Short Break in Prague:
My first brief encounter with Prague just gave me an appetite to explore more of the City so I was more than happy to have the chance to spend another night there.
Travelling to Prague from within the Czech Republic deserves a special mention. We’d been visiting Pardubice and our itinerary had us taking an early morning train to Prague. Visions of overcrowded antiquated trains were quickly dispelled. We had a clean modern carriage to ourselves for just 4 Euros each. And, that included free tea, coffee or water brought to us at the table. The journey from Pardubice took just under an hour and delivered us into the heart of Prague.
There, met by our guide, we went on a short walking tour of the city. I was particularly impressed by the timeline hoardings as we approached Wenceslas Square which really helped to put some of the history of Prague into context. Having read the book and seen the film ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ I was particularly fascinated to learn more about the period immediately prior to Soviet occupation of Prague and the subsequent occupation. It was an attempt by the then First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, to liberalise the country.
Sadly, the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact didn’t approve and the period only lasted from 5th January to 21 August 1968 – at which point troops and tanks were sent by members of the Warsaw Pack to occupy the country. Despite suicides, such as that of Jan Palach and occasional acts of violence, the people of Czechoslovakia remained under Soviet control until 1989 when the Velvet Revolution peacefully ended Soviet Rule after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
We walked around some of the more popular sights in Prague including the astronomical clock and Hotel Jalta, which is now best known for the nuclear bunker spread over three floors in the basement of the hotel. Designed to hold 150 people, the bunker was intended to provide shelter for prominent officials and officers of the Warsaw Pact for up to two months. While the building above was still used as a hotel it was occupied in part by the Secret Police who continuously monitored the entire place. Even when West Germany had their embassy on the premises, the phones were tapped and offices were bugged.
For lunch, we ended up at the Aria Hotel in Coda restaurant. A five-star boutique hotel, with a musical theme I was impressed with the food and loved the musical theming throughout the restaurant and hotel.
It’s somewhere I’d be more than happy to revisit and perhaps stay a little longer.
Then, my colleagues disappeared to fly back to London while I had some free time to check in to my hotel and go for a walk around Prague.
The Nicholas Hotel Residence is right in the centre of Prague and offers visitors a remarkable opportunity to stay in a traditional, heritage building. The rooms, suites and apartments are right up in the roof of a Rococo Palace built in 1786.
There are only nine suites and rooms in total, mostly with a loft bedroom and a separate sitting area with kitchenette. It’s a quirky place to stay and somewhere you could easily book with a group of friends as they have suites which will sleep four and even an apartment which can accommodate up to 6 in two bedrooms and on a sofabed in the sitting area.
While there is no restaurant, in the morning there’s a substantial breakfast buffet laid out in the central hall area. And, of course you can make tea, coffee and even cook in the kitchenette provided.
Walking round that evening I was really tempted to go and listen to some music. Both the Aria Hotel and the Nicholas are just a few minutes from the Lichtenstein Palace which now houses a music conservatoire and concert hall. Apparently, there are concerts at least once a day in the evening and often in the afternoon or at lunchtime. In the end, in some attempt to avoid the tourist restaurants, I ended up drinking a glass of wine and enjoying a snack in a little wine bar halfway up the hill.
If the history of post Second World War Prague is fascinating, that of Prague during the Enlightenment is every bit as amazing. I was fortunate to spend a morning with Bonita Rhoads, an academic historian turned tour guide and founder of Insight Cities runnings tours in Prague and across a portfolio of cities in Europe and America. Their ethos is to provide a living history and insight into some of the lesser known parts of the cities where they operate.
The Four Gardens tour started at the Vrtba Garden, which dates back to 1720. With an entrance in Mala Strana, it’s a terraced Baroque walled garden which was built for Jan Joseph, the earl of Vrtba and chancellor of Prague castle. Bonita explained that each of the gardens we visited was essentially a political statements in its time.
Then on to see the contrasting space of the Wallenstein Garden, commissioned by Albrecht von Wallenstein, Supreme Commander of the armies of Hapsburg. By contrast to the discrete scale of the Vrtba Gardens, Wallenstein is palatial, with albino peacocks, mannerist statues, a massive grotto wall and fountains. Everywhere you turn are statues symbolising the immense power of Wallenstein.
Bonita took me into the Castle gardens too, built by Emperor Ferdinand I as a present to his wife. An Italianate masterpiece, Ferdinand hired a team of Italian gardeners and architects to recreate the Mediterranean gardens of the Italian Renaissance which he loved so much.
Then, down through a series of terraced gardens growing exotic fruits – figs, almonds, oranges and lemons.
After the tour I lunched on traditional Czech food at Loka u Bile Kuzelky – beef broth with noodles and liver quenelles and braised beef in a cream sauce with cranberry jam and dumplings. At which point, I would have benefitted from a few hours at the gym. Traditional Czech food can be very filling.
Although I had a Prague Card, which would have let visit many of Prague’s attractions, including Prague Castle, the Jewish Museum, the Old Town hall and Petřín Tower, it was a glorious day and instead, I walked through a part of the City called Kampa Island.
With boutiques, cafes and bars, this part of Prague is quieter than many of the better-known sights. You’ll find Lennon Wall, a graffiti-covered wall which is unofficially dedicated to the famous Beatles’ singer. And, it’s the sort of place where you can just wander for hours
My biggest regret on this visit to Prague was not finding a decent time to visit more of Prague Castle than the gardens. It would, I think, take at least half a day to do justice to this spectacular building.
And, my second regret was not going with my instinct and going for a concert at the Liechtenstein Palace which is just round the corner from where I was staying.
I was a guest of the Czech Tourist Board
I travelled with Ryanair. There are daily flights to Prague from London Stansted Airport
I stayed at The Nicholas Hotel Residence right in the heart of Prague