[Yes, I know I have just done P is for Portofino. This is by special request, for a friend.]
New Year’s Eve in Prague was cold. I wanted it to snow. After all, that’s one of the reasons we were in Europe at this time of year. I’d even bought myself some boots to trudge through the snow, kicking it up before me, as my friend Cecilia once described doing at Christmas at Oberlin College. But the temperature just hovered above freezing, and there was no snow, which on reflection made for much easier explorations. And so we brought the New Year in standing on the Charles Bridge with thousands of locals and tourists, with fireworks and happiness.
Prague is one of those cities which has been “discovered” since the Iron Curtain fell, but there is a reason for that, and why it is now one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Visiting at New Year wasn’t the smartest thing we’d ever done, but I can’t imagine a more beautiful city in which to celebrate the arrival of another year.
I have a friend who visited Prague and stayed a little way out of the city. She walked past slums and beggars, and saw the darker side of life of the city. The contrast between the beautiful, wealthy historic tourist centre and the back streets appalled her, and she couldn’t wait to leave Prague. I didn’t see the darker side, although of course we were aware it was there. We knew we were fortunate, staying in a charming hotel on the banks of the Vltava river. Even in freezing temperatures, it was a pleasant walk along the banks of the river to the Charles Bridge, into the Old Town, or across to the New Town. And if we got tired after hours treading the cobblestoned streets, there was usually a streetcar we could take back towards our hotel.
The Charles Bridge is the main monument. Postcards of an empty bridge covered in snow in the early morning or at dusk taunted me at tourist stands. But my husband, who sometimes goes above and beyond the call of duty, woke early one morning and raced up to the bridge as the sun rose (being December it wasn’t THAT early), to photograph it without tourists. This was the bridge in the morning.
This was the bridge a few hours later, from the top of St Nicholas Church, in Mala Strana or the Lesser Town Square. This is on the left bank of the river, tucked in under Prague Castle, and was one of my favourite parts of the city.
There are many sights to see, but one of the greatest pleasures was simply walking the streets. Although it is billed as the city of music, and around Christmas there are numerous concerts advertised in small halls and churches in the Old and New Towns, I found Prague to be the city of art. Everywhere we found beautiful art galleries, artists working on the Bridge, and then, of course, there was the architecture. The public buildings were bold, stark, Gothic and dramatic. But the apartments surrounding the squares and bordering the river were refined and elegant, immaculately maintained. They were all highly decorated, ranging from the classical, through to the informative, those showing the former occupations of the people who had once lived there.
But I also liked the statement of the new Dancing House, also known as the Fred and Ginger Building, with its flair and humour (not to mention its French restaurant with a view of Prague Castle). I think it fits well with the older architecture, showing that the city – already with a span of a thousand years – intends to continue to build and reinvent itself and be there in another thousand.
Across the Charles Bridge to the east, you’ll find the Old Town, filled with churches and halls and in the square a Christmas market was winding up when we arrived a few days before New Year. The local style “hot dogs” were an experience if not an epicurean delight, and travellers queue there to see the Astronomical Clock. We never arrived quite on time, unlike the clock, so I can’t report exactly what it does.
The New Town a few kilometres south is large and bustling with local shoppers along Wenceslas Square. And if your feet get tired there is an efficient and cheap underground system to get you back to your hotel, or at least to a warm bar for coffee or hot chocolate or mulled wine or something a little stronger.
But my favourite place in Prague was the Castle. Dominating the city from a number of viewpoints, it is stunning. But the history inside is equally fascinating, memorable for me perhaps because it gave examples of the use of the word “defenestration.” As usual, a religious dispute turned violent, and two Roman Catholic governors (found guilty of violating the Right of Freedom of Religion) were thrown from a window in the Prague Castle. They landed on a pile of manure, and survived. Perhaps predictably, the Catholics claimed a miracle had occurred. Equally predictably, the Protestants said it was, quite literally, horse manure that had saved them.
A more sobering time was spent visiting the Jewish Quarter. The crowded cemetery, where bodies are buried on top of each other, shows that discrimination had been a feature of the community’s lives for hundreds of years. The streets of the quarter seemed all too familiar to me, perhaps from movies of the Second World War, perhaps even movies had filmed there amidst these well-preserved buildings. I felt as if I could see the crowds being evacuated and moved on, hear their cries. With over 92,000 Jews living in the city, Prague had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe at the beginning of the War, almost 20 percent of the city’s population. At least two-thirds of the Jewish population of Prague was lost in the Holocaust. The memorial to the lost Jews of Prague is a simple one, in the Pinkas Synagogue where Franz Kafka used to pray. Largely an empty building, its walls are covered with the names of those who perished. I found it heartbreaking to imagine how it must have felt to hand write those names on that wall, and marvel at how much love and strength it must have taken.
This most beautiful city is well worth a visit. But for some reason it didn’t capture my heart in the way Budapest did a week earlier. Perhaps it was too well restored, too perfect, and too focused on the tourist dollar. Or perhaps I was just peeved that it didn’t snow.