Prague’s meeting place, the Old Town Square, where you’ll find the Astronomical Clock and St. Nicholas Church
Romancing the jewel-like city of Prague
Like Paris, Prague has a bridge. Not just any bridge, mind you. You’d pretty much be able to say that about almost any European city where a river runs through it. This bridge is different. A bridge of love, d’amour. It’s laced with locks, their steely arched arms gripping the links of the fencing and railing like a warm embrace, an embrace symbolizing commitment, a need to hold on, of never letting go. Yes, this is Prague, a city that has been compared to Paris in many other ways. Architecture, cultivated cuisine, a beer-brewing history that’s like so much wine poured in the City of Light. And, yes, it keeps an unflinching grip of its own on its past.
Occupied by the German military during the Second World War, the city became an HQ of sorts; treasures, secrets and tactics were stored, housed, plotted here, and the Axis bombers avoided it on the campaign to occupation because of its heightened position. This preserved the city. Town halls, bridges, churches, synagogues, all typically in the sites of the bomb squad over head, remained untouched. Some, like Prague Castle – the largest castle complex on the planet – have stood since the 9th century, others, such as the Old Town Hall and the Charles Bridge, since the 1300s, and some, like the Petrin View Tower, are brand new in comparison, making a mark on the landscape in the 1800s.
The city’s Old Town Square is an imposing 9,000 sq metre quadrangle, its close-quarters mix of untouched Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic architecture, including the churches of St. Nicholas and of Tyn, the place dates back to the 12 century. Nearly a millennium of history of a city, laid out in one place. Breathtaking sorbet-hued facades of palaces mingle with inky stone gothic towers, white and oxidized copper green mix with sandy, smooth stucco. The square first made its mark as a market, a central meeting place of the masses, and it hasn’t changed one bit in that regard, especially if it’s a sunny spring day. Witness the packed cafés lining the perimeter.
Outside, in the open, away from the grief and the memory, there is life. Life among those who lived behind the Iron Curtain, now free and beautiful. An educated people who revel in the beauty and architecture that surrounds them. A trip across Charles Bridge isn’t an ordinary crossing. With every post, there is a sculpture, art reaching to the sky that depicts the city’s history, ending in an foreboding gateway, like a challenge to cross the threshold if you dare that marks its entrance – or exit, depending on which direction you are walking.
If you walk in the direction of the neighbourhood known as Josefov, you will find the The Jewish Quarter, perhaps the best-preserved in all of Europe. Its synagogue is now a museum, and it serves as one of the most poignant and grim reminders of the horrors of the holocaust. Walls are etched with names of those lost to it, barely any space left to see the paint, while outside, in the graveyard, headstones jostle for space like cramped teeth in a too-small jaw.
Back at the square, there’s a crowd forming in front of the town hall’s tower and its 15th century astronomical clock; it strikes and, wait for it, dials begin to spin, tiny doors begin to open, and out comes a procession of the 12 apostles lead by Christ, while the bell tolls. It’s called astronomical because, in the late 1800s, the Czech painter Josef Mánes added 12 painted medallions of the zodiac just below the clock.
And it’s just around the corner from here where we find a glass blower, hidden behind a Bohemian Crystal warehouse, sweating from the heat of his furnace, a big, burly sight of a man yet with a featherweight touch. He blows the molten liquid into fluid shapes like a flautist carries the most delicate of tunes. A crystal bird seemingly flutters from his artist’s instrument, taking flight simply by its natural refraction of light. It is his labour of love, a labour perhaps not that different to travelling to ponder the locks on that bridge. All we have to do is cross it.
If you go: Insight Vacations has an overnight as a part of its Bohemian and Highlights of Eastern Europe itineraries. For more information, go to www.insightvacations.com or see your travel agent. Want more Czech? Go here.