Czech Republic

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Pace Yourself in Prague

by Sarah Shuckburgh

The best way to get around the captivating but confusing Czech capital is on foot, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

Luckily, I’d been warned to pack trainers - Prague’s pavements are beautiful but hazardous. The intricate mosaics of black, grey, dusty pink and white granite cubes undulate with jutting corners and deep troughs, which lie in wait for unsuspecting pedestrians. I watch other tourists trip and teeter in ill-advised stilettos, and feel smug and athletic in my plimsolls.

Another hazard is the language. Czech place-names contain strange squiggles and accents, and alarming clusters of consonants - especially z, h and v. ‘New’ and ‘old’ also have unexpected meanings - the New Town dates from 1348, and there’s an Old-New synogogue. I feel confused, so on my first day in Prague, I hire a guide for a walking tour.

We start by taking the cable car to the peaceful park on Petrin hill. From here, Jindra points out the four towns that joined to become Prague in the 18th century. We look towards Castle Town on another of the city’s seven hills, then down over wooded slopes to the Lesser Quarter, and across the snaking river Vltava to the Old and New towns, with copper roofs shining in the sunshine.

Czechs have lived through turbulent times, but the skyline of their capital city remains unspoilt by war or modern architecture. Fifty years of neglect left most buildings woefully dilapidated, but now, after extensive restoration, Prague has emerged as one of the world’s best preserved cities - a unique monument to Baroque and Romanesque architecture.

“Living under communism was like being trapped in an unhappy marriage,” says Jindra. “You are aware that you are unhappy, but there seems to be no way out. After the marriage ends, you feel relieved, but also afraid and insecure. That is how we Czechs feel today.”

We walk past high monastery walls and down a leafy lane to Hradcany, the Castle Town. A carillon of tinny 17th century bells rings from the tower of Loreto Church. The automated glockenspiel continues with an out-of-tune Czech hymn to the Madonna, as we walk through white stucco cloisters to a strange windowless replica of the Santa Casa, Mary’s Nazareth home, which miraculously appeared in a laurel grove near Ancona. During the counter-reformation, the Marian cult thrived in Bohemia. The church is Baroque, and cherubs swarm over the pulpit, and peer from pillars and niches. Upstairs, the treasury displays extravagantly glittering monstrances.

Further down the cobbled street, we peep into U Cerneho Vola - a smoky pub with dark timber ceiling, scrubbed tables and benches packed with beer-swiggers - but choose instead the cosy Restaurant Renthauz. I order knedlí ky plnê né uzený m masem with sterilované zelí (tasty tennis-ball sized meat dumplings, with slivers of cabbage). My two-course meal, with warm, homemade strudel and cream, comes to 5 euros (£3).

After lunch, we stroll past grand mansions, some newly restored, and some still covered in scaffolding, including the 16th century Schwarzenberg Palace with its beautiful façade of geometric sgraffito. By the castle gates, beneath battling Titans, we watch the changing of the guard, sentries dapper in uniforms designed by an Oscar-winning costumier. Buskers provide a cheerful medley to accompany the pageant.

The castle is the largest in the world, each courtyard lined with innumerable windows - perfect for throwing people through. Prague’s defenestrations started in 1419, when Hussites provoked war by chucking Catholic councillors from the first floor of the New Town Hall. A later defenestration took place at the castle in 1618 - this time the Hussites were disposing of Bohemian governors. They landed on a dung heap and survived, but a 30-year religion war ensued. In 1948, Communists continued the tradition by flinging Jan Masaryk, politician son of the architect of Czech independence and the Republic‘s first president, from a bathroom window.

Inside one of the castle courtyards, stands St Vitus’ Cathedral, where Good King Wenceslas is buried. Vaclav I wasn’t really a king, but he was good - a just and merciful leader, who founded the cathedral in 925, and died a martyr’s death at the hands of his wicked brother, becoming patron saint of Prague and of Bohemia. St Wenceslas appears in a stunning stained glass window designed by Mucha, Prague’s famous artistic son. Long neglected in his native country - dismissed first as low-brow, and then decadent - Mucha is now celebrated as an Art Nouveau master. The window displays his characteristic mix of idealism and reality, patriotism, drama and fate. Jindra starts to explain how Mucha’s women are wholesome yet vulnerable, with luxuriantly flowing hair, plump forearms, and glowing halos - but I suddenly realise that I am surrounded by youths, and one is reaching into my backpack. “Be prudent,“ warns Jindra. “In Prague, we have beauty but also menace“.

Clutching our bags, we visit the Vladislav Hall, an extraordinary feat of 15th century architecture, with stone pillars sprouting from the walls like slender plants, to swirl across the vaulted ceiling. Golden Lane, at the edge of the castle, is an alley of tiny craftsmen’s cottages, thronging with tourists. I peer into one, in which Kafka convalesced for a few months. The window overlooks a dramatic drop to trees far below.

In Kafka’s day, Czechs were taught German. Jindra, at school during the 50s and 60s, spoke Russian. Now, children learn English. As we walk down the hill, Jindra talks about other changes that her generation has lived through - the influx of students and new bohemians after the velvet revolution in 1989; the separation from Slovakia in 1993; and now the arrival of foreign investors and multi-nationals.

Further upheaval was caused by the 2002 floods, and in the Lesser Quarter we see shoulder-high water marks on the buildings. We wander through the Waldstein Palace gardens - past ponds full of brightly coloured carp, formal topiary and statues, and an aviary with eagle owls - to Prague’s oldest bridge, built in 1357. Today Charles Bridge teems with tourists, buskers, trinket sellers, portrait artists, hurdy-gurdy men and beggars. Local passers-by stop to rub the statue of St John of Nepomuk, who, in 1393, was hurled to his death from this very bridge by a Bad King Wenceslas, for holding his tongue and refusing to divulge what the Queen said in her daily confessionals. John was sainted when his tongue washed up, miraculously preserved inside his skeleton. The blackened statue has bright, silvery patches, polished by superstitious hands. I lean over, touch the shiny bas-relief of St John’s dog, and make a wish. Jindra warns me that I must make no other wishes for a whole year.

She leaves me to wander alone through the narrow streets of the old town, the Staré Mesto. I follow the jostling crowds past souvenir shops selling Bohemian glass and wooden toys, to the Old Town Square, where an immense statue of Jan Hus stands - father of the Hussites of defenestration fame. Nearby is the ancient Jewish quarter, with its beautiful 13th century New-Old synagogue - still in use - and the haunting cemetery, in which 100,000 bodies are buried, twelve deep, beneath a jumble of gravestones. Wenceslas Square is a disappointing, traffic-filled boulevard, but I spend a happy half hour in the elegant Art Nouveau Evropa Café, sipping hot chocolate, and listening to the pianist.

Prague has a vibrant tradition of music-making, and Czechs are enthusiastic concert-goers. As I walk back through the cobbled alleys, I pass the grand portals of the Clam-Gallas Palace and spot a poster advertising music by local composers Smetana, Janacek and Dvorak. The concert is about to begin. I buy a ticket, and climb a huge, dusty staircase to a dilapidated ballroom, with baroque plaster ceiling, crystal chandeliers and shabby laminated floor. The hall is packed, and I take the last remaining seat, as the young musicians enter to rapturous applause.

Later, with Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances ringing in my head, I walk along the river Vltava to my hotel. My gym shoes confidently negotiate the bumps in the exquisite pavement mosaics, and I feel like a New-Old visitor to Prague, no longer confused, but captivated.

First published by the Telegraph

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