Emese sometimes feels that she is a nomad. She always has her family's bags ready for the next adventure, the next travel destination.
A Trip to Prague
Although I grew up in Eastern Europe, I only recently visited Prague for the first time. Under the Communist regime, we weren't allowed to travel between countries. After I moved to the US, every time I went back to Europe, I was visiting family. Experiencing the rest of the continent kept waiting.
This time though we decided to fly to Prague and start our trip from there. Well, my husband decided for us, he was the one who wanted to visit Prague. At that time I didn't care much one way or another; growing up, Prague seemed to me like another communist country's capital.
I was in for a real treat! Yes, the architecture in Prague does remind me of the architecture of most of the cities I grew up around. Some of the buildings are very like those in Cluj, Romania, where I grew up, or Budapest, where I have been many times.
But there is a major difference. Prague is pristine, clean, those old buildings are well preserved. I was walking in a real wonderland. Besides, people were friendly everywhere we went. After four days in Prague, the city felt like home. It was amazing to be there, in so many different ways.
I wish I listened to my husband sooner and visited this amazing city years ago. But, I am glad that I finally did.
1. The Old Town Square: A Good Place to Start Your Visit
The first experience you want to have in Prague is walking through the Old Town Square. Even if you don't have time for anything else, this center of the city will give you a fun glimpse of the city.
No matter what direction you come from, it seems that each road leads to the Old Town Square. When you get close to it, the roads are for pedestrians only, with no cars allowed. Even so, these streets are always crowded. Strolling through them is fun on many different levels. On a warm summer day stop for ice cream, or shop at any of the many tourist shops, watch the street artists on every corner. You can watch impromptu-shows they come up with. You'll see "live statues", classical or contemporary music, puppet shows, dances, bubble blowing shows. Watch hoop jumpers or hold a python on your shoulders. Sit in an outdoor cafe and watch people walk by, while listening to dozens of languages spoken around you. It is always a happy and busy place.
As fun as it is to get there, the square itself is the most spectacular. Dominated by the Old Town Hall, it is surrounded by museums and tourist shops, housed in old buildings. And there is always something going on in the center.
The most spectacular and enjoyable day for us was a folk dance going on in the square center. Girls and women, wearing traditional costumes from all parts of the Czech Republic, were dancing in circle. They were inviting by-standers to join in what they called the Friendship Dance. It was one of the most colorful and fun crowd I've seen. Dancers in traditional costumes, mixed with those in regular street clothes, had smiles on their faces, while moving to the fun music. By-standers taking pictures or videos seemed just as happy. It was a fun way to spend some time, being part of this celebration of friendship.
One of the main shows that draws people to the Old Town Square is to watch the astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall strike the hour. As the hour draws close, thousands of visitors gather in front of it, trying to get a glimpse at the spectacle.
The puppets, representing the twelve apostles, show off in a procession. This is the main spectacle, but there are other elements to the show. More figures, on the sides of the clock move as well.
The clock is very special, not only due to this spectacle when it is striking the hour. Since it is an astronomical clock, it not only shows the time, but also the day, month, phases of the moon and the sun.According to legend it was made by Master Hanus, who, after all his hard work, was blinded, so he could never make a replica of this clock. Nice reward for his services... However, the clock still stands, and there is no other exactly like it in the world.
While in the Old Town Square, you cannot miss going up into the Old Town Hall Tower. It is an easy walk up, but, there is also a glass elevator for your convenience. Since there was a line waiting for the elevator, we decided to walk up. There are no stairs, the flights are all ramps to walk on, which makes the climb easier.
On top we were rewarded with the most beautiful views of the city.
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2. Charles Bridge: A Must-See Monument in Prague
Charles Bridge is one of the most famous landmark in Prague, and it attracts thousands of visitors each day. Built in 1357, it still stands, and it only needed a few renovations over the centuries. I heard many stories about the bridge, most of them from a local guide.
