Like many travelers before me, I’ve always wanted to visit Prague. Part of it is the sense of enlightenment through its history. Prague Spring in 1968 was a temporary thawing of Communist ruled Czechoslovakia. This so-called “Communism with a Face” was the Czechs’ attempt to bring their government in line with their citizenry. Although it was ruthlessly put down by the Soviet Union in the summer of 1968, I always felt a kindred spirit with the Prague citizens. They tried to improve their situation in non-violent ways. In 1989 Prague was freed from 41 years of Communist control by the bloodless “Velvet Revolution.” Hand it to the Czechs; they know how to throw a revolution where no one gets hurt.
In the turmoil of today’s political chaos, I wanted to visit a place in Europe whose history was not dominated by war and bloodshed. So we decided to start the decade by ringing in the New Year in Prague.
Walking around the Old Town square, your imagination transports you back to the 12th century of Europe. Prague did not suffer the constant bombing and destruction of World War II, so most of the original buildings are still standing. In Starmestske namesti (the square), structures of Gothic, baroque and rococo line the edges. Arriving before the New Year, the square was still full of stalls of Prague’s most famous Christmas Market. The delightful smells of roasted pork and sausages, bread, and beer took us back to a time when Prague was a thriving Medieval city and place of commerce.
Our hotel was across the Vltava river in the Lesser Town district. Connecting this part of the city with Prague’s Old Town quarter is the famous Charles Bridge. Easily one of Prague’s most recognizable landmarks, this 15th century stone bridge provides breathtaking views of the city. Buskers and artists line the wide stone span, all beneath the 30 statues that line the sides of the bridge. At each end of the Charles Bridge are Gothic bridge towers, looming over the scores of tourists crossing to one side of the river to the other.
We crossed over the bridge several times during our visit. No matter the time of day, it was always crowded with tourists. If the Old Town square is the heart of Prague, then the Charles Bridge is its main artery.
The other landmark synonymous with the city is Prague Castle. Sitting majestically on a steep hill, the citadel keeps a watchful eye on Prague below as it has for over a 1000 years. Initially built for defense, over the centuries, the castle has morphed into more of a palace. A good part of this metamorphosis was because of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, who undertook a massive rebuilding effort in the latter 18th century. Her efforts modernized large parts of the castle, so many buildings are still in use today.
According to our local travel guide, the castle is one of the most visited sites in Europe. With that in mind, we arrived just as the castle was opening for the day. Arriving at the castle just after sunrise during the Christmas holidays, we avoided most of the crowds.
Dominating the castle complex is St. Vitus Cathedral. Finished in 1929, it was the last part of the castle completed. It disappointed me to see that only a small part of the cathedral was free to visitors. Other areas, including the transept, chancel, and several chapels, required an entrance fee. Our guide informed us this was common in Prague. While I understand the need for funds to keep these landmarks maintained, it took me by surprise to see this at a place of worship.
Food and Drink in Prague
If you are a beer lover, Prague is a “must-visit” destination. We stayed at the Augustine Hotel in Prague. Renovated from an active 13th century Augustine monastery, the hotel served St. Thomas beer, made from the monastery’s recipe originating from the 14th century.
Prague is proud of its brewing history, and most of the beer served in restaurants we visited were regional brews favored by the locals. Since I found the wine selection often lacking in Prague, beer quickly became my beverage of choice.
While not a “foodie,” I was overall pleased with the food options in Prague. Traditional Czech food includes Goulash, a hearty beef stew with local vegetables. We also sampled the Grilovane klobasy; a spicy grilled sausage slapped in baguette bread in the Christmas market food stalls in the Old Town square. It surprised me to find that Czech pancakes (palacinky) were closer to being crepes than pancakes I’m used to eating here in the States. Typically topped with nuts, whipped cream, and fruit, Czech pancakes were an excellent light dessert option.
New Year’s Eve in Prague
Truth-be-told, I hate celebrating New Year’s Eve. It is cold, people get too drunk, and it means I have to stay up late (can you tell I’m getting old!?!). But enjoying the festivities in a foreign city was too good an opportunity to pass up. Rather than booze it up at a local bar, we walked the streets and see how Prague parties. Everyone seemed to have a good time, but rarely did we see anyone get too intoxicated. Food seemed to be a substantial part of the festivities, which helped keep the public drunkenness down. What Prague inhabitants ARE excessive about is fireworks. Never in my life have I seen so many people and place shooting off so many fireworks. Nor did they start at midnight! By about 11:00 pm, there was a steady cacophony of fireworks going off around the city.
My wife and I thought it best to avoid the crowds at Charles Bridge and the Old Town square, so we walked down to the nearby Manes Bridge to ring in the new year. As the countdown began, fireworks started to erupt around the city. Fellow onlookers brought personal incendiaries; soon, our bridge sounded like a fire-fight. As the year 2020 started, the skies over Prague filled with celebratory fireworks. The best ones were at Charles Bridge and the nearby Old Town square, and we had a bird’s-eye view of them both. People were happy but not out of control. It was the best New Year’s celebration my wife and I ever experienced.
As I’ve indicated before, I don’t write about hotels, restaurants, attractions; TripAdvisor does a much better job at that than I can ever do. I’m more interested in how a place makes me feel. Prague is a beautiful old-world city that delights in the simple things (simple food, good beer, and fireworks (lots and lots of fireworks!). Nothing seemed pretentious or over the top. While the language is difficult to understand as it is Slavic based and not rooted in Latin (like English), I felt at home in Prague. The streets were clean and alive, people moved with purpose but were not in a hurry. I thoroughly enjoyed our visit and look forward to visiting again.