When I arrived in Prague I wasn’t feeling too good. Flights from Madrid to Prague are normally expensive; but I had gotten lucky and had found one for quite cheap. The only problem was that it left Madrid at an inhumane hour in the morning; and since I have trouble sleeping either before or during flights, I was not exactly at my best. Sleep-deprivation, besides making me delirious, also makes me more prone to stress. I feel as though I cannot calm down; every little obstacle provokes a feeling of panic. Keep in mind that, when you buy cheap plane tickets, you pay for the flight in other ways.
Admittedly I did have two additional things to worry about this trip. The first was money. The Czech Republic does not use the euro, but the koruna (or “crown”). This alone produced in my exhausted mind a feeling of disorientation, since now I had to perform a conversion to understand how expensive something was, and my mind was in no condition for arithmetic. More stressing was my new camera. Just days before I had impulsively ordered a Canon 1300D (Rebel T6 in America) and I had hardly any idea how to use it, care for it, or store it. Fresh from the financial sting of purchasing the device, I was terrified of losing, breaking, or having it stolen. This was my state as I entered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
There are many options for getting from the airport to the center of Prague. I took a local bus and transferred to the metro, which took me to Prague’s central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, where I deposited my things in a luggage locker. Prague’s metro system is conspicuously attractive and efficient. There are only three metro lines (A, B, and C); but they have been planned so well and go so quickly that I felt that I could zip around the city. Many stations also feature appealing, even futuristic designs. It made a good first impression. Though the city of Prague has only around 1.3 million inhabitants, the metro carries 1.6 million riders a day, which gives you an idea of the level of tourism in the city.
As I emerged into the daylight from the train station—confused, panicked, disoriented—I was at a loss for where to go first. After some aimless wandering I emerged on the Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square), which is more of a long open avenue than a plaza. Its name comes from St. Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia; and a monumental equestrian statue of the saint stands at the top of the square. Behind the statue, bookending the space, is the palatial building of the National Museum—which houses a large collection of both natural and cultural history, but which nevertheless is not a popular attraction (I didn’t go).
From there I made my way to the Old Town. (The aforementioned Wenceslas Square is in the New Town, an expansion of the city planned under Charles IV in the 14th century—very new indeed.) This led me through one of the old city gates, the Powder Tower, an attractive gothic edifice built of smoky grey stone and covered with decorative work.
Soon I found myself in the center of the city: Old Town Square. It is a very pretty place, lined with square apartment buildings painted in bright colors. Beyond them is the Church of Our Lady before Týn, whose tall, jagged gothic spires provide one of Prague’s most distinguishing sights. Tycho Brahe, the astronomer who taught Johannes Kepler, is buried here. In the center of the square is a statue of Jan Hus, an important religious reformer and predecessor of the Protestant Reformation, who believed that mass should be given in the vulgar tongue and the Bible translated into Czech—for which he was very reasonably burned as a heretic. This kicked off the Hussite Wars, in which an armed and mobilized Czech population repelled crusade after crusade sent by the Pope to squelch the heresy, an important event in Czech nationalism.
On the other side of the square is St. Nicholas Church, decorated in a pretty Baroque. Yet the most famous landmark is the extraordinary astronomical clock, or Prague orloj, affixed to the Old Town Hall. Unfortunately for me, however, the clock was under restoration when I visited, and was hidden underneath a tarp.
Standing in that expansive square, I was already beginning to see why Norman Davies, who wrote a history of Europe, named Prague the continent’s most beautiful city. But why is one of Europe’s most attractive places and most popular tourist destinations located in the Czech Republic, a country about which most Americans (myself included) know close to nothing?
It goes back to Prague’s previous title as the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia—at first an independent kingdom, and then a central part of the Holy Roman Empire. The kings of Bohemia ruled over a vast land that extended far beyond the borders of the current Czech Republic; and some were even elected to become the Holy Roman Emperor (that is, until the Habsburgs had their way). Indeed, during the high points of the Austrian power Prague played a role nearly as important as Vienna in central Europe. So the city’s great beauty is no coincidence. And luckily the city was not bombed nearly as heavily as other Nazi-controlled cities during the Second World War, so its beauty has survived intact.
