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The City of A Hundred Spires

Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is probably the second most beautiful city in the world, and the most beautiful that you can comfortably walk around without getting your feet wet – Venice was never really built with pedestrians in mind. The main reason for its exceptional beauty and wonderful state of preservation is that for fifty years it lay in the communist state of Czechoslovakia, miles behind the Iron Curtain: while the more predatory practitioners of capitalism were tearing down old buildings in western European cities to build fast food restaurants and department stores, Prague remained poor but untouched. It also largely escaped major bombing in the Second World War, unlike so many other lovely central European cities – such as Dresden – that were burned to ashes.

Some people would argue today that Prague is in the middle of a battle for its own soul. The fact that it’s such a beautiful place has meant that since the fall of the Iron Curtain the city has been swamped by western tourists – at first seeking cheap beer and cheap thrills from the depressed post-communist economy, and later in order to appreciate the city for what it really is: a work of art. This vast influx of tourists has given Prague the fastest-growing economy of any city in the former communist bloc – it’s also led to the dangers of development and over-commercialization, which risk damaging the old city or, worse, turning it into some kind of Disneyland-style theme park.

That danger isn’t too much in evidence – yet. The best place to start an exploration of Prague is in Wenceslas Square, in the heart of the so-called ‘New Town’. That this part of the city is called ‘new’ gives you an idea of how ancient some areas truly are – but we’ll come to those in a moment.

As with so many things in Eastern Europe, Wenceslas Square isn’t quite what the name might lead you to believe. Specifically, it’s not a square, but rather a long, wide boulevard – not dissimilar to Unter den Linden in Berlin. Like many of the streets of Prague, Wenceslas Square is lined with some of the most wonderful buildings imaginable. The city has some of the best architecture in the world, from gothic cathedrals to renaissance palaces, eighteenth century townhouses and modernist blocks.

One of the most spectacular buildings on Wenceslas Square is the National Museum of the Czech Republic. Although the building’s frontage is large, it’s not huge – however, when you get inside you’ll realize that this is a building that sprawls – walls have been knocked through into adjoining structures and the whole is a fine old rambling maze in which, you would think, it was quite easy to get lost.

There are two other ‘must sees’ in Prague, both of them to be found amidst the winding streets of the Old Town. The first is the Prazsky Orloj. This ancient astronomical clock is set on the side of the City Hall in the Old Town Square. Like all astronomical clocks, it doesn’t simply tell the time, but by using a series of beautifully designed and inlaid cogs and wheels predicts the motion of the sun, moon, planets and stars. The clock is a significant tourist attraction, though it shouldn’t distract you from the beauty of the old City Hall itself, a masterpiece of medieval architecture.

On the subject of which, Prague Castle is the largest medieval castle in the world. A full description of it would require four or five articles. Suffice to say that if you are intending to look around, you should set at least a day aside. One of the chief attractions of the castle is the cathedral of St. Vitus – a huge, ornate gothic edifice that was started in the fourteenth century and only completed in the nineteenth. It is generally open to visitors unless a major service or event is taking place, and is well worth exploring as it houses the tombs of several of the kings of Bohemia – the ancient land that predates Czechoslovakia and the modern Czech Republic.

Eating and drinking in Prague can be a great experience, and, despite the westernization of the city’s economy in recent years, remains cheap relative to other major European cities. Prague is especially good to visit if you enjoy beer. Many brews can be found, and perhaps the most famous is Staropramen – ‘Old Spring’ – which is brewed in the city and is almost as prevalent in the city as coffee and tea.

A visit to Prague is a must for all travelers who are serious about getting to know mainland Europe. Its near-perfect state of preservation is a reminded of the continent’s past, and the developments of recent years are a glimpse into the future.

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