Charles Bridge Norman Anderson

With about a thousand years of architecture virtually untouched by natural disaster or war, few other cities anywhere in Europe compare with Prague. Straddling the slow moving Vltava River ( no, I can’t pronounce it either), with a steep wooded hill to one side, the city retains much of its medieval layout and the street facades remain smothered in a rich mantle of Baroque, Racoco and Art Nouveau, all of which escaped the vanities and excesses of twentieth century redevelopment.
Sunday 16th September
Our Ryanair flight to Prague was uneventful (thankfully) and we were met at a warm and sunny Airport by our excellent guide, Petr who was to accompany us for the next few days. After our check-in at the conveniently situated Ibis hotel, we had a short orientation guided walk around the area before heading into the Municipal House for our pre-booked evening meal. Restored in the 1990s after decades of neglect, it is one of Prague’s most exuberant and sensual buildings in the Art Nouveau design.
Monday 17th September
(A gloriously warm morning). Kitted out with the latest electronic devices (receiver and earpiece) we had a guided tour of the Prague Castle Complex sitting on the hill west of the river. Founded in the 9th century, it comprises a palace, 3 churches and a monastery, and is the official seat of the President of the Republic. It’s larger than the size of 7 football pitches and has 3 courtyards. The enormous St Vitus Cathedral dominates the interior of the castle complex. It also houses the St Georges Basilica with its iconic twin towers, nicknamed Adam and Eve. Tucked around the edge of the complex walls is the famous Golden Lane of artisan houses, with almost every alternate dwelling it seemed, boasting a plaque claiming to have housed Franz Kafka at some stage of his life.
Petr, our helpful and efficient guide managed to book us an exclusive evening River Cruise with a meal including drinks. We were treated to a welcome aperitif, a famous/infamous Czech concoction, maybe called something like bechorovka. (I’m open to challenge on this). These were lined up on our arrival; small shots of clear liquid with no obvious aroma. After checking carefully that there was not the faintest whiff of paint stripper, we downed them trustingly without suffering any long term after effects. The meal included a side of hot cooked ham, dumplings, goulash, pickled fish, fried cheese and many other Czech specialities plus any 3 drinks of our choosing. We all enjoyed a very pleasant evening, and I’m glad to report that the tone wasn’t lowered by any raucous singing. Petr’s english was extremely good and he could tell us everything about anything, in a good and interesting way. He was very proud of the Czech beer (the best in the world) and he advised us to steer clear of the wine as it was rubbish.
Tuesday 18th September
(Clear sky, warm sun). Today we had a comprehensive guided walking tour with Petr taking in the Old Town Square (unfortunately the famous Astronomical Clock was under wraps but luckily someone had a digital watch). Wenceslas Square was given a cursory dismissive gesture by Petr who thought it was without merit, so we passed by the end of it without further ado. Indeed, it has very little in terms of notable architecture and has still to shake off its seedy reputation it acquired in the 1990s. The Jewish Quarter was interesting with its oxymoronic Old New Synagogue (built in the 13th Century). There was also the Old Jewish Cemetery where there are an incredible 100,000 people buried there far outnumbering the 12,000 headstones, as many as 12 layers deep. We also got to the Charles Bridge (as iconic as the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence) which some of us explored at a later date in our own time. In the afternoon we had a guided tour of the National Gallery housed in the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia. This contained a comprehensive collection of medieval art.
Wednesday 19th September
(Weather getting warmer each day). This morning we took a coach to Benesov to visit the Konopiste Castle, the palatial palace residence of the ill-fated Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914. He apparently spent much of his time at Konopiste to escape the Habsburg Court’s snobbish disapproval of his wife. However the Duke’s fanatical preoccupation was hunting and killing all kinds of animals and birds. One gallery floor is lined with hundreds upon hundreds of stuffed heads and bodies with plaques indicating places and dates. It is claimed that he shot and killed over 300,000 creatures. Just before he was assassinated, rumour has it that he experienced a Damascene moment en route to his taxidermist, and was about to establish and set up the Czech equivalent of the RSPCA, but the Sarajevo incident intervened. (No, forget that. I just made it up but it would be a good story wouldn’t it?).
Thanks to our congenial and pastoral guide, Petr, at our request, arranged for most of us to go to a Classical Concert that evening in the precinct of St Michael’s Monastery in the Old Town featuring popular excerpts from Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Dvorak, Ravel, Verdi, Bizet and others. It was described as a ‘Concert by Candlelight’. Actually, only 2 candles featured, and not 4 otherwise the serene cultural composure might have been in jeopardy (fork handles?). An enjoyable meal was had back at the Municipal House, sitting outside on the terrace. By now, some of us had been gingerly trying out the local wine as an accompaniment to our evening meal, and (with apologies to Petr) found it to be approachable and inoffensive.
Thursday 20th September
(Another warm day). After a leisurely breakfast, we headed up to the Sternberg Palace, home to the National Gallery’s collection of 14th-18th Century European Art including work by Goya, Rembrandt and Durer amongst others. After lunch we took the coach back to the Airport for our return flight back. And the Ryanair crisis this time? There wasn’t one!
A most enjoyable trip, and as ever our sincere thanks to Wynne for a well constructed and informative time in Prague. Oh, and did I mention the weather?
Norman Anderson