We arrive at our hotel, the Aria, which is located in the Mala Strana section of Prague on the castle side of the Vltava River. We are eager to see and compare the city to our last visit in 1990 soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe. On that visit we were able not only to see the first President, Vaclav Havel, of then Czechoslovakia–since separated into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia–leaving the Presidential Palace in the Castle, but also had the good fortune to see Pope John Paul II touring the city in his Popemobile, waving at the people enthusiastically lining the streets to see him. Later that day, the pope’s celebration of mass was broadcasted on loud-speakers located throughout the city center. It was a joyous occasion for the residents of the city and one of the highpoints of our trip.
Our hotel is located near the Charles Bridge and places us between the Castle on the hill overlooking the river and the core city center where the majority of activities take place. The Aria is a small deluxe hotel with a music theme in each room, ranging from classical to jazz. Our suite, the Kansas City, is decorated in a modern style with music-motif artwork on the walls and soft jazz playing on our Apple TV as we enter the room. The hotel has a rooftop restaurant with a pleasant view of the dome of St. Nicholas Church two streets away and the spires that dominate the skyline of the city. Prague is often called the City of Spires. Unfortunately, we were only able to use the rooftop once for pre-dinner, the weather always seeming to be on the brink of rain. Fortunately, the restaurant inside the hotel, the Coda, was superb, service splendid and food quite exceptional, particularly the roasted duck entrée we had on our last evening accompanied by a layered white chocolate, cream and raspberry dessert, the thin chocolate slices embossed with music clefs, that was as delicious as it was elegant.
Arriving in the morning and not wanting to waste any time, we walk over the vehicle-free cobblestoned Charles Bridge overflowing with tourists, especially students. The bridge is one of the focal points of the city despite having other bridges nearby that span the river. The railing on each side of the bridge is lined with statutes of historic religious figures, one in particular, St. John of Nepomuk, has a miniature image of him being thrown into the river wiped clean of its decades of grime to its golden color by the tourists rubbing it for good luck. Artists, caricaturists sitting on their chairs ready to draw your face in charcoal and more traditional types aside their work ready to make a sale are joined on the bridge by several musical groups; all giving a festive air to your jaunt across the bridge. One beggar stands out for me; he sits on the bridge with his soulful-looking dog lying still in his arms, making an especially quiet, heart-rending appeal.
Prague can sometimes project an appearance of gloom. Not unlike New York, the city has an unabashed edgy side that produces an exciting feeling that only a few cities can match. The ever-present Castle, always looming overhead on the hill, can look eerie, foreboding and evoke an existential anxiety under a grey sky, awakening feeling of Kafka’s eponymous book. Both “The Castle” and “The Trial”, perhaps the first writings expressing 20th century angst, were written here. The Golem, a man-made clay figure brought to life and often expressing uncontrollable violent behavior was first created by Rabbi Loew in the Jewish quarter in the 16th century. Cobblestoned streets and pavements throughout the city center evoke remembrances of 1940s movies with Boris Karloff as a grave robber driving his wagon over similar streets in the middle of the night accompanied by the sound of wheels clanking over cobblestones. Yet, the city shines and exudes with music, available in many churches and private venues throughout the city. Mozart first performed “Don Giovanni” here to enthralled crowds, and he always had a warm spot in his heart for Prague as large as the devotion shown to him by the city’s residents. Street musicians in Old Town Square and outside restaurants by the bridge enhance the light-hearted feeling you are likely to experience on any given day.
As we walk across the Charles Bridge into city center, which we do every day, tourist boats, full with enthusiastic visitors, motor in the Vltava like an Armata, with smaller boats around them floating like amoebas on a microscope slide. We lunch at Teracy-Certovka, a restaurant by the bridge and next to a small inlet off the river; the sun is shining and the house wine is decent enough to enjoy with my goulash and dumplings, dumplings unlike what I am used to, shaped and textured somewhat like bread.