I met him when I walked in a hotel with the kids, trying to get a room. He was at the counter, and he wanted to help, but the hotel had no rooms available for the night. Seeing that I was with three kids, and we took the bus there, he wanted to help. He called around, booked us in anouther hotel downtown and called a cab for us. While waiting for the cab, he told us that he was also a guide. Then he started talking to us about some of the must-see landmarks of his city.
Charles Bridge must have been his favorite. He wrote down a few numbers for us, and asked what we thought.
The numbers were: 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1.
A scale of the uneven numbers from 1 to 9 going up then downwards.
Since we didn't guess what it was, he told us that it was a date. He explained that it was 1357, 9th of July (7th month), 5:31 in the morning. Charles IV was a believer in numerology. He laid the first brick in the early hour at the exact minute as advised by his clergymen. They too him that if he did that, the bridge would last forever. I don't know about forever, but it lasted a few centuries so far.
The same guide told us the story of another legend that he heard as a kid in school. They used to laugh at it, but never thought it actually true. Until they heard proof of it later on.
King Charles he wanted his bridge to last forever. As much as he believed in it, he didn't rely on numerology alone. He heard that adding eggs to the mortar mix would ensure that it would be strong enough to last forever. He ordered all the villages to send in eggs. One of the villages, wanting to be better than the rest, sent its eggs boiled. Not a good decision, since they became the laughing stock of the country for that. Anyway, thousands of eggs were added to the mortar mix.
Kids in town learned about the story and laughed at it. Until a few years ago, when they renovated the bridge. They found traces of eggshells in the mortar mix.
I heard or read about other legends while walking on the bridge. Every time we walked across it, we noticed people crowded around a certain statue. I learned that it is the statue of St. John Nepomuk, somewhat in the center of the bridge. Thousands of visitors touch it daily for good luck. Why, I wondered.
St. John was a worthy, valuable and honest man of the clergy during the reign of King Wenceslav IV., executed and thrown into the river innocently. A few different stories circulate about the reason behind it.
One of the stories says that he learned about the King's plan to reward an unworthy cleric by giving him an abbey. He convinced the monks to elect someone worthy behind the King's back. Of course, the King got mad and he had John executed, then thrown into the river.
Another version is a more romantic one, though the king is still the bad guy. He was a very jelous man, and at some point he suspected his wife having an affair. He asked John to reveal tohim the Queen's confessions. John refused, and King Wenceslav IV executed him.
Both versions have John executed and thrown into the river from the bridge. In the same night that he died, seven stars appeared in the spot that he drowned. Since he was declared a martyr, people from all over the world feel that by rubbing his statue will bring them luck.
It makes the statue look interesting with a shiny spot on it, and a line of visitors waiting for a turn to touch it. I didn't wait for a turn to try it, so couldn't tell you if the part about luck was true.
Aside of legend and history, fun and interesting tid-bits, Charles Bridge is a spectacular landmark. With no cars driving across it, it is a favorite walking spot for locals and visitors alike. During the busiest times of the day it turns into a bazaar for street vendors, artists and other entertainers, as well as a place for beggars to make a buck.
Two towers, The Old Town Bridge Tower and Judith Tower, stand as sentinels on the two sides.
3. Prague Castle and Saint Vitus Cathedral
Opposite the Old Town, across the Vltava, Prague Castle dominates the area. It isn't a simple castle, but more of a town in itself, a castle complex. It even made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ancient castle in the world. It occupies an area of about 70,000 square meters (43.5 square miles).
Within Prague Castle's walls you'll find churches, palaces, towers and many other buildings.
Walking through it is a treat for the senses, especially if you enjoy architectural wonders. You can find a few different architectural styles here. St Vitus Cathedral was built in like the Gothic style, and basilica of St George is Romanesque.
Of all the wonders in the Castle, St Vitus Cathedral is the most spectacular, both outside and inside. It is the biggest and most important cathedral in the Czech Republic, and one of the greatest example of Gothic Architecture.
No wonder it is so impressive. Its building took almost 600 years to complete. Looking at all its features, it is easy to imagine.
