Variety

Walk with saints

PARVATHA VARDHINI C. | Updated on April 12, 2012 Published on April 12, 2012

Charles Bridge links the castle and the Old Town of Prague.

Tthe astronomy clock. - Photo: Parvatha Vardhini C.   -  Business Line

Tune in: An offbeat musician at work on Charles Bridge, Prague.

History at every turn and modern to the teeth, a wealth of churches and a non-believing majority… Prague is a city of delicious contradictions.



It is raining heavily and the sun has not been out for days. Don't forget your woollen overcoat,” I was warned. I safely packed one in my suitcase, only to discover my checked-in baggage had not arrived on landing in Prague, the Czech capital. And almost as if it knew I would struggle in the cold, the city welcomed me with bright and warm sunshine right from the time I stepped out of the airport. During the two-day trip, sponsored by Skoda Auto, I discovered that's how the historic town and its people innately are — warm and friendly. Be it the hotel receptionist who called the airport at least half a dozen times each day to check on my baggage or an old lady who guided me when I lost my way or the waiter at a café who quickly rustled up some ‘vegetarian' sandwiches for me, Prague captivates with its generosity.

It shows in their food too. For someone like me with a small appetite, the entrée alone would easily make a full meal! But no meal here is considered complete without beef and potatoes and, of course, Czech beer. While my companion lost no time in helping herself to the ‘bull leg stroganoff', a Russian/Central European delicacy we found on the lunch menu on day one, eating buffalo mozzarella was the closest I could get to beef. Vegetarian food, though, is not hard to find, for Prague has several Indian restaurants. There is one even in Mladá Boleslav, a town about 45 minutes' drive from Prague, which is home to the Skoda factory. Those anxious to avoid the roti-dal-chawal routine will be pleasantly surprised by the range of options here. We found Maitrea, a Buddhist restaurant serving vegetarian world cuisine right in the heart of Old Town, a bustling tourist hotspot. Italian restaurants with vegetarian pizza and pasta options are not difficult to spot either.

Amble amongst history

Accompanied by the former editor-in-chief of a State-run magazine (who became tour guide after the government closed down the cash-strapped magazine), we set out on a walking tour of Prague. With its many narrow cobblestone streets, the city is best explored through such walking tours. Hop-on-hop-off buses are conspicuous by their absence. And, with its confluence of three cultures — German, Jewish and Slavic — Prague has plenty to offer the history buff.

At our first stop, the Old Town Square, preparations for the Easter market were in full swing. An astronomy clock tower, built in the early 1400s, soars above the square like a mini-observatory. Roman numerals I to XII are repeated twice to differentiate day and night. The display also shows the position of the sun, the corresponding zodiac sign and the position and size of the moon. It is said that its architect was blinded to make sure he couldn't replicate this work elsewhere!

A walk further down took us to the picturesque Charles Bridge, built across the Vltava river and named after the Czech king Charles IV around 1357. Lined by baroque statues of Catholic saints, it used to be the only link between Prague Castle and the Old Town. It has been reconstructed repeatedly owing to periodic damage from wars and floods.

The statues were added nearly 300 years after the famous Thirty Year War between Catholics and Protestants. One of the statues is of St John of Nepomuk, who was thrown into the river by King Wenceslas IV. Touching this statue is supposed to bring good luck and bring you back to Prague soon!

Prayer and music

A tram ride later, we arrived at our next stop, the Prague Castle. Now housing administrative offices, including that of the President, the castle is an architectural beauty. With churches, monasteries and palaces enclosed within it, the view from the castle's courtyard encompasses at least five architectural styles, including Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque.

The St Vitus Cathedral, with its Gothic-style pointed arches and flying buttresses, is a beauty. Work on the cathedral began in the 1300s, but a large part of it was added as late as the 1920s.

Although the joint appears seamless on the inside, the different shades of stone are a giveaway on the outside. Prague is home to numerous churches, but as nearly 70 per cent of its people are non-believers, the buildings are mostly used for non-worship activities, say the locals.

A seat of music with its profusion of concert halls, Prague unsurprisingly is where the aspiring musician played by Ranbir Kapoor heads to in the Bollywood movie Rockstar!

High-end fancy takeaways

Curio hunters have plenty to choose from the country's famed glass and crystal jewellery and artefacts, although Czech glass and Bohemian crystals are expensive.

Despite all that history, the city is not untouched by modernity. The state-of-the-art Skoda factory, which employs half of the 55,000 residents in Mladá Boleslav, exemplifies this. Right in the heart of the historical section of Prague, in what appears to be a 16th century building, are housed high-fashion brands Prada, Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer and Gucci. The narrow cobblestone streets are no strangers to Audis and BMWs (and far too many of them, at that!). Elsewhere in the city, highways and highrises abound.

An identity all their own

With its Czech crown still in currency, the country in a way remains shielded from the Euro zone crisis. Opinion is divided on plans to join the Euro in 2016. “Our farmers are already struggling after joining the European Union, not being able to compete with the French and the Germans,” says our tour guide, clearly a non-supporter of the Euro. About 4 per cent of the GDP comes from agriculture, while over 60 per cent is from services, similar to India. Again, like in India, the President is only the ceremonial head and the Prime Minister rules the country. Although the Czech republic has not had a communist PM after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Russian influence still lingers, with older people preferring the communists, we are told.

Published on April 12, 2012
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor