Prague is a mystical fairy-land that is a little too successful in covering up its muddy past with a gleaming veneer of tourist-friendly and heavily-edited history. It’s really easy to go there, have a marvelous time, and have absolutely no sense of its difficult past (or present). (For instance, while admiring the lovely window details of the Castle, you might want to know why the term defenestration is connected with the site.) Prague is heavy on charm and light on reality. S’pose that’s why something like visitors outnumber residents at a ratio of four to one each year. But that’s why MoT‘s Eastern European Bureau (EEB) feels unsatisfied with Prague. This is, afterall, the city of Jan Svankmajer, Franz Kafka, and the Golem; of treacherous political action and religious persecution. Why does a visit here feel like a stroll through a marionette show?
For those of you who like your history clean and easy, this is a great place–just don’t wander off the beaten tourist trails, and stay away from the outer rings of housing that still smack of Communist-era efficiency as well as the inner rings of fine houses that are abandoned and/or routinely struck by vandals. Stay in the center, and don’t miss:
1. Just walking around
Prague is a great, beautiful, centuries-old European town that is made for walking. There’s the Old Town on the east side of the Vltava River and the Castle on the west; you can waste a lot of time well by just wandering back and forth and poking around in the squares and little streets and enjoying how one century rubs up against another. You have to eat goulash and dumplings, just do it, even if it’s mid-July, you have to do it. At least once or twice, splurge and eat on one of the great squares, but keep in mind that cafe owners are savvy and we’ve seen (on the Old Town Square in particular), up to three different menu prices in one restaurant: one price for being outside on the square, another for being at a window seat inside, and a third price for being deep in the building. So, if you don’t want to splurge on the scenery, you may as well go around the corner and pay, like, $2 for your cream asparagus soup instead of $12 (yes, you also have to eat creamed soups in July).
2. Gothic Prague & thereabouts
St. Vitus is a brooding mass visible from many points around the city. The Bohemians had a weird way about them when they would build a church: you’ll see here (and down in the Old Town Square at the Church of Mother of God before Týn) that lesser buildings crowd around and obscure the front of the church; there is no piazza or square immediately in front of it. Also, the character of Gothic is different across Europe, and here it is a kind of desperate, striving architecture, with claw-like spires on roofs that seem to scratch the sky. The Cathedral is pretty remarkable, but even better than the interior is the Golden Gate on the exterior, with a brilliant multi-part mosaic that shows Prague’s trade connections with the east–a little shot of Byzantium here in Eastern Europe. Deeper layers of history are evident nearby: if you venture behind the jolly facade of St. George you will find a stark and striking Romanesque church lurking in silence, mostly overlooked by tourists swarming in the area.
In addition to the obvious Gothic of the Cathedral side, with all of its interesting surrounding buildings (some cool defensive structures remain, check them out), several of the main bridges and points of entry to the medieval city have amazing towers associated with them. The fifteenth-century Powder Tower is on the site of one of the original city gates; its dour facade is animated with crazy mouldings, all of very dark (or stained?) stone, and again the aggressively severe roof forms.
Finally, the Jewish history in Prague is deep and sad; its remains are rich. If you can beat the busses (and you should try; it’s worth getting up before your hotel lays out breakfast and just this once foregoing the the morning spread of cold-cuts and aspic . . . yum!) go see the Jewish cemetery and the Old Synagogue, which is remarkable in many ways. But after about 10 AM, this place is packed and no fun at all.
If you are really into the Gothic thing, figure out a way to get to the nearby town of Kutná Hora. It’s historically a very wealthy silver mining town, about 60-90 minutes away, depending on your mode of travel and degree of courage to deal with people speaking Czech at you. There you will find a marvelous, broad five-aisled church dedicated to St. Barbara. Curvy-pointy tent-like roofs cover a brilliant vaulted ceiling with ribs in the patterns of flower petals. As pretty as that is, there’s a nearby chapel that is just as freaky as St. Barbara is pretty: the crypt of the cemetery chapel houses the Sedlec Ossuary, where the bones of tens of thousands of people have been arranged in artistic patterns–swags, coats of arms, lamp stands, it is a sight to behold (get a taste by following the Svankmajer link above).
3. Prague Nouveau
Here’s one place that Prague really shines. The Art Nouveau movement swept across Europe in the two or three decades leading up to World War 1; it’s best where the cities (Art Nouveau is an urban movement) was associated with strong politics. In Prague, avant garde designers fused the new forms and approaches to design that were emanating from France and Belgium with their gusto for the Czech Nationalist Revival, and developed a style of architecture that is in part based on Baroque heritage of the Habsburgs and the rich stores of Bohemian traditions. Go see the great buildings like the funky Viola building (Narodni No. 7; make sure to read the windows at the top) and the spanky Hotel Europa (on Wenceslas Square–Prague’s go at Beaux-Arts urban planning). Great as these are, the real monument is the Obecní dům, or Municipal House. (And when you go there, go to the cafe on the left, which is wonderful, with old-school waiters in tuxedos pushing around carts of cakes. Order something with poppy seeds, and also an eiskaffe, and thank us later.) In addition to being a fantastic building all on its own, its ornament is thrilling, especially the frescoes by hometown hero Alfons Mucha. You know Mucha, and in addition to seeing his proud nationalistic images here, and in the stained glass window he completed at the cathedral, you can visit his museum, which is one of the best single-artist museums we’ve seen.
4. Twentieth-Century Prague
After WW1 Prague continued with the Art Nouveau designers’ dream of being modern, but gave up on the folk traditions and elegant ornament. Sadly, the effort to be inherently anti-historical has become a leitmotif in Prague to this day. One of the most unique kinds of architecture in Prague is the short-lived Cubist movement. After that, architecture tells the tale of a series of unfortunate events: German occupation, US Air Force bombings, the arrival of the Red Army and Communist takeover, Prague Spring and Soviet tanks, finally the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Along the way, Praguers tended to expunge the record–maybe most dramatically by blowing up the giant stone sculpture of Stalin. What remains from the tough twentieth century is a whole mess of Communist era architecture, from the uninspiring metro system, to dismal apartment buildings and intimidating office towers. You can also visit the Museum of Communism, which has a startlingly winning attitude about this chapter in the country’s history; it is heavy on dark humor with a dash of snark.
More recently, the leadership in Prague has wanted to impress upon the world that really, we’re just as up to date as you (although we want to lure you to spend your tourist korunas on our whitewashed history), with envelope-pushing architecture. There’s this new octopus thing that’s been pretty contentious, but who knows: by the time you go, it might start oozing out of the ground. Definitely worth the trip out to its neighborhood is the Frank Gehry building nicknamed after a famous dancing couple. MoT‘s EEBs went out there, all set to hate on it, but you know what: it actually kind of works in the colorful Baroqueish neighborhood right on the riverfront.
So that’s what you do in Prague, if you go, although MoT‘s EEEs hope you go there in concert with, and not at the expense of, Prague’s more mature, interesting, darker sister, Budapest. Especially if you can take them both in with their elegant mother, Vienna, who doesn’t look her age at all. But really: Budapest. Go there.