Our visit to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, was part of our very first tour of Europe. After a memorable few days in Vienna, we boarded a bus for two nights in Prague. I was not impressed as we approached the city, and I started to wonder why we ever left Vienna! But the closer we got to the historic center, the better I felt. The buildings became more pristine, more varied in architectural detail, and the streets began to narrow. So narrow, in fact, that as we approached our hotel, I was amazed that our bus driver had not demolished a few parked cars along the way.
We checked into our room with instructions to meet in the lobby before dinner. Many in our group chose to rest, but remember… this was our first trip to Europe! We were not about to spend our free time in the hotel! We ventured out on our own and immediately found the Powder Tower, one of 13 original Gothic gates that separated Old Town from New Town Prague. The tower of the gate was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century. A merry mood greeted us on the other side of the city gate where trees had been adorned with decorations and colorful crepe paper. It was May 1st – a holiday in Prague, so there was an atmosphere of celebration and excitement: a band was playing, the aroma of smoking meat filled the air, and people surrounded tents where vendors displayed their wares.
We pulled ourselves away from the festivities and returned to the hotel in time to leave with the group to a typical Czech restaurant for dinner. It was a delicious meal served with plenty of beer, as beer is preferred over wine in Prague. In darkness abated only by dim streetlamps, we walked through the cobblestone alleyways from the restaurant back to our hotel. A light rain had fallen, forming distorted images and eerie shadows – the perfect setting for a cold war spy novel. I was grateful not to be alone, but rather in a group led by an experienced, knowledgeable guide!
Prague was founded more than 1,100 years ago at the crossroads of several trade routes. The Vltava River now bisects “the City of a Hundred Spires”. We began our day with a walking tour of Old Town Square in the heart of the historic core. The dominant presence among all the colorful baroque buildings is the Church of Our Lady Before Tyń. With its Gothic twin spires and pointed arches, it was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. We walked past the Old Town Hall with its medieval astronomical clock where the 12 apostles appear every hour on the hour for an animated show. We also went inside St. Francis Seraphicus Church, a striking baroque-style structure built in 1233.
And then – the magnificent Charles Bridge! From the grand entrance gate on one end to the fortification tower on the other, this historic stone bridge is truly a remarkable sight! King Charles IV laid the first stone of the bridge on July 9, 1357. Construction was completed at the beginning of the 15th century. The bridge is lined with 30 Baroque statues which symbolize significant religious figures in Czech history.
The most amazing sight from the bridge (which is always crowded with tourists, vendors, and street performers) is Prague Castle perched at the top of a hill overlooking the Vltava River! While we waited for a bus to take us to the castle, we ordered drinks at a riverboat cafe so we could take in the view a little while longer.
The Prague Castle is the largest medieval castle complex in Europe and dates back to the 9th century. Today it is the official Office of the President of the Czech Republic. The complex includes viewing towers, courtyards, art galleries, museums, a monastery, several palaces, St. George’s Basilica and St. Vitus Cathedral. It is the spires of the cathedral that poke the city skyline and can be seen for miles.
We toured the hallowed interior of St. Vitus where in front of the main alter is a marble mausoleum and royal crypt containing tombs of Bohemian kings and their coronation jewels. There are several small chapels inside the cathedral, including the Chapel of St. Wenceslas which houses the tomb of the “Good King”.
At the courtyard wall, we checked out the amazing views before heading back down to the bridge through the winding streets of Prague. We stopped at a few shops along the way and bought trinkets to take home as souvenirs.
The evening was ours to do as we wished, so we decided to have dinner at an outdoor café – with a healthy dose of “people watching” on the side. We finished dinner just as an organ concert at St. Giles Church was about to begin. This beautiful 13th century church is Gothic on the outside, Baroque on the inside, and is home to a remarkable organ that is the largest in Prague. The organ has 3500 reed-pipes and an acoustic quality which draws some of the finest organists in Europe to perform here. The classical music and breathtaking candle-lit altar made for an extraordinary experience. It was gratifying to know the price of our tickets would contribute to the upkeep of this glorious church.
Evening had turned to dark – and unlike the previous night – we were completely comfortable in our surroundings. Oh, what a difference a day makes! We strolled through the streets of Old Town as if we were visiting a dear old friend. The next morning we would head to Salzburg, but the night belonged to Prague… a spectacular city scene!
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