The long-awaited next post in my series about my lovely visit with Betty and her mom!
One of the things that the Baumans really enjoy doing on vacation is getting guided tours. This is not something that has traditionally been a part of my vacations in the past, but they’d had good experiences with tours on other vacations, and they were extremely generous in offering to treat me to joining them on these tours, so I was more than happy to join them. “Why not,” I thought to myself, “I probably walk past really important buildings every day and have no idea!”
On the Baumans’ first day in Prague we went on a free walking tour. Yup, it was completely free. Our guide, Colin, was fantastic. He was Scottish, he told good stories, and he spoke loudly enough that you didn’t have to be that kid following along right on his heels in order to hear what he was saying. (Don’t get me wrong – I would have done it if I had to.) Colin walked us around much of Prague’s Old and New Towns and the Jewish Quarter telling stories about Czech history, culture, politics, and giving lots of solid practical advice for newbies in Prague. He was a great, engaging guide, and it’s a tour I would recommend to anyone. I’ll be honest: I did actually know most of the things that he told us. He did, however, raise a point that I found thought-provoking: Overrated tourist attractions.
Colin “bragged” about the fact that a guidebook had awarded Prague one of the top three overrated tourist attractions in Europe: The astronomical clock on Old Town Square. I don’t know that that would necessarily be in my top three (London Bridge isn’t even REAL, people!), but he had a point. Thousands of people cram into a pretty small area and stand there waiting for 20-30 minutes in many cases to see…little mechanical guys walking past openings in a clock. More on that later. In any case, this got me thinking: what would guide books rank as the top tourist attractions in Prague, and how would that compare to my top sites in Prague? Luckily, I have a blog, so I can ponder these things and publish them on the internet.
Without actually pulling my guidebook out to look, I can be reasonably sure that the top three attractions in Prague would be (in some order): The Astronomical Clock, the Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle. We visited each of these sites last week (and I had visited all of them before), so let’s reflect:
1. The Astronomical Clock
I think I’ve posted about the clock before (the Wikipedia page looks familiar…), but I’ll go over the basics again. The clock was built in 1410 and is the oldest operational astronomical clock in the world. Even back then Prague was proud of their clock: Instead of thanking the man who built it with money or fame, they bludgeoned his eyes out so he could never make another one for another city. Charming! The clock face itself has different dials that identify that date and month (in both modern and ancient Czech time), zodiac signs, the position of the sun and moon, and other such data. The real attraction, though, is that every hour on the hour during the day, two little windows at the top of the clock open and the apostles parade by. While this is happening, figures representing vanity, greed, death, and pleasure (the four biggest fears in 1410) also move, and a cock “crows.”
The pros: The thing was built in 1410. The fact that it still works is little short of a miracle. It survived many wars and innumerable tourists crowding around and in it for hundreds of years. Considering that at the time electricity, the internet, cars, and power tools were still centuries from being invented, the technology is pretty remarkable.
The cons: That said…it’s a clock. If you want to see the display and it’s not the middle of winter, you probably need to get there at least 10-15 minutes early to get a good spot under the clock, and then the “excitement” lasts for all of about 20 seconds. If you’re looking for Disney magic, you’ll probably be disappointed. Europe’s second most overrated tourist attraction it probably is not, but it’s definitely a bit over-hyped.
2. The Charles Bridge
The Charles Bridge (or, if someone hadn’t mistranslated it years ago, Charles’ Bridge) is, like everything else called Charles in Prague, named after Charles IV, officially the most beloved figure in Czech history (http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/specialy/nejvetsicech/oprojektu_top100) (actually, technically he came in second, but that’s another story). This guy is like George Washington, FDR, and Abraham Lincoln all rolled into one Medieval package. Charles not only built this bridge, he founded Charles University (my host for this year and one of the oldest universities in the world), created much of the infrastructure for Prague, and was generally a good guy. There’s a random wall going up one of the hills in Prague. It’s not designed to separate properties, or keep people in or out: it’s a hunger wall. There was a famine and Charles wanted to help his people, so he commissioned this totally useless wall to create jobs.
Anyway, back to the bridge. It’s a bridge. A very old bridge with a lot of statues on it…but it’s really just a bridge. Until the nineteenth century it was one of the few bridges that crossed the Vltava river, which divides Prague…but today it’s one of many and most denizens of Prague give it (and its huddling masses of tourists) a wide berth. I do enjoy the occasional stroll across the bridge (if I can find a time when it isn’t crawling with souvenir stands, buskers, and Italians), but I actually enjoy the view of the bridge itself better from the landing outside the Smetana museum or from one of the neighboring bridges. That way one can enjoy the rather striking silhouette of the bridge without having to crowd surf.
The pros: It’s pretty and some of the statues are cool and old/supposedly bring you luck if you touch them.
