The scenery changes immediately as my train from Cologne via Berlin goes over the border from Germany. Dramatic limestone gorges, red roofed farmhouses with decorated bohemian roofs crumbling plaster and plenty of small turrets, chugging alongside the Elbe River, upstream to the Vltava at Prague. I'm hearing Smetana in my head - his Moldau Symphony is based on this river. There are smoking glass factories - well this is Bohemia. And it's raining. The train has changed too, but that happened at Berlin. It looks quite like an old suburban English train no frills and abundant amounts of plastic.
The Covid rules have also changed at the border. No masks required, unless I go to the doctor or ride the metro. It’s a relief, but it’s also bonkers. These countries are all in the Schengen Zone, so people move freely between them.
Prague, previously the capital of Czechoslovakia, now the capital of Czechia, is known as the 'City of a Hundred Spires'. But it's been an important city in central Europe for a long time. In the Middle Ages it was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia and residence of several Holy Roman Emperors, most notably Charles IV. Last time I was in Prague, I was on my ‘When the Wall Came Down’ trip, with friend Jenny. We stayed with some relations of Jenny - they were poor, the economy was stressed, Lech Walesa was newly in power, living in a very small flat to set a good example and everyone was still very Stasi conscious.
I remember Prague, as a gorgeous city, with a lot of tea shops. It is now glorious, beautifully renovated; the embryonic café culture has evolved considerably. The tea shops on the arcades around its Old Town Square, the heart of its historic core, have expanded, with canopies, umbrellas and outdoor seating. It's very smart.
And in 1992 the old town part of Prague was included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. There are also plenty of museums and numerous theatres, galleries, cinemas, and other historical exhibits. Charles University, here, is the oldest university in Central Europe.
The tourist board are trying to incentivise visitors again, post Covid. I'm not sure why, as it seems pretty busy to me. They have handed out free entrance vouchers to various attractions. There are already numerous tourists admiring the famous medieval Astronomical Clock, just off the Old Town Square, which gives an animated hourly show. They move on to stroll across the pedestrian Charles Bridge, crossing the Vltava, lined with statues of Catholic saints, and ogle the turrets beyond.
I have four points to spend, so I'm heading for Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. It covers an area bigger than seven football fields combined. It's on the other side of the bridge from the Old Town, above what's known as Lesser Town. It's also at the top of a huge number of steps. Prague Castle is also UNESCO recognised. Parts of this onion domed complex date back to the ninth century and it was home to the kings of Bohemia, some Holy Roman Emperors and the presidents of Czechoslovakia. Today, it's the official seat of the President of Czechia. The area round the castle is known as Hradčany.
Needless to say, there is much to admire and several different types of ticket available, depending on the number of attractions: palaces, halls, museums, churches, chapels, towers and gardens you want to visit. My free ticket, is of course the basic one. but that's still a lot of ground to cover. There's even Golden Lane. a street of reconstructed shops and houses, which is free of course. The shelves are crammed with tourist souvenirs for sale.
Prague’s textbook architecture, has been renovated and supplemented. It’s an incredible and eclectic mix:
St George’s Basilica, one of the earliest buildings, inside the castle complex is ornate on the outside, simple inside. The best, but by no means the only example of Romanesque architecture. The round arches, thick walls, groin vaults and rotunda are to be found in several churches. Saint Martin at Vysehrad, has the oldest rotunda in Prague.
Well where do I begin with Gothic architecture? The myriad turrets, and spires on the churches and St Vitus Cathedral are sublime. The cathedral is just down the hill from the castle. It is the biggest church in Prague, home to the tombs of the Bohemian kings and their crown jewels. There's also a statue of Saint Wenceslas (amongst many other sculptures and paintings).
The AltNeuschul (Old-New Synagogue) with its stepped gable, is Europe's oldest active synagogue. Completed in 1270 , it was one of Prague's first gothic buildings. The Charles Bridge with its statues and tower gates is justly famous. And the church of Our Lady Before Tyn in the Old Market Square, with its twin towers, is simply stunning, to my mind the most impressive of them all. There are captivating churches and towers dotted all over the city. Straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales. My free tickets cover scrambles up the bridge towers, for the views.
Renaissance flourishes, (arches , columns and statues) are found on buildings and part buildings, linking the Gothic to the Baroque, especially in the Castle area, and in Lesser town, where there are many Renaissance burghers' houses, mixed in with the baroque palaces, narrow lanes and spacious squares. A gorgeous example in the Old Town is the House at the Minute, part of the Old Town Hall Complex. The facade isdecorated with sgraffito and depicts scenes from biblical and mythological sources, as well as contemporary Renaissance legends. Franz Kafka lived here with his parents lived from 1889 to 1896. And there's even some Neo Renaissance in the form of the Navrodni Palace, built to house the National Museum.
Most of the Old Town is built in baroque style, with scrolls, flowers, frescoes and every embellishment you could imagine. There are several synagogues too, mostly in the Jewish Quarter, and heavily renovated; these straddle Gothic to modern times. There are also, very moving holocaust memorials and other mementos of those times.
There are sprinklings of Art Nouveau in the Old Town, as it wanders into the new Town, with the amazing Municipal Hall the most celebrated example. Cubist, Functionalist and Communist Era architecture are all also to be found.
And then the New town. and to cap it all off Frank Gehry’s Dancing House, referencing Fred (the rokc tower) and Ginger (the glass one). Astonishing. It was designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić in cooperation with Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry on a riverfront plot that had been left vacant after World War II bombing. It was completed in 1996, with the encouragement of the then Czech president, Václav Havel, who had lived next door to the site for decades, in his family home. He had hoped that the building would become a centre for cultural activity. The nickname is now discouraged, as 'American Hollywood kitsch'. That doesn't prevent the stream of tourists stopping on the riverbank to take a picture
After all that walking and navigating I need a rest. Another 14 kilometres and all the signs in Czech. There are little pictures of the sights underneath but these black line drawings all look the same to me. A synagogue looks just like a castle. I retire to a courtyard inn to sample the local food. It’s good to see that this is promoted in all the restaurants rather than international fare. Most of the food items have a y on the end: salaty, steaky; so that's where our penchant for naming sportsmen (Giggsy) came from. The food is very tasty. Caraway features heavily in the cabbage. There are bread and potato dumplings, some smoked goodies. And a lot of pork of course.
The local ice cream comes in coiled pastry ‘chimneys’ rather than cones. They bake the chimneys on rotating spits - there are stalls on most streets with an assortment of fillings - and whipped cream. To drink there are various flavoured lemonades, all home made. The raspberry one is delicious. And plenty of beer naturally. They drink more beer here per capita than any country in the world. The only drawback is that the diet is heavy on the stomach. After I’ve eaten all I want to do is sleep.
Czechia has it's own currency, the koruna. Though they take euros everywhere. If you don’t mind accepting the extortionate exchange rates, as each establishment sets their own rate. It's a euro to use the toilet.
The MeetMe23 upmarket hostel is very funky and very good value. It’s just across the road from the station, in a converted neo-renaissance mansion that’s stepped in history. Its been brought bang up to date with plastic blue man sculptures (you can even print out a miniature 3D one for a keepsake), a Skoda on the wall and individually designed rooms. Mine has about 20 light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and a great view over the city. The cellar restaurant serves up decent Czech food and gin and tonic too.
The landscape of the country is dominated by hills and medium-high mountains: the Ore Mountains in the northwest, the Giant Mountains and the Eagle Mountains in the North, to Beskids in the East, the Carpathians in the Southeast, the Umava Mountains in the South and Southwest and the Bohemian Forest in the West.
Prague, the capital, is a great city for a weekend break - or longer.
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