Castles, Cathedrals and the Culture of Prague

Clock Tower, Prague

Prague. It’s complicated. The victories and tragedies in a city that was born in the 12th century are embedded in ancient cobblestones and reach for the sky with the 70-meter high Old Town Tower. The Charles Bridge that spans the Moldau was built in 1402, and how many artists, writers and composers leaned against the railings of that bridge, prayed to the statues of the saints carved into the sides, and gazed at the horizon, dreaming of their masterpieces to come: Franz Kafka, Leos Janocek, Bedrich Smetana, Gustav Mahler, Max Brod, Antonin Dvorak and many more.

In spite of, and perhaps because of wars, power-driven or ideological, that destroyed Prague time and time again, and burned it’s vineyards and castles to the ground, Prague has taken a giant leap forward into the future, while still retaining and restoring much of the beauty of its past. It is the launching point for enchanting wine tours through unique hillside villages and tunnels of the Czech Republic, and the alluring charm of historic towns of South Moravia. This fascinating city asks nothing of you, except to enjoy it’s Baroque palaces, Gothic cathedrals, the beautiful gardens scattered throughout the city, the farmers markets, artists studios, and of course–the food. And the beer.

Pilsner Urquell Beer Experi
Pilsner Urquell Beer Experience

Wenceslas Square boasts a new attraction: Pilsner Urquell The Original Beer Experience. We did not imagine the fun that we would have in this immersive attraction: playing the games; learning the proper way to pour; and a whole lot of tasting. Who knew that Pilsner Urquell had such a great sense of humour as well as brewing a great beer. An immersive audio guide transports us back to video-mapping, light shows and projections with jokes and story telling. Who knew that the foam was so important? At the end, there is the iconic Beer Hall where we are offered two more beers. Naz Drove! Before we leave, we visit the brand shop, and take home a personalized hand-engraved beer mug. This is an unforgettable hour that sets the tone for an interesting and happy visit in Prague.

We are in Old Town Square, the heart of the city. And since its founding in the 12th century, this square was the stage for every imaginable historic event. Dominating the square is the Baroque Church of Saint Nicholas, the Rococo Kinsky Palace, The Gothic House at the Stone Bell and the monument to Jan Hus. Strolling along the avenue to the Cathedral, I pause to chat with a wandering musician from Spain sitting against a wall and playing his guitar. “Ah, Canada,” he says, smiling. “I met Avril Lavigne.” Once inside, I am in awe and admiration at the architecture and the details on the walls and ceiling and I wonder, “What were these artists and artisans thinking?” Were they driven by religious zeal or artistic passion. In 1621, justice was swift, and in the pavement of the square are memorial stones marking the execution of twenty-seven Czech lords.

Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge, by DaLiu Praha

“Let’s take the subway,” suggests my guide, Michaela Vaszi, of Prague City Adventures. We’re headed to Manifesto for lunch. I’m in for more surprises. Seniors travel free. No questions asked. The subway is meticulously clean and quiet, and as we step into the car, two people immediately stand up and graciously offer me their seats. White hair commands respect here!

I was not prepared for Manifesto Market. A food and cultural experience with fifteen different restaurants, many bars, a music stage, a hydroponic farm, fashionable retail shops and a pool. Oh my, oh my. It’s an international trip without a passport where we can taste cuisines of the Mediterranean, Asia and the U.S. Hmm, nothing from Canada here—yet. Where to begin? I spy a French pop-up that sells Champagne by the glass. Veuve Cliquot please, to add sparkle to the afternoon sunlight. It goes well with our seafood and fresh vegetable tacos. Evenings, this place must be the coolest spot in town. How does this marketplace work? The company manages the entire fabulous external market while the owners focus on crafting their unique offers.

Prague Castle
Prague Castle, by Sergey-Dzyuba

Going From the modern to the ancient, an offer to tour the Prague Castle intrigues me. We could have had lunch at Kuchyn in the Prague Castle and tasted dishes prepared from 16th century Czech cookbooks. The Castle is a symbol of more than a millennial development of the Czech state. It is a monumental complex of ecclesiastical fortifications, offices and residences and is a good example of all the periods of architectural style. Tomorrow is another day to enjoy the food and the beautiful view of the whole city from the terrace.

I have been hearing for years that the Prague Jewish Quarter is one of the most impressive places in Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992. Once the largest Jewish Ghetto in Europe, It’s official name is Josefov. The Old Jewish Cemetery is known to be the most remarkable of its kind on the continent. People come from every corner of the world in the hope that they can find and pay respects to ancestors of Czech origin, and to leave a pebble on the gravestone. This place has an undeniable beauty and charm with its landscaping and narrow streets, and yet it is a living reminder of its tragic history. From here, I had hoped to visit the Great Synagogue. Alas it is closed right now, and covered in plastic sheets while undergoing extensive restoration. Next time.

