A great day in Prague — a European river cruise journal

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Prague! Eight days earlier, my Viking European cruise tour had left Paris, the heart of Western Europe. And eight days later, on a sultry Saturday afternoon, we rolled through the green hills of the Bohemian forest toward our final stop: the city once described as the Paris of Central Europe. It was an arrival I’d looked forward to, my first look at the “other” side of Europe.

Our hotel, the Hilton Prague, was on the east bank of the Vltava River, which divides the city in two. And in the evening I took the short walk to the core of the old city to see Wenceslas Square, a broad boulevard headed by a heroic statue of King Wenceslas, Prague’s patron saint and hero of the Christmas carol we all learned in school.

It was a lively scene, with ornate, historic buildings providing a handsome backdrop for the busy row of shops, restaurants and food stalls — including one eatery built in an old streetcar.

Wenceslas Square

It wasn’t all about Czech pilsner and tourist shops, though: at the foot of the square, a large movie screen showed films about the Soviet invasion of 1968, which crushed the democratic uprising called the “Prague spring”. Obviously, this was a city that lived with its history, both ancient and recent.

An interesting introduction, but there was much more to see. And the next morning we set off on a tour of the city’s top sights, starting with Pražský hrad, or Prague Castle, set high on a hill flanking the city.

It’s hard to miss the castle when you look from the old city centre, down along the banks of the river. Its spires stand out against the green hillside like a classic medieval stronghold. But if you’re expecting a stone castle like Marksburg or even Reichsburg in Germany, you may be disappointed.

Prague castle

The castle, which dates back to the ninth century, was originally built as a defensive fortification, and is in fact the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying 70,000 square metres. But it’s undergone so many repairs and renovations over the centuries that these days it resembles a palace more than a classic castle.

In fact, one of the centrepieces of the complex is a large courtyard lined with palaces built for both the royal rulers and the local aristocrats. One of the most impressive is the Archbishop’s Palace (below), built by King Ferdinand I in 1420.

Prague castle palaces

Prague castle palace

The castle walls provided a great view of the city, shrouded in morning mist, and I was surprised at how much green space existed around the city centre.

Prague view from castle

A big part of the castle complex is occupied by St. Vitus’s Cathedral, a huge edifice started in 1344 and finished several centuries later, incorporating three different architectural styles. The cathedral is an impressive sight, not just for its huge size and soaring spires but for the medieval stonework and ornamentation that decorates almost every facet.

St. Vitus church Prague

St. Vitus church detail

There are lots of sights inside the church, including the tomb of St. Wenceslas. That’s true of the rest of the castle, as well. But it was Sunday morning, and we had a lot more to see.

On the way down the hill, we passed one of the relics of the more recent past, a sports stadium built by the communists who ruled the country until 1993. It looks decayed and deserted, but according to our guide, it’s still used for sporting events.

Prague communist stadium

Then we were back to the river, and the peaceful parkland around Kampa Island, with its modern art museum. Outside the doors, an odd sight: three huge bronze babies with crimped-in faces, crawling on the grass. They’re the work of Czech artist David Cerny, whose avant-garde works can be seen all over town.

Nearby, we reached one of the city’s tourist hot spots, the Charles Bridge, approached through an ancient city gate amid an old neighbourhood of narrow, winding streets. The bridge is studded with statues depicting the saints, installed by the Catholic Hapsburg monarchs who ruled the city from 1526 to 1918.

And in August at least, it’s perpetually choked with tourists. I did manage to get a shot from the other side of the river that shows the bridge and some of the river traffic that makes the area inviting.

Charles Bridge Prague

A few blocks farther and we found ourselves in the showcase of ancient Prague, Old Town Square. The broad square is ringed with classic buildings, including the twin-towered Church of Our Lady Before Tyn (see photo at top). It’s a good place to grab a coffee, take a ride in a horse carriage, or just sit at the feet of 14th-century religious reformer Jan Hus, whose statue anchors the space.

Prague Old Town Square

But the centrepiece is the city hall itself – and more specifically, the amazing astronomical clock that graces its tower. Built in 1410 by imperial clock maker Mikuláš of Kadaň and enhanced later, it shows Central European, Old Bohemian and Babylonian time, along with the movement of the planets and the wheel of the zodiac.

But what delights the crowds is the show that takes place every hour on the hour, when two little doors open above the clock and figures of the apostles do a little circular parade. At the same time, a quintet of other figures around the clock join in.

It’s not exactly spectacular, but it is an amazing piece of history — all the more because it still functions after all these years. And it never fails to bring oohs and ahhs from the hundreds of onlookers. Take a look for yourself, and watch for the skeleton who strikes the time at lower right (for a better look, view the video full-size):

The final stop was Josefov, the city’s Jewish quarter. Prague once had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, centred in a charming residential area near the river. But during World War II,  45,000 of the city’s Jews were deported to Terezin, a concentration camp a short distance away. The community has recovered somewhat, and still has some of its original charm, with lovely buildings like the one below.

Prague Jewish Quarter building

The city tour of Prague was over, and so was my Viking European river cruise. It had been a great experience, and a wonderful way to see a side of Europe many visitors miss. I had seen great cities and small, historic towns, ancient castles and beautiful scenery. I had eaten the food of three different countries, drunk some good wine, and made some new friends.

I’ll write more later on my river cruise experience, but for now, I was happy to be spending a couple of days exploring this new city on my own before heading home with some good memories — and a lot of photos.

I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip. However, the views expressed are my own.

Photos taken with the Nikon D5500 SLR and the Fuji XQ2 compact.

 

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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