A Timeless Wonder

Travel & Flavors, December 2013


Detailed News


Gothic towers, red roofed homes, the river Vltava and many historical places unveil as you take a trip through the city of Prague, one of the most beautiful places in Europe


By Mita Kapur

I didn’t quite understand it then. Why would anyone stop at the Post Office as the first step to discover Prague? The Post Office with its glass-domed ceiling was abuzz with people actually posting letters and writing postcards. Our guide confirmed that sending postcards is still a living tradition. Was it symbolic then that we began our first day in Prague at the Post Office? The pace was set–the benches every few feet serve a purpose. They slow you down. You must sit down, take a moment, ruminate on the city as it stretches before you; Gothic towers, red-roofed homes, the river Vltava flowing sedately as its life-giving artery. I had stepped into Prague unprepared. The only two connections I had were Kafka and Kundera and I wanted to understand what the latter meant by “It was the most beautiful city in the world.”

Prague Castle has been pieced together since 870 AD by the rulers of Bohemia, Roman emperors and presidents of Czech Republic, giving the visitor a veritable treat of architectural styles from Gothic to Romanesque and Bohemian Baroque. King Ferdinand I and Franz Joseph after him had made the castle their home, adding greatly to the art collections as its living repository. The castle does not imprison you into a sequenced walk through its grounds. You are free to choose which one of the galleries and various museums you wish to see.

The St Vitus’ Cathedral, dating back to 1396 AD, commands silent respect with its towering stained glass windows, flying buttresses, and up the famous bell tower via almost 300 spiraling steep steps (it’s a free workout!) is rewarded with spectacular views of Prague’s old and new quarters, the Petrin Hill with its smaller version of the Eiffel Tower. The Bell Tower houses the largest bell in Prague. Legend goes that King Ferdinand’s daughter designed the pulley that was able to place it in the tower. Our guide said that Prague’s people believe that if the bell breaks, something disastrous will happen to the city. The last time it happened in 2002 when the city faced catastrophic floods. We walked past the castle grounds towards Strahov Monastery. It was one of those moments which probably turned our stay in Prague into a sensuous psychedelic haze.

Having spent almost all day traversing in and out of the galleries and museums in the castle, the mulled wine was like a shot in the arm. Pumped, we trudged down to the Strahov Monastery and its library with frescoes on its ceilings and some 200,000 books. The monastery, used by the Norbertians (a Roman Catholic order), was built in classic Roman style in 1140 AD and rebuilt in Gothic style after it was destroyed in a  fire. The monastery has its carved interiors and gilded in gold–very Baroque and telling of the many remakes it’s gone through at each turn history took. The rhythmic chanting of the Catholic priests had us rooted for long, quiet minutes.

The city lights had come on. We stood by the river watching the ripples on its surface. We saw a Czech singer under a canopy and some vendors selling pork on the spit, mulled wine, sausages etc. Music doesn’t have to be understood as long as you feel it. Moving up the steps to the Charles Bridge laid open a human maze created by tourists and locals. We walked towards the old town square. The old Tyn Church, St Nicholas Church, and the Museum of Cubism are scattered in and around. The astronomical clock was a hero for me. It’s a sight to see the tourists with their heads tilted towards the clock, waiting for the 12 apostles to shuffle past the small windows that pop open. The clock built in 1410 AD reveals it as a hi-tech device from the 15th Century, showing not only the time but also the positions of the sun and moon, time for sunrise and sunset. A skeleton waves an hourglass, reminding us of all that is temporal.

It’s not a bad idea to start a new sunny day with a glass of Slovakian Ryzlink at Rynskyat Aureleo, a terrace pub in the office district. All Czech wines are on the drier side – in keeping with the wry sense of humour which seems to be a shared human trait among the locals here. Conversations can lead to the unexpected. My plans to make a day trip to Dresden to pick up porcelain were dashed when our guide provides a one-stop solution. We saved ourselves for Vytopna, where rail wagons carrying your drinks ply on train tracks to reach each table. With skin stretched over the stomach, we attempted to waddle back towards the old town square via the World Press Photo Exhibition at Carolinum. The winning photo by Paul Hansen of two dead children wrapped in polythene being carried through the streets of Gaza City was not the only one that shook the core of our beings.

