PRAGUE, Jan 4 — Whenever one visits a particularly popular travel destination, a big challenge is simply, “How do I avoid the other tourists?”
One could avoid the touristy sights altogether but that would defeat the purpose, for some, of visiting that locale in the first place. How many would be willing to forgo the Eiffel Tower while romancing Paris or the Great Wall of China when in Beijing?
I was in Prague, the historical capital of the Czech Republic, recently and I discovered the solution. Instead of eschewing the usual tourist draws, why not combine those with more local experiences? Here’s how to get the best of both worlds in the heart of Bohemia.
Start your day early before most tourists arrive on the scene. You can’t go wrong by launching your walkabout at Charles Bridge, the oldest bridge in Prague. There’s something magical about this historic bridge that crosses the river Vltava, especially when you stroll upon its cobblestones in the early morn with foggy mists surrounding you.
The mystique extends to its construction: its foundation stone was laid by Charles IV (hence its name) in 1357, on the 9th of July at 5:31am. If you pay attention, you’ll observe that this is a “palindrome” of single-digit odd numbers, i.e. 1-3-5-7-9-7-5-3-1!
The 621-metre long Gothic bridge, which connects the Old Town with the Lesser Quarter, enjoys a bustling tourist trade by day with artists plying their work and musicians busking beneath 30 statues (mostly Baroque replicas) of saints. Rub on some (the statues, not the artists) for luck.
The castle in the clouds
According to the Guinness World Records, Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. This is easy to believe, given how the castle, built around 880AD, rises like a heavenly sentry over the city which it guards. Again, come early before the lines get terrifying.
You can’t miss the St. Vitus Cathedral, looming large with its lookout tower; though there are plenty of other sights (the castle complex covers several palaces, museums, and the Royal Garden). If you get weary of the grisly gargoyles and Baroque buttresses, you can watch the changeover of the Presidential Guard. The guards on duty change every hour from 7am-6pm; it’s a silly spectacle but fun in its own way.
One of the treasures kept in Prague Castle is the St. Wenceslas Crown. Legend has it that anyone unworthy who puts the crown on his head will have a violent death within a year. The Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich didn’t heed the myth and wore the crown. Less than a year passed when he was assassinated. So, take pictures but don’t go touching anything you shouldn’t…
Angels and metronomes
From the castle, walk over to the verdant Letná Park. Its location on top of Letná hill offers you unparalleled views of the Old Town without having to jostle for space with the tourists swarming Prague Castle. If you’re hungry, it’s perfectly acceptable to pack a snack and eat it outside on a park bench. You don’t have to eat in a restaurant; the locals do it too so you may see them munching happily on a homemade řízek (pork schnitzel) sandwich.
Look out for a giant metronome in the park. Originally, a statue of Joseph Stalin was erected at the site in 1955. It was destroyed in 1962 and replaced with the Prague Metronome where students rejoice in throwing their sneakers over a cable connecting it. You can be sure this isn’t on most tourist guides of Prague.
Leaving the park, cross the river Vltava again over the Svatopluk Čech Bridge or Čech Bridge. At 169 metres, it’s one of the shortest bridges in Prague but is significant as the only Art Nouveau bridge in the Czech Republic. Beautiful Art Nouveau-style sculptures of angels stand guard over pedestrians and motorists alike.
The astronomical clock
What a delight the Old Town Square is! Prague’s historical centre is marked with churches, theatres (including the neoclassical Estate Theatre where Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was first performed), and other remarkable monuments.
Perhaps none are as striking as the Jan Hus monument dedicated to the revered Czech religious reformer. His metal-green statue stands regally in the middle of the square, looking upon all manner of festivities from buskers and bubble-blowers to cutthroat tourist traps that charge blood-curdling prices for food and souvenirs.
Another favourite is the famed Astronomical Clock (or Orloj as it is known locally). Located on a side tower of the Old Town Hall, the Astronomical Clock was built in 1410 and shows not only the current time, but also the placement of Sun and Moon in Zodiac, the moon phases, and other astronomical data. Legend has it that the clock’s inventor was blinded so he may never create another masterpiece to rival it for another city.
The statues on the clock come alive every hour on the hour from 9am-9pm, so watch out for Death waving his hourglass and a sinister rooster crowing. Time is limited, seems to be the message. (So off we go to our next stop!)
The saint on his horse
From the Old Town, we head next to the New Town of Prague. Along the way, do drop by Havelské Tržiště (or Havel’s Market), a permanent market open all year round. Here, stalls sell flowers, fruit and vegetables, wooden puppets and toys, leather goods, and souvenirs, of course.
A few minutes’ walk from the market is Wenceslas Square, the main landmark of the New Town. Wenceslas Square was the scene of many important events in Czech history, including the protest against the Warsaw Pact Invasion in 1969 where the student Jan Palach set himself on fire.
The square is actually a 750-metre long boulevard marked on the higher, uphill end by an equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia; behind the saint and his horse is the National Museum Building, designed by Czech architect Josef Schulz. Locals have a favourite rendezvous point; guess where they mean when they say “Let’s meet under the tail”?
Where locals go
Leaving the busy tourist areas, the next half of our walk will take you through the streets where real locals live, play and work. Prague is a melting pot of different cultures if you pay attention, especially to the different restaurants serving a variety of national cuisines. You certainly won’t go hungry here!
For a tasty local treat, head to Náměstí Míru (Peace Square) in the Vinohrady district, just a hop away from Wenceslas Square. You’ll find what appear to be hot dog stands all over the small square. These Czech “hot dogs” are called párek v rohlíku and are prepared in a special way: first a hole is poked in a roll before the sausage is inserted inside. Delicious!
Our next stop is The Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, a postmodern-style Roman Catholic church at the Jiřího z Poděbrad square. Considered one of the most important religious buildings of the 20th century, its designer Jože Plečnik was supposedly inspired by vintage Christian patterns.
It’s certainly stunning; observe the almost eight-metre diameter glazed clocks encased in the 42-metre high tower. The garden in front of the church is peppered with flower beds and sun worshippers. Drop by the lively farmer’s market where foods, flowers and other agricultural produce from all over the Czech Republic can be found.
An alien invasion?
A short walk over to the unassuming Žižkov neighbourhood and you might think you’ve just entered the set of sci-fi film. Stretching 216 metres into the sky, the Žižkov Television Tower was infamously voted as one of the ugliest buildings in the world.
Built by architect Václav Aulický and structural engineer Jiří Kozák, this controversial transmitter tower with its steel columns and nine pods offers a stark contrast against the historical landscape of Prague.
Adding to the kookiness are giant babies crawling up and down its sides. These are actually sculptures by Czech artist David Černý but from a distance? It looks like Prague has been invaded by monstrous alien babies from space!
The church in the yard
After the hordes of tourists and reality-defying sci-fi towers, why not wind down your walkabout with some peace and quiet? Hidden away in a small yard in the Žižkov suburb is the Bethlehem Chapel. It was built in 1914 to commemorate the 500th death anniversary of Jan Hus (remember him from the Old Town Square earlier?).
Featuring a strong Cubist design by architect Emil Králíček, the church has touches of Art Nouveau. Look beyond the geometrical façade of the chapel and observe how even the wooden paving of the yard is geometrical. Sit down on one of the benches and let your entire day sink in slowly.
This is Prague: historical and modern, mysterious and in-your-face, swarming and serene. It’s a city like none other, so savour this experience one step at a time.