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The Golden City

Visiting Prague: First-Hand Experiences

Pinnable basically stops at where the Iron Curtain once was, with exceptions for the former GDR & the Czech capital Prague, because they’re still within comfortable reach of home without our having to travel by air. Language-wise, Czechia was somewhat out of our comfort zone — take a phrase such as ‘Strč prst skrz krk’ & you see what I mean — but in Prague, English will get you around as well. Built between the 11th & 18th centuries, Prague’s historical centre consists of the picturesque 13th-century Old Town (Staré Město) on the east bank of the Vltava river & Lesser Town (Malá Strana) on the opposite side, and the New Town (Nové Město), founded in 1378 by order of Charles IV (Karel čtvrtý), the first King of Bohemia to become Holy Roman Emperor. The New Town was built around the old one and, completely in line with Charles’ imperial goals & objectives, conceived as a New Jerusalem worthy of hosting the Second Coming.

Not to be missed are Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) with St Vitus Cathedral (Katedrála sv. Víta), and Strahov Monastery (Strahovský klášter), noted for its baroque Theological Hall & its neoclassical Philosophical Hall. Other baroque highlights in the Lesser Town below the castle are St Nicholas Church (Kostel sv. Mikuláše) and Vrtba Garden (Vrtbovská zahrada). Better skip the baroque library hall at the Clementinum in the Old Town if you don’t want to see how the National Library of the Czech Republic disgraces itself by letting visitors only have a peek through an open door for a few minutes at an extortionate price. Other significant sights on this side of the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) are the iconic Old Town Hall (Staroměstská radnice) with its medieval astronomical clock, the elegant neoclassical Estates Theatre (Stavovské divadlo), the Municipal House (Obecní dům), an ornate art nouveau building, the cubist House at the Black Madonna (Dům U Černé Matky Boží), and, alongside the Vltava river in the New Town, the postmodern Dancing House (Tančící dům).

Estates Theatre
The elegant Estates Theatre in the Old Town

Besides the medieval panel paintings at the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia (Klášter sv. Anežky České) and Dürer’s Feast of the Rosary & Bronzino’s portrait of Eleonora of Toledo at the Schwarzenberg Palace (Schwarzenberský palác), the National Gallery has little to offer — which is not their fault; once Bohemia became part of the Habsburg Monarchy, the successive emperors concentrated their art collections in Vienna, and that’s where most of it still is. Other noteworthy museums are the Jewish Museum (Židovské muzeum) in the Jewish Quarter, the National Technical Museum (Národní technické muzeum), superb in all things scientific & technological, and the Museum of Communism (Muzeum komunismu), about life in communist-era Czechoslovakia. My youngest daughter wishes to add that all of the above may be good & true, but nothing in Prague beats the ice cream from Gelateria Crème de la Crème. When it comes to food, Prague is not an expensive city. We found the Lokál restaurants Dlouhááá, U Bílé kuželky & Hamburk, in the Old, Lesser & New Towns respectively, very nice to have dinner with Pilsner beer from Pilsen, but it’s advisable to come early or make a reservation in advance, especially when bringing a large party; and make sure to also try their dark beer, Kozel černý.

Public transport in your home town may be good; in Prague, it’s better. There are three metro lines; line A serves the Old Town at Staroměstská, and the Lesser Town at Malostranská; from lines B or C, change at Můstek or Muzeum first. The tramway comprises 25 lines, running at intervals of 8 minutes at peak hours or 10–20 minutes otherwise; the busiest lines operate at double capacity. Fares are Kč 24 for a 30-minute journey & Kč 32 for a 90-minute journey; there are also 24- & 72-hour tickets for Kč 110 & Kč 310. Children aged 10–14 pay half the fare; under-10s accompanied by an adult travel for free, but for those aged 6–9 proof of age must be shown. If you forget to validate your ticket with a timestamp from a validation machine, you’re risking a heavy fine.

Reader comments


The Vltava river is more widely known abroad under its German name, Moldau, and is celebrated as the second subject in a cycle of six symphonic poems under the general title of Má vlast by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.


In May 1618, Prague Castle was the scene of the Defenestration of Prague, when Protestant citizens somewhat lost their temper & threw two Catholic regents, together with their secretary, from a third-storey tower window. Although miraculously inflicting no serious injury on the victims, this act contributed to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, and to the extension of the defenestrated secretary’s nobiliary name, Philipp Fabricius von Rosenfeld und Hohenfall.


Not all Habsburgs preferred Vienna to Prague: Rudolf II, the pear-nosed emperor, had a very shiny court at Prague Castle, where he surrounded himself with a stupendous art collection. After his death in 1621, some objects, including his crown, were removed to Vienna, but most of it was still in place when in 1648, just in time for the ending of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish army looted the castle in the Battle of Prague, which explains why Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s well-known painting Vertumnus is now on display at Skokloster Castle in a country far, far away.


The National Gallery’s vast collections of 19th-century & modern art are housed at the Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní palác), and the majority of the works by Czech artists may be characterized as colourless, and more of the same. Among my favourite Czech paintings here are Josef Mánes’ village church, Karel Purkyně’s portrait of his wife, Oldřich & Božena by František Ženíšek, The Chrudimka Valley by Antonín Chittussi, Vojtěch Bartoněk’s Conscripts, Murder in the House by Jakub Schikaneder, and St Sebastian by the cubist Bohumil Kubišta.


At the National Memorial on Vítkov Hill (Národní památník na Vítkově) the National Museum hosts an exhibition that explores the 20th-century history of Czechoslovakia. It starts with the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire & the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, and it continues with the Munich Agreement of 1938 & its aftermath. It then looks into the re-establishment of Czechoslovakia after the war, the communist coup d’état of 1948 & the 41 years that followed until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and it explains the split-up of Czechia & Slovakia in 1993. From 1953 to 1962, the National Memorial housed the mausoleum of Klement Gottwald; a second exhibition shows how the Communists went to great lengths to preserve the body of their first president.


If you have a map & you know the Czech words for ‘departure station’, ‘next stop’ & ‘destination’ (výchozí zastávka, příští zastávka & cíl), traveling in Prague by tram is a breeze, especially on board one of the comfy Škoda 15T tramcars. If you prefer the Tatra T3, the Eastern bloc’s most popular tramcar, get the nostalgic № 23 tram that runs from Královka to Zvonařka via Malostranská, Národní třída, Karlovo náměstí & I.P. Pavlova.

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