store, called Manufaktura, which sells 100 percent Czech-made products.
During World War II, the Allies mistakenly bombed Prague, because from the sky it looked like Dresden and they later apologized for the navigational error, but not much damage was done, compared to the destruction to Dresden, the intentional target.
Sites not to miss include:
- St. Vitus Cathedral
- The Prague Castle
- Schwarzenberg Palace
- Astronomical Clock
- Old Town Square
- The Franz Kafka House
- Wenceslas Square
- The Lennon Peace Wall. Near the Lennon Wall is a small pedestrian bridge that crosses over a canal. Legend has it that when you find your true love, you carve your names on a lock and lock it onto the gate over the canal and throw the key into the canal.