My next stop was the city’s Jewish Quarter, located in a corner of the Old Town. My original plan was just to visit one synagogue; but to visit any of the landmarks of this neighborhood one must buy a combination ticket, which is certainly worth it. My first stop was the famous Spanish Synagogue. This is the newest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter; it was completed in 1868, built over what was the oldest synagogue in Prague, which had become too small for the congregation. The synagogue is called “Spanish” because of its Neo-Mudéjar interior decoration, built in imitation of the Moorish-influenced style developed by the Sephardic Jews of Spain. It is beautiful to behold. Every inch of the space is covered in geometric designs painted in a shimmering gold.
Outside the synagogue is a monument to one of Prague’s most famous sons: Franz Kafka. Born to a Jewish family (though not exactly religious himself), Kafka spent most of his unhappy life in Prague. The statue, by Jaroslav Róna, shows the sharp-featured, diminutive writer pointing his finger (at what?) while riding on the back of a faceless and armless man—a fittingly absurd image for the great poet of the absurd. Apparently it is considered good luck to rub Kafka’s feet; but I kept my distance, since luck and Kafka do not go together. There is a Kafka Museum elsewhere in the city, which I have heard is not very impressive. But in front there is a fountain worth seeing, featuring two men urinating into a little pool of water as sections of their bodies spin around. I don’t know if the image is particularly Kafkaesque, but it is memorable.
The next synagogue on my combined ticket was the Pinkas Synagogue. This synagogue is not nearly as visually striking as the Spanish Synagogue; its interest lies, rather, in the memorials within. On the lower level of the synagogue, the name, birthdate, and date of death of every Jewish victim of the Holocaust in the Czech Republic are inscribed on the walls. On the upper floor is an even more moving tribute: drawings made by the children sent to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. These survived because the children’s drawing teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, hid them in Theresienstadt before her deportation to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Most of the children suffered the same fate. The drawings are an extraordinary testimony of the humanity, individuality, and creativity of the children caught up in the catastrophe.
Right next to the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Since Jewish custom forbids removing graves or markers once they are laid down, and since new land was difficult to acquire, the community was forced to put several graves on top of each other. As a result the cemetery is a forest of tombstones, many of them pushed to odd angles or otherwise falling down; and the ground level is higher than the surrounding streets. The graves span from the 14th to the 18th centuries, at which time Josef II (of Austria) decreed that no more burials were to take place within city walls, in order to reduce disease. Most of the markers are tombstones, though some of the more important personages have tumbas, or sarcophagi (though the body is not inside these). In some of these tumbas I observed little pieces of paper, folded up and tucked inside the nooks of the stone; and in front of one tumba—perhaps of rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel—I observed some people praying.
There were still more sites included on my ticket. One was the Ceremonial Hall of the Jewish Burial Society. A burial society (chevra kadisha in Hebrew) is a voluntary organization that helps to prepare the body of a deceased member of the community and prevent desecration. Nowadays the building is an exhibition space, with panels of information about the role of burial societies (of which I was entirely ignorant) as well as some ritual items on display. Nextdoor is the Old-New Synagogue, a gothic building that is the oldest active synagogue in Europe (it became the oldest when the older synagogue was knocked down to make the Spanish Synagogue). A legend tells that a golem—created by none other than the above-mentioned Judah Loew ben Bezalel, to protect the Jews of Prague from antisemites—inhabits the attic of this building. Nowadays the synagogue is filled with symbolic objects on display and explanations of Jewish customs. The last stop on this ticket was the Maisel Synagogue, an attractive neo-gothic building that houses an exposition on the history of the Jews in Prague. All of these spaces are administered by the Jewish Museum.
As all of these monuments demonstrate, Prague has long had a sizable Jewish community, which would seem to indicate that the city was relatively tolerant compared to other major European capitals. This may be true. However, even here the Jews faced serious persecution. In 1389, for example, following an accusation that Jews had desecrated the host—a common anti-semitic accusation during the Middle Ages—the city’s population was incited to fury and massacred almost every Jew in the city. In the previous century, aside from the infamous Nazi persecutions, the Jewish religion was repressed under the communists. It is, therefore, very heartening to see that a sizable community still exists in the city.
Now it was time to visit one of Prague’s most iconic monuments: the Charles Bridge. This medieval bridge is named for Charles IV (1316 – 1376), perhaps the most influential ruler in Czech history. Originally king of Bohemia, he was elected to become Holy Roman Emperor; and during his reign he oversaw several important expansions of the city, such as the aforementioned Wenceslas Square. Charles IV was also responsible for the so-called Golden Bull of 1356, which he proclaimed from the castle in Nuremberg, and which established clear procedures for electing the Holy Roman Emperor. This was important, since it helped to prevent controversies of legitimacy and succession, which threatened the continuance of the empire.
