Yesterday an associate said to me: “I can’t believe you’d never been to Prague. Everyone goes to Prague. You’re a travel writer, you’ve been to more than 100 countries.”
Point taken. And don’t think it wasn’t gnawing away at me. My daughter had been to Prague. My future daughter-in-law had been to Prague. My parents had been to Prague. And just about all the travel writers I know at least claim to have been to Prague.For years now, it’s been one of the hottest, trendiest spots on the Continent.
My excuse has been that when I was riding trains around Europe for months at a time back in the day, no Soviet bloc countries were included on Eurailpass, the rail pass I was using to get around to every country in Western Europe (except San Marino, but that’s another story).
Still, the Czech Republic has now been out of the Soviet orbit for some 25 years, and I was Prague-less until last week. But thanks to a kind invitation from Insight Vacations, a tour company that offers lots of upscale guided trips through Europe, North America, and parts of Asia and North Africa, and I was finally able to make it there — in the company of 30 other journalists from around the world.
Our hotel, the Art Nouveau Palace Hotel, proved a fine start. Situated near famous Wenceslas Square, scene of numerous public gatherings and celebrations over the years, the hotel is also just a short walk from Old Town Square, the heart of Prague’s Old Town. The entire area stretching from Wenceslas Square in “New Town” — which is actually very old — to Old Town, which is even older, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In my last post, I left off at Prague Castle, which dominates the hilltop on the opposite side of the Vltava River from Old Town. Walking down from the castle, led by our local guide named Jara, we passed “Little Venice,” where chic cafes overlook picturesque canals, and then slowly ambled across the Charles Bridge. Named for King Charles IV of Bohemia (and later Holy Roman Emperor), the bridge dates from the 14th century and is now a pedestrian-only river crossing that attracts hordes of tourists, street artists and performers, and, as our ever-vigilant tour director Neira Milkovic warned, pickpockets. “Prague is postgraduate school for pickpockets,” she advised.
Fortunately I was wearing my Pickpocket-Proof Pants, a trademarked brand from Clothing Arts, which have so many zippers and buttons protecting your wallet that by the time a pickpocket could maneuver his way inside your pockets you could call the police, take a few pictures and have a coffee while waiting for the light-fingered one to finish. (I’ll write more about these handy trousers in a separate post.)
At the end of the bridge is a Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments, which I made a mental note to check out next time I’m in Prague.
But now it was on to cobbled Old Town Square, one of Europe’s finest, and a look at the 1490-era astronomical clock, a 24-hour clock that puts on a little show on the hour, something about sinners being damned to hell — well, that was their idea of a good show back in 1490. It also displays the phases of the moon, pays a nod to the signs of the Zodiac, and can reveal the summer solstice, the vernal equinox, and even tell the time — unless it’s daylight savings time, which had begun that day. Apparently they don’t change the clock for daylight savings time, which seems appropriate for such an old traditionalist of a clock.
Near the square we witnessed a glass-blowing demonstration in the back of a crystal shop — Prague is known for its crystal, beer, and ham — and some of the journalists even tried their hand, or should I say their lungs, at blowing into the pipe and fashioning large ball-shaped glass thingies that the master glass-blower showed off to great applause from the assembled and then unceremoniously tossed into the trash.
Next up: a more sobering side of Prague as we tour the old Jewish Quarter, including synagogues and cemeteries, which the Nazis decided to preserve as a “museum of an extinct race.” And still to come, we’ll visit some historic local breweries, sample the local cuisine, and otherwise discover the pleasures of Prague with the folks from Insight Vacations.