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Prague - The secret capital of europe

Prague has been associated with Bohemian crystal, timeless music composer Mozart and literary genius Franz Kafka. Take a historical break this summer and visit some of the most breathtaking sites in this European city. By Afiya Zia. Photography Khalid Siddiqui

When the Bohemian King Charles IV rose as Holy Roman Emperor, Prague became for a while, the capital of the Holy Roman Emperor of German nations. Many of the gothic structures and development of Prague is associated with this period. The city has also experienced waves of peace and war with German occupation during the Second World War, followed by Communist rule of the former USSR. It was only in 1989, when poet dissident Vaclav Havel became President, that Prague was restored politically and culturally to its original identity.

Looking back
One of the most outstanding constructions is the Prague Castle constructed in the 9th Century. The castle has been the seat of a secular government but also a religious center and today it contains countless artistic treasures. It also houses historical sites, several courtyards, a picture gallery, chapels and political halls, beautiful glass windows and cultural treasures.

The different courtyards are spread all over the city. In the third castle courtyard, is the famous St Vitus cathedral. So dominating is this landmark that it can only be photographed with a very wide angle lens. The cathedral is where many ceremonies were held for a long succession of Bohemian kings - be they coronations or funerals.

Like most old cities, there are many parts to Prague such as the Lesser Town, which is accessed via the Charles Bridge. Its narrow alleys, cozy squares and small parks refer to the Baroque period. Interestingly, the movie Amadeus was not filmed in Vienna but in this part of Prague. One of the oldest structures in the Lesser Town is St John's Church of the Bleach dating to the 13th Century. Interestingly, after the secularisation, the church became a public bath or wash house and was nicknamed, the House of Bleach. Another popular structure is the gothic-inspired House of Painters, which is now a tavern. Several prominent churches and the palace of the Grand Maltese Prior are constantly being repaired and preserved in this area.

The Old Town Ring is the lively part of the city with street artists, hawkers and tourists always around. The Tyn Church with its steeple and Madonna is one of the most impressive churches. Partially Gothic with Baroque elements added later, this church was the main Prague Protestant church until the Thirty Years' War.

Another important feature of the Old Town is its Hall composed of several buildings. Infact, it is considered very prestigious for the locals to have a wedding ceremony in the town hall. The Town Hall Astronomical clock dates back to 1410 and was mechanised in 1560.

Another important landmark is the Charles Bridge named in honour of the Emperor Charles IV. The monarch had ordered the bridge be built for strategic reasons in 1357 and the architect was Peter Parler. The Jewish Quarter is associated with Franz Kafka as the famous literary genius was born and then buried in the Jewish cemetery.

The New Town is actually old. When King Charles IV decided to make Prague the capital of his kingdom, the new town was to be established outside the gates of the Old Town in 1348. A new style of architecture is evident in this area as a new generation of designers built this part of Prague in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here, the National Museum with its 700 metre long cupola and the National Theatre are some of the must-see places in the city.

Cultural treats
The most obvious point of aesthetic beauty in Prague is its architecture. It shouts ‘history' to you wherever you walk, viewing the ornamental details and artifacts. While the architecture of Prague bears witness to tremendous historical wealth, the details of this history are to be found in museums and galleries. The National Gallery has four institutions and three galleries. These include the Sternberg Palace, St George's Monastery, St Agnes Monastery and Zbraslav Castle. Each museum holds collections of Czech as well as other prominent European artists and sculptors over the centuries. For those interested in sculpture art during the Bohemian period, the Zbraslav exhibits are an educational treat.

Other interesting collections can be viewed at the Museum of the Capital City of Prague; The Museum of Decorative Arts, the Wax Museum and the Puppet Museum. The Museum of Decorative Arts has a collection of antique furniture and double walled glass containers with gold and silver foil between the layers besides other interesting art pieces.

The richest aspect for tourists in Prague is probably the theatre and music the city has to offer. Classical drama as well as grand opera are staged regularly. Moreover, the renditions are not interpretative rather they are closest to the composer's original vision. The architectural atmosphere enhances the flavour of the production since most theatres are in historical buildings.

One such famous one is the Estates Theatre where Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro was performed in 1786 and was acclaimed all over Europe. In 1878, Mozart returned to the Estates Theatre to a resoundingly successful composition of Don Giovanni. In tribute to these popular compositions, the Estates Theatre has continued over the centuries, to offer these performances as highlights in its programmes.

Puppet theatres are another original part of Prague's culture. The expressive puppets and the plots of the performances are designed to amuse and entertain as an accessible form of theatre.

For music enthusiasts, the city is replete with unique performances. Every day there are performances in many of the city's old palaces, historic buildings and churches. Visitors can choose from a variety of performances such as those found at the Prague State Opera playing Carmen, Madam Butterfly, Hamlet, Don Giovanni; or black theatre and pantomime at the All Colours Theatre; or even contemporary musicals such as Singing In the Rain or My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly!; and several hundred programmes of concert music at the museums and castle.

One of the festivals to enjoy is called Prague Spring, which converts the whole city into a party event. The Czech Philharmonic is an impressive neo-Renaissance building and also holds art exhibitions. Similarly Prague is famous for its lively Jazz performances. The most famous jazz club is the Reduta founded in 1958. Recently it gained fame when Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel performed there together. In October, Prague also hosts an international jazz festival. For a younger generation there are several clubs and discos as is a lively Repre Klub where local young rock bands perform new numbers. AW

Where to eat
The cafe culture of Europe that is so attractive to tourists will not disappoint visitors in Prague. Cafe Europa on Wenceslas Square, has a two-storey art nouveau architecture and in the afternoons slow piano melodies float out onto the street. For a more sophisticated coffee, the hotel Savoy offers coffee under neo-Renaissance ceilings. The Cafe Louvre is famous for having patroned in the 1900s by intellectuals such as Max Brod and Franz Kafka.

The gastronomy of the city is famed and the range of European cuisine as well as Bohemian-Moravian, makes for refined dining. There are several fast food outlets and inexpensive meals at the inns found in side streets.

Where to shop
Prague is refreshingly affordable compared to many European countries for music (especially CDs which are upto 50 per cent less than in the West) and other consumer goods. Bohemian glass and porcelain make for great souvenirs but are not necessarily cheap.

The Golden Lane has many interesting legends associated with it concerning alchemists and magical charm. In the 20th Century well-known personalities have lived there. Infact, Franz Kafka's house is also located in the Golden Lane. Today it has lots of little shops and is a busy place with tourists and locals alike.

Travel essentials

Visas:
No visas required for American, Canadian and British citizens. All others must apply for visa.

Currency:
Koruna 40 = US$ 1

Where to stay:
Five-Star range: Savoy in the Lesser Town; Inter-Continental in the Old Town; City Hotel Moran Best Western in the Upper New Town

Other interesting hotels to stay at include: U Raka which is a classy, renovated hotel close to the castle; Pariz, considered Prague's most beautiful Art Noveau hotel; Europa another beautiful Art Nouveau hotel and the interiors would make a great film setting.

Time to visit:
Jan-Feb - Several parades and Mardi Gras takes place; Mar, Aug, Sept - various theatre festivals; May - Spring Festival; Oct - International Jazz festival.

Flight Information:
Czech Airlines flies directly from Dubai to Prague twice a week (Saturdays and Thursdays); Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss Air are some other carriers that fly to Prague but via their hubs.


Travel Desk (Previous Features)





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