Castles, Cathedrals and the Culture of Prague

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By Sara Waxman

Prague. It’s complicated. The victories and tragedies in a city that was born in the 12th century are embedded in ancient cobblestones and reach for the sky with the 70-meter high Old Town Tower. The Charles Bridge that spans the Moldau was built in 1402, and how many artists, writers and composers leaned against the railings of that bridge, prayed to the statues of the saints carved into the sides, and gazed at the horizon, dreaming of their masterpieces to come: Franz Kafka, Leos Janocek, Bedrich Smetana, Gustav Mahler, Max Brod, Antonin Dvorak and many more.

Pilsner Urquell Beer Experi
Pilsner Urquell Beer Experience

We are in Old Town Square, the heart of the city. And since its founding in the 12th century, this square was the stage for every imaginable historic event. Dominating the square is the Baroque Church of Saint Nicholas, the Rococo Kinsky Palace, The Gothic House at the Stone Bell and the monument to Jan Hus. Strolling along the avenue to the Cathedral, I pause to chat with a wandering musician from Spain sitting against a wall and playing his guitar. “Ah, Canada,” he says, smiling. “I met Avril Lavigne.” Once inside, I am in awe and admiration at the architecture and the details on the walls and ceiling and I wonder, “What were these artists and artisans thinking?” Were they driven by religious zeal or artistic passion. In 1621, justice was swift, and in the pavement of the square are memorial stones marking the execution of twenty-seven Czech lords.

Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge, by DaLiu Praha

Prague Castle
Prague Castle, by Sergey-Dzyuba

I have been hearing for years that the Prague Jewish Quarter is one of the most impressive places in Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992. Once the largest Jewish Ghetto in Europe, It’s official name is Josefov. The Old Jewish Cemetery is known to be the most remarkable of its kind on the continent. People come from every corner of the world in the hope that they can find and pay respects to ancestors of Czech origin, and to leave a pebble on the gravestone. This place has an undeniable beauty and charm with its landscaping and narrow streets, and yet it is a living reminder of its tragic history. From here, I had hoped to visit the Great Synagogue. Alas it is closed right now, and covered in plastic sheets while undergoing extensive restoration. Next time.

Jewish Quarter
Jewish Quarter, by Simone Crespiatico

The words of philosopher George Santayana are on replay in my mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Franz Kafka Birthplace
Franz Kafka Birthplace

Nearby is the tiny blue painted house where Franz Kafka wrote The Country Doctor; Letter to My Father; and The Metamorphosis, and they are offered in many translations along with other publications and souvenirs. I confess, I bought a t-shirt. They call these tiny structures Parasite Houses because they had been dug out and carved right into the wall, and then a facade was put on.

Kantyna Butcher Shop and Restaurant
Kantyna Butcher Shop and Restaurant

Schnitzel a la Veal Filet Mignon
Schnitzel a la Veal Filet Mignon

Seafood Melange

The seafood melange of shrimp, scallops, squid and a few other oceanic savouries are an impressive dish for me as well as for my friend. Sauces and vegetables are impeccable. I can’t keep my eyes off my neighbour’s plates: crispy duck confit; a gorgeous Argentinian Rib-eye; a Czech specialty saddle of deer with chestnut stuffing. My goodness our dinner is delicious, and it’s no surprise to learn that Mlynec is Michelin-recommended. Brava to Chef Vladimír Vaníček.

Back at the Andaz Hotel, I see that I still have time to run back to a fashion shop I had admired earlier. I began to walk and suddenly realize that the streets are filled with people walking. I thought something might be happening, (you never know these days,) so I asked another pedestrian what was going on. “After dinner” he says, “everyone walks and meets friends in Wenceslas Square and then walks back home.” Retaining the traditions of the past.

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