The bridge spans the river Vltava (sometimes called by its German name, the Moldau), the iconic waterway of the Czech Republic. From its opening in 1402 until 1841, the Charles Bridge was the river’s only crossing, connecting the Old City with Prague Castle. In design the bridge is not very different from Roman bridges I have seen: a relatively flat span (2,000 ft. in length) lying close to the water, suspended on a series of stone arches resting on stone foundations. Towers guard both sides of the bridge—an important defensive feature back in those days—which are not only intimidating but pleasing to the eye. The bridge is covered with statues, 30 of them, in a Baroque style depicting religious subjects.
Yet it is difficult to appreciate the statues, the bridge, the water, or the views with the huge crush of people inevitably walking across. Prague is hardly behind Venice as a European tourist destination; and so major attractions, like the bridge, attract suffocating crowds. And where tourists go, so does the rubbish—street performers, sketch artists, souvenir vendors, and all the rest. It is the bane of traveling.
Having squeezed across the bridge, it was time to ascend to Prague Castle. This is a whole building complex rather than a specific edifice. The castle sits atop a hill far above the level of the river, so getting there can be slightly exhausting if you are, like myself, not athletically inclined. The exertion is compensated, however, by lovely views of the river and the city beyond. To get inside the complex one must wait in a line and pass through security. Then one must buy a ticket at the office. There are multiple types of tickets, with different numbers of sites which can be visited, depending on the price. (True to form, I bought the cheapest one.)
Prague castle has been a seat of governance since the 9th century, making it far older than most other European capital buildings. And due to its very long tenure as a seat of power, the castle has an abundance of architectural styles on display. Having served Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the place retains its function as a seat of power, being the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Even the crown jewels are still kept here (though, unlike in Vienna, they cannot be visited). It is, in short, an important spot.
Yet the most famous building inside the castle complex is neither a palace nor a castle, but Prague’s cathedral: St. Vitus. This is one of the finest gothic cathedrals in the world, a blend of typical French gothic and special innovations particular to this church. The original head architect of the cathedral was Matthias of Arras, a Frenchman who designed a building in the prevalent French gothic. But after his death he was succeeded by Peter Parler, one of the great craftsmen of the Middle Ages. A sculptor rather than an architect, a German rather than a Frenchman, Parler introduced several idiosyncratic elements into the design of the cathedral, such as his characteristic net-vaulting, which both improve strength and create an attractive criss-crossing design on the ceiling.
I admit that, when I visited, I was mostly unable to appreciate any of these technical subtleties. Nevertheless I found the building hypnotic. From both without and within, the cathedral is pleasing to the eye—harmonious in its proportions, tasteful in its ornament, and unmistakable for any other cathedral. (It is worth noting, by the way, that Peter Parler was appointed by the unavoidable Charles VI; and it was this same architect who designed the Charles Bridge. In the history of Prague these two are unavoidable.)
The cathedral presents a striking view from every angle—inside or outside, back or front, from up close or far away, and so on. Its beauty consists in the design of the building itself rather (as in Toledo) in the artwork contained within. However, there is one chapel that stands out for special mention: the one dedicated to St. Wenceslas (which you may remember as the patron saint of the Czechs). The visitor cannot enter the room, but must be content with peering in through the doorway. The lower walls are dedicated with semi-precious stones and gothic painting depicting the passion, while the upper portion shows Renaissance-era frescos showing the life of the titular saint.
After I was finished admiring this glorious piece of religious architecture, I visited the Old Royal Palace, which was built in the 12th century. It is most notable for its Vladislav Hall, a massive ceremonial hall with an intricately vaulted ceiling that undulates like an ocean wave. It was also in this palace that the infamous Second Defenestration of Prague took place in 1618, when Czech protestants threw the catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out a window, an event which helped to trigger the horrific Thirty Years’ War. (Somehow the catholics survived the 70-foot drop, which they naturally attributed to angels, and which the protestants attributed to a dunghill underneath them.) Since this event was the only thing I remembered about Prague from my AP European History class, I was elated to find this legendary window.