The cons: Both the bridge and the areas immediately on either side of it are usually completely crawling with tourists and people whose lives revolve around tourists.
3. Prague Castle
You can’t come to Prague without seeing the Prague Castle. Literally. It’s visible from about half the city, easily the most striking silhouette on the Prague skyline. What’s known as “Prague Castle” is really a large complex of buildings that includes, in addition to the actual castle bits, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, St. George’s Basilica, and The Golden Lane. In fact, the most prominent part of the “Castle” when seen from a distance is St. Vitus’ Cathedral.
This is one of those attractions that you really should see at least once. The two churches make it entirely worth it for me, and lots of people enjoy the Golden Lane, where servants and later alchemists associated with the castle lived throughout history, as well (although the tiny buildings mostly make me kind of claustrophobic). St. Vitus’ is really something of a fascinating tour through architectural history. It was commissioned by – guess who!? – Charles IV in 1344, but due to intervening wars and financial issues, the church wasn’t entirely complete until 1929. This means there are styles from about 600 years of history all combined in one building. It’s stunning from the outside, and also gorgeous from the inside, even if it is in a sort of over-the-top gothic style. It’s not a place where I feel particularly spiritually moved, but there is tons of glorious stained glass (including a fabulous window by Alfons Mucha – more on him later), an intricately-detailed carved relief of The Battle of White Mountain, and the hilariously overdone tomb of St. Jan of Nepomuk (think, Pimp my Grave, 14th Century Edition – it features more than a ton of silver!). St. George’s Basilica and Convent, on the other hand, is the polar opposite Romanesque predecessor to St. Vitus’. It’s small, intimate, peaceful, and maybe one of my favorite places in Prague.
That said, the castle part of the castle is pretty underwhelming. Unless you get an audioguide, there is almost no interpretation in the rooms (usually just one description), and most of the rooms are devoid of furniture. If I was a little kid expecting to see a castle and saw this, I would be decidedly irked.
Pros: Gorgeous churches
Cons: Heaps of tourists and a princess-less castle.
So, now that I might have just burst your bubble about the “best” tourist attractions in Prague, where do I suggest you go?
Alfons Mucha was an artist originally from Moravia who lived around the turn of the 20th century and is now probably the most famous Czech artist. He is perhaps best known for some of his more commercial works including posters for Sarah Bernhardt plays, and ads for various products (like champagne). His style is similar to what is known as Art Nouveau in France and Jugendstil in Vienna. I’m a sucker for this type of art and design – my neighborhood was designed during this period and I find the buildings and visual art completely enchanting. The small Mucha Museum a few blocks off of Wenceslas Square is a great introduction to his works: there are lots of examples of his posters and paintings, but it’s not overwhelming, and it includes a well-done video that describes his life and works in English.
If you really like this style and are also into Slavic History, Mucha’s Slav (or Slavonic) Epic is another favorite of mine. Now housed in the Veletržní Palace, this series of 20 gigantic paintings (he used sails because they didn’t make canvases that large) took Mucha decades and was his magnum opus. The pictures describe important events in the history of the Slavs, with a special emphasis on Czech history. It’s a beautiful and educational way to spend a few hours.
2. Go window shopping or antique-ing
For me, one of the best parts of Prague is experiencing the city. Wandering the Jewish Quarter poking in and out of antique shops or strolling up and down the streets of Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarter) is great fun for me. For one thing, the antique shops around town tend to have very interesting, historic items (souvenirs from the Grand Expositions of the 1890s, Hapsburg Era jewelry, neat old Jewish memorabilia) at reasonable prices. Practiced antiquers would probably be non-plussed, but I always enjoy looking for new “treasures,” regardless of their actual value. Another benefit to walking slowly through Malá Strana is the neat “signs” on many of the buildings. During the Renaissance, there were no street numbers, so buildings were identified by unique “signs” (sometimes hanging off the building, often directly on it) to differentiate from that other light green building on Nerudová Street. If you just look up, you can still see things like The Green Lobster, the Three Fiddles, and the Red Lamb.
3. Just walk!
Ok, so this is only slightly different from no. 2, but I just love exploring Prague. Finding a new neighborhood and walking around it with a friend, stopping to look at neat old buildings or for a glass of wine or cup of coffee often turns up new delightful discoveries for me in Prague. If you stick to most of the guidebooks, you won’t ever leave the center of Prague, which is a real shame. Places like my neighborhood, Vinohrady, the neighboring district of Žižkov, and Letna, on the other side of the river offer a less touristy,
but no less beautiful view of Prague. The streets are full of gorgeous old buildings, beer gardens, and outdoor cafes that are easy to find if you take a minute to step away from the touristy bustle of downtown. In fact, one of the best parts of actually living in a city (not just visiting as a tourist) is finding these “off the beaten track” zones and discovering new places to visit and hang out. Cheesy? Maybe. True? Definitely.