When the producers of the film, Amadeus (the life of Mozart), needed to re-create the urban appearance of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest in the 1700s, they simply brought their cameras to the center of 20th-century Prague. Without so much as altering a brick, shifting a stone, building a single facade, they enjoyed absolutely authentic backdrops, in a city that--like Amsterdam, like Bruges, like Siena--is an open air museum. For at least a mile in any direction, the largely Renaissance central city of Prague has not changed in three hundred years and also displays Romanesque and Gothic structures from an even earlier time. It has neither been bombed by other nations, nor destroyed by modern real estate developers.
Every step that you take in the center of this Golden City (so-called because of its many gilded church spires) is accompanied by the ghosts of history. In the Estate's Theater, which you can visit, Mozart's Don Giovanni (perhaps the greatest musical drama of all time) had its premiere in 1787. Nearby, the martyr Jan Hus was burned at the stake, and the novelist Franz Kafka gazed up at "The Castle" that he somehow could never enter. At the city's Prague University, founded in 1348 (arguably, the oldest in Europe), Albert Einstein taught as a Professor of Physics in 1911; and again, short steps away, musicians Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak composed. This is a highly important European city that was one of the great seats of the Holy Roman Empire, was ruled by the flamboyant Habsburgs from the 16th to the 19th century, was occupied by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, was then liberated by the Russian Army in 1945, and then chafed under Communist rule until 1990, when free elections brought the world-famous playwright Vaclav Havel to the presidency of a democratic Republic.
The city today is a dynamic place of 1,200,000 residents, capital of a country that has achieved the most dramatic economic progress of any former Eastern-bloc nation; and because of its history, it is immensely popular from a touristic standpoint, receiving so many tourists and international gatherings from April 1 until November 30 that you cannot hope to occupy a standard, first-class hotel at that time without an advance reservation. The unreserved overflow goes largely into private apartments and private home accommodations, to which you'll be assigned by tourist desks at the airport and main train station. As in so many large European cities, those old-fashioned, heavily furnished, spare bedrooms of Prague can turn out to be not simply inexpensive, but the most memorable lodgings available to you.
Prague is located in the very geographical center of Europe (east and west), about 170 miles from Vienna, 180 miles from Berlin, 600 miles from Paris. It is reached by air in only half an hour from either Vienna or Berlin, in 1 1/2 hours from Paris and 2 hours from Rome. Of perhaps greater interest to most travelers, the rail time to Prague is 6 hours from either Berlin or Vienna, 18 hours from Paris, and 24 hours from Rome.
The city is divided by the Moldau River, and the latter is crossed by 15 bridges, of which the most famous--a 14th-century masterpiece, lined its entire length by remarkable statuary--is the Charles Bridge. Upon its span stroll tourists, artists offering to paint portraits of the tourists, buskers, students, and political activists, a stream of humanity that makes the bridge a must to see. On the far side of the bridge (from the main downtown area), at the very top of a sharply ascending hill, looms the Castle of the Habsburgs (Prague Castle), dominating everything, never out of sight. Back in the center, Wenceslaus Square (which is really a long, downhill-running boulevard) is the chief center of street life and restaurants, cafés, and some hotels.
The brooding castle (Hradcany) that hovers over the city, visible at all times from every point in it, is the key first visit to make. Although only groups can go inside the main structure, and then only infrequently (the President of the Czech Republic maintains his offices there), the numerous courtyards and a complex of surrounding buildings and museums can all be visited. These include various subsidiary palaces, homes of the princes, kings, and bishops of Bohemia, the important St. Vitus Cathedral (whose construction began in 1344), the Romanesque St. George Church with a chapel now used as the National Gallery for ancient Czech art, the famous pilgrimage chapel called Loretto, and too much else to list or describe here. Franz Kafka wrote about that castle.
From there, you descend to the Old Town Square, center of the city, whose Carillon Clock in a tower (built by the clock maker Hanus in 1490) puts on an hourly show (the Apostles, among others, come marching out, as does a Grim Reaper) to a crowd that always masses below to watch the mechanical marvel; ask an English-speaking passerby to explain the various movements and gestures of the figurines.
Nearby is the ancient Jewish ghetto, with its several, centuries-old synagogues and Old Jewish Cemetery with its gravestones tumble, set one atop another, leaning and surrealistic, to accommodate the excessive number of coffins required to be buried there and nowhere else. Here, in particular, is the grave of Rabbi Loew, author of The Golem, whose tombstone is covered with pebbles placed there in homage to him by various admirers from around the world.
The immense Charles Bridge, built in 1420 to span the Vltava River, is an unforgettable sight with its thirty sculpted figures--many of them masterworks-- spaced across the entire length. It's become a meeting place for visitors from many countries.
The great, Baroque St. Nicholas Church--with its statuary, art, and bas-reliefs--is an architectural wonder that also must be seen.
Lanterna Magika, the unique Prague playhouse that presents live actors performing against movie images, a multimedia marvel that's unduplicated anywhere else, should definitely be scheduled for one of your evenings. You will always be told that seats have been sold out for the night of your visit; simply approach any of the scalpers on the sidewalk outside the box-office, about an hour before curtain time, and you'll easily obtain a ticket.
And then there's the National Museum, the National Theater, the Estates Theater, the birthplace of Franz Kafka, St. Agnes' Convent, and the Strahov Monastery. But because this report is not a detailed guidebook, but simply an indication of leading sights, we've omitted dozens of other important visits in Prague, including the many structures of different eras that surround the Old Town Square. Simply wandering at random in Prague, on your own two feet, brings immense cultural rewards that can enrich your visit to Central Europe.
Excursions from Prague? Many tourists venture onward to Marienbad and Carlsbad, the two great Czech spa cities of resort hotels that feature the various water cures (from ancient, mineral springs) periodically taken each year by multitudes of Europeans. European medicine believes in the efficacy of water treatments and regards doctors who have overlooked this approach to health as seriously deficient.
Introduction to Lodgings
In the higher quality hotels, rates have risen steeply in recent years, reflecting the growing popularity of Prague. Rates in the more simple lodgings have remained refreshingly cheap. We suggest that you consider the latter category as you search for a place to stay.
Hotel Pariz, 1 U. Obecniho Domu, centrally located near the famous Municipal House (the metro stop Námestí Republiky is nearby), 110000 Prague, phone 2/22195195 or fax 2/24225475. All rooms are with full size bathrooms and heated floors, and rent for the Czech equivalent (in koruna) of U.S. $270 single, $300 double or twin, $390 and up for a suite, including full buffet breakfast for everyone.
This grand, traditional hotel of Prague will be well-loved by devotees of the art-nouveau and liberty style of its decor. It's in a neo-Gothic building (built in 1904), strangely enough, but completely restored in 1997 to its original hallmark of Art Nouveau, and its picturesque facade with turret and multigabled roof is one of Prague's landmarks. In addition to having private facilities, the 100 rooms and four suites are equipped with air conditioning, minibars, direct dialing, and color TV, modem connection, and massage showers, and every one of them is furnished in a slightly different manner. There's a first-class restaurant named after Sarah Bernhardt and a Cafe de Pariz at street level; all major credit cards are accepted.
THE BLUE KEY
The Blue Key, Hotel U modrého klíèe, Letenská 14, 118 00 Praha 1, Prague, phone 2/57 53 43 61, fax 2/57 53 43 72, , e-mail: . Rates for a single room are $78 to $137, double or twin $98 to $167, suites $162 to $265. Prices include buffet breakfast, safety deposit box, and all taxes. Rooms with fully equipped kitchenette are available. Children up to 14 are free of charge. All major credit cards accepted.
Situated in the very heart of Prague, under the Prague Castle, all monuments are within walking distance. Originally a 14th century Gothic palace with a small courtyard, the Blue Key was completely renovated in 1999 under the supervision of the Monuments and Fine Arts Office in Prague. Its 22 rooms and 6 suites all have private toilet/shower, hairdryer, SAT-TV, direct dial telephone, safety deposit box, and a minibar. Facilities include a lobby bar, a courtyard bar and a relax center (two whirlpools and a sauna).
Hotel Clementin, Seminarska 4, Praha 1- Stare Mesto; phone 420/2-2222-1798, fax 420/2-2222-1768, Web: . High season is from March 29 through Oct. 10 and Dec. 23 through Jan. 1 Single rooms 4,250 ($142) high season, 3750 CZK ($125) low season. Doubles 5250 CZK high ($175), 4650 low ($158). Triples also available from 6570 CZK ($219) high, 6070 CZK ($202) low. Breakfast is served from 8 am to 10 am and is included in the price.
A slim, mint green gothic townhouse (built in 1306), the Hotel Clementin holds the distinction of being Prague’s narrowest building. While this characteristic might not seem conducive for a hotel (as you might guess, the rooms are lillipution in their dimensions), the property is so well-situated and with such a friendly staff that the size of the rooms fades in importance. They’re also cunningly well-designed, with full tubs built into bathrooms that at first glance seem only large enough for a shower, safes hid in armoires, and fully stocked mini-bars tucked into corners. The décor is a soothing peach and tan, beds are firm and despite being kitty-corner to Karlovy street, the popular marionette-obsessed thoroughfare between Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square (it’s the site of the National Marionette Theater), rooms are surprisingly quiet.
Albatros Botel, Nabrezi Ludvika Svobody (no number), a ten-minute walk from the city center, phone 2/24810547 or fax 2/24811214, , e-mail: . All rooms are with shower and wc and rent from $37 to $60 single, $45 to $74 double, $66 to $111 triple, $76 to $125 quad, including breakfast.
This floating hotel abuts the shores of the Vltava River; it's five stops with tram 14 or 26 from the Central Station. You can see the "boatel" colored white and blue from the Charles Bridge. While the cabins are tiny, they are clean and well furnished, and the desk clerk will provide you with a portable color TV set if you request one from her. Cash only (no credit cards).
HOTEL GARNI MALEKON
Hotel Garni Malekon, 34 Na Zahonech, 141000 Prague, six metro stops from the Central Station, a ten-minute walk from the historic city center, phone or fax 2/420464. All rooms are with private shower and wc and rent for the Czech currency (koruna) equivalent of $44 single, $58 double or twin, $15 per extra bed in a double or twin room, always including a good buffet breakfast. Extra beds for children under 6 are free.
This pleasant, small hotel of 11 rooms in an old, two-story building that was completely redone In 1995. Your friendly hosts are Malek and Malkova Malekon, who accept Amex and Visa credit cards.
Junior Hotel, 12 Zitna, 120000 Prague, a five-minute walk from Wenceslas Square, phone 2/292984, fax 2/2422-3911. Accommodations are without private facilities (but showers down the hall are free) and rent for a uniform and quite amazing $12 per person, including, sheet, towel, and continental breakfast.
This four-floor hotel (with elevator) offers 23 dormitory-style units with 2 to 4 double-deckers or cots in each. Exactly 14 quads, 3 triples and 6 twins. No curfew is imposed; no hostel card or other membership required; no credit cards accepted. The nearest metro stop is Pavlova, from which Junior Hotel is three blocks away.
Ritchie’s Hostel, Karlova 9, Praha 1; phone420/2-2222-1229, fax 420/2-2222-0255. Web: Beds are cheapest in the nine-bedded rooms, starting at 400 CZK and going down to just 360 CZK for those staying more than four nights and paying in cash. A place in a five-bedded dorm room is 460 CZK for a short stay, 420 CZK for four nights or more. There are also four-bedded dorm rooms with shared bathroom for 535CZK/$485CZK, or four-bedded dorm rooms with private bathroom for 580CZK/530 CZK, triple rooms with shared bathroom for 1940CZK/1760CZK, triples with private bathrooms 2140CZK/1960CZK and even doubles for between 1410 CZK and 1660 CZK, depending on how long you stay and how close the bathroom facilities are to your room. Eastern Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and around the New Year’s holiday, the prices are doubled.
In the very center of all the Old Town action, Richie’s hostel is hidden behind a souvenir store dedicated to that most Czech of items: the brilliantly-colored nesting doll. This aids with security, as the entrance is brightly lit and fairly well-populated at all hours (there’s no curfew at this hostel). To further insure safety there’s a buzzer at the locked gate in the center of the store, the only entrance to the hostel. For a hostel, Ritchies is surprisingly cheery, with bright orange and yellow coverlets on the beds (sheets are included in the cost) and well-kept cream-tiled WC and shower areas. The beds, at least those we experienced, were good and firm, the bedrooms well-maintained. Breakfast is included in the cost of a nights’ stay.