Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it –Roald Dahl
1. CROSSING CHARLES BRIDGE
LET’S IMAGINE YOU WAKE UP ONE MORNING AND DISCOVER FAIRIES have magically transported you to Prague. And they will grant you one fine day to visit the city—until Mickey’s big hand and little hand on your watch both point to 12 midnight.
The city of Prague has been honored with numerous terms of endearment: the heart of Europe, the jewel of Bohemia, the mother of cities, the golden city, city of a hundred spires, a symphony of stone. Some people even call it Disneyland for Grown Ups. And you don’t even have to stand in line for rides. Or pay exorbitant entrance fees. Or brave bumper-to-bumper traffic and road rage in Anaheim.
You brush the fairy dust from your shoulders, and decide to walk from your Airbnb apartment in Old Town—where all fairy tales begin—to Prague Castle on the far side of the Vltava River because…well…it’s a castle. And this is your fairy tale—with good guys, bad guys, dragons, and a noble quest. OK, no dragons, but maybe amber penguins, ugly ducklings, and pirate ships.
It will be a long walk, but you’ve been given the whole day, and you’re psyched. You slip on your mouse-ear hat and head out the door. You’re not wearing your six-inch glass stilettos because you know the dangers of cobblestones when mixed with even a smidgeon of stupidity. You stroll past the Spanish Synagogue just off Dusni Street and head right into the surreal nature of Prague.
You cruise toward the roundabout at Vezenska and Dusni and pass the Frans Kafka Monument, an unusual bronze sculpture by Jaroslav Rona based on Kafka’s story, “Description of a Struggle”: a mini-Kafka sits on the shoulders of a larger empty suit, as this story is written from the point of view of the narrator riding on the shoulders of an “acquaintance” as though he were “a horse.” An eloquent statue—perhaps not one of Kafka’s finer tales.
You head west on Siroka and stop in at the Frans Kafka Café for your first coffee of the day. You’ve heard it’s impossible to find a bad café in Prague, and your first cup lives up to the myth—but perhaps it simply has more to do with being in Prague than double shots or a brewing process? You order a strudl (Czech spelling) to go with it—a Bohemian-fairytale breakfast. While you chew slowly in your dark wooden booth, you gaze at the furnishings, the frosted glass, and engravings of an earlier Prague in black & white, and you believe you feel—what is it?—an energy, a presence, a weight. You begin to wonder if Kafka might be riding your shoulders right now.
When you leave the café, you continue walking west toward the Vltava and reach the quay. The first thing you observe is the Svatopluk Cech Bridge; it is adorned with art nouveau sculptures and is one of Prague’s eighteen bridges that span this river, one of over 300 in the city.
You walk upriver and notice several tour boats of various sizes tethered to the dock. There are also “botels” here, offering staterooms right on the river. You make a mental note that if you return, you might like to stay in one of those river boats moored on the Vltava with a view of the castle on the hill, which you see from here. And on the other hill across the river in the distance, you spy the Petrin Tower, which you hope to climb later today as part of this quest if you have time; if you have time—because you notice that you are not only walking slower than usual, you are also stopping to gaze at everything along the way. Prague may live up to all its venerable names but truly is a symphony of stone.
Sitting on the quay beside the river, on slabs of granite or cobblestones, is something most everyone does sooner or later in Prague. What is it about a slow-moving river that forces one to slow down, sit down, and watch it flow by—perhaps, something inherited in our DNA from when we bore gills? Some people believe that the saying “Go with the flow” was actually coined in Prague—easy to imagine.
You wander closer to the famous Charles Bridge, now one of the most-photographed bridges in the world, which will take you across the river into Lesser Town. You make a mental note to stop at one of the quay-side eateries on your way back, maybe for dinner.
You soon begin to realize you need to get up fairly early in summertime to miss the tourist traffic on Charles Bridge. Perhaps you’ll decide to return to Prague in winter, with fewer tourists and off-season rates?
Prague, if nothing short of magical, is a city of statues and spires, harboring architecture spanning millennia: Medieval, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, Communist, Modern. Prague is a city that has somehow—magically?—weathered the ravages of history and human error that compromise most cities.
As you cross the Charles Bridge, you look east and consider the majestic buildings on the riverbank, and you wonder what the view might be like from that particular restaurant cantilevered over the river—another fine dinner option.
From the bridge, you look down and notice several more small tourist boats ferrying people along the river. Apparently for many, merely sitting beside the river is not enough.
The gothic, stone Charles Bridge connects Old Town with Lesser Town; its construction began in the mid-1300’s by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and was completed some 50 years later. The bridge is made of sandstone, cemented with an egg yolk compound to better hold it together—so says the once-scientifically-proven-yet-recently-contested legend. Thirty Baroque statues sculpted between 1706 and 1714 adorn the bridge.
Perhaps the most famous of these statues is St. John of Nepomuk, a priest who was thrown into the Vltava from the bridge for not revealing to King Wenceslas IV the confessions of his queen (not good king Wenceslas I, from Christmas-carol fame).
Legend states that if you make a wish and touch the cross on the bridge a few meters before the statue (marking where St John was tossed over), your wish will come true, and you will “return to Prague.” Some people believe you should touch the plaque below the saint, it is worn smooth and gold from the touch of wish makers.
You believe in magic, so you brush the plaque with your fingertips, like thousands of believers. And, unwilling to take chances, you walk over and brush the cross—because who knows what reality really is or if fairies alone will ever transport you back here again. And perhaps, what we believe…is what is true, for us. Maybe if we believe in magic, magic appears; if we believe in our quest, we prevail.
