March 27, 2012 — Prague is old, even from a “modern” standpoint. Evidence of colonization dates to the Paleolithic Age, and the earliest communities arose around the 9th century. Yet, like so many European cities, especially after World War II and the Cold War, the old has become new as economies and governments stabilize and tourists rediscover the past.
I began my AMA Waterways “Romantic Danube” cruise (Prague to Budapest) with a three-day pre-cruise extension. I thought I’d enjoy some interesting sightseeing; I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which I fell in love with this city.
The ideal place to get to know Prague is at the landmark which is synonymous with Prague itself. The Prague Castle was built in the 800s obviously as a defense for the early Czech rulers. Over the centuries, parts of the structure have been changed and updated. The castle has been invaded, burned and otherwise damaged. It’s been used as a science center during the Renaissance, a royal residence, and is today the official government residence of the President. Yet, the essence of the place remains. It is the quintessential icon of Prague.
If you’re in great shape, you can walk up the long flight of stairs up to the castle. Or you can take a scenic tram ride and get off at any of several stops to begin your tour of the castle. There are gardens, courtyards, several entrances, several main halls and so much more to see inside and out. Our smart AMA tour guide recommended taking the tram all the way to the top and working our way down. It was definitely the right choice for many of us.
There is so much to see at Prague Castle, but here are some highlights that my travel mates and I absolutely loved. Golden Lane (Zlatá ulicka) is a charming street of tiny 16th-century houses built right into the castle walls. St. Vitus Cathedral (Chrám sv. Víta) is actually the main part of the castle. We were overwhelmed by the imposing gothic architecture, the magnificent stained glass and the soaring arches. It is the largest and most important cathedral in Prague, the final resting place of royals and saints, and the venue for centuries of royal coronations.
If you have the time, see “The Story of Prague Castle” a fascinating 90-minute presentation showing the history of the castle from the prehistoric period up to the present. If the weather is conducive to meandering through the gardens, by all means, do so. A hidden treasure: The Stag Moat. Once the watery defense line of the castle, it is now a lovely nature walk with perspectives of the castle and grounds not seen from anywhere else in the complex.
Our wanderings through the Prague castle took most of the day (I, for one, could have stayed longer!), but we still had time to exit the castle grounds, stroll through the lovely Lesser Town (Malá Strana) and walk across the Charles Bridge to New Town, before boarding our AMA tour bus for the ride back to our hotel. But you can choose to stroll around New Town, stop for lunch or a snack and browse the local shops. One shop in particular is Blu, which features a wonderful collection of glass art rivaled only by Murano in Venice, but much less expensive.
The next day was a “free time” day. My companions and I decided to return to Old Town. We had to get up close to the amazing Astronomical Clock.
The clock and tower were built in the early 1400s. It has obviously undergone repairs and refurbishments over the years, including major reconstruction after being nearly demolished by Nazi weaponry during WW II. The figures and dials are works of art, fully functional in these modern times, yet indicative of the era in which they were constructed. Some of the figures on the clock are a Vain Man, a Moneylender, Death, an Angel, a Timekeeper, a Philosopher and a Turk. The 12 Apostles emerge to herald each hour. A mechanical rooster crows. Coats of arms and royal symbols decorate the tower.
The astronomical dial illustrates natural events as they were understood in the medieval era: movement of the sun and moon, seasons, signs of the zodiac, etc. Notice that on the dial, the sun orbits the earth! I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will: DO NOT walk away before the hour strikes. The symphony of the clock announcing the hour is truly a sight to behold.
Our next stop was the Old Jewish Quarter. It took us longer than expected to walk there, as 6 roads lead away from the Astronomical Clock and we – typical tourists that we are – took the wrong one. Locals either didn’t speak English or pretended not to and it seemed that tour groups were heading elsewhere. But we finally found it and when we did, we were not disappointed. We toured several synagogues including the Old New Synagogue. Originally called the New Synagogue when it was built in 1270 (there’s that old/new dichotomy again!), the word “old” was appended after newer synagogues cropped up. The Old New Synagogue is remarkable as the home of the legendary Golem, a mythical creature created from mud to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution and violence.
Later, we joined some travel mates for an optional AMA outing – dinner and a folk dance show. It was for tourists, yes, but it was colorful and a fun way to end this portion of our amazing journey. We met people who would be cruising with us on the gorgeous AMA AmaLegro and with whom we became close travel companions.
In a striking coincidence, the AMA AmaLegro is one of the original ships in the AMA Waterways fleet, yet offers the newest amenities for cultivated travelers: Free Internet access, a flat-screen TV “Infotainment” system with first-run movies, satellite and a music library, direct dial telephones in the cabin, and air conditioning.
As I looked forward to the rest of my AMA Danube River cruise, I couldn’t help thinking that I would return to Prague someday, my new favorite old city.