View of Prague's Old Town
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Moody, romantic, historic, mysterious -- it's impossible to put a single label on Prague because it's a city that truly is the sum of its parts.
Prague serves as a transfer destination for Danube River cruises. Passengers frequently overnight for one day or more in Prague before journeying by bus to meet their ships.
Modern-day Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is shaped by a storied past that dates to the ninth century. Historical figures include the larger-than-life Bohemian Emperor Charles IV and, later, Empress Maria Theresa. In more recent times, the former Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans between 1939 and 1945. While it suffered the hardships of World War II, Prague -- unlike other European capitals -- wasn't bombed. As a result, the city today is a wonderful, open-air gallery of largely undisturbed architectural styles that span the centuries: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and Cubist. It's not an overstatement to say there is no other place quite like it.
Czechoslovakia, liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, operated as a Soviet-style state for decades. Not until the 1970's did dissident groups begin to organize against the Communist regime. But, democracy was slow to take hold. It wasn't until after the famed Prague spring uprising in 1968 and the student-led Velvet Revolution in 1989 that playwright and former political prisoner Vaclav Havel was elected president. Full, multiparty elections under a new constitution were held in 1992. One year later, after the Czech Republic and Slovakia split into two nations, Havel was re-elected president of the Czech Republic.
Today's Praha, as this city of 1.3 million is called, is becoming more of a tourist destination and an increasingly westernized commodity. It's not unusual to see Austrians, Germans, Russians and Americans following tour guides, with their ubiquitous raised umbrellas, through Prague Castle and the warren of cobblestone streets that make up Old Town. But, that's just part of the city's present-day persona. Experience Prague for just a few days, and you also get the feeling that this is a place that is still defining itself. If history is any indicator, it is just that.
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There's no scarcity of terrific souvenir shopping venues in Prague. Take your pick: You can buy local wares from street vendors, who line St. Charles Bridge, or at outdoor markets like Havelske Trziste, the main open-air market in the city center. There are also trinket shops around Old Town Square, which has year-round booths that sell arts and crafts. Among Prague's prized products are Bohemian hand-cut crystal, handmade wool hats, Czech garnets, wooden marionettes, figurines of World War I soldiers, wooden Christmas ornaments and images of the Bambini of Praha, the infant Jesus.
Czech -- a Slavic language, heavy on consonants -- is spoken there. English is spoken in finer hotels and restaurants but it is not widely understood in shops and neighborhood eateries. English is taught in schools, so young people are somewhat more comfortable with the language than older generations, who learned Russian as youths.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Even though the Czech Republic became a member of the European Union in 2004, it still uses the Czech crown. However, an increasing number of establishments have begun to accept the Euro, which is slated to become the country's official currency in 2014. Visit Oanda's Web site for up-to-the-minute exchange rates. (Oanda also has a nice "cheat sheet" conversion chart that fits neatly into a wallet.)
ATM's, or bankomats, tend to be the least expensive way to obtain local currency. Banks are open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. As in any city, there are currency exchange offices that charge commissions. Blue Exchange is reported to be the most reputable of the bunch.
Where You're Docked
Prague serves as a transfer destination for Danube River cruises. Passengers frequently overnight for one day or more in Prague before journeying by bus to meet their ships.
Prague serves as a transfer station for passengers, but ships do not dock there.
It is rightly said that, if you really want to see Prague, the only way to do it justice is to walk it. Fortunately, Prague is a compact city, and its city center is laid out in four areas that span the Vltava River. On one side of the river is Old Town (Stare Mesto) with Old Town Square, New Town (Nove Mesto) with Wenceslas Square and the famed Jewish quarter (Josefov). On the other side of the Vltava is the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana), which leads up to Prague Castle. Walk from Prague Castle on one side of the city to Wenceslas Square on the other (passing over Charles Bridge and through Old Town Square), and it will take you just 30 minutes.
Prague has an excellent Soviet-built metro system. Typically, you can purchase tickets at hotel concierge desks. If not, they are sold from the yellow machines at metro and tram stops or at tobacconists, cafes or news stands. Look for the tabac and trafica signs. Tickets are not sold onboard. A one-way ticket, about 26 crowns and good system-wide, allows you to travel for 75 minutes and can be used on buses and in streetcars, as well. Don't forget to validate your ticket by inserting it into one of the yellow boxes before you enter the subway station. Subway stops of note: Mustek, the city center; Staromestska, Old Town; Hradcanska, Prague Castle. Streetcars, numbers 22 and 23, stop at Prague Castle. For extensive information -- in English -- about the municipal transit system, visit The Prague Public Transport Company's Web site.
As for taxis, it's best to take a cab from your hotel or taxi ranks. If you do a hail a cab from the street, negotiate the price before setting off. Drivers speak limited English. The customary tip is 10 percent.
