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Of Sun and Serendipity - Saurabh Kumar Shahi - The Sunday Indian
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Monday, July 16, 2018

Of Sun and Serendipity


Gothic towers, Renaissance churches, Baroque portals, Bohemian castles and what not; Prague has everything that you ever expected from Europe and much more, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, January 10, 2014 14:25
Tags : Of Sun and Serendipity |

It is rather controversial to claim this in modern Europe, but going by the responses they gave to the Nazi war machine during World War II, there are distinctly two kinds of nations. There is the first kind that includes country like Poland, who won great honours even in their defeat but their beautiful capital was practically razed to the ground. And then there is France and Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia). While their standing army folded up without much of a fight, they managed to save their capitals from ruins. As I said this is controversial. But truth nonetheless.

Standing amidst the churches and castles in Prague, those bloody, gory days of World War II looks like a distant nightmare. And it is to leave behind such nightmares that Prague is indeed famous for.

Prague is not only the capital of erstwhile Czechoslovakia and the present Czech Republic but has remained the cultural heart of the Bohemian region since long. Founded in 9th century CE, Prague quickly became the seat of the Bohemian kings who built different sections of the city during their rules. However, the golden period of Prague came during the rule of Charles IV who was proclaimed the Holy Roman Emperor and shifted its seat to the city. Naturally, nearly every other thing in Prague and Czech Republic is named after him. It saw some decline during the Habsburg rule as it was turned into a provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but quickly rose to fame after World War I.

Let’s start with geography and how-to-get-there. Situated on the banks of swan-filled Vltava River, the city has a moderate climate. Although springs and summers are the apt time to visit the city, even autumn and winters are much milder that many parts of Europe. Although it snows in winters, it is less frequent and melts soon.
Situated virtually in the centre of Europe, Prague is well connected to entire Europe and much of Asia via direct and connecting flights. Indians have several choices in hand. KLM-Air France offers several daily flights via both Amsterdam and Paris. In fact, if you give gap between the connecting flights, you can take quick tours of these two gorgeous cities as well. You can also choose to take Lufthansa that flies via Frankfurt and Munich. Those tight on budget can choose Aeroflot instead. The tickets are  couple of grands cheaper with similar quality of service.

Prague is served by Václav Havel Airport which has a modern, airy and somewhat cute new terminal that caters to international flights. Connectivity from the airport is limited as of now, but it is still ample. There are direct buses to city centres that connect with one or another metro or tram junctions. Taxis are available in plenty and are relatively cheaper than those in Western and Europe.

Once in city, the options increase several folds. There is a maze of tram, bus and metro routes that touches almost every locality inside Prague proper and its suburbs. The modes of transportation are well-integrated and there are passes and tickets that work for all of them. The public transport is affordable and dependable. To avoid queues and save time, multiple trip passes are convenient.

It is advisable to convert currency at the city centre. Currency exchange counters at the airport are a rip-off. Use the ATM instead if at all you want to have some local currency in hand. The exchange counters in the city centre are also notorious for rip-off and it is advisable to read the exchange board carefully.
There is much to see and do in Prague. In fact, the options are so huge that it appears overwhelming at times. Spend at least 4-5 days to soak in the charm of the city. The tourist district in the city is spread wide and thus some of the attractions cannot be covered on foot. However, the city centre including some of the attractions on the other side of the river can easily be covered on foot.

Start your sightseeing trip from Staré město or Prague Old Town. The town square itself is quite beautiful and expansive and offers much to see. The most imposing building is the Municipal Hall which has a distinct German-Czech appeal to it. Close by is Convent of St Agnes which is known for its marvellous early Gothic architecture. In between is the famous Astronomical Clock.

And while you are here, take a lift to the top of the tower from where you can see much of the city. In fact, the view from the top is breathtaking. Although the observation deck of the TV tower is higher, the view from the Old Town tower is simply unbeatable. Those interested in art can pay a visit to the nearby Museum of Cubism. The displays are superb and there is a shop that sells copies of some of the well known works.

From there, one can walk down to the famous Nové Město or New Town. The core of this area is Wenceslas Square which not only has the Prague Museum but also the famous dancing building. There are hundreds of bars, pubs, restaurants and casinos that dot the space. The museum is a delight though. Spare some time for this as the wide varieties of artefacts, gems and crystals will take a lot of time to appreciate.

