For the past 14 years, my Frenchquest has led me to many treasures in the Francophone culture in French language, art, architecture, gastronomy, history and culture. Most of my time and education was spent in my favorite city, Paris; but to fully appreciate and understand the uniqueness of French culture, I also visited all regions nord, sud, est and oust in France. I could not imagine any other place on Earth that would satiate my love for all things French. And then I met Prague!
Last month, I expanded my horizons to a new “Czechquest” by traveling to Prague with my daughter Madison, to celebrate her completion of graduate work in Psychology. Prague was high on Madison’s list of places to visit and became our primary destination.
Previous to our visit, I didn’t know anything about Prague or the rich Czech culture; not the language, history, architecture or geography. For one of the few times in my world travels, I arrived as a neophyte: open to new impressions and to letting the city speak to me, and it did! For this blog, I have included my research on the history since arriving back home, all of the wonderful sights we visited and my impressions!
We arrived in Prague, Praha, by train from Vienna into the Art Nouveau Praha hlavni nadrazais station. This is when the love affair began! The cupola-shaped, richly decorated lobby, statues, wrought-iron elements, and steel and glass construction was designed by Josef Fanta and is a great representation of the unique architecture which is to come! (Don’t forget to change your currency from Euros to Koruna before you leave the station!)
Our 20 minute tram ride took us straight to our hotel on the highest point in Prague in the Hradcany. I believe that part of incredible Prague experience was directly related to our hotel experience. We stayed at the Hotel Questenberk which is part of the Strahov Monastery. [I booked this through Travelocity, surprisingly, and had one of the best hotel experiences. There are only 47 rooms, spacious, quiet rooms, with incredible views of the city for $100 a night-unbelievable!]. The breakfast served at the Questenberk was a highlight of our stay!
We had dinner soon after arriving in an old wine cellar under the Monastery. I had braised duck with cabbage and dumplings! So delicious. Next, we walked down the steep incline of the left bank, Hradcany, which contains most famously the Prague Castle, an old royal palace with gardens and the Strahov Monastery.
As we winded through the medieval twisting cobble streets, we had our first taste of Prague architecture. Prague is one of the few medieval cities in our world today with 600 years of architecture virtually untouched by natural disaster or war. Prague’s architectural style mix of Romanesque, Baroque, Rococo, Gothic, Renaissance, Classicism and Art Nouveau is enchanting. Prague was one of the few cities spared by tragic destruction of wars and kept its provincial feel, unlike most European capital cities which had to rebuild during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Romanesque architecture of Prague spans back to the year 800 AD and can be seen in the round arches, thick walls, groin vaults and large towers around the city. In the Old Town, for instance, the rotunda of the Holy Cross still enthralls with fragments of 14th century wall paintings in the nave. The Saint Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle was originally constructed with a Romanesque rotunda before is was rebuilt with a basilica at the end of the 11th century.
The St. Vitus Cathedral, built by Charles IV in 1344, is predominantly in the Gothic style. The ribbed vault with pointed arches were used at that time because it was thinner, lighter and more versatile than the Romanesque stone vaults (see Notre Dame Cathedral, March 2019).
A visit to the Prazsky hrad, Prague Castle, took us most of a day as we stood in many lines for tickets and to enter to the landmarks. This complex sits atop a 7th century Slav settlement and whoever has had control of the Hrad has had authority of all Czech lands. The palaces and gardens are a hodgepodge of various architecture styles. There is a great view of the Old Town from the Castle.
My favorite part, of course, was the Bohemian Chancellery with the Diet room in with the King of that time, his archbishop, judiciary and representatives from all of Bohemia would meet to dictate and enact the laws of the land. The rooms are lined with New Land Rolls, law books, with painted binders dating back to the 12th century. The walls are lined with the different regions coat of arms:
A la style of the French Renaissance in the Chateaus of Versailles and Fontainebleau are the geometric gardens and houses of Prague. In the mid 16th century, Renaissance style was a la mode and became an important part of the footprint here.
Further down the incline is my favorite area of Prague: the “Little Quarter” on the Mala Strana. These 18th century backstreets where Mozart resided were not crowded like the Old Town and were highlighted by hidden gardens behind old palaces, quaint canals and wonderful restaurants. There are also many palaces and houses in the “Little Quarter” with painted and engraved “house signs” above the doors. These signs depict the trade of the inhabitants such as: musician, artist, carpenter, etc.
At the bottom of The Mala Strana, before you reach the Charles Bridge, are the city’s embassies which are joined by the recently iconic “Lennon Wall” named after John Lennon. Young Czechs have written grievances on the wall since the 1980’s after the assassination of John Lennon and have become symbols of global ideas such as love and peace. The wall is repainted every three years.
These were the highlights of the left bank for our tour of Prague. Now on to the Charles Bridge.
The Charles Bridge, completed in 1402, is an iconic bridge bookended by two mighty Gothic towers, slightly askewed, and bordered with Baroque statues many depicting Christ’s life. It covers the famous Vltava River. The Charles Bridge was the site of the last battle of the Thirty Years’ War fought between Swedes and an army of Prague’s students and Jews.
The right bank contains many twisting cobbled streets in the original medieval hub of the city: Staré Mesto, or “Old Town”. Dating back to the 9th century, Staré Město was comprised of settlements on the bank of the Vltava. In the 14th century the Old Town of Prague began to prosper and was an important Central European marketplace. The King of Bohemia resided here and built a town hall. It soon became the residence of the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles IV, who also founded the University of Prague.
The most famous attractions in the Old Town are the Old Town square and the Staromestské namestí, the astronomical clock.
Surprisingly, we only had to use public transportation twice. We walked most of the time; even up and down the steep hill from our hotel and back (about 17,000 steps daily per my Garmin!). This was essential to see all the appealing features of the old houses and breathtaking architecture that changes with every turn of the corner. Fortunately, we had good weather, 40-60F days with mostly sunny skies. May/June typically have many rainy days so we were fortunate.
As we were only in Prague for 3 days, we did not have a chance to tour the Jewish Quarter, Josefov, or the Nové Mesto, the “New Town” which is the city’s commercial and business center, or the Bohemian castles around the city ( had to save something for the next trip!). In addition, there are various suburbs with many parks and squares that are in most travel books.
The final part of my Czech education was the literary influences. As I had a copy of Kafka’s The Métamorphose from my days in Paris (French version), I took it with me for “light reading” on the long train rides. Again, this was my first introduction to Kafka and his novella. Imagine my surprise when the first paragraph reveals that the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning in the body of a cancrelat, or cockroach! don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t read it!
Kafka was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague. He became a lawyer and died young at the age of 40 from tuberculosis. You can visit his many residences in Prague (or the site where his houses used to be) and even see the massive “Head of Kafka” statue (11 metres tall)- perhaps on my next trip!
So that is my review of my trip to Prague. I will continue on my Czechquest with studying about the Holy Roman Empire (which was begun by the French Emperor-Charlesmagne; here is my Frenchquest connection!) and my on-going study of Napoleon’s ‘s conquest.
Ahoj, Praha! Until next time!
Copyright 2019. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)