As you approach the far end of the bridge, you near Lesser Town and notice the Frans Kafka Museum off to your right, and the Manes Bridge in the distance—a “modernist” bridge of concrete, and Prague’s shortest. You imagine the restaurant overlooking the river here might be a good place for lunch.
2. LESSER TOWN
At the end of the bridge, two towers rise. The taller one, the Lesser Town Tower, is the ancient gate into Lesser Town. The smaller one, Judith Tower, is the only remnant from the original Prague Bridge built in the 1100’s and destroyed by a flood in 1342 (they, obviously, used no egg yolks in the mortar on the original).
If you take the stairway down to your left just before entering the arch in the Tower, you discover a friendly, inviting area with benches, cafes, and restaurants bordering a central, tree-lined park.
Another five or ten minutes further through a shaded, bucolic woodland along this path, and you come to a not-quite-beautiful David Cerny exhibition of bronze statues, known as Crawling Babies. Apparently at one time, Prague held a competition for the ugliest building in town. The unconventional Zizkov Television Tower won the honor. Cerny decided to beautify the tower, and so created a number of miminka, crawling babies, and attached twelve of them to the sides of the tower. Locals say it didn’t help.
But if we’re objective, the tower is not that ugly, it’s just not Prague-ish, nor stone. And skewers the sky rather sore-thumbishly above low-lying neighbors. But get this: the tower now holds an upscale, one-room hotel in one of its pods that you can rent for something like 600 bucks a night. Pragueans are not known for their creative naming of things: Old Town, Lesser (smaller) Town, Castle Hill, Old-New Synagogue. The name of this one-room hotel…you guessed it: One Room Hotel.
You take the loop and backtrack on the other side of the park you just walked through, dense with blossoming yellow lindens, and you come upon the John Lennon Pub—perhaps a good spot for your first Urquell of the day, or a glass of Moravian grape. You turn left here, and a few meters up, you find the John Lennon Wall. A one-man band serenades visitors with Beatle tunes. Imagine. You get the notion that there is an energy, a benevolent presence, residing here, also. You begin to wonder if Prague may be one of earth’s vortices of energy, like Sedona or Aspen or Easter Island.
You drop a few Czech korunas into the musician’s guitar case and continue your quest strolling back toward Charles Bridge. You cross it before the Tower into Lesser Town, and cruise down the other side of the bridge. You meander along narrow, ancient streets near the Vltava—the same cobblestones walked on by Rilke, Kepler, Einstein, Branjelina. Presently, you discover the Frans Kafka Museum, which you previously noticed from the bridge.
Apparently, David Cerny is something of a rogue artist. His sculptures are not your average, ordinary-style art. At the Kafka museum, this sculpture, which swivels sideways at the hips, depicts two men peeing into an oddly-shaped pond that is actually the outline of the Czech Republic’s borders.
A little further downriver, a whiteness of swans floats offshore near a nicely shaded shoreline with a peaceful view back across the Vltava to the east side of the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Bridge Tower.
You’ve perused the map, and realize the next phase of this pilgrimage is going to be mostly uphill. You saunter up Mostecka, and hang a right on Tomasska. Luckily just opposite the Malostranske tram stop, you notice a Starbucks housed in a marvelous Baroque building with curved interior walls and vaulted ceilings, and entered through well-crafted arched doors. From here, it’s going to be a long schlep, and all uphill—maybe we’ll just make it a double espresso?
3. WALLENSTEIN PALACE
You wander toward Valdstejnska and soon arrive at the Wallenstein Palace. During the time the palace was built, the law did not permit citizens “other than nobles” to live on the mountain where Prague Castle sits. So Albrecht of Wallenstein, a shrewd and venerable general in the Habsburg army, built his impressive Baroque palace in 1630 just below the king’s castle, with the intention of being just as monumental in size and splendor—at one time over 700 people lived in Wallenstein Palace.
This may have backfired, however, because the king, perched just above in his own palace, was forced to look down on Wallenstein’s tour de force, and maybe got angry, or perhaps he imagined the calculating genius and immense wealth of the general as a threat to power. So he had him killed. Just one more historical example of why you should never piss off your king. Or religious extremists. Or Taylor Swift.
The expansive geometric gardens of Wallenstein, covering acres of land, are quite magnificent, and include a grotto, a huge pond with an island harboring a Baroque fountain, numerous other statues, and a massive “dripstone wall” of artificial stalactites (an interesting artistic palisade, but lacking a certain je ne se quoi).
When you leave the grounds of Wallenstein and begin your uphill quest again along Valdstejnska, you come across the St Nicholas Church.
Lonely Planet says St Nicholas is “the most impressive example of Prague Baroque.” The architecture is marvelous, and so are the frescos, especially the one by František Xaver Palko inside the 230-foot-high dome. Mozart once performed his Great Mass in C minor in this church—its organ is massive with over 4,000 pipes; the sound, celestial.
Imagine this: fairies magically transport you back in time a couple hundred years to Prague in 1785. You sit in your pew here in St Nicholas, surrounded by well-heeled aristocrats in sartorial splendor, and Mozart—arguably the first A-list rock star—prances onstage, well preened in a powdered wig, red silk jacket, linen lace, and brocade vest. He sits at that organ, and performs his own masterpiece in C. After the standing ovation, he invites you backstage to party because you have “TROUBLE” silk screened on your T-shirt.
Next week: Strolling Through Prague: Part II—Ascension
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