With its Gothic spires, baroque domes and bohemian cafés, Prague is a fairytale city where the culture is thriving and the architecture inspiring. Our correspondent takes a magical history tour
Prague Castle above Malá Strana, from across the River Vltava
Maybe it’s because I watched the movie Amadeus recently – much of which was shot in Prague – but standing amidst the rococo splendour of the 18th-century Estates Theatre in the city’s Old Town, it takes little effort to imagine a bewigged Mozart tinkling away on the piano composing Don Giovanni, as he did back in 1787. Mozart, whose 250th anniversary was celebrated in 2006, loved this city and it loved him. The Marriage of Figaro had been panned in Vienna – they just didn’t get it – but in Prague the response was thunderously positive.
Another reason it’s easy to slip into the 18th century is that, despite a history spattered with occupations from neighbouring countries, Prague was hardly bombed – unlike so many other parts of Europe. The result is a city that has maintained its fairytale image. It’s countless Gothic spires and baroque domes have inspired hundreds of poems and symphonies and the city has been immortalised in paintings and in novels by writers from Franz Kafka to Bruce Chatwin. It is an extraordinary amalgamation of 1,100 years of architecture, from Romanesque, Renaissance and baroque to art nouveau, art deco and cubism, packed tightly within the jumble of little cobbled streets.
The spectacular ceiling and dome of St Nicholas Church
Guards march at Prague Castle
There are five key areas in Prague. Staré Mesto is the Old Town on the east bank of the River Vltava and includes the Old Town Square (people-watching heaven) with its Old Town Hall, which houses the astronomical clock built in 1410; Nové Mesto, the New Town, is situated to the south and east of the Old Town and is home to the neo-Renaissance-style National Theatre and Wenceslas Square. Hradcany is a residential area dominated by the Prague Castle complex and St Vitus Cathedral. The city’s aesthetic beauty is a great attraction to the international film industry, and an array of major-league blockbusters from Mission: Impossible to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been filmed on location here. Malá Strana, the picturesque little 13th-century quarter at the foot of Prague Castle on the left bank of the Vltava River, has long been popular with the location scouts. You will find the church of St Nicholas in its cobbled square. Then there’s the city’s former Jewish ghetto, a chic area called Josefov which is home to Europe’s oldest working synagogue, the Old-New Synagogue, plus many of the city’s nicest boutiques.
View down Valdstejnská
The collapse of Communism in 1989 gave Prague a new lease of life and kickstarted a major period of regeneration, architecturally and socially. In recent years there have been a number of significant additions, notably the Dancing House – dubbed ‘Fred and Ginger’ – which looks a little like two people dancing and was built by the inimitable Frank Gehry in 1996. The bridging of Prague’s past with its present continued unabashed with the opening of Mandarin Oriental, Prague. The hotel is housed in a breathtakingly beautiful 14th-century monastery in historic Malá Strana. Like the city itself, the building is a veritable textbook of architectural styles, with Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and baroque features which have been painstakingly restored and preserved under supervision of the Conservation Authority. Highlights include the remnants of a Gothic church uncovered in the foundations of The Spa (which was originally a Renaissance chapel) and now preserved under its glass floor, plus countless vaulted ceilings, archways and original staircases. Valuable artefacts and fragments unearthed during the restoration have been placed throughout the hotel, highlighting its strong ties to local history.
‘I’ve just moved back to Prague after 25 years in New York and I can’t get enough of it,’ says Eva Eisler, a well-known architect and contemporary designer who was born here. ‘In Prague you see beauty everywhere you look and proof of the passing centuries through the architecture, each as significant as the last. All of them put together create a beautiful composition of shapes and colours, all perfectly adjusted to the human scale.’
As you stand in the Rococo splendour of the Estates Theatre, you can imagine Mozart tinkling away on the piano, composing Don Giovanni back in 1787
Café Louvre, on Národní, a jewel in Prague’s café culture since 1902
The allure of Prague is not just its architecture, but also its people. Prague is the capital of Bohemia, the westernmost province of the Czech Republic, which was once its own kingdom. Today’s definition of ‘bohemian’ – someone who lives an unconventional, artistic life – was originally used to describe the footloose and fancy-free Romanian gypsies who passed through Bohemia with the blessing of the progressive-thinking royalty of the day. But it is also a pretty good description of the people of Prague as well. Perhaps because of all they’ve had to endure, from political and religious strife to catastrophic floods, Praguers have a unique energy and resilience, as well as a humour that includes a sense of the absurd.
