Going to Prague, we imagined the connecting point at the center of the Czech capital. The 700 year old Charles Bridge crosses the Moldau between the Old City and Prague Castle or. Best of the city, from Kafka to concerts, in every direction.
By David Stone
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It’s our first time inside Eastern Europe.
The Czech Republic, half of Czechoslovakia, passed decades behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union seized control in the aftermath of World War II.
We grew up with a cold, metallic vision of Prague.
The wall was punctured in 1991, and an invigorating breeze of freedom swept in from the West.
The Iron Curtain was a symbol of Soviet tyranny, we were taught, but the Soviets saw it as protection. Of an estimated 60 million killed in World War II, almost half, estimates as high as 28 million, were Soviets.
It was a clumsy, thuggish way to build a defense, dominating smaller nations with force, a steep price for protection.
Step One: Getting To Prague
Our friend Benny hung out with us at the train station as we left Vienna, making sure we didn’t get on the wrong coach. All announcements were in German, which neither of us spoke.
Benny’s Albanian but multilingual. He worked in Vienna, then, hoping to eventually earn Austrian citizenship. A few years later, his wish came true.
European nations are geographically closer than you might think, but the economic distances can be vast.
Countries in Europe confuse Americans. Each is, in size, more like one of our states.
The Czech Republic is among the smallest, left over from the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Victorious allies after World War I ridiculously divvied up the destroyed Hapsburg Empire.
Time and experience forced a bad marriage into divorce.
The train ride from Vienna to Prague, capital to capital, was only four and a half hours. Breakfast in Austria, lunch in the Czech Republic.
But that’s deceiving too. The distance between these to cities is greater in anything but physical distance.
Contrasts Along the Way
The countryside doesn’t vary much, but eventually, you spot guard posts out in the fields. Now abandoned, they were built to prevent Czechs from leaking West in search of freedom.
Inside the Czech Republic, rural rail yards are more dilapidated. Rusting rail cars idle off the main line.
Armed soldiers come around to check passports. It feels like a military state, lingering from the Soviet era, a fixed defensiveness.
Arriving in Prague
The last time we saw heavy military was while passing through Prague’s train station. It was secure but offered less help in signs and guides than other transportation centers. Soldiers, rifles slung over their soldiers, patrolled.
For no apparent reason.
Had we missed something? Was the country in turmoil we hadn’t heard about?
More likely, the military acts as employer of last resort. It does, quietly, in the U.S. The economy staggering, where would these men and women find work?
Any fears of a country in conflict were quickly relieved when the real funkiness of Prague, a city of past glories but now in transition from coma to capitalism, met us at the taxi stand.
The first anomaly? No cabs lined up to meet the train..
For ten minutes or so, we waited for taxis or an official explanation. Finally, a single cab slowly pulled up. Another circled in behind, and we moved up in orderly fashion .
Our orderliness was matched by the unpredictability of the cabs.
Cabs versus chaos
No cab looked like any of the others. It was as if a bunch of guys from the Bronx decided to drive over and negotiate rides.
Nothing was consistent or controlled. Unprepared tourists were challenged to negotiate fares in a currency — korunas — most had never heard of or knew anything about.
After the line chugged to a halt because no one left was willing to risk an unpredictable fare to who knows where, I broke the line and asked a cabbie if he’d take us to Central Prague.
He loaded our bags instantly and, a surprise to me, turned on a meter as we pulled away. A frozen line of tourists watched us pull away.
Before he pulled into the circle at our hotel, his meter was over 300 korunas. Prepared for larcenous taxi drivers by Rick Steves, I said, “No,” ready to run into the hotel for help if I had to.
The driver stayed behind the wheel, shrugging and pointing at the meter.
“I’ll give you two-hundred,” I said.
Later, I discovered that I’d worked him down to ten bucks American from an original charge of fifteen. The art of larceny remains at a low point in Prague.
A Taste of Old and New Prague
Prague contrasts can be dizzying. We went from an Old West cab ride, in just a few steps, to the finest hotel we’ve ever stayed in.
We don’t go in for luxury hotels because, as travelers, we’re never in them long enough to make it worth the price. A good breakfast lounge and a soft, quiet, clean place to sleep and shower is all it takes.
Today, for a midrange price we got an elegantly designed place and a chilled bottle of wine waiting in our room. Not bad.
Exciting places to see were all a short walking distance away. We made our way first to the Old Town’s Square..
A Twelfth Century space ringed with beautifully crafted, ancient structures, it’s great for people watching. When we were there, an Irish footfall team was in town for a sporting event, and droves of happy, often intoxicated visitors packed the bars and clustered in the Square.
Wenceslas Square is more historic, but it’s newer and really, relative to Old Town, tacky. Absent the historic events that took place during the liberation of Prague, there isn’t a lot to recommend it.
Numerous sites will give you more lists than you can ever follow. But we like to get a feel for the neighborhoods and the historic building blocks.
So, you can do a hundred other things, but to enjoy Prague, start from Old Town Square and wander the meandering, ancient streets toward Charles Bridge. It’s the city’s heart, the place where its complicated souls join.
Along the way, you’ll pass original boutiques, cafes and restaurants, enough variety to keep you distracted for blocks until you reach the Moldau.
Going to Prague for the Charles Bridge
A ramble along side streets takes you to coffee shops where Kafka captured caffeine and the Jewish Museum, the saddest active site in all of Europe.
Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV, was constructed between 1357 and early the early 1400s. It’s gone through changes in reconstructions many times, but stands now, along and wide sweep of the river, as the most symbolic connection between Old Town and the Lesser Quarter.
The Lesser Quarter is a bustling neighborhood through which you must hike to visit Prague Castle, high on the hill.
Prague has the unique and lucky distinction of being the only Middle European capital not bombed in World War II.
For that reason, the Charles Bridge and the old neighborhoods that surround it remain as authentic reminders of a different, more elegant time. It’s much as it was when Wolfgang Mozart was celebrated after conducting what became known, predictably, as his Prague Symphony.
Take the walk from Old Town Square across the Charles Bridge and up through the Lesser Quarter to Prague Castle slowly. Take time to absorb hundreds of years of history.
Before tourists jammed the narrow lanes, Mozart played here, Kafka wrote in isolation, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler studied the stars, and Einstein taught physics.
Each of them walked more than once where you’re placing your footsteps. Like you, they looked out at the Moldau from Charles Bridge or from high up in the Castle. You are walking waist-deep in history.