Once across the bridge, you are confronted with one of the truly most architecturally fascinating cities in Europe, the 5th most visited city on the continent. Prague has often been called the Paris of the East, a mélange of Baroque, Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical structures and narrow cobblestoned streets and original facades because Prague was one of the few large cities that emerged from World War II without being ravaged by either side. As you arrive at Old Town Square, the large unofficial center of the city, surrounded by stores, churches and restaurants, a statute of Jan Hus, a 14th century Protestant reformer in the center, large crowds fill the space nearly to elbow room, especially at mid-day and make for a rather unpleasant experience. The famous Astronomical Clock with its renowned mechanical statutes is off to one side of the square, better to enjoy in the early morning like we did, the square nearly empty, stores and restaurants only beginning to open, the vigor of the city just emerging from its nightly sleep.
In 1990 we could walk the bridge and streets without encountering the crowds that are here today, filling all of the major venues with tour groups following little colored umbrellas of the tour leaders extending over the heads of the crowd like submarine periscopes in an ocean of people. Only morning and evening visits will give one the room to savor the sights, to linger and internalize the experience. Upscale international stores, unavailable in 1990, are here today, displaying the same marketing expertise that you will notice elsewhere. Although having the same economic problems common to other countries in Europe, Prague displays a vigor that was not here in 1990, an entrepreneurial vigor that is augmented by the obvious large tourist trade.
From our hotel the climb to the Castle is a slow, arduous excursion (only later do we learn that the number 22 tram goes to the castle from the square near our hotel) through narrow streets lined with stores. We pass the Italian Embassy with its beautiful doors, a large sculptured eagle on each side whose head is contorted in a threatening, aggressive manner. Around the last curve, breathing deeply and elated to have finally reached our destination, we enter the square to be immediately faced with———– a Starbucks.
The view from the courtyard over the city and river is inspiring, church domes and spires rising between the mismatch of homes, bridges spanning the Vltava; all under a dark, cloudy sky that covers the city is hues of grey. The Castle is the generic name for a number of venues within the extensive wall surrounding the area, of which St. Vitus Cathedral and the Presidential Palace are the two most important. The Castle is a courtyard within a courtyard within a courtyard. Today, the Armed Services are putting on a display of armament in the first courtyard, inviting people to have their pictures taken aboard their vehicles.
Entering the second courtyard to visit St. Vitus Cathedral, we can see the colored “periscopes” maneuvering around the area. Entering St. Vitus, I am instantly taken by its beauty, an extremely high vaulted ceiling, perhaps as high as the nave is long, oversees the very narrow nave, two side aisles and three apses on each side of the entrance halfway along the aisles. Most striking and wonderfully beautiful are the large stained glass windows over each aisle and crowning the main altar. On the exterior, four tall spires are dominated by the fifth, taller entrance spire. Constructed with interruptions over 600 hundred years, a combination of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, it is, perhaps, the most beautiful cathedral I have seen. This is the church where the former kings of the country were crowned, a fitting venue for a king.
Later in the evening, we attend a Mozart opera dinner that we had previously booked. It is held in the Boccaccio ballroom of the Grand Hotel Bohemia. It is a three course dinner with various Mozart opera pieces sung between courses by a soprano and baritone to the music of an accompanying ensemble, all in period costumes. The ballroom is a small room, refurbished to its 1927 elegance of artificial marble, a gold and crystal glass in 1993 after its long neglect under the communist regimes. With a bottle of nice wine and good food, we have an enjoyable evening of fine music surrounded by the golden glitter of the ballroom, mirrors and paintings attached to the walls, bas-reliefs of little cupids, arrows and musical instruments in the ceiling.
On our last evening after dinner at the Coda, we walk to the bridge so that Diane can take pictures of the bridge and Castle bathed in floodlights. The low-lying rectangular figure of the Castle with the taller St. Vitus looming over it like a doyen receiving her bowing subject puts a fitting conclusion to our Prague visit as the darkening sky eases into nightfall.