The Mystery of Prague

My journey to Prague began as a postcard, truth be told: one of those faded, crumpled cards in a flea market long ago – I don’t remember where or when. Yet the city in that vintage photograph seemed filled with castles, with shuttered windows and cobblestones and statues and balconies, and drifts of white snow, a place undecided whether it wanted to be magic or dream.

These days, it’s been more than two decades since the Velvet Revolution freed the people of the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia) from Soviet-style communism. And that came on the stiff heels of Nazi occupation, from the beginnings of World War II until the last shot on the last day. Yet here in Prague, part of what makes the city so romantic is the deep understanding that when you’re 3,000-plus years old, so much of history’s darkness takes a small place on a very large timeline.

I was late to the party on Prague, having started my adult life with Paris as the heartbeat of all things romantic – not only for the gifts of meeting or taking a soulmate but all the allures of creativity itself, whether the desired creation was literature, music or art. In time, as I grew older, my focus shifted, and the watercolor city of Venice – so beautiful and so sad – came to express better than Paris the very longing that propels us. Paris and Venice remain shimmering destinations. Yet more and more people have settled on Prague on the banks of the Vltava River as the ultimate place to be in love.

Discovery is everywhere in Prague, from neighborhood to neighborhood, even from block to block. Yes, you can “do” almost anything here, from sightseeing in vintage cars or horse-drawn carriages to a new “virtual” attraction that simulates touring the city from above. Yet first and foremost, Prague lives at ground level, in its cafes, in its shops, in its galleries, in its theaters. As a former jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it combines the Art Nouveau swirl of Vienna with the spicy exoticism of Budapest. It is a city of Viennese pastries and Hungarian goulash, both of which the Czechs have understandably claimed as their own.

The quickest way into the heart of Prague is to see it not as one city at all. It started out, three millennia ago, as a collection of unrelated settlements. And these settlements, to a degree that’s remarkable, have clung to their own flavors, atmospheres and personalities into our own day. That explains why one city has so many castles, built to protect many smaller communities, not one larger one.

To most visitors, the center of all things is Prague’s Stare Mesto (Old Town), with its winding cobblestone streets and oversized square spinning outward from the famous Astronomical Clock. Crowds gather here on the hour to watch the clock’s engineering put on a show. Old Town is also an evocative stroll between the castle devoted to Good King Wenceslas, where in 1989 poet-playwright Vaclav Havel called for a new freedom and gave birth to the Velvet Revolution, and Charles Bridge.

Seemingly part of Old Town – though of course separate, this being Prague – is the fascinating Jewish Quarter called Josefov. Hundreds of Jewish groups pass through its sites every day except the Sabbath, including one synagogue deliciously named Old/New and the tombstones of its ancient cemetery. The Jewish Quarter, which started out as a ghetto with a wall to keep people in, now can’t manage to keep people out. It’s become a must-see for visitors of any and all faith traditions.

Once you make it across Charles Bridge, which can get crowded on mild days when artists and musicians come out to play, you stand before two essential Prague neighborhoods. The one bordering the Vltava is Mala Strana (Lesser Town, but only because it’s “lesser” than the next one), home to Catholic grandeur throughout the ages and today a delightful tangle of restaurants, theaters, boutiques and art galleries.

And finally, there’s Prague Castle, the postcard you see from any angle almost any time of the day or night, giving its name to the entire Hradcany neighborhood. This area is mostly about buildings, including the Castle itself (where the Czech Republic’s president goes to work each day), St. Vitus Cathedral and the Strahov Monastery, with narratives reaching back to the 1300s; but there are also Royal Gardens for walking around the base of the hill that lifts these wonders toward heaven.

Meeting at the center of Karlovy Most amid stories, stones and soft-drifting snow, you will see a vision of what the future has in store. That is part of Prague’s romantic magic: that all such good things to come are absolutely possible.

FACTS OF THE CASE

HOTELS: There’s an awe-inspiring variety of hotel styles available in Prague, from the Art Nouveau Imperial to the Art Deco Alcron to the Cold War Jalta to the timeless Adria. Virtually all have restaurants as good as anything in town, including the Michelin-starred Alcron and the quirky, shadowy cave at the Adria known as Triton.

LEAVE THE DRIVING: One of the unique aspects of Prague is the number and diversity of vintage cars filling the main historic areas, ready to be leased with a driver/tour guide for an hour or two or for the entire day. Most of the cars are convertibles, making for a memorable look around the city indeed.

WORDS AND MUSIC: Prague is a theater-loving town, with some of the best companies offering Czech actors in Czech plays. Still, there’s a State Opera doing all the classics in Italian, French or German, plus troupes like the Prague Shakespeare Company, with roots deep in Texas, playing the Bard in his language. Virtually every church presents concerts several nights a week, including local-favorite composers like Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek.

OPEN-AIR MARKETS: There are markets on certain days of the week, though the ones based on produce slowdown in the winter time. On the route from Wenceslas Square to Old Town, however, there’s one yearround enterprise that’s been selling everything from pears to paintings since the year 1232. Check out Havelske Trziste, even if you can’t pronounce it.

PIVO PRIORITIES: Pivo means beer in Czech. And while some excellent wines are made in the Moravia region, especially whites, locals tend to think pivo when they think drink. Every other doorway in Prague opens into a beer joint, whether the pour of choice is the iconic Pilsener Urquell from the city of Plzen or local favorite Staropramen. There’s even still, despite a lawsuit or two from St. Louis, a popular local brew called Budweiser.

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