I have ten hours to get from Heathrow to Stanstead, time to go home, shower, have lunch, wash clothes, water plants and have a snooze. Ryan Air is slightly less stressed than it used to be now that there is seat allocation. We travellers still seem to have pavlovian conditioning to rush and queue. The airline likes to keep up the hysteria and has introduces a new threat – only the first ninety items of hand luggage can get into the cabin – the rest will be put in the hold. You have to admire their ruthless efficiency though. No sooner has the plane landed and passengers cleared but we are on and seated. There’s no time for cleaning of the aircraft and no time for safety instructions – they are printed on the back of the non-reclining seats. Steffano from Out to Swim is on this flight, but he’s coming to the games to play volleyball. We meet up again at an ATM in Prague Airport which doesn’t want to oblige. I go through customs and find my pre-ordered transport and a cash dispenser which works. I’ve splashed out on the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel, not wanting to repeat my budget experience in Amsterdam for Valentine’s weekend. There’s a cute young trainee on the desk who checks me in charmingly and I’m relieved that it’s all gone smoothly having left Auckland early on the 30th April and arrived in Prague late on the 1st May.
BBC weather has told me to expect rain, so it’s a surprise to find its sunny and warm on Friday. Five metres outside the Hotel, I turn back for my umbrella, just in case. Heading for the town square is always a good place to start and on my way there, stop to observe a fine Art Nouveau theatre – there is a Prague Spring Arts Festival on this weekend and already there are groups of tourists gathering around their tour guides. The Old Town Square has a tower and I can see people looking down from it. That, I decide is my first point of call – nothing like a bird’s eye view to get one’s bearings. The tower, with astrological clock is part of the Town Hall and it’s economical to get a ticket for both. At the top, all the major sights are pointed out on brass plaques in Czech and English. A plan is evolving and there’s time to visit a couple of churches on the square.
I fancy Our Lady before Tyn. It’s one of the oldest with dramatic turrets. There’s no obvious way in as restaurants have been built in front of the façade. I find a side entrance though a classical record shop and see immediately that the interior of the church appears to be mainly gothic in its design and construction with a towering nave but the addition of baroque ornamentation and guilt ruins a once fine piece of architecture. Now, I’m OK with baroque music but architecture and décor is tedious. It’s off to St Nicholas on a corner of the square. This is a true baroque building and works, if you’re into wedding cakes. It’s surprisingly small considering the high dome and has a chandelier too large for the space.
It’s time for the Town Hall Tour (in English) which is well worth it. The pragmatic authorities of mediaeval Prague purchased three houses in the centre of the old town and added a tower.
They’ve retained the individual characters of the houses so it doesn’t look much like a Town Hall. Our guide explains the functions of various rooms – an ex chapel sustained bomb damage in the war and has fine replacement stained glass windows.
A Court Room has statues of the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist and other worthies to help the judges make the right decisions. Another room is done in Art Nouveau style – very common in this city – and is still used for government receptions. I didn’t know that the Czech Republic used to be known as Bohemia with monarchs such as Queen Ludmila and King Wenceslas (of carol fame) now treated as national saints. I once played Polixenes, the King of Bohemia in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but the geography is all wrong in the play as there is no sea coast here and it’s certainly not near Sicillia.
Our tour takes us far underground in what seems like dungeons. Actually, they are the ancient streets of Praha, covered walkways and shops which have been built upon over the
centuries, raising the city higher to avoid the floods. The river Tava still floods so one can only imagine what devastation they caused down at this level. The Town Hall tower is famous for its Astrological clock and we emerge to row upon row of tourists looking at it and the Hall, many of them listening to their tour guides through earpieces.
The sun shines and it’s a warm day, bringing all the tourists into the streets. Praha is a city for walking in and it’s crowded. I vaguely wander in the direction of the Jewish quarter where there are numerous synagogues, a Jewish cemetery and museum, but the crowds are too great and I find my way to the river and walk upstream.
It’s a lovely sight looking across to the castle and cathedral on a hill surrounded by various palaces of government. The President lives on one of them and the Prime Minister (real power) in a villa set apart to one side. On top of a neighbouring hill is a replica of the top part of the Eiffel Tower. Apparently the Czechs liked the original in Paris but couldn’t afford the whole lot. Still, it looks like there will be a good view of the City.
I pass the Charles Bridge, but it is crowded with tourists so I make my way past the gilt crowned National Theatre , which is having its façade restored -onwards to see the Dancing House – otherwise known as Ginger and Fred. It’s the first new building in Paha city centre for fifty years. The Architect is Vlado Milvnic supported by Frank Gehry. The original building was owned by a Dutch company and this one was opened in 1992. Twelve years later it is still looking for tenants. The people of Praha hate it passionately but I think it’s great. With reference to neighbouring buildings it is
both elegant and amusing. There’s a good view across the river from the top and you can have a classy meal in the restaurant. Other floors are given over to modern art exhibitions – the current installations vary from good to poor – but worth a look.
I cross the river and begin to walk down the other side but it’s time for a late lunch and a tapas restaurant nestled on an island in the river presents itself. There’s only a handful off customers at this hour but that doesn’t prevent the service from being slow and surly. I order two dishes and the waitress says ‘Is that all?’ in such a way as to suggest that I’ve not ordered enough, but when they do come I’ve ordered plenty. The clear plastic sides of the restaurant are lowered, the sky darkens, it rains and the wind blows. I’m glad I brought the brolly. I get as far as the Charles Bridge and decide to call it a day. There are statues and brasses to rub for luck on the way across the bridge, trying all the time to prevent the umbrella from blowing out. Later, I venture out to the Old Square for a Czech feast as the menu describes it. Once again I’m sitting outside under heating with slow service and still feeling cold. In spite of this, it’s been a day of unexpected beauty. Everywhere you look in the old city of Praha, it’s pretty and elegant no wonder it’s so popular.