The Neophyte in Prague:
There are places which have been on my personal ‘must visit’ list for so long that when a trip materialises, I become apprehensive. The possibility of shattered dreams perhaps? Prague first made my wish list many years ago when I watched ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. But, I suspect it is somewhere I’ve subconsciously avoided ever since a friend visited the city. Despite the fact that what he found to be missing, Hugo Boss polo shirts in small, was something hardly relevant to me. Though, for a while, Prague became rather too well known for being the best venue for a Stag Party or Hen Weekend and gave me another reason to postpone my first visit for a few years.
The reality, of course, is that it all depends on where you go and what you choose to do. If you are looking for cheap beer and a good nightlife, you’ll find that easily. But, both within the somewhat touristy Old Town and elsewhere in Prague there is plenty more on offer. The Historic Centre of Prague is, after all, Unesco listed.
We were, perhaps, fortunate. The weather was kind to us. This is a city that is best seen on foot, with perhaps the occasional tram ride when the steep hills and cobbled streets get too much.
On our first morning in the City, I slipped out of Hotel Wilson to explore a little by myself. Right by Wenceslas Square isn’t the prettiest part of town, but the hotel itself is charming and well appointed. And, of course, it’s a good central point to base yourself for everything that Prague has to offer. You can reach the old town in about 7 minutes or, as I did, wander round the back streets and bump into a film crew (I discovered later that the area is very popular for filming and that Prague as a whole has been used for many film settings including The Trial, Immortal Beloved and The Illusionist).
The afternoon took us to an area of Prague that is not well known. Tram 22 takes you up the steep hill from the old town to Prague castle and you should get off where you see these two chaps watching guard. More about them later.
Just before you find the castle, there’s a charming area of cobbled streets lined with historic houses. These are, so our guide told us, the Novy Set, New World houses, although they were originally built in the mid 14th Century for royal employees who wanted to live close to Prague Castle. The area was damaged by fire on a couple of occasions, in 1420 then again in 1541 and so most of the houses were rebuilt in the 17th century. Now, it’s an expensive part of town – and popular for wedding photography.
We walked through the steep, winding streets and passageways, learning about the history of this part of Prague. Tycho de Brahe, a famous Danish astronomer, friend and contemporary of Johannes Kepler, the court astronomer of Rudolph II lived in the house ‘At the Golden Griffin’ and worked with him in the Royal Court. There are a number of macabre theories about Brahe’s sudden death from poisoning, after a banquet at the palace.
First, Kepler had been working on theories relating to planetary motion. He initially believed in Copernicus’s theory, that God had some geometric reason for placing the six planets at the particular distances from the sun they occupied. Tycho’s work was mathematically more advanced and when Kepler and Tycho worked together, Kepler realised that his colleague’s research would settle the question one way or another. But, Tycho’s death allowed Kepler to steal his research and produce groundbreaking work, the three laws of planetary motion, which were the foundation of Newton’s law of universal gravitation.
A second theory is that Brahe was murdered by order of the then King of Denmark, Christian IV. He had been the personal astrologer of Christian’s father, King Frederik II but fled Denmark on Frederik’s death. It’s believed that Brahe had been having an affair with Christian’s mother. Despite fleeing the country, the young King is thought to have ordered his murder. And, that story is said to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Brahe may just have died from mercury poisoning resulting from his work. But, his body was recently exhumed and tests suggest that while it was indeed mercury poisoning which caused his death, the quantity of mercury and the location, at the roots of his hair, indicate he was given one big fatal dose!
A little further along ‘At the Golden Acorn’ belonged to the Santini family, one of whom was the Baroque architectural genius Jan Blažej Santini, who was the architect responsible for a world famous Unesco-listed church and monastery we visited earlier in the trip, Zelená Hora.
And, if you are feeling hungry, the House of the Golden Pear, which dates back to the 18th century is home to a well-known restaurant. But, while you are enjoying the fine dining, try not to think back to earlier days. Once the site of a notorious inn, the original hostelry served soup from a communal bowl in the centre of the table, which you ate using a spoon that was chained down to the table to prevent theft.
The timbered house at the bottom of Cerniska Street, The Crayfish or U Raka, is a relatively recent restoration of the original timbered houses that would have made up this area of Prague in the 18th century. The oldest record of the land dates back to 1739, which it was bought by a butcher, Mr Libický to provide stabling. By 1794 there was a house – a timbered building with a shingle roof. As this style of housing disappeared from Prague, the building became a national monument. The current owner, an artist and photographer, bought the largely derelict property in 1987 and had to restore it completely thanks to the original building suffering from dry rot. It opened as a hotel in 1990.
This area was popular with artists and writers; Alan Ginsberg, while he was staying here managed to rise to the position of president of student festivities in 1965. The secret police were less than impressed and he was expelled from Czechoslovakia for ‘spoiling the students’.
Each house seemed to have its own story. Number 17, the House of the Golden Stork was home to a young couple and their father. They decided to murder the old man for his money and managed something of a botched job. Eventually, after the old man’s daughter, Maria, strangled him, they cut up his body and stored it behind the stove. The marriage didn’t work out and 6 months later, the husband walked out. At that point, Maria, perhaps distressed by living alone with only the cadavar of her father for company, moved the body to a new location, where it was soon discovered. Both husband and wife were caught and imprisoned.
We were guided through the New World by history student Daniel Verner, from Prague Unknown, who grew up in the area and clearly has both the passion and the knowledge to bring this part of Secret Prague alive. He took us back via his parents’ house, a few hundred yards down the road before leaving us to wander back to the hotel via the better-known parts of Prague – the Castle, Charles Bridge and Old Town Square.
It would be hard not to be impressed by Pražský Hrad, the largest ancient castle in the world at almost 70,00 square metres, which dates from the 9th century. Today it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic and his wife. Formerly the Castle has been a seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia.
During the Second World War Prague Castle became the headquarters of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Legend says that any usurper who places the crown of Bohemia on his head is doomed to die within a year. And, Heydrich did indeed die, of wounds incurred from ‘Operation Anthropoid, a combined attack by Czech and British forces, less than a year after the Occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are still kept within a hidden room inside the Castle…perhaps waiting for the next usurper to the throne?
Charles Bridge, beautiful but packed with tourists even in March, has spectacular views of the Old Town. Next time I’m in Prague I will be setting my alarm early. I’ve been told that not only is sunrise stunning but that the bridge is usually empty early in the morning.
We finally reached the Old Town Square. For a first time visitor like me, it’s an overwhelming experience, somewhere full of stunning buildings like the 18th Century St Nicholas Church, built by the Jesuits to a design by Giovanni Domenico Orsi.
We didn’t really have time to do more than glance at some of the famous landmarks such as the Astronomical Clock, the oldest operating one in the world which was installed in 1410. Another part of Prague to visit properly when I have more time. I’d like to see inside the church and spend just a little more time understanding what I am looking at.
I’ll be happy to return though and explore a little more of this fascinating heritage City.
I was a guest of the Czech Tourist Board
I travelled with Ryanair from Stansted to Brno. There are currently daily flights from Thursday through to Monday, with no direct flights on Tuesday and Wednesday until the summer season (April). Tickets start from as little as £14.99 each way
In Prague, I stayed at Hotel Wilson – rooms start at 87 Euros a night.
Thinking of visiting Prague yourself? Why not pin this post for later