Nearby is the famous Charles Bridge, arguably the best of its kind in the world. Take a stroll across the bridge and enjoy the performances by street artists. Get your portrait or caricature drawn by one of the several talented painters who quietly go by their work here. On the other side of the bridge is Mala Strana district. Take a turn to your right just after crossing the bridge and you will find yourself on the banks of the river filled with ducks and swans. Take a river cruise rides. There are rides of different durations and there are some which are tailor-made to suit your taste and time.

Bibliophiles can choose to visit the famous Kafka Museum in the vicinity. Franz Kafka’s novels had most of their settings in and around  Prague Castle, which is nearby. The museum has a shop that sells Kafka posters and memorabilia. Buy some of it for your friends back home.

From here, one can walk down to the famous Prague Castle. It is kind of an uphill walk till castle but don’t make a mistake to take one of the numerous faux antique cars or horse-pulled carriages that are available for hire. Not only will it burn a hole in your pocket, you will actually end up looking ridiculous.
Prague Castle is a world in itself. Seat of Bohemian kings, it now serves as the residence of Czech President. The castle is bound to take your entire day if not more. There is St. Vitus Cathedral built on Renaissance and Baroque styles. Then there is Western Portal and Golden Portal. Those with religious bent of mind can choose to visit St. Wenceslas Chapel that has graves of several saints. Don’t miss to take the stairs up the Bell Tower. It gives a great view of the adjoining area and the ticket is included in the castle ticket itself.

There are other attractions as well. A detailed list of all can be obtained from the tourist information centre along with the free maps.
Prague has been a centre of art and music. And it will be a pity if you don’t experience this aspect of the city. State Opera is the right place to start with. The building has a breathtaking architecture but more breathtaking are the performances. There are several performances every week and a listing as well as information about the ticket can be obtained from its website.
Prague Philharmonic is another must watch. Performance listings are available on their websites as well as outside the building. Remember that Prague Philharmonic regularly features in the list of the best Philharmonic orchestras in the world. Do buy some of the CDs of its performances as a souvenir for the dear ones.
There are several theatres as well that has regular performances with English subtitles. The cream of the crop includes the National Theatre. Tickets are not always easy to get so book well in advance through the internet.

The night vultures can experience one of the best nightlife in entire Europe. Pubs and discos are comparatively cheaper and there are fewer tendencies to fleece customers. Beer is the national drink of Czech Republic and aptly so. It is cheaper than the water and is widely available. In fact, in many of the restaurants, it is offered without even order.

Prague has a range of restaurants serving to different pallets. Every possible cuisine on the earth can be ordered here. Restaurants are available in every district but those closer to the tourist destinations have a wider range to offer although more often than not these restaurants are costlier than their quieter brothers in the non tourist districts.

Czech cuisine is high on pork and beef. Indians with dietary restrictions can stick to chicken and similar products. There are a couple of Indian restaurants as well. For quick grabs, there are hundreds of Halal Doner Kebab shops spread across the city. The Doners that they serve are average but still good to fill up the belly. The ones run by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are relatively better in taste and are cheaper too. It is impossible to miss these joints as they are almost everywhere. Other western fast food joints are also available in aplenty. But who wants to eat burgers and sandwiches when there is ample local cuisine to gorge on.

Accommodations, again, are available to suit every budget. There are hundreds of hostels, which are affordable, clean and utilitarian. Those looking for more privacy can opt for private rooms in hotels. The prices differ from season to season but it is still much cheaper than popular destinations in western and central Europe.

Prague is a heaven for shoppers. Apart from usual souvenirs, one can buy a range of items that are unique to the country. The must buys are Bohemian hand-cut crystals that are available all over the city. Look for the shops that are away from the tourist destinations. Choose judiciously. There are also other crystals that are colourful and cheap. The prices in India are several times costlier. So do buy a couple of items.

Prague is a curious mixture of sun, serendipity and sightseeing. Not only the city has a distinct character, it is still less explored than some of the done to death destinations in Europe. Give it a shot, you’ll not be disappointed.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017