I was very lucky that I happened to be living in Europe in the late 90’s so getting to Prague was not difficult. We stayed in a guesthouse that still reeked of Communist architecture and the city was still coming to terms with the concept of a market economy. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, at that time, I felt like I had wandered into a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. We happened to be there on the night in spring where people hike up a hill to scare off witches… something to that effect anyway 🙂 Witches figure into mittel europa tradition a lot. There was also bonfires and beer, which I think might have been the more important part of the tradition. I just remember how magical it was to be walking through the forest late at night full of moody atmosphere and torches.
This time I arrived in Prague to rain so spent a day wandering the city in subdued lighting and drizzle, which somehow seemed to fit the city. Prague has had a complicated history and it feels melancholy. It’s a dramatic place and it feels right that a place like this would elect a writer and philosopher as its first President (in direct contrast to a President who doesn’t even read books 😉 You can experience Prague on several levels.
It’s a pretty place with a castle, some museums, a cute Old Town and lots of gorgeous buildings so you can treat it like Disneyland and just follow the other tourists and take photos of the pretty things. Prague has centuries of fascinating history, though, so you can definitely dig deeper.
According to legend, Princess Libuše had a vision of Prague long before any building began. It started with the castle. It was built around 880 and is one of the largest castles in the world. It is on a hill and a medieval fortress in addition to being a castle. Later Prague became a major trading hub and, as with the rest of middle Europe, a jewel to be fought over and traded. For tourists, the castle is one of the main draws. There weren’t many people there in 1999 but I understood that had all changed – and that was an understatement.
One of the big changes for tourists in the past decade has been the steady rise of the Chinese economy. I was in China in 2008. Back then, most people had very few holidays and travel was mostly to other parts of China. Since I travel to all sorts of destinations, I see who the tourists are. It’s very interesting. In Cambodia, there are a lot of French tourists and hardly any Americans. The Chinese travel the way the Japanese did decades ago – on group tours with someone who speaks their language.
It’s maybe partly the group tour aspect but they seem to be interested in famous stuff. I made the mistake of going to Galeries Lafayette in Paris during Golden Week, which is a Chinese holiday week. What was fascinating is that Printemps is only a short walk away (and an equally impressive Parisian department store) but the Chinese tourists were all at Galeries Lafayette. Based on my observations, I suggested to my friend that we visit the castle in the afternoon when the tour groups had already left. It proved to be a winning strategy.
The other really big draw in Prague is the astronomical clock. It was built in 1490 and was a technical marvel of its day. It still chimes on the hour so it’s wise to
arrive early if you want a photo without other people’s heads in it. It’s in the Old Town Square, which is charming. If you want to get some good photos or soak up its medieval atmosphere without being jostled, get up early when it is surprisingly empty. I also discovered that, if you head off the main routes, the streets are quiet. It seems like a lot of tourists in Prague are on a group program that follows the main routes to the key sites. You’ll want to see them too but it also means there is another Prague that is as yet undiscovered.
St Vitus Cathedral is the other highlight. It’s part of the visit to Prague Castle. When we arrived, the line was gigantic so we checked out some other parts of the castle first and were able to enter with barely a wait. As more of us become tourists, you need a strategic plan 🙂
The final “must see” is Charles Bridge. It was commissioned in 1357 and is a massive stone bridge across the Vltava River linking the castle to thriving medieval Praha. Even with the tourist mobs, it’s a wonderful place to stroll. There are lots of artists and artisans selling their wares and you can get some very cool souvenirs for a very reasonable price. It is also scattered with statues of saints and glorious views of the river and the ancient city.
These sights take you back to medieval times and it’s easy to imagine the Brothers Grimm are at one of the local taverns and you could join them for a beer. There are very few places in the world where you can truly imagine you are part of a different century. For that reason alone, Prague deserves a visit. What makes it even more special is the quirky nature of Czech history and the off the beaten path adventures you can enjoy once you’ve seen the highlights and want to be a traveller instead of a tourist…