"You must see Prague," I have been counseled much of my life; this curious omission in my travels something I regretted for years. Finally, I made a short trip to "the city of a thousand spires," and yes, I was impressed. Forgive me, however, if I say I think Prague worship has gone too far. Even in mid-October and on weekdays, the streets of Old Town were jammed with tourists, the Charles Bridge was swarmed -- the crowds inescapable. Workers in the tourist industry (guides, hotel clerks) seemed exhausted, restaurant wait staff occasionally short-tempered. I began to notice attitudes sometimes seen in Third World tropical countries where rich tourists often fray the nerves of patient service personnel. I wasn't happy about a T-shirt bearing the slogan," I went to Prague and Got Mugged" on sale along the Royal Mile, either.
Individual encounters were often highly rewarding, though, with a kindly shopkeeper allowing me to "just look" and still be helpful, a concert ticket taker who let me in even when I couldn't find my ticket (lost amidst the brochures and receipts in my bag and found after the concert), a restaurant manager who helped move my table away from annoying cigarette smoke.
Yes, go, but for all the glories of the Prague Castle, the Old Town, the Jewish Quarter and the concerts, be prepared for hordes of tourists, a tacky "Royal Mile" lined with awful shops, and few clues to help you navigate the place.
Above all else, spend a day at Prague Castle (www.hrad.cz). Among the highlights I admired most were the Golden Lane (in one of whose houses Franz Kafka lived briefly), the Picture Gallery and the gardens. They say the Guinness Book of Records certifies that the place is the "largest coherent castle complex in the world." (Malbork in Poland and Windsor castles also lay claim to a "largest" title.) The castle ranks high up on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and dates from the tenth century onwards, with Gothic additions in the 14th century. They keep the crown jewels here and former Czech kings are buried under the church. I was surprised to learn the St. Vitus Cathedral façade was constructed as late as 1929, according to my knowledgeable guide, though much dates back to the 14th century. Tickets from 250 Kc ($13.45) and up.
Of the many guided walks around the city, I chose a half-day version of the City Center from Martin Tours (Old Town Square, tel. 011 420 606/470-518: www.martintour.cz) for 500 KC ($26.89) and an afternoon boat ride from Daily Walks & Tours at 350 Kc ($18.83), enjoying both immensely. Political junkies and history-lovers might like the Communism Walk, a 90-minute tour (300 Kc, $16.14) taking you to scenes where Prague's 40-year experiment with Stalinism played out, including the Museum of Communism. As with most tours, you meet in the Old Town Square where the guides hold up umbrellas of various colors to hawk their wares.
By all means, visit the Jewish Museum in Prague, which is in fact a collection of ten or more buildings in Old Town, daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays. The Old Cemetery, dating back to the early 15th century, was the highlight for me, but I was also impressed by the Maisel and Klausen synagogues. Especially moving is the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust are places on the walls. Here, too, is a poignant display of children's drawing from the Terezin concentration camp. Admission 300 Kc ($16.14). Organized tours are available from Precious Legacy Tours (tel. 011 420 222/321-951; www.jewish-tours.net)
You come to Prague as much for the music as for its remarkable Old World architecture and ambiance. Among the highlights of evenings out can be performances at the Prague State Opera House (Turandot and Swan Lake while I was there), at the Laterna Magika (Mozart), National Theater (Norma), Estates Theater (Goldilocks) and the National Marionette Theater (Don Giovanni), the most outstanding venues. Look out in particular for concerts in the Rudolfinum and those by the Prague Symphony and Czech Philharmonic.
You'll be amazed at the number of concerts being promoted on the streets in Old Town, offering "Concert in Cathedral" and the like. Since the end of generous Communist subsidies to the arts, the musicians of Prague have to work hard to make a living, so some from more prestigious orchestras band together in ad hoc groups to provide audiences, mostly tourists, with one-hour concerts of old favorites at 7pm on many evenings. Vivaldi's Four Seasons, full or partial, is a favorite, as are works by Smetana (The Moldau), Mozart (A Little Night Music), and Dvorak (Humoresque). The groups usually number about ten to 14 musicians, plus a soloist or two.
I attended a concert by the "Prague Baroque Consort" (10 players, 490 Kcs, $26.36) in the 18th-century UNESCO Heritage St. Clement's Cathedral in the heart of Old Town, where I found the acoustics terrible and the baroque heavy, the plaster cherubs appearing to be extruded from fat pastry tubes. Organ concerts are held in the cathedral's Mirror Chapel, said to have better acoustics.