The city has always been a hotbed of progressive thinking and public debate. Historically, much of this took place in pubs and cafés. Today the revolutionary spirit may be less obvious, but the love of gathering in pubs and cafés to eat, drink, talk and listen to music is still very much alive. In Kafka’s day it was Café Arco or Café Continental. The latter boasted around 250 different newspapers and had gaming rooms where people played cards and billiards. During the Communist era many such establishments were forced to close. But some of these historic establishments are still going strong: Café Louvre in Nové Mesto and Café Montmartre in Staré Mesto, among others.
The Czech Republic is the birthplace of Pilsner and the original home of Budweiser, so the city is packed with fantastic atmospheric pubs and beer halls – for instance, the excellent U Cerného Vola pub just above Prague Castle, and U Fleku, a brewery in Nové Mesto that opened in 1499. The restaurant scene, too, is booming. Pálffy Palác, a restaurant in Malá Strana that’s housed in a baroque palace, still has its original ornate chandeliers, and U Malíru, also in Malá Strana, is set within a 16th-century townhouse where authentic frescoes still adorn the walls. There is also a whole new generation of restaurants. Nils Jebens, a renowned restaurateur in Prague, recently opened the stylish Hergetova Cihelna in Malá Strana in a converted brick factory on the bank of the Vltava.
Looking up at the gardens below Prague Castle
Coffee in Café Louvre
Music has long been an important part of Prague’s cultural heritage, and the annual calendar is packed with festivals celebrating everything from classical to jazz. There’s a venue on every corner, from heavy-weights like the National Theatre where opera and ballet are performed, to churches throughout the city for smaller lunchtime concerts.
Prague is also a tangle of private and public gardens, and every Praguer has a favourite. ‘From the tram stop, cross the bridge as if you’re going to Prague Castle but instead turn right and head down to the Deer Moat,’ says scriptwriter Pavel Klusák. ‘While hundreds of visitors are walking around the castle above you, you’ll find yourself in a forgotten valley with a meadow and a spring – a wild jungle of untouched primal energy in the heart of the city.’
The city has always been a hotbed of progressive thinking, much of which took place in cafes. Today Praguers still love to gather there to drink, talk and listen to music
Terrace at Hergetova Cihelna, overlooking the Vltava
A Burrata cheese and grilled vegetables salad at Nils Jebens’ Hergetova Cihelna
To get a real sense of Prague’s people, one only has to look back at a few of its heroes. There was 14th-century religious reformer Jan Hus, who questioned the authority of the Pope and called for the formation of a Bohemian National Church. For this he was branded a heretic and burnt at the stake. Today he is an enduring symbol of moral heroism for the Czechs; the date of his death is a national holiday and there’s a vast monument in his honour which dominates the Old Town Square in Staré Mesto.
Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who lived during the 16th and 17th centuries, was famous for embracing free thinkers and encouraging the exploration of magic. Once ensconced in Prague Castle, he set about gathering together a curious cabinet of philosophers, alchemists, astronomers, artists and others whose goals were to contribute to and develop an international network of knowledge. His aim was to achieve spiritual and moral renewal of the world and his reign signalled a golden age of free thinking.
Prague-born writer Franz Kafka was so vocal about what he saw as ‘the absurdity of bureaucracy’ and ‘the alienating power of governments’, that ‘Kafkaesque’ has become a term meaning ‘frightening in a vague, inexplicable way’, in reference to concepts, situations or ideas. Then there is Václav Havel, an absurdist playwright of the 1960s and the pro-democracy figure who led the Velvet Revolution and was instated as president when Communism collapsed in 1989.
The Franz Kafka Café in Josefov
Prague Castle and Hradcany lit up above Malá Strana and Charles Bridge
Ask Praguers to name their favourite place in the city and many will say Charles Bridge, built across the Vltava River in 1357 to link Malá Strana with the Old Town. Lined with statues of Catholic saints, added in the 17th century to demonstrate the Catholics’ triumph over the Protestants, the bridge is widely thought of as one of the world’s most beautiful, and is the perfect central point from which to watch the world go by. Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville described Prague in his novel Kepler (about a court mathematician to Rudolf II) without ever having visited the city. But so vivid were his mental images that when eventually he did, he found the view from Charles Bridge was just what he had imagined as he sat at his typewriter.