The most anticipated last leg of the journey kicked off with a fairly refreshing six hour long first class train journey ending at the Prague station. The Sun was threatening to set by the time we got into cabs and it was dusk as we checked into our hotel right in old town square, next to the Hard Rock Cafe. Hotel Rott had a charming interior with a atrium lobby and a medieval dining area. The rooms were small (as usual) and a little musty, so took us a little while to get used to. Even though the room didn’t really blow our minds, the location more than made up for it. We walked down and it took less than a minute to realize it was Friday night – we were greeted by a crowd of people enjoying their time.
The square was almost half occupied by open restaurants that were abuzz with activity and the remaining area was just enough for the foot traffic that just seemed to increase with