Long ago in Bohemia says the legand, a princess dreamed of a large city ‘whose fame would touch the starts’ and which would rise by the River, on the spot where a man was hewing the threshold of his home ‘prah’. So a town named praha (or Prague) was born. On its way north to join the elbe, the Vltava flows through the city in a majestic loop, wild and impatient at times, but as gentle as a new-born lamb when blue skies return after a storm. Spanned by elegant bridges, sprinkled with green islands alongside the canals, it gives the Czech capital a touch of Venetian charm. Swans glide along the banks, unperturbed by the gleaming tourist boats, the traditional steamers, the pedalos, the flapping of paddles and oars or the odd fisherman dozing under a tree.
Water tumbles over the weir, sand glistens in a tiny creek and on the canal, a lock opens the gates to let a boat through. Day or night, the river shimmers with reflections from lofty spires and domes to Gothic towers, stylish Renaissance façades, Baroque flourishes, Art Nouveau or modernist fantasies, turning all shades of gold in the setting sun. This is Prague at its most romantic, a time to stroll along the quay, dine al fresco at the water’s edge or sip cocktails on the top deck of a boat before the party gets under way. Relaxed or bustling, the Vltava has inspired writers and artists for centuries, including Czech composer Smetana who dedicated a Symphonic Poem to its journey across the land. In German, it is known as the Moldau.
Every bridge in Prague has a story to tell but most iconic is Charles Bridge, built under the auspices of Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, who laid the foundation stone on 9th July 1357, at 5.31 am, as directed by the Court astrologers. It was indeed an auspicious.
Time for the old stone bridge still stands, stretching over 500 metres between the towers, supported by 16 arches and lined by some 30 statues, donated by churches and faculties in homage to their patron saints. They form an impressive guard of honour, looking down on the flagstones where tourists gaze at the view and artists and musicians do business under their multi-coloured parasols.Closed to traffic, it’s one of the busiest spots in town
For over 450 years, this was the only bridge across the river but today there are plenty of crossings between the Old and New Towns on the right bank and the Lesser Town and Castle district on the left. Up on the hill above the vineyards, Prague Castle is part of the historical centre listed by UNESCO and also mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as the most extensive complex of its kind.
Once the residence of the Kings of Bohemia, it houses the Presidential Offices and stages a daily Changing of the Guard. Construction began in the 9th century but by the late 1300s, the castle had grown into a fullblown citadel incorporating a royal palace, churches and monasteries. Altered and renovated several times, it’s a maze of towers and gates, palatial rooms turned museum or art gallery and quaint medieval cottages along its Golden Lane. At the heart of it all is St Vitus Cathedral which replaced the original church under Charles IV. It took almost six centuries to complete, the resting place of Bohemian kings and queens and guardian of the crown jewels kept under seven locks and keys.
More architectural wonders dot the nearby squares and the Lesser Town spreading down to the left bank. There are lush gardens and fountains and the lovely parklands of Petrin Hill with a mini Eiffel Tower and remains of the Hunger Wall, commissioned by Charles IV to provide work and food for the poor. Climb to the top of the tower and Prague is at your feet, red roofs and spires glinting in the sun, the great loop of the river and on the other side
the Old Town which as the princess predicted, flourished at the crossroad of major trading routes.Between the river and the ancient Powder Gate, the Old Town leads you from medieval to modern times through an amazing kaleidoscope of architecture. Here’s the Municipal House draped in Art Nouveau, there a Romanesque chapel, the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Tyn, the Rococo frontage of the Kinsky Palace, the magnificent Baroque building of Clam Gallas, the cubist house, the neo-classical Theatre, the eclectic Carolina, the oldest university in central Europe, set up by Charles IV. Wandering through the lanes brings endless surprises, a golden angel on a rooftop, a sculpted balcony, an ornate doorknob, but the highlight is undoubtedly the Old Town Square.
Festooned in ancient arcades, it’s the heart and soul of the old town, the place to unwind in the shade with a cool local beer or a cappuccino and watch the world go by. Flowers bloom on the café terrace, horse-drawn carriages wait for custom and the awesome Jan Hus monument pays tribute to the religious reformer burnt at the stake in 1415. Meanwhile, bridal couples queue for pictures in front of the church and on the hour, crowds gather by the Townhall where on the old Astronomical Clock, figures come out to mark the passing of time.
The Townhall displays a rich and varied architecture but the unmissable attraction is the 360° panorama from the top of the tower, looking across this fabled ‘City of 100 Spires’ to the hills in the distance.The Old Town is best explored on foot but there’s always a chance to take a break and enjoy some international cuisine or tempting local bites. Favourites include Prague ham and potato pancake, dumplings or the hearty goulash stew, followed by generous desserts doused in butter or whipped cream.
Eating al fresco on a summer evening is delightful as garlands of lights shed a magic glow along the lanes and some of the city’s finest buildings.Up river on the other hand, the New Town was designed by Charles IV with wide airy streets to please the prosperous bourgeoisie. Wenceslas Square is almost like a Parisian boulevard, well ahead of the time, and throughout the ages, skilled architects have embellished the district.
Today, the New Town claims an attractive range of museums and cultural venues, such as the acclaimed National Theatre by the river, and plenty of retail therapy, designer boutiques, international stores and duty-free outlets, complementing the souvenir shops in the Old Town. Bohemian crystal and porcelain, art work, silver and gold, garnet, antiques and modern glassware are every day temptations.But the Vltava has seen it all, wide-eyed tourists and medieval merchants, princes and kings, war and peace, and a new Czech Republic currently celebrating its 20th birthday. Prague, the enticing capital, has come of age and with its unrivalled heritage and convivial ambiance, it is one of the most visited cities in Europe.