They started building it in 1344, during the reign of Charles IV. The first master builder was the French Matthias de Arras. He designed designed the layout of the building and started the work. But he died long before finishing the cathedral. A new master builder, Peter Parler, was commissioned to continue the work. But he also had other projects he was wrking on, including Chales Bridge. After he died, his son continued his work, followed by other builders from his workshop. Then, during the Hussite War, the building stopped altogether. The work started up again in 1844, but it didn't get finished until 1929, about 600 years after it started.
Visiting it makes you appreciate all the extraordinary work that went into it.
4. Petrin Hill
For a bit of quiet, out of the hustle and bustle and crowds of the city, a good place to go is Petrin Hill. Though in the middle of the city, this area is green and lush, and it feels miles away from the it.
It is an easy walk up the hill in the middle of a park, but it is a climb. For those who are not up for it, a funicular goes straight up.
5. Wenceslas Square
Wenceslas Square is a boulevard, not really a square. Its wide middle area seems like a giant park, with flowerbeds and grass, as well as many benches to sit on. The two sides are lined with shops and restaurants.
I was impressed by the bookstores on both sides of the boulevard. One of them was a real mall. Entering it, I thought it was an open mall, but every single "shop" was another area for specific books. I did wish I knew Czech. Still, I spent a lot of time in there, even though they only had one section for English books.
Across from this particular bookstore I noticed another one, almost as big. In a time when the bookstores in my city are going out of business one after another, it was a real treat.
The Square is more important as a historical site. It was witness of many historical events over time, the latest one being the Velvet Revolutions. This is the place that most of the demonstrations took place during that time in history, in 1989.
At the end of the square stands the building of the National Museum. Not far from it, in the center of the street, you can marvel at the statue of Wenceslas on horseback. They are the most important landmarks of the square.
Other Interesting Places in Prague
I covered what I considered the must-see, do-not-miss places to experience in Prague. But, there are so many more interesting, unique places worth seeing.
There is the Lennon Wall, for example. I read about it, but didn't make an attempt to find it in the first few days. One afternoon, we were strolling around after coming down from the Castle. We had no definite destination, were trying to find a more shaded way to go back to our place. We found ourselves in a small street, shaded by large trees on both sides. Looking up, I realized that we were in front of the Lennon Wall. It is an entire wall filled with graffiti that changes often, but it never gets painted over. Students in Prague started writing on the wall when John Lennon died. In an inconspicuous side street of the city, the wall became the place for people to write their grievances against the communist regime. Now it is somewhat of a museum of outcries against unfair rules of the society.
Another interesting spot is the "narrowest street in Prague". Again, we stumbled on it by accident, though wwe knew of its existence from a local. Since only one person can fit and walk through and you can't see the end of it, they have a red light/green light system. This is a way of letting people walk one way or another. The street doesn't lead anywhere other than to a restaurant, but it is still fun to walk through.
We visited all these tourist places while there, but sometimes we just walked around in town. Spending four days on the way to the rest of our destination and another two on the way back made the city feel like home to us. We even picked up a few words in Czech, although everyone in town speaks some degree of English.
Getting There, Public Transportation, and Other Useful Things to Know
If you get to Prague by air, it is easy to get anywhere in town from there. Walking out of the terminal, there are a few bus stations right in front. You need to buy tickets for the bus, there is an automated machine at the station where you can do this.
Bus 119 travels the route from the airport into town. You can take it to the metro station (which is its last stop), a hub for all three lines. The subway or metro system is very easy to understand, even for foreigners. The green line or the red line will take you to the Museum, which is a good center destination. There are many hotels in town, pretty much fit for any budget. I would recommend the Sonata Hotel, two blocks away from the Museum. They have reasonable prices and include breakfast, which is plenty and all delicious.
Traveling with a family and if staying for more than two nights, it is worth renting an apartment. We did it through VRBO and were happy with the result. There are plenty of apartments for short term rent, for every budget and need.