Watch Out For
Prague is notorious for pickpockets, who loiter around shopping areas and where there are tourists. Don't dress in a manner that draws attention, and leave your passport and any other valuables in your hotel room's safe.
The Czech Republic requires that all travelers provide documentation of a minimum of $50,000 in medical coverage in the form of health insurance or travel protection in the event of hospitalization charges accrued while in the country. Cruise companies routinely provide this coverage on a complimentary basis and provide documentation to that effect. Just make sure your documents are in order before you travel. (Note: A medical insurance card from a private insurer is also sufficient proof. Medicare cards, however, are not acceptable since Medicare does not cover medical expenses abroad.)
If Prague has a visual signature, it is Prague Castle, the hilltop fortress that has dominated the city since the ninth century. There is no place better to view the so-called City of 100 Spires (though there are hundreds more than that across the city skyline). Said to be the largest ancient castle in the world, the complex has been reconstructed four times over the centuries and still serves as the seat of the presidency. When the president is in the country, his flag is flown. The grounds have four courtyards, a royal palace and several museums. An on-site cathedral, started in 1344, remarkably was not completed until 1929. There is a changing of the guard at the castle at the top of each hour, as well as a ceremony at noon, all with much ado.
As any local will tell you, no visit to Prague would be complete without a stroll across Charles Bridge. The bridge, with its commanding 31 statues, straddles the Vltava River and has been Prague's lifeline for centuries. Armies, monarchs and now tourists have all trooped across the bridge, completed in the early 1400's. The Charles, named for famed Bohemian emperor Charles IV, has two towers worth climbing, even if only for the photo opportunities. There's also a museum, open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., May through September. (During other times of the year, it's open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Old Town, anchored by Old Town Square, is a colorful collection of restaurants, shops and a stunning hodgepodge of architecture that includes Gothic towers, a premier Art Nouveau exhibition hall and Cubist houses. Vendors, sausage stands and, seasonally, a Christmas market enliven the square, which is also home to Prague's famous Astronomical Clock. The clock, installed in 1410, chimes daily on the hour between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Every hour, two cuckoo clock windows open, and statues of the 12 Apostles parade past, while the Grim Reaper rings his bell. One noteworthy street that runs off the square: Celetna, one of Prague's oldest and now a great place to find Czech handicrafts and souvenirs.
Prague's Jewish quarter, dating back to the 13th century, represents the most well-preserved complex of Jewish historical monuments in all of Europe. It's a strange little place because the former Jewish ghetto -- which includes six synagogues, a town hall and the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe -- now houses chic boutiques and galleries in what were once overpopulated medieval alleys. Most of the original Jewish quarter was demolished after 1893 to make way for a redevelopment project, but the buildings that did survive are testimony to Prague's Jewish culture.
Been There, Done That
The highest building in the Czech Republic, TV Tower Praha, is a modern edifice, built in 1986 under the auspices of the Soviet Union. Disparaged by many locals, the skinny silver tower is jokingly referred to as "The Russian Finger," said to offer the nicest view of the city because the tower itself isn't in it. A panoramic observation deck is open daily, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Metro stop: Jiriho Podebrad. Visit TV Tower Praha's Web site for more information.
A number of Vltava river cruises, some with dinner and music, originate at the Charles Bridge, among other places. One of the most popular, called Jazzboat, boards at 8 p.m. and features live jazz and dinner. The ship departs from Terminal 5, across from the Intercontinental Hotel. For more details, have a look at the Jazzboat's Web site.
Even if you don't use the metro system, check out a subway station just to ride the escalator. They're extremely high and steep and have become featured fodder on YouTube. Go to www.youtube.com, enter Prague escalator in the search bar, and you'll see what we mean.
Prague is a town that thrives on classical music, and concerts are easy to come by. The Prague Castle Consort (flute, viola and piano) performs a daily, midday program of selections from Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven and Dvorak, among others. There is a 60-minute concert offered at 1 p.m. at Lobkowicz Palace in the castle complex. For information, visit the Lobkowicz Palace Web site.
Care for some potatoes with your potatoes? Czech food is heavy, and lunch is typically the main meal of the day. It generally starts with a hearty soup (often potato) followed by an entree of meat (often pork) and potatoes or bread dumplings. Popular desserts include apple strudel and small cakes with poppy seeds. As for beverages, plum brandy and locally-brewed beer are huge favorites.
A basic lunch can be had for about 50 to 70 crowns, not including drinks. Most restaurants accept credit cards, but don't include the tip on it, or it will likely go to the owner. It's best to tip in cash, 10 percent to 15 percent of the check. It's perfectly fine (and appreciated) to tip in U.S. dollars or euros.
