travel

The most stunning city of Europe shows off its Baroque past in style.

It is said that first impressions last the longest, so keep your eyes open just a slit if you ride out of Praha Ruzyne airport during the rush hour. The cabbie might skirt the traffic and take a bypass to reach the town centre, and the sight of Soviet-style functionality along the way could turn the heart’s somersault of joy into a backflip ending in a flat fall.

Description: Praha Ruzyne airport

Praha Ruzyne airport

However, it is also said that good things come to those who wait the capital of former Bohemia proves the truth of this. But first, a tip: before exiting the airport, smile at any fellow arrivals who catch your eye. You have a 90 per cent probability of meeting them in the historical centre of Prague; a few new friends cannot hurt.

Given its tiny size, the Czech Republic can probably lay claim to a world record for having the most number of supremely photogenic edifices per square kilometre. There are enormous castle complexes all over the country in the south, Cesky Krumlov, with its famed Masquerade hall of Rococo paintings that cause optical illusions; in the southeast, Zdar nad Sazavou, an ecclesiastical complex in the shape of a 10-pointed star; in the east, Kromeriz, with spectacular gardens and a collection of great European art. The historical centre of Prague, a Unesco World Heritage site, has the lion’s share of the astounding architecture seen around the country, and everyone, locals and tourists alike, gravitates towards it.

Description: Overlooking the historic Old Town in Prague, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bohemia, Czech Republic

Overlooking the historic Old Town in Prague, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bohemia, Czech Republic

This city centre has three main sections the 12th century Old Town (Stare Mesto); the 13th century Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana); and the 14th century New Town (Nove Mestro). On the left bank of the Vltava river, which cuts through the city, is Mala Strana and the Prague Castle, the largest defined castle complex in the world. On the right are the old Town, including the Jewish Quarters, and the New Town, including the Vysehrad castle. The city’s focal point is the 15th century Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), Baroque Christian statuary decorating its sides.

Description: the Prague Castle

the Prague Castle

At normal speed, it should take five minutes to cross the Charles Bridge. But at any time of the day or night, the crossing can take half-an-hour, as you will want to linger. In the day, the bridge is choc-a-block with tourists and makeshift stalls of local artisans selling paintings, jewellery and handicrafts. The best souvenir shopping in Prague is to be had on this bridge, not in the dozens of shops selling Made in China tat in the Old Town lanes. At night, the views on all sides are magic, the yellow glow of the street lamps gilding everything. The jazz band that plays to afternoon crowds on the bridge makes way now for classical violinists.

Stand here facing the Old Town and you see two imposing structures in the distance on either side; they represent the attrition that marked Czech life under German dominance. The golden-roofed National Theatre (Narodni Divadlo), inaugurated in 1881, is the Czech people’s assertion of their cultural independence under the Habsburgs. It took four decades and aid from every Czech to build this magnificent opera house. In retaliation, the German-speakers began work on their own cultural hub, and in 1888, the New German Theatre, now the Prague State Opera, opened for its first show.

Description: The golden-roofed National Theatre (Narodni Divadlo)

The golden-roofed National Theatre (Narodni Divadlo)

Modern Prague has reinvented this legacy of art and craftsmanship. The noted glass artist and architect Borek Sipek creates mind-boggling pieces from enormous chandeliers to wine glasses that could double as centerpieces even as the souvenir stores sell conventional Bohemian crystal; E.daniely, one of the first labels to dress East European women in designer togs after the fall of the Soviet Union, is still acquiring fans; shelves at the design shop Modernista  are stacked with some of European’s most cutting-edge output; the lifestyle chain Manufaktura keeps a bit of “Czechness” in everything from toys to heavenly bath and body products.

The creative philosophy extends to some of the Prague hotels. The most interesting story is that of Augustine, a luxury property on land owned by the adjacent Augustinian St Thomas Monastery. The three-level Tower Suite, with 3600 views of the city, has been constructed out of monks’ cells. Of the hotel’s two bars, one used to be the refectory, and the other was the cellar of the monastery’s brewery. The original 13th century building design is visible in many parts of the hotel.

Description: Hotel Chopin Prague

Hotel Chopin Prague

Prague’s literary past is as important as its architecture. The best-known name in this chapter is of Franz Kafka. The author of The Metamorphosis and other stories born out of his surreal imagination lived and died here, and worked as of all things an insurance official! The chronicle of his tormented mind is told in a riverside museum.

Outside the darkness of Kafka’s psyche, the town centre is dripping with warmth and charm. Walking around it endlessly is one of the chief pleasures of a bright day. And people do, all the time. This is where the probability of meeting the new arrival comes in. the lanes are lined with cafes, where hours are whiled away over beer. Should you lock eyes with someone nursing a pint alone, sit down across him, and start your own Prague story.

Fact life

How to go: Delhi Aeroflot via Moscow and Lufthansa via Munich have short layovers. Mumbai Swissair via Zurich is the quickest. Turkish Arlines, from both cities, has a layover of several hours.

Where to stay: two km from the centre, Lida Huest House has good, inexpensive rooms. For a taste of the Baroque, try The Alchymist Residence Nosticova at the town centre. The Icon Hotel near Wenceslas Square offers extreme comfort and cool value.

What to do: classical concerts are huge in Prague; venues include the gorgeous Municipal House. Black light theatre is another attraction. Eat at Indian Jewel in the Old Town for some cooked-to-perfection home fare. Pop into the Grand Café orient to admire its Cubist structure and snack on Czech cake.

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