Twenty-two hours is nothing. Deduct six and a half hours for sleep, thirty minutes for breakfast and one hour for lunch and you’re left with a measly fourteen hours in which to explore one of Europe’s greatest cities, Prague. So let’s go...
Cross the Vltava River – avoiding Charles Bridge, we’ll get to that later – and enter Malá Strana. You will, I repeat, you WILL be tempted to stop in any number of delicious looking cafes and bars, avoid this urge at all costs and trudge steadily upwards.
If you like gardens and quiet places your first port of call should be the Vrtba Gardens (Vrtbovská Zahrada). Designed on a series of terraced levels by a ‘Holy Trinity’ of leading designers between 1715 and 1720, the gardens are a proud homage to Baroque styling and a welcome retreat filled with birdsong, known only by the canniest of locals. Five minutes strolling through the sculptured gardens and you’ll find it hard to believe that you’re in the heart of a bustling European city. As the sun sets admire the view as golden evening light paints the city buildings and roofs in a magical palette of colour.
Descending the hill and heading back towards the river you’ll pass the famous John Lennon Wall. A simple wall belonging to the Knights of Malta, the graffiti covered edifice is a long-standing symbol of the city’s resistance to its Soviet occupiers. The wall gained fame with the death of the musician when a handful of ‘artistic’ locals took the opportunity to gather in his memory, sing songs and write anti-authoritarian slogans on the wall. The artworks are in a constant state of flux as new artists (and those smart enough to carry a large marker in their pocket) make their own contribution to its history. In November 2014 – on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – the wall was painted white by a group of art students leaving only the slogan ‘wall is over’. Since then the artists have returned in droves proving that the ‘wall is not over’, in fact it’s far from over.
Joining what will seem like a million others you may now cross the most iconic symbol of Prague, Charles Bridge. If you want to truly appreciate the bridge and its environs my advice is to get there early in the morning; very early in the morning.
Once you cross the bridge flee the crowds and navigate a warren of quaint (and quiet) backstreets towards Charvátova. If you can’t find Charvátova ask anyone if they know the whereabouts of Franz Kafka’s head. When you see a giant revolving, and thought provoking sculpture of the writer’s silver cranium, designed by the controversial Czech artist David Černý, you know you’ve found it. Another nearby sculpture by the artist, depicting a king riding an upside-down horse, can be found in the Lucerna Pasaz which contains the wonderful vintage cinema, ‘Kino Lucerna’.
As the light fades pass quickly (or slowly if you have time) through Wenceslas Square and onto the Old Town Square. If you happen to be passing as the clock strikes on the hour be sure to join the crush of tourists as they vie for position to view the procession of mechanical figures on the square’s ‘Astronomical Clock’. As least you can tell the folks back at home that you saw it.
Hungry? Set sail for the Four Seasons Hotel and its intriguingly delightful Cotto Crudo Restaurant. If the weather is fine enough ask for a table on the terrace next to the river and enjoy the assemblage of Italian-influenced raw and cooked fare (it was asparagus season when I visited – Yum!)
In the morning start early and set your sights on Castle Hill – it’s the hill with a castle on it. No matter how early you think you are the Japanese tourists will have gotten there before you. If the crowds are already too much, don’t worry, I know a short-cut.
Villa Richter and the Svatováclavská Winery can be found hiding on Staré zámecké schody. Leaving the crowds behind enter the gates to a vineyard located in the heart of a thronged city. Lines of sprouting vines (and places to taste their goodness by the glass) will convince you that you’re in the heart of the Bohemian countryside. Suddenly, the walk to the Castle becomes bearable without the noise, the crowds and all those ‘selfie sticks’.
Forgive me, but have you ever wished upon on a penis? No? Well, at the city’s Toy Museum you can do just that. A bronze sculpture of a naked youth adorns the museum’s entrance, and for some strange reason busloads of visiting grannies have taken it onto themselves to clasp the brilliantly shining member in their wrinkled old hands and wish for whatever it is that grannies wish for the world over.
Next, pop across the street and become totally engrossed during a self-guided audio tour of the magnificent Lobkowicz Palace. The Palace is the only privately owned residence on Castle Hill and charts the story and history of its owners from the middle ages to the present day. Keep your eyes peeled, you may even run into the current owners who play an active part in its restoration and upkeep. You’ll be amazed by the stories of how the Lobkowicz family’s ancestors played a major role in the history of Europe; including their patronage of one Ludwig Van Beethoven – a musician of some renown I believe.
Finally you will arrive at the magnificent splendour of Prague Castle and the sky-scraping tower of St. Vitus Cathedral. Take your time – if you have time – and enjoy history come to life before you. If you don’t have time, take out your ‘selfie stick’ and capture the moment. Everyone else does.
*The author was a guest of Czech Tourism.
With special thanks to the wonderful guide Martina Kaderová.
AER LINGUS fly direct from Dublin to Prague six days per week (no flight on Tuesdays). Full details of flights and prices, hotels and car-hire can be found on the Aer Lingus website – www.aerlingus.com
Hotel Barcelo IV, Na Strzi, Prague 4 – Comfortable, friendly and convenient hotel located just outside the Old Town close to a subway station. Excellent value for money – www.hotelbarcelo-prague.com
Cotto Crudo at the Four Seasons Hotel – Veleslavinová 1098/2a, Prague 1 – Inventive and imaginative interpretations of Italian raw and cooked dishes. Fine dining at its best. – www.cottocrudo.cz
Lvi Dvur Restaurant – If the sun is shining avail of the terrace dining area. Hearty Czech cuisine enjoyed by mostly locals. It has to be good – www.lvidvur.cz
Vrtba Gardens – www.vrtbovska.cz/en/
John Lennon Wall – Grand Priory Sq. Malá Strana, Prague 1
Villa Richter – www.villarichter.cz/lang/en/
Svatováclavská Winery – en.czech-unesco.org/13_10488_svatovaclavska-winery-praha/
Lobkowicz Palace – www.lobkowicz.cz/en/Lobkowicz-Palace-9.htm
CZECH TOURISM - www.czechtourism.com