Travelling back in time in Prague

by kozmik

It is one of Europe's best preserved medieval city centres, with a touch of Bohemian fantasy. If you have ever wondered what it's like to travel back in time, Prague is your kind of place

It's a very Kafkaesque moment in the home town of Franz Kafka.

I am walking with the tram ticket inspector to the airport cash machine to pay the excess fare he has decided I should be paying for the journey out to the airport from Prague city centre. And I have the near certain feeling he is a former secret policeman. Studiously polite, like myself, he accepts the payment from the cash machine and we are on our way back to Blighty several pounds sterling lighter.

Welcome to the looking-glass world of a former Communist country and town struggling to get up to speed on the ways of the capitalist West.

You could of course let all this complex history and associated nuances pass you by and throw yourself into partying like not a few of the million plus visitors who visit Prague in the course of a single year. It is a time capsule; a perfect preservation of an ancient way of life and civilisation that has almost entirely disappeared in the great wars and disasters of the 20th century which have swept across the continent.

Lesser Town world heritage site

One area of town, Mala Strana (Lesser Town), has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO so perfectly does it take you back to a medieval Europe thanks to the many buildings dating from that time.

Where to stay

Your recommended hotel, the Aureus Clavis, is at 243 Nerudova Street which leads from the famous and majestic Charles Bridge to the Lesser Town Square. Numerous films and TV commercials are made in this part of town, it is just so charged with presences from a rich and chequered history.

The hotel has been newly renovated but retains all of its Gothic heritage and history on what is a medieval street. It is both cosily small and yet strangely atmospheric thanks to its long past.

However, if you really want to soak in the atmosphere of the old town, then you can stay at the Hotel Century Old Town Prague, (Na Ponci Street 7) which is located between the Old Town Square and Wencelas Square. This former insurance company was where Franz Kafka worked; now it is a splendid luxury hotel in a great position in the old town.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle, which dominates the skyline to this day, was once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire kings. Its great adjoining cathedral, St Vitus, took six centuries to complete and has stained glass windows that will take your breath away. Spotting English writer Howard Jacobsen on his own sightseeing tour of the castle and cathedral reminded me of the castle's turbulent history that looks strangely weird written down.

Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

In WWII, Himmler's number two, Reinhard Heydrich, Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravis, was based at the castle and ran his campaigns of pure terror from here. To the credit of the Prague resistance they managed to assassinate him during his merciless rule with the help of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Thousands of torch carrying SS men lined the funeral route procession to the castle for the planner of Hitler's Final Solution.

Wenceslas Square

After your visit to the castle take the tram to Wenceslas Square on the other side of the river, this is the centre of modern Prague.  It is also where the Soviet tanks arrived to end the Prague Spring reforms under Alexander Dubcek.

Reducta Jazz Club

Just near Wenceslas Square is the Reducta Jazz Club on Narodni Street where President Bill Clinton played sax on a visit after the communist regime fell and the writer Vaclav Hevel was made President. This is an old favourite spot for jazz fans. Performances start nightly at 9.30pm, bookings can be made from 3pm (Tel: +420 224 933 487).

If a riverboat jazz cruise rather than an intimate club appeals then you can book at www.jazzboat.cz for a two and a half hour cruise that takes in sights such as the floodlit castle along the way. Maybe it is just me, but I also get grounded about where I am seeing it from the river perspective, and Prague has beautiful riverside views all along the course of your water borne journey.. Cost is 590czk =£29.50 while a three-course gourmet meal adds another 390czk - £20 to the cost.

Old Town Square

The centre of Prague life for some 1,000 years has been the old town square. It is marvellously preserved and overlooked by the great twin towers of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn which dates from 1365.  Virtually every building in the square harks back to medieval times.

Join the great throng of visitors gazing at the 12 apostles who parade out from the astronomical clock before it strikes the hour. It was built in 1410 and just about survived the fire caused by Nazi shelling of the Old Town Hall when the Prague people revolted against their masters two days before the end of the war in May 1945.

The tower of the Old Town Hall gives you panoramic views all over the old town. The church of St Nicholas (also known as Santa) provides a marvellous auditorium for summer concerts (which are charged for). Stop off for a coffee and cake at one of the numerous cafés in the narrow medieval lanes leading off the square but not on it where prices are high and the waiters are harassed. And then join a guided walking tour of the old town by searching out one of the tour groups assembling in the square (details from www.pragueexperience.com). Cost of a one hour tour is 200 czk - £10.

Jewish Quarter

You will be led towards the old Jewish Quarter where Prague's Jews were forced to live at a time when they made up a quarter of the population. Six synagogues are preserved from these times together with the Jewish cemetery where they had to be buried one above the other, so crowded had the ghetto become.

The great tragedy of the Holocaust, that Heydrich so ruthlessly planned and executed, can be felt viscerally here. It is the void at the heart of Europe, the crime that we can still barely comprehend.

If you are ready for full exposure to the horror, there are day trips to Auschwitz from Prague which leave at 6am and return at 11pm after what is a long drive to and from Poland. Full details at www.wittmann-tours.com, cost is 16,800czk - £84 for two people.

All too soon your weekend in Bohemia comes to an end. Here is a final expensively learnt tip. If you are taking the tram back to the airport, buy the long ride 75 minute ticket from the metro ticket office, not the single 20 minute ticket! You can also buy a three day pass, even safer. A friend just back from Prague confirms that 'they' are still targeting the tourists on the airport trams. He got hit with a 700czk - £35 fine. Kafkaesque!