Czech it out – Prague : the Old Town

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.

Prague - Old Town Square - north side
Prague – Old Town Square – north side as seen from our hotel room

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.

Prague - bubble makers on Square
Prague – bubble makers on Square

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.

Prague - Dancing in the Square
Dancing in the Square to the swing band
Prague - Living statues
Prague – “Living statue” checking the takings during a break from posing (note the cigarette in hand)
Prague - Old Town Square
Prague – Old Town Square crowds
Prague - Old Town Square
Carriages are the only vehicles allowed in the square

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.

Prague Old Town-2
Rococo stucco work on Kinsky Palace now used by National Gallery for art exhibitions
Prague Old Town-3
Kinsky Palace window detail
Prague Old Town-4
Old Town Square  – Art Nouveau building from 1898 now houses a ministry
prague - Old Town Square : Church of St Nicholas
Old Town Square : Church of St Nicholas dominates one corner
Prague - Old Town Square - facade dates from 1696
Old Town Square – facade dates from 1696

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.

prague - Old Town Square with Town Hall
Old Town Square with Town Hall
Prague - Astronomical Clock
Prague – Astronomical Clock
Prague - Astronomical Clock
Prague – Astronomical Clock

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.

Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes
Prague - street scenes
Flowers on the sidewalk
Prague - street scenes
An interesting facade
Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes

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”.

Prague - street scenes
Prague – street scenes
Prague - street scenes
Prague – a handsome building
Prague - street scenes
Unusual decoration on this building

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.

Prague - Maisel Synagogue
 Maisel Synagogue
Prague - old Synagogue
The old Synagogue

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.

Prague - old Jewish cemetery
The old Jewish cemetery

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”.

Prague
Upmarket shopping street

Cars outside these shops were equally exclusive – Bentley (ooh, I want one), Lamborghini and the like.

Prague - Bentley coupe
Bentley coupe

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.

Prague - shop windows
Puppets in a shop window
Prague - Spring blossoms
Spring blossoms
Prague - making the local speciality
Making the local speciality pastry which gets filled with your choice of ice cream or whatever
Prague - Church of the Holy Spirit
Church of the Holy Spirit
Prague - street scenes
Old gent on a bike

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.

Prague - White Horse Restaurant
White Horse Restaurant on the Square

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.

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