Prague: To fall in love with Europe (again), head for Czech capital
Stars and Stripes July 24, 2003
After living overseas for a while, I began to take Europe for granted — like a long-time spouse in a fuzzy bathrobe or a tattered weekend T-shirt.
I missed the thrill of a first visit: getting lost in the swirl of exotic faces at the Frankfurt train station, being swept up in a Basque fiesta, enjoying late afternoon at a centuries-old Viennese coffeehouse.
I wanted to fall in love with Europe again.
So I headed for Prague.
And from the moment I caught sight of its church spires, piercing the skyline like an enormous puffy pincushion, I began to soften.
Like many searching for love, I was reluctant to dive headfirst into the heart of Prague, the Old Town. Instead, my faithful traveling companion and I stayed in Mala Strana, a peaceful neighborhood of restored homes and unassuming consulate buildings tucked along tree-lined streets.
Our hotel overlooked a park, where we marveled at a pack of teens skillfully bouncing a hackey sack with their bare feet. We quickly grew accustomed to the pockets of young people sprawled out on blankets, someone strumming a guitar, a couple of mutts sniffing around, pungent wafts of clove cigarettes — a faded ’60s snapshot come to life nearly 40 years later.
Adjacent to the park, the Mala Strana neighborhood is an escape from tourists, even in June, Prague’s high season. Mala Strana’s nooks and crannies — like the Lennon Peace Wall, a mini version of the Berlin Wall, running the length of a cool, leafy lane — beckon travelers off the well-worn sightseeing track. Mostly, we’d find ourselves trekking beside a pair of Czech university students or behind a local returning from the market, shopping bags bulging.
Yet even when we did head for the big sights, joining the hordes of tourists at the Prague Castle for the changing of the guard ceremony, it wasn’t the typical tour-bus crowd — elbows out, jockeying for the best view. There was excitement, genuine anticipation, a touch of reverence among the spectators.
One cloudless morning at the castle, I squeezed toward the front row, expecting to see an orderly regiment of soldiers. But the formation was as laid-back as a bunch of surfer dudes on a California beach. A few of the cocky young soldiers, looking like they desperately wanted a smoke, arms nonchalantly crossed, eyed the cute college co-eds. Others squirmed uncomfortably, not sure what to do with their white-gloved hands as they waited for the signal to begin marching.
There was something unpolished, sweet and unaffected about the pomp and circumstance. I felt my traveler’s heart, a bit callused around the edges, begin to stir.
Visible throughout the city from its hilltop location, Prague Castle — or Prazsky hrad — is actually a collection of historic buildings connected by courtyards. The real jewel of the complex is Zlata ulicka, Golden Lane, with its 16th-century, brightly painted buildings where Franz Kafka once lived. Today, it houses shops selling dusty old musical instruments, antique clocks with yellowing faces, and sturdy Czech handicrafts.
I stopped at a Lilliputian shop — billed as Prague’s smallest house at only 12 square yards — admiring the work of Dagmar Hochova, who photographed Prague’s children for more than a half-century. The graying shopkeeper, clearly enamored with the artist’s work, peered over my shoulder, offering tidbits about the images.
Sadly, Nervdova Street, the steep walkway leading to the castle entrance, is lined with tacky restaurants, rows of laminated photos plastered around doorways advertising an assortment of questionable-looking dishes.
As we trudged along the touristy stretch, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a kooky court jester with green-tinged eyes and a devilish smirk. Actually, it was a marionette dangling in a shop window. Inside, beautifully handcrafted string puppets lined the cream-colored walls, those in the front room depicting doctors, musicians and professors, while witches, trolls and goblins lurked in the back. Today, that goofy court jester grins at me from my fireplace mantel.
Touring Prague on foot eventually brings on some powerful hunger pangs. Czech food can be an unsophisticated, heavier version of German fare. Still, we found several bright spots on the Prague restaurant scene. Actually, they sparkled.
Upscale Kampa Park, snug in a niche below the Charles Bridge, draws the international business and tony traveler sets. A gathering of smartly dressed young professionals in crisp summer suits and button-down oxfords dined a couple of tables over.
And the winsome U Modre Kachnicky restaurant — the Blue Duckling — located on a discreet corner of Mala Strana, is truly an enchanting culinary retreat. The gracious host seated us in a second-floor enclave, antique Bohemian maps decorating the soft pink walls. The silver-haired waiter proudly recommended a Moravian wine to accompany the asparagus with Hollandaise sauce and the duck pâté followed by grilled salmon and duck drizzled with a walnut sauce. Housed in a 400-year-old structure, the eatery is elegant yet inviting.
Lost and swaying a bit from the Moravian wine, we happily ambled along the shadowed side streets after dinner in search of our hotel. Clearly, this was no longer just infatuation I was feeling for this city.
It took just one more aspect of the city’s charm to clinch it.
So much of Prague’s graceful and refined appeal can be traced to its classical music tradition, which is strongly marketed to travelers. Scads of leaflets, advertising chamber concerts in churches, museums and other venues, are handed out to passersby or tacked to signposts held by young people nattily dressed in white wigs, bustled ball gowns and silk breeches.
On a rainy summer afternoon, the works of Verdi, Mozart and Czech composer Antonin Dvorak resonated in the 18th-century St. Nicholas Church, while some 50 visitors gazed at the pink and green interior with its vibrant frescoes and faux-marble pillars.
The soprano’s angelic voice, coupled with the church’s booming 256-year-old organ, filled every secretive corner of the cavernous sanctuary. The sharp scent of incense mingled pleasantly with the sacred strains of “Ave Maria.”
By day’s end, I had fallen head over heels for Prague. It was the city’s lingering innocence that I found so beguiling. It left me giddy, a 20-something wanderer once more, relishing my second honeymoon with Europe.
Christina Zarobe is a free-lance writer who has returned to the States after living in Europe.