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Three Days in Prague

Prague is not Venice, but it is one of the most gorgeous cities in Europe. Baroque architecture dominates, but there are many other elements. And in the central districts, almost everywhere you look, there's a beautiful cathedral or palace or street of historic homes. While the outlying neighborhoods are full of ugly Soviet-era high-rises, most of the inner core dates back at least 100 years, and often several centuries.

We started at the Strahova monastery, most of the way to the top of the big hill overlooking Prague Castle and Old Town. The 12th-Century Romanesque cloisters included an interesting modern art exhibit. Not much information, or even identification of the five artists, but nicely done. There are a number of other exhibits at the top, all with separate admission fees: the Philosophic and Theological Halls, a library of antique and rare books, and a museum of miniatures. The two halls looked promising, but we went on down the hill, around the twisty path, and up the stairs at Petrin Hill, site of the observation tower modeled on the Eiffel—from which there's a superb view of the whole city and beyond.

In one of the guidebooks, my daughter Alana had seen a photo of a beautiful and unusually landscaped garden in the old city wall. So we trooped through the formal rose gardens (past their prime at the moment and a little bedraggled) and passed under a squarish lintel in the wall. Sure enough, around a small pond, we came to the garden of her picture: lush, filled with interesting flowers, very compact, and well-worth the extra walk. Another bonus: while the tower and surrounding area was teeming with crowds, this little sanctuary contained only three or four other people.

After two weeks in rural Moravia (see related story), eating fried cheese and other traditional Czech offerings (which, for vegetarians, were severely limited) we were ready for the more exotic fare that this cosmopolitan city has to offer. In Prague, we sampled Afghani, Thai, Italian…starting with lunch at an Indonesian restaurant we'd noticed just outside the cloister.

Then, taking our time, we walked down through the Little Quarter, with touristy shops, and across the magnificent Karluf Most (Charles Bridge), with its statuary, its booths of caricaturists, sellers of earrings and trinkets, and musicians—and literally thousands of tourists. The Old Town, on the other side, is even pricier—but only a few blocks away, on Karolina Street, we found a very decent Afghani/Italian restaurant with a pleasant rear garden and very low prices.

In the course of our travels, we sampled a number of very beautiful churches, mostly featuring Baroque interiors. Most stunning was St. Francis of Assisi, just on the Old Town side of the Charles Bridge (and not mentioned in our guidebook). Frescoes, exquisite statuary, and a gilt organ were among the highlights.

Our second day was not quite as magical; a number of things were just a little bit off. We were all snapping at each other for the first couple of hours, and that didn't help (seems like there's always one "off day on any long vacation). Since we were switching hosts, we had to drag all our gear to the central train station, where we could store it all (two large lockers at 60 kr each for 24 hours. Our first host, Antonin, drove us there, and we approached through the side facing the old station—a dank and smelly set of neglected corridors (a magnificent exterior resembling a centuries-old cathedral, though). But the new station is beautiful, and coming from the other side (as we did at the end of the day), it's quite pleasant.

From there we hopped Prague's convenient, clean and attractive Metro to the castle station, which turned out to be about six blocks from the main entrance; the tram actually goes quite a bit closer. Signs to the castle, like most of Prague's attractions, were easy to follow.

Prague Castle is really a small city, with numerous palaces, churches, art exhibitions—it seems to be the fashion to display contemporary art inside ancient places.

The main square was teeming with tourists, most of them waiting on a very slow line to enter the main cathedral/palace complex. After ten minutes of waiting, we had moved only a few feet; our best guess was at least an hour to get to the front—so we decided to skip it. We've seen plenty of castles and cathedrals, after all. So we just walked around the interconnected web of plazas and an occasional street between them, gaping at one beautiful exterior after another.

We did see the interior of one palace, where we took in a lunchtime concert. Unfortunately, the Lobkowicz Palace had been stripped of all its original furniture and decorations except in the recital hall, which had a number of Renaissance-era paintings on the ceiling; it was mostly just bare walls and galleries with rather uninteresting exhibits on ancient Prague life (all in Czech). Some glorious illuminated books, though.

The concert itself focused on accessible and familiar classical pieces. Unfortunately, of the three musicians, only the flautist was worth hearing, and the piano player was just awful.

