Prague: City of 100 spires

A brass band crisply uniformed in blue and grey turns the corner on the square and marches briskly toward Prague Castle, the musicians’ faces solemn, their steps perfectly synchronized with their music. Our toes tap like hundreds of metronomes, and my throat fills with emotion. The pageantry is overwhelming even though none of us knows who the visiting dignitary is the band is welcoming.

I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of Prague Castle, but its size and imposing dominance of the city is more spectacular than I imagined. In fact, it’s much more complex than a single castle. Although it began as a log cabin in 870 AD, it grew to embrace palaces, churches, gardens and mansions, including, of course, the dramatic St. Vitus Cathedral, the most important church in the country. The “parish church” of Bohemian kings and Habsburg emperors, St. Vitus was designed in the 14th century and was 600 years in the making. Despite interruptions such as the Hussite skirmishes, the Thirty Years War and the Second World War, master builders stayed faithful to the original designs of 1344, embodying a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and baroque styles. Given that history, no woer the Czech people are amused to hear the Czech Republic referred to as “the new Europe.” Prague, in particular, represents every architectural stage in the development of the continent.

Prague’s modern history also comes alive in the courtyards and palace halls of the castle where the ghostly voices of kings and emperors seem to echo. It was here from a first floor window that Hitler proclaimed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939 and where President Vaclav Havel, the popular former playwright and writer who once jammed with Bill Clinton at a jazz club, invited the people in for a huge beer party in 1990 after the Communist bosses had left.

Several days – of sheer pleasure – are needed to see all of Prague Castle, including St. Vitus Cathedral, the many courtyards, the palace gardens spilling down the hillside and Golden Lane, a little street of paupers, poets and peddlers tucked into the castle walls. And that’s not counting taking in the panoramic views over the rest of the city nestled along the Vltava River. No camera lens can capture the richness of the cityscape, the soft ochre hues of the rooftops, the shadows of the ornate statues or the complexity of the panorama lying at the feet of Prague Castle.

Below the castle stretches the Lesser Quarter, which is definitely misnamed, with its twisting lanes and magnificent palaces built during the Hapsburgs’ reign. From here, people mill across the romantic Charles Bridge with its parade of baroque statues. Until the 19th century, Prague’s only bridge, the Charles, has been the scene of knights galloping across for jousting tournaments, merchants bartering their business or being dropped over the side for shady deals, criminals being hanged and medieval minstrels singing for their supper. Today, the bridge hosts artists, merchants and musicians as well as frequent film shoots. While some argue that Charles Bridge, named for its builder Charles IV, King of Bohemia and German Emperor, is best seen in the late afternoon light or the magic hour of midnight, I enjoyed my stroll across at 9 o’clock one sunlit morning almost alone – not even the artists and musicians had set up for the day.

Next page: The best way to see PragueThe best way to see Prague is to walk. Part of its intriguing splendour – besides the winding streets banked by remarkable buildings – is its situation in the rugged terrain of the river valley.  Walking requires an occasional respite in an outdoor café with a bread bowl steaming with goulash soup and a glass of cold white wine from the southern area of Moravia. Then again, since the people of the Czech Republic drink more beer (160 litres a year per capita) than anywhere else in the world, a visit to Prague would be incomplete without a tall glass of what has been called the best brew in the world. According to purists, the best beer is from small independent breweries that still make the deep amber “liquid bread” the old-fashioned way.

One way to get from one neighbourhood to another is to hop on one of the city’s efficient trams. Number 22 is the best one for sightseeing, and you can buy a 24-hour pass for 70 crown (about $3.50 Cdn). It will take you up and down from the castle, across the river and into the New Town where the Czechs hang out. For North Americans, New Town and Old Town are indistinguishable. After all, New Town was founded in 1348, and both are richly historical and architecturally stunning. The difference is that New Town is a planned grid of streets and markets, while the laneways of Old Town meander delightfully into one another.

The former horse market, Wenceslas Square, is really a long avenue more than a square, where some of the most dramatic events of Czech history have taken place, most notably and recently the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when thousands in a candlelit demonstration forced the end of Communism and called for Vaclav Havel to become president.

The thing about Prague is that you can walk forever and never be bored. Every nook and cranny of Prague is fascinating, but my favourite part is probably the lively Stare Mesto, the old town, where kings travelled the Royal Route to their coronation. I arrived there early one morning, and the silence of the cobbled Old Town Square was about to be pierced by the rehearsal of a rap group and the whirring of bicycles lining up for a race. Some of the oldest buildings in the Old Town have double cellars, and the original streets are buried under the existing ones. This square, dominated by the splendid Church of Our Lady before Tyn and the astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall, has witnessed everything from executions – the most spectacular in 1621 when 27 Protestant leaders were condemned to death – to more recent hockey celebrations, a sport relished by the Czechs. Wandering the winding streets of Old Town is a lesson in history embracing every era from Romanesque to the modern clash of the Kotva department store.

Music is everywhere in Prague, any time and of every kind, from organ grinders and blues bands on Charles Bridge to the organ concert at St. Francis of Assisi Church, where I rested my feet at 3 o’clock, pacified by Verdi, Mozart, Handel, Bach and Dvorak. At 10 a.m. every day, a brass quartet serenades Mala Strana from a pavilion above the Old Castle Steps, and at 1 p.m., classic concerts are held in Lobkowicz Palace at Prague Castle. On tram 22 on my way back to the hotel, I note posters for upcoming concerts with Avril Lavigne and Sir Elton John. Not to be missed is an evening at the National Theatre, which looks more like a royal palace than a theatre overlooking the Vltava River. Opera buffs will be enthralled with an evening here; those who are not opera fans will be enchanted by the grand interior and sublime acoustics.

A spectacular city in the heart of Europe, Prague has more magnificent architectural monuments, galleries, romantic walks, concerts and quaint pubs than any other city on earth. Go – before the rest of the world discovers this fascinating jewel.

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The Hoffmeister Hotel, below Prague Castle, is owned by the son of one of Prague’s well-known artists, Adolf Hoffmeister. Each room has his work displayed. E-mail [email protected]