Jewish Quarter
Jewish Quarter, by Simone Crespiatico

The words of philosopher George Santayana are on replay in my mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Today, I feel like a real tourist, meandering along the narrow sidewalks in the centuries old Mala Strana (Lesser Town,) an area near the Charles Bridge, filled with studios of working artists and sculptors. A painting in the window of Gallery Jiri Stastsny catches my eye and I walk in. “Tell me about the painting of a woman who has fallen asleep with her head on the table” He tells me that she is a medical doctor and it was after a very busy night shift at the hospital. “She came in to model for me” he explains, “and she was so exhausted, she fell asleep still holding her coffee cup”. Like quite a few other artists here, he came to Czechia from Russia at a certain period in time. My Canadian currency stretched quite well over the Czech koruna. $1 CDN equals 16 CZK. And today, this painting of Masenka graces a corner of my living room.

Franz Kafka Birthplace
Franz Kafka Birthplace

Nearby is the tiny blue painted house where Franz Kafka wrote The Country Doctor; Letter to My Father; and The Metamorphosis, and they are offered in many translations along with other publications and souvenirs. I confess, I bought a t-shirt. They call these tiny structures Parasite Houses because they had been dug out and carved right into the wall, and then a facade was put on.

Lunch today will be an adventure that shows how the local city folks live. Taste of Prague Food Tours is run by a dynamic woman whose aim, she explains, “Is to show us our differences, what we have in common, and to get a better understanding of who the Czechs are through food and drinks.” Okay, let’s go. We’re a group of six from the U.S., France, England, and me, from Canada. Restaurant-hopping is great fun. In one, I was so enamoured by the bread, I bought a ten-inch round loaf to put in my suitcase and take home! In another, we had a taste of exotic cocktails and lovely appetizers. A five to ten minute walk between each destination gives us the opportunity to window-shop and admire the work of local artisans, candy stores, bakeries and wood carvers.

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Kantyna Butcher Shop and Restaurant
Kantyna Butcher Shop and Restaurant

Our last stop is Kantyna, a butcher-shop and stand-up restaurant. You gotta love it. Enter and receive a bill, pause at the butcher counter where all manner of gorgeous steaks, chops and cuts of meat from the local Chester cattle are displayed. I choose two slices of filet of beef, (my bill is stamped with the cost,) the steak is grilled-to-order, while I chose my sides and vegetables at another counter. In the dining room, everyone stands around large tables that are laden with condiments and cutlery, eats their absolutely delicious food and drink, and then departs. One is not expected to linger. Would this eat-and-run concept fly in Toronto? It’s a favourite in Prague.

I am looking forward to the complimentary afternoon tea offered in the lobby of the new Andaz Prague Hotel in the Century-Old Sugar Palace, and an opportunity to relax and enjoy the art-filled surroundings. Soon it will be time for dinner.

Schnitzel a la Veal Filet Mignon
Schnitzel a la Veal Filet Mignon

The sun is setting over the Charles Bridge and the Moldau as we enter Restaurant Mlynec for an early dinner. It casts a golden glow over the rooms where the design elements, like the undulating ceiling, are reminiscent of the movement of nature. At the entrance to the bar, for example, is a wall of tightly-packed hanging ferns. Even the ladies room has a ceiling of live ferns and greenery. I like it. Maybe it’s a Czech thing. The bar is only for dining room guests, rather than drop-ins. So it stands rather sparsely populated, since there is no wait for tables. There is style here in servers’ attitudes, table settings and extravagant food presentations. When in doubt, Prosecco from Treviso, Italy, poured here into a precious Bohemian glass, goes with everything from a unique rendition of Coquille St. Jacques to an extraordinary Schnitzel a la Veal Filet Mignon. No one had the audacity to pound these two lovely fillets to make the schnitzel.

Seafood Melange

The seafood melange of shrimp, scallops, squid and a few other oceanic savouries are an impressive dish for me as well as for my friend. Sauces and vegetables are impeccable. I can’t keep my eyes off my neighbour’s plates: crispy duck confit; a gorgeous Argentinian Rib-eye; a Czech specialty saddle of deer with chestnut stuffing. My goodness our dinner is delicious, and it’s no surprise to learn that Mlynec is Michelin-recommended. Brava to Chef Vladimír Vaníček.

Back at the Andaz Hotel, I see that I still have time to run back to a fashion shop I had admired earlier. I began to walk and suddenly realize that the streets are filled with people walking. I thought something might be happening, (you never know these days,) so I asked another pedestrian what was going on. “After dinner” he says, “everyone walks and meets friends in Wenceslas Square and then walks back home.” Retaining the traditions of the past.

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