Often the venue is a reason for going, as much as for the music. In the Smetana Hall, with excellent acoustics and a fabulous ceiling, I listened to the "Prague Royal Orchestra," 14 musicians, all strings, in a 60-minute run-through of Pachelbel, Mozart and Vivaldi, costing 1300 Kc ($69.93). I noted the same conductor listed as directing the "Prague Royal Symphony" on other evenings in the same hall. This Municipal Hall (nam. Republiky 5, tel. 011 420 222/002-101; www.obecnidum.cz) venue was itself worth the price, as the restored building, where the Czechoslovak state was born in 1918, is an Art Nouveau masterpiece.
Take in the opera at the charming Narodni Divaldo (National Theater) (tel. 011 420 224/901-448; www.narodni-divadlo.cz), where a friend took me to see Russalka, probably Dvorak's best-known vocal work. The auditorium is a bit like a miniature Covent Garden, the small stage providing just enough room for fragile sets. The singing was excellent for the most part, and the local sparkling wine in the foyer at intermission costs only 50 Kc ($2.69). Tickets from 30 to 900 Kc ($1.61 to $48.41).
There's a lively club scene at night, the music taking all shapes, forms and sounds, of course. Claiming to be the oldest bar in Prague is the Americky Bar (tel. 011 420/222 002 786; www.obecnidum.cz), in the basement of Municipal House, worth the trip for the décor alone.
Beer is the drink in Prague, and can range as high as 12% alcohol content (X Beer), but I like Pilsen best. There's even beer ice cream, which needs cream on top to mask the bitterness. Get used to people smoking in restaurants and elsewhere.
Dinner in the French Restaurant of the Municipal House, one of Prague's best eating places, was worth the cost, as was the service. After a complimentary amuse bouche, I had a fettuccine at 690 Kc ($37.12) and a glass of a very good Ruland Vinohrad red wine at 290 Kc ($15.60). French Restaurant, nam. Republiky 5, tel. 011 420/2565-3491, www.obecnidum.cz.
My best meal in Prague was at the Mlynec, where I sat at a window table looking out at the Charles Bridge (a terrace open in warmer weather), dining on crispy roast duck and red cabbage, a Czech specialty (485Kc, $26.09), and a glass of local Pinot Noir at 200 Kc ($10.76). They deal with local specialties and Asian fusion (try the former, I suggest), and the chef is the first in Prague to receive the Michelin Bibendum award three times. Mlynec, Novotneho lavka 9, tel. 011 420 221/082-208, www.zatisigroup.cz.
The Reykjavik restaurant does not offer only Icelandic specialties, providing a wide range of dishes, including even good French onion soup at 130 Kc ($6.99) and not-bad spaghetti Bolognese at 240 Kc ($12.91), plus a glass of Czech red wine at 90 Kc ($4.84). Reykjavik, Karlova 20, tel. 011 420/4387-5513, www.reykjavik.cz.
The restaurant and bar Pod Kridlem is just a long block from the National Theater and the Laterna Magica, good for a pre or post concert meal. They advertise themselves as having "Czech and international cuisine featuring Italian gastronomy." I had roast pork but couldn't find much traditionally Czech on the menu otherwise. Art deco décor, not much English spoken. Main course and wine was 475 KC ($25.55). Tel. 011 420/224 951 741, www.vysehrad2000.cz.
Staying in Prague
If you want to be near the castle (about half a mile), try the improbably named Euroagentur Hotel Jeleni Dvur, a three-star place formerly called the Kralovsky Dvur. They serve only breakfast (included in double nightly rate of Euros 100, $145) and have 30 pleasant rooms, heated bathroom floors and more services than the usual hotel of this category. You will need to pay taxi fares if they run out of streetcar tickets until you can buy some elsewhere, and everything extra, like laundry, has to be paid for in cash, but these are minor inconveniences for an otherwise pleasant stay. The front desk says it can only call a company car, not your favorite taxi company, but you can phone from your room if you speak Czech or can find an English-speaking person at the other end of the line. Jeleni Dvur, Jeleni 197, tel. 011 420 233/028-333, www.euroagentur.cz.
For all things Prague, contact websites of the Prague Information Service at www.pis.cz or www.prague-info.cz. A relatively new site for the Czech Republic is www.czechtourism.com. Frommer's complete guide to Prague is available on this website and in bookstores.
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