We had heard good things about Prague and wanted to go and see for ourselves, so when planning a Danube river cruise in April 2016 (read about it in my earlier post Danube River Cruise – A Taster), we decided to precede it with a visit to this city and to make it worthwhile we thought a 4 night stay would give us enough time to explore at a relaxed pace and have time for a day tour out of Prague.
On the advice of a friend who had visited Prague a couple of times, we chose the Old Town Square Hotel right in the centre of the historic part of town, which is also the focus of most visitors to the city. This turned out to be an excellent choice as many of Prague’s attractions were within walking distance, while others could be reached after a short ride on the city’s user-friendly tram system. A bonus was being upgraded to a suite with a view of the square, the room being so spacious we could have swung a cat if we had brought one with us, with room to spare.
Our first full day in Prague was the chance to explore the Old Town, so after a lazy in-room breakfast we set off on an extended walk. By this time the Old Town Square was filled with visitors and buskers, as it was for the rest of our stay, and proved to be a constant source of entertainment.
A swing band was playing from early on in great style, elsewhere jugglers, fire-eaters and “living statues” were doing their thing, the latter rather comically taking a regular smoke break, while Segway riders and tour groups with pennant-waving leaders weaved their way through the throngs.
The Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) dates back to the tenth century, when it served as the market place for the thriving town, is traffic free except for horse drawn carriages and is ringed with historic buildings. It is one of the finest public spaces of any city we’ve seen and has a constant buzz of activity starting early morning and extending deep into the night.
Most famous of the buildings is the Old Town Hall with its impressive astronomical clock which draws a crowd every hour, when the mechanical figures representing the twelve apostles become animated and “walk past” two small windows in a fascinating mini performance.
We started our walking tour by making our way slowly along the Old Town route shown in our guide book, but ended up following our nose, drawn into side streets by interesting buildings and features.
The older streets of Prague have rows of intensely handsome buildings, the like of which we have never before encountered in our many travels, aligned for uniformity of line and height but each one adorned with mouldings and decorative elements to make them unique. We wondered if there is another city in the world with such beautiful classical architecture. No wonder Prague is known as the “Paris of the East”.
Every now and then a noteworthy building caught our eye – religious buildings in particular such as cathedrals and churches. Particularly interesting was the Jewish Quarter with several synagogues which seemed to be drawing groups of tourists who were clearly of Jewish origin.
The old Jewish cemetery was crowded with tombstones, commemorating individuals buried in layers of up to 12 deep over the centuries past, apparently due to severe restrictions on the area that was allowed for burial in the Quarter.
Shops along the way varied from tourist kitsch to exclusive and expensive – Gucci, Burberry, Prada and the like – no prices on display, probably based on the old adage that says “if you need to ask, you can’t afford it”.
Cars outside these shops were equally exclusive – Bentley (ooh, I want one), Lamborghini and the like.
Come lunchtime we were in need of something light to eat – Gerda had spotted an interesting restaurant, U Gomela, so we retraced our steps for a couple of blocks and popped inside. We decided to try their potato soup (Plolevka nabidka den) accompanied by a pilsner and finished off with the coffee and apfelstrudel special (Jablecny zavin) we had seen advertised on the board outside – a very tasty choice as it turned out.
Refreshed, we continued our meander, coming across all manner of interesting sights.
There was even an opportunity for some birding – Chaffinch, European Jay and Blackbird all drew attention to themselves with their song and we were able to track them down in the trees lining some of the avenues – signs of approaching Spring.
By mid afternoon we felt we had done enough walking and found our way back to the hotel, having been out and about for the best part of the day, stopping only to check out the food stall offerings around the Square and settling for a giant pancake (palacinka) which was so large we shared one.
Later, after a good rest, we decided to dine in the restaurant attached to our hotel – called the White Horse and located on an enclosed “outside area” with views of the square and all its activities and heated by large gas heaters to ward off the evening chill. The food was good without being special, but rather expensive, probably due to the prime location.
With day one in this glorious city behind us we looked forward to discovering more of it – day two turned into a mild adventure of sorts, but more of that in the follow up post.