I feel a special affinity for Prague. For the final part of my English degree, I had to compare two texts, one ‘everyday’ and the other ‘literary’. I chose a Prague travel guide and a Milan Kundera novel, Ignorance, for my two extracts. By the time I’d finished, I felt that I knew the city even better than when I’d first visited. Thankfully, my examiner was also convinced that I had some idea of what I was talking about.
It’s not only those with an interest in literature who will want to see the house of Franz Kafka and the other houses in Golden Lane. This, aptly, is near the castle and Kafka apparently was influenced by the location when he conceived his wonderful and disturbing novel, The Castle. These days, Golden Lane looks more like the inspiration for a book of tourist postcards, but is no less charming for all that.
The castle is Prague’s most-visited attraction and for good reason. The magnificently Gothic St Vitus Cathedral, more redolent of Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole than Kafka, is the centrepiece, with its chapel dedicated to the legendary king and saint Wenceslas. Prague Castle’s art gallery is well worth a visit and, thankfully, is a great deal easier to gain access to than Kafka’s fictional one.
Another gloriously Gothic building is the Old Town bridge tower at the end of another famous Prague sight, Charles Bridge. There is a break from the Gothic as you cross the bridge, with 30 Baroque statues of various saints. Like the castle, the bridge is a tourist magnet, but you cannot visit Prague and not be impressed.
To get away from the tourist rush, a hike up the hill to Letná Park can offer both a bit of peace and a splendid view over the river. It will also bring you face to face with the giant metronome that overlooks the city. It’s not entirely clear what value the metronome adds to proceedings, but it’s no more pointless than the statue of Stalin that it replaced and at least it’s functional. On warmer days, you can have a few jars of Gambrinus and enjoy the views.
You can never have enough Gothic, certainly in Prague, and the Powder Gate or Tower is another gem of the genre. Even better is the building attached to it, the Municipal House, which functions as a concert venue and is a truly spectacular piece of Art Nouveau. It was built in the early 20th century and it’s worth wandering into the café just to enjoy the décor and surroundings. Fans of Art Nouveau should also have a look at the main railway station, particularly the old booking hall and its ornate domed roof. There are also a few commercial buildings in this style and you can find yourself in the unusual position of staring at the offices of an insurance company.
One of the Baroque buildings is the Antonín Dvořák Museum in the New Town. The composer didn’t actually live there, but the building houses a whole range of Dvořák memorabilia, including photos, manuscripts and instruments. It is also a venue for regularly-held classical concerts.
The Vltava River has several islands, one of which is Slovanský Island, otherwise know as Žofín. It’s the only one of the islands with a park and a nice place to sit around and watch activity on the river. The trees harbour a goodly population of birds and Treecreepers and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were scampering about on the trunks. The island is a genuine mini wilderness in the centre of one of Europe’s great capital cities.
The Czech Republic has a long history of brewing. There is a mistaken belief among many, particularly in Britain, that just about all beers in mainland Europe are pale lagers. Some re-education is clearly needed on this important subject and beer-loving visitors to Prague should try Kozel Černý and Krušovice Černé, two dark beers of different character but similar strength. Both can be drunk as session beers, as they are a thoroughly sensible 3.8% ABV. For a beer to finish on late in the evening (or if you are a complete headbanger), there’s Master Dark, a 7% ABV beer that is served in smaller glasses, a sensible precaution. It’s a bitter-sweet beer that is not too dissimilar to a vigorous porter.
A lot of Czech breweries are now owned, sadly, by big international conglomerates. There is salvation, though, as there are a few places where beer is brewed by local, independent brewers. Try, for example, Klášterní Pivovar Strahov, not far from the castle and where you can try four or five different beers.
Public transport is cheap and efficient. One thing worth noting is that getting from the centre of Prague to the airport will involve a metro journey followed by a bus ride, but the cost is a tiny fraction of a taxi fare. For the airport, take the green metro line to its most northerly station, Dejvická, and then catch a 119 bus outside.
A visit late in the year is not a bad idea, as there are fewer tourists and travel and accommodation can be cheaper. Avoiding weekends also avoids the excesses of the stag party brigade and there is always the prospect of a warming bowl of garlic soup to keep out the chill. That said, there is never a bad time to visit one of the loveliest cities in Europe.