My next stop in the cathedral complex was the Basilica of St. George, a church with a cheerful Baroque façade that conceals a somber Romanesque interior. It was founded all the way back in 920 and preserves that ancient atmosphere even now. Then I made my way to the Golden Lane, a row of colorfully painted houses, pretty and quaint, that were originally built to house guards, and which later served as a home for goldsmiths (hence its name). Nowadays it is a row of overpriced souvenir shops. And it must be said that this progression, from guards to gold to gimmicks, encapsulates European history quite well.
Right next to Prague Castle is the Petřín Hill, an elevation covered with parks, which rises above the Vltava River. This is one of the loveliest green spaces in Prague and is a welcome respite from the crowded streets. Walking up the hill is not terribly strenuous; for the enemies of inclination, however, there is a funicular available. On top of the hill is the Petřín Lookout Tower, which was made in imitation of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, it looks as though the top bit of the Parisian edifice had been lopped off and transported here. With the height of the hill (130 meters) added to the height of the tower (64 meters), it still falls short of the Eiffel Tower’s height (300 meters). Even so, it is the highest point for miles around. (I did not go up, since I was not in the mood for climbing stairs.) Also to be seen is the Hunger Wall, a defensive structure built during the reign of (guess who) Charles IV. Its name comes from the myth that the wall’s primary purpose was simply to provide work and food for the poor.
Nearby is the Strahov Monastery. Founded in the 12th century, it is an abbey of the Premonstratensians (the Order of the Prémontré), which means that it is inhabited, not by monks, but by Canons Regular who fulfil priestly duties. The building complex is impressive and lovely, especially the basilica (which, unfortunately, was closed to visitors when I arrived). Most famous are the monastery’s libraries. Visitors cannot enter inside, but must be content with peering in through the doorways. In the hall outside is an old cabinet of curiosities, featuring shimmering seashells, a stuffed alligator, and ancient Persian (?) armor—the sort of exotic mishmash one would expect from a curious European mind of centuries past. The two library rooms are magnificent. The Philosophical Hall is a grandiose neoclassical room filled with wooden shelves. The Theological Hall is perhaps even more impressive, featuring an elaborate stucco ceiling whose designs incorporate religious paintings. I love seeing such care lavished on libraries. Our books deserve it.
I descended from the monastery to the riverside, and found myself in Malá Strana. Literally this name means “Lesser District”—though, as my Airbnb host said, “There’s nothing ‘lesser’ about it.” This is one of the oldest parts of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages; but wars and fires largely destroyed the original town. What stands now mainly owes its origin to the Baroque era. As a result the buildings have a more uniform look, all around the same height with the same orange tiled roofs; and the streets are wider and straighter than in the Old City It is a pleasant place to walk around, if only because it is far less crowded than Prague’s center. There are some notable buildings to be seen, such as the Wallenstein Palace, an extensive mansion originally built for a general, and which now houses the Czech Senate. And there is the monumental St. Nicholas Church, an excellent example of Baroque architecture.
After a stroll through Malá Strana I squeezed over the Charles Bridge back into the Old City. This is what Prague is famous for. I have heard this part of the city described as “Disneyland for adults,” which is not far from the truth. For the Old City is swarming with people and full of restaurants and shops catering to foreign visitors. There is everything on sale between cheap junk and expensive trinkets, everything to eat from take-away pizza to pricey sit-down establishments. All this is crammed into the narrow, winding streets of the medieval city. It would be a beautiful place to walk around in if everyone else didn’t think so, too.
Feeling peckish myself, I ducked into a kebab place, hopeful that it would offer the highest ratio of foot-to-money. But I found, after calculating the conversion (which I unwisely did post-meal), that the kebab was three times more expensive than it would have been in Madrid—and didn’t taste any better. I had a much more positive experience at Naše maso, a butcher and delicatessen with great meat dishes at low prices. I had a meatloaf sandwich that was fantastic.
Next I walked down the river. (Just to be clear, I am putting multiple days together to streamline the narrative. This would be too much for one day.) The area beside the river is picturesque on either side. On the Malá Strana side I found a dock with a series of yellow penguins walking atop it. Nearby are three giant statues of faceless babies by the Czech sculptor David Černý, who was also responsible for the urination fountain outside the Kafka museum. Similar baby statues by Černý can be found crawling up and down Prague’s massive broadcasting tower, the Zikov TV Tower. Incidentally, there is a famous work of Černý’s that I missed on my visit to Vienna: a statue of Freud hanging from a roof. No Michelangelo, perhaps; but his work is memorable.