Sunset is Bellini time on the terrace of U Prince before we landed up in the jazz club Ustare Pani. Just a few tables, a small stage, a coy bar tucked in a corner, we encounter the Czech love for music–an amateur group of singers from Holland perform with gusto. They are doing a weekend of jazz bar-hopping with their show and all of them are working professionals on the other side of life. This is their dream and they live it – I could see how happy and carefree they were.

After experiencing the Roman splendour of thermal baths in Badin, the experience at Karlovy Vary was a refreshing renewal of memories. Charles IV founded this quaint town in 1370 AD, already famous for its 13 main hot springs, about 300 smaller ones and the Tepla River. Our guide drove us to the city. Offset by mountains changing their colours, the arterial road took us to the centre where the main spring shoots up to about 14 metres high, spouting steam as it bursts upward. The walk to this spring is through the other hot springs that have been classified as per the temperature of the water that comes up. It’s common to see tourists and locals sitting on benches along the springs, sipping the mineral-dense water collected. The springs are housed under colonnades, some built in Romanesque style replete with Corinthian columns and some with a veritable Russian influence. The coldest is the Ferrous Spring at 11.9 degrees Celsius with a high content of iron. The other springs (like the Market, Rock, Park, Freedom, Libuse, King Charles IV springs), with water at temperatures as high as 65 degrees Celsius, were just too hot to cup in your hand and drink. The town gives a feeling of being in a fantasy world caught in a time warp. Lunch was at Hotel Promenade, specialising in roast duck with apple stuffed with pomegranate and goose liver seared just medium rare by the chef at your table.

A stroll down the lanes with hi-end boutiques, which come alive during the international film festival the city hosts, to work up some corner in the stomach for dessert takes us to Restaurant Karel IV. Fried ice cream and homemade apple strudel washed down with Irish coffee arms us for the walk back to our ride back to Prague. The plan for the evening was a pub crawl starting at Jama–Czech beer and then on to Cili bar, famous for its chili shots. The conversation veered from World War II to the local liquor, which tasted like Sambuca but only 10 times stronger and which our guide insisted on ordering while we stuck to our chili shots. Off to Mumbai which had the typical discotheque ambience, strobe lights et al. After some dancing where we mimed Bollywood dance moves (which obviously proved the rising level of alcohol in our blood stream but never mind!), we shifted base to the Hangar Bar to resolutely feel the flying sensation. Last stop at Buddha Bar – alcohol and zen moments – I tell you, they go together.

Our guide made sure we saw Prague through his eyes; how he likes to walk the streets, go where locals go, see their life close and upfront. The morning was best spent walking in and out of the labyrinth of alleys and squares around the old town. A lazy afternoon spent browsing through exhibitions of Dali’s lesser known water colours and Alfons Mucha’s elaborate play of lines before the music concert at the National Museum. The last dinner was at Chestr. Bring on the best wine and the best steaks, we say! They call themselves a modern Czech Canteen that uses only Bohemian-bred beef and fish for their main dishes. In the late 16th Century, the tradition of slow roasting, stewing and charcoal grilling different cuts of beef was a common practice. It’s now been revived by Chestr, which educates the gastronome in you to understand which part of the cow you should order for a particular flavour. Chestr steak tartare, baked escargots and grilled pork belly came in as our first course. The skirt, rump cap and tenderloin with their sauces, creamy potatoes as side dishes and salad were ultimate epicurean delight. A meal like this doesn’t leave place for dessert. The sweet ending was yet to come.


Air:The national carrier, Czech Airlines has direct flights to Prague from many European cities, including London, Edinburgh, Paris and Frankfurt, and from New York and Toronto.

Rail: Most international trains arrive at the main station, Praha-hlavní nádraží. Some trains, including those serving Berlin, Budapest and Vienna stop at Praha-Holešovice.All three stations have their own metro stations.

Most domestic trains arrive at the main station, Praha-hlavní nádraží or at Masarykovo nádraží 








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