For an elegant dining experience, the riverside Bellevue Restaurant is well known for its superb cuisine and views of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. Sundays, there's live jazz and a Champagne brunch. The restaurant, open noon to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., is located in Old Town at Smetanovo Nab.18. Among many other selections, Bellevue features a "Best of Bohemia" multi-course meal, served with optional wines. For a look at the menu, visit Bellevue Restaurant's Web site.
Old Town Square and its environs are filled with festive, outdoor cafes and restaurants. Many have menus with photographs that make it easy to order. For lovers of Art Nouveau, lunch in the Kavarna Obecni dum -- the restaurant in the Municipal House, the city's most prominent Nouveau building -- is worth a stop. Lunch is served in an elegant, beautifully appointed room with lofty ceilings, huge windows and period crystal chandeliers. It's open daily, at Namesti Republiky 5, from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. for cafe fare. For more information visit Kavarna Obecni dum's Web site.
Czechs love beer -- in fact, there are tours built around pub crawls. Prague has a number of notable brew pubs, including two in New Town: U Fleku, a European-style beer hall and micro-brewery at Kremencova 11, and Novomestsky Pivovar, a pub-style restaurant and micro-brewery at Vodickova 20. U Fleku, open daily from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., has a house specialty that includes one-quarter of a duck, half a sausage and fillet of pork shoulder. Novomestsky Pivovar is known for its goulash, pork knuckle and roast goose. It opens at 10 a.m. on weekdays, 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays and at noon on Sundays. To learn more, visit the U Fleku and Novomestsky Pivovar Web sites.
Or, stop by for a drink at the old-time Golden Tiger pub on Husova Street, the Old Town venue long popular with the city's intelligentsia. It's open from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Prague has a number of fine hotels, including familiar names like the Intercontinental, the Four Seasons and Accor's Hotel Century Old Town.
A favorite of cruise lines offering Danube trips is Hotel don Giovanni, part of the Dorint chain. The hotel has large rooms, a small fitness center and a couple of restaurants. Off the handsome lobby are two computer stations, offering free and fast Internet connections. The hotel is located outside of the city center, but that's not a handicap because it lies adjacent to the subway station, Zelivskeho, a 10-minute ride from Old Town. On Friday and Saturday evenings, complimentary concerts, featuring Mozart's works, are held in the lobby. There's a mini-market across the street that sells wine, beer, sodas and sundries. It accepts U.S. dollars. A point of interest: the New Jewish Cemetery is located within sight of the hotel and houses the grave of the well-known Czech writer, Franz Kafka.
For a hotel that mixes history with modern-day amenities, Hotel Century Old Town is a nice choice. It's located in a neo-Baroque, 19th century building, just minutes away on foot from Old Town and Wenceslas squares. The hotel's 174 air-conditioned rooms have Wi-Fi internet access, mini-bars, safe deposit boxes and radios. There's also a Brasserie-style restaurant that opens up into a terrace during the summer season.
Staying in Touch
Many hotels have business centers with Internet access and, if you have your own laptop, there are plenty of cafes that are wireless. You can also find pay-by-the-minute connections in places where tourists congregate. For example, Callpoint in Old Town, open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., charges one crown per minute.
Best for Exploring Prague: You can't go wrong with a highlights tour that includes stops at Prague Castle, Old Town and the Charles Bridge. Longer tours also feature a visit to the Jewish Quarter. The great thing about this tour is that it gives you a snapshot of a city that is compact enough to allow you to easily revisit places later, when you care to linger.
Best for Experiencing Old World Czech: You won't find city squares, palaces or traffic jams in Nosalov, one of the most well-preserved historical villages in Bohemia. An hour's drive from Prague, this small village, population 120, has the largest collection of original black-and-white timber houses in the Czech Republic. The 18th century houses are made of pine, straw and clay and are covered with stucco. The tour includes a typical Czech dinner, unlimited drinks and a demonstration of six different polkas.
Best for Castle Lovers: A trip to Sychrov Castle, one of the most famous buildings in the country, provides a fine introduction to the Danube region, replete with castles. Not only does it house the largest collection of French portrait paintings in Central Europe, but it is also famous for its neo-Gothic interiors. The castle dates back to the 16th century, but it was reconstructed in later periods. After World War II, the property was confiscated by the state, and it has been open to the public on a limited basis since 1950. In recent years, the castle has been reconstructed again -- this time to make it look as close to its original form as possible. Excursions include a private concert in the castle chapel and a guided tour of the Sychrov Castle apartments.
For More Information
On the Web, visit Prague's information office at www.pragueexperience.com.
Walking tours are ubiquitous in Prague (Communist Prague, Jewish Prague, mysterious Prague, etc). For a look at some offerings, check out www.praguewalks.com and www.praguetravel.cz.
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-- by Ellen Uzelac, a finance and travel writer from Maryland's Eastern Shore.