On the Old City side of the river the walk is just as lovely, taking me on a gentle curving road with the river on my right and a row of pretty, colorful building on my left. Walking along this way, I came upon the famous Dancing House of Prague. This is a modernistic (“deconstructivist,” as the designers call it) building designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić. The name is well-chosen, since the building does give the unmistakable impression of two figures in a waltz. A tower of glass swirls up next to the concrete body of the building, whose form is equally unstable. Irregular concrete panels and pop-out windows give the edifice a funhouse effect, as if it had been squished in a trick mirror. It makes for quite a sight next to the staid forms of the baroque apartments next door. For my part, I think the apartment provides a welcome moment of contrast with the rest of the city.
Nearby is the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, which is the principal Orthodox church in the Czech Republic. The church itself is an attractive place; but its fame does not rest on its architecture, but its history. Now, as you may know, Czechoslovakia, despite possessing formidable defenses, did not get a chance to defend itself from Nazi aggression during the Second World War. This is because Neville Chamberlain, as part of his appeasement strategy, ceded Czechoslovakia (without input from the Czechs) to Hitler in the hopes of satisfying the dictator’s expansionist threats. Thus the country was simply annexed without a fight. After the war broke out the Czechs set up a government-in-exile in England; and to establish its legitimacy and contribute towards the war effort, this government (in participation with England) planned and carried out Operation Anthropoid.
The idea was to kill Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. A ruthless and vicious man—commander of internal security forces (such as the Gestapo), head of the Final Solution, and administrator of Nazi-controlled Bohemia—Heydrich soon earned the universal hatred he deserved. To be rid of him, seven Czech soldiers were parachuted into the country under cover of darkness on British planes. Two of these soldiers attacked Heydrich’s relatively unprotected car on his commute from his house to his office in Prague Castle. After a submachine gun jammed, the assassins threw a tank grenade which inflicted fatal wounds on the Nazi official. The assassins then made their escape and joined the rest of their team.
After the assassination, the Czech soldiers retreated to the church, a hideout for the resistance. But the betrayal of a Czech resistance fighter, Karel Čurda, led to their discovery. A huge team of SS soldiers descended on the church, determined to take the assassins alive. The soldiers defended themselves with pistols until three were killed, and the rest driven to the church’s basement, where they eventually committed suicide to avoid capture. This was not the end of the grizzly tale. On the very day of the assassination, Hitler ordered reprisals. Over 13,000 Czechs were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where 5,000 of them died. And this isn’t all. Based on false intelligence that the assassins had a connection to the small village of Lice, the Germans sent soldiers to commit a complete massacre. All the men were shot; the women and children were sent to the concentration camps, where most of them were killed. (After the war, Čurda the betrayer was hanged.)
In the basement of this church is now a permanent exposition and memorial to these soldiers. In a large circular room there are artifacts, such as weapons and parachute gear, on display; and panels of information tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. In the crypt—appropriately gloomy and grey—are busts of each of the seven soldiers, with plaques telling of their lives. Operation Anthropoid is a fascinating episode from the Second World War, equal parts uplifting and depressing; and standing before the graves of these young men who shook the world is a moving experience.
My last stop was further south along the river: Vyšehrad. The name literally means “upper castle,” and refers to the hill’s previous use as a fortress. Like Petřín Hill, Vyšehrad is an elevated green space that provides excellent views of the city. Crowning the hill is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, an imposing neo-gothic structure. I wanted to go inside but, unfortunately, they were having mass. (Isn’t it irritating when people pray in churches?) It was late in the day when I arrived, so the attractive Vyšehrad cemetery was also closed—which is a shame, since Antonín Dvořák, the most famous of Czech composers, is buried here.
The sun was setting. Without anything to do, I walked to the front of the hillside and looked out at Prague—the shimmering blue river, crossed by iron and stone bridges; the orange rooftops and pink façades of the apartments; and in the distance Prague Castle, with the grey towers of its cathedral silhouetted against a rosy sky. I can see why people like this place.
Admittedly, I am not sure if I can concur with Norman Davies in calling Prague the most beautiful city in Europe—though it is certainly in the running. For my part there is too much tourism for it to be entirely comfortable; and it must be said that the city suffers from the lack of a really top-notch museum. Even so, nobody can deny that Prague is one of the jewels of this continent. There is something for everyone here—for the history buffs, for the art-lovers, and, yes, for the aficionados of knick-knacks and beer.