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Prague: So much left to see

Herald: September 1999

Mark Woods

How many times have you had to listen to friends smugly gloating over how they ventured to Prague in the "old days" before capitalism took hold and tourists by the airport load descended upon the jewel of Bohemia ? How the city's charm has been surely diluted by the foreign visitors and the endless stream of crystal and pottery emporia which have sprung up throughout. 

Well ignore their idle rantings. The citizens may themselves joke that every building has become either a restaurant or a bank but McDonalds or Barclays surely never looked this fine. The Czech capital remains one the finest destinations in this continent, with every corner and crossing promising a new delight. While traversing the odd square or monument might involve clambering past the latest coach party, it is extremely easy to find a quiet spot to take a moment to stand and appreciate the unblemished architecture which fortuitously escaped the architectural carve ups which blight so many other former Communist urbanities of the region.

Rarely will you find a city in which, as my companion proclaimed, almost every building matches the likes of Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel or the best of Glasgow's Georgian rows.  The multi-coloured terraces which enliven the newer part of the city around Wencelas Square gently give way to the Gothic creations of the old town of Stare Mesto. And then across the river Vltava, the medieval Castle district takes its bow. Even if the prices have gone up from years past, the exhilaration surely has not been diminished in strolling around such a fine city, the effects of UN-funded restoration much in evidence. 

Almost the most surprising thing about Prague is that Wenceslas Square itself is probably the most underwhelming of the capital's many fine open spaces. Flowing down from the opulent National Museum at its peak towards the heart of the city, the mis-named boulevard acts as a gateway to the Stare Mesto, a precinct which manages to balance the rows of souvenirs haunts with a maze of hidden and quirky closes which call Scotland's capital to mind.  Hidden away are the welcoming taverns where the locals descend to consume the national beverage with price and product a class above the more expensive offerings just streets away.

At its heart is the vast expanse of the Old Town Square, a rallying point for all who visit, with marvels on each side. The huge baroque St. Nicholas Church in one corner salutes the towering twin steeples of the Tyn Church opposite, the latter currently in mid-restoration. Prague's favourite son Franz Kafka resided here and it now overlooks the central monument to religious reformer Jan Hus. And tucked in another corner is the old town hall whose astronomical clock provides many a camera with a momento shot and many a pick pocket with a day's earnings.

Wander down any of the streets which lead down to the river and you risk eternal confinement as they twist and turn in every direction. A compass and good map essential almost.  For six centuries, the Karluv Most bridge at their end has provided an artery between the main chunk of Prague and the western bank of the river where the Castle resides. It can boast 30 sculptures which adorn its walls, overseeing the rows of artists and performers who have set up permanent camp within its boundaries. Squeeze past them and the hilly Hradcany beckons, a citadel rich in small winding streets with a sense of real history at hand. 

It is little surprise that Prague attracts so many historians, its central position between east and west having left behind a rich collection of treasures. Some of the most lovely churches and interesting museums in the city are here, the best of them all contained within the walls of the Castle itself. Entering through its larger Matthias Gate, one is transported into a well preserved working depository of Bohemian history.  Each of its three churches are in turn unique but the huge Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral reigns supreme. It even contains the Czech Crown Jewels though strangely these are kept from public display, the replicas which are on show in the adjacent Lobkovivky Palace a disappointing substitute.  A further two museums reside with the walls helping to paint a picture of the times when Kings and Emperors enforced their rule from this venue. 

In every city, there is always a hidden gem to visit, stolen away from the mass attractions and visible only to the lost or curious. For me, that place is most certainly the Vyshrad district towards the southern edges of the capital. The sights of monolithic skyscrapers creep closer but at their feet is a wonderful parkland which has been left largely untouched from centuries past. Standing almost nonchalantly in the centre of this leafy grove is the impressive twin towers of the Peter and Paul Church but even they are overshadowed by the unlikely wonders in the Slavin Cemetery which is found next door. The might of Czech society have been interred here, the most famous being composers Smetana and Dvorak. However the real fascination is derived from the ornate tombs which decorate the entire graveyard, few of which would look remotely out of place in any gallery of renown. Exquisitely painted mosaics share space with ornate stone carvings, the array of beauty in one small courtyard an unexpected delight.

But perhaps it should not be. Because through the entire Czech capital, the stories of its grandeur fail to prepare any traveller for its sheer attractiveness.  Sod the tour buses and back packers, everyone can enjoy a Prague of their very own.

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