Once nice surprise in this building was the Terrace Restaurant, offering a great view of Prague, well-prepared food, and prices much lower than one would expect in such a touristy spot.

Then back down the hill and across the Charles Bridge again, this time turning left toward the Jewish Quarter—where Dina went to find an ATM and got lost for an hour on the way back. We were seriously thinking about looking for an English-speaking police officer to report a missing person when she finally showed up.

It was getting late, so we took advantage of the ability to buy separate tickets to the Old-New Synagogue and to all the other sites. We did the former.

The oldest synagogue in Europe, the Old-New still has services every morning and every Shabbat. It's a rather odd place, not lavishly decorated, not particularly large, and the worship area is a floor below the street, so all the widows are high above the congregation. It has the most isolated women's section I've ever seen, and even that was added only in the 19th century, some 600 years after original construction. Women are behind a thick wall, perhaps three feet, and they view the services through narrow slits like the bow-firing windows of a medieval fortress. The women's section is not open to public view, and is so removed that we had to have the windows pointed out.

Rabbi Judah Low, in legend the creator of the Golem, was chief rabbi here, and his chair is on view.

The neighborhood is fascinating. While most of it was torn down in a huge-late 19th-century urban renewal project and replaced by large, ornate apartment buildings, many of the key buildings remain: several synagogues, the burial society headquarters just at the cemetery gate, the Jewish Town Hall. The most striking building is next to the High Synagogue—very dramatic, tall, and ornate, now housing a restaurant.

On the way to the Jewish quarter, at Valentinská 11, we spotted the Arzenal, a Thai restaurant in the stunning setting of a contemporary glassware gallery. We went back there to eat, and had some of the best Thai food I've ever experienced, anywhere.

From there, we walked back to the main train station, through the gorgeous and justly famous Old Town Square—one of the largest and most beautiful squares in a city of beautiful squares, with the astrological clock (one of two in the country), several churches, a better class of shops including (down an alley two blocks over) a wonderful English-language bookstore, the Anagram (Tyn 4).

Then a neighborhood that mixes Charles University with tourist-oriented shops. The quality of crafts in this area was better than elsewhere. Prague artists do beautiful work in two dimensions: contemporary street scenes in vivid colors, with Cubist-style distorted realities as well as traditional landscapes. Also some very nice earrings (including a distinctive metallic style made from black glass), wind chimes, and marionettes. A popular toy is a character from either ancient legend or popular culture on a spring, bobbing up and down when pulled (we saw several variants). Still, most of the shops offer ceramics and glassware that I find very unattractive and have no desire to take home.

Our route to the train station took us through a number of squares and historic Gothic towers, and past the Jerusalem Synagogue, with architecture that resembles the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, Spain: large stripes around horseshoe-shaped arched windows, domes, and a very colorful paint scheme. Small but quite ornate, dating from around 1906. It was closed when we went by, and again the following day, so we never got to see the inside. Along with the Old-New, it's still in active use.

For our final day, we again passed through the Old Town Square, watched the much-ballyhooed (and, in my opinion, highly overrated) clock chime the hour, and returned to the Jewish Quarter: This time, we bought the ticket for all the other synagogues plus the cemetery and burial society.

With the exception of the magnificent Spanish Synagogue, built on the site of the original Prague synagogue that was torn down in the 1860s, and which offers vivid decorations in a myriad of colors and patterns, the buildings themselves aren't all that impressive other than their age, having been stripped of many of their furnishings other than the bimahs (platforms where the rabbi stands to lead services) and arks. But what makes it worth the price of admission is the exhibit on the thousand-year history of Jews in the present-day Czech Republic, which winds its way through several of the buildings. We spent a good four hours seeing the whole thing, stopping for a tasty if somewhat overpriced Italian lunch in the neighborhood.

The cemetery is quite unusual: people are buried many layers deep, so the tombstones (all in Hebrew) crowd together like bunches of grapes—many at wild angles. I don't usually find graveyards creepy, but there was something unnerving about this one.

Dinner with our hosts and an early night, since we had an early flight the next day. Much more to see and do here—just have to find our way back!

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review, is author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, a 280-page e-book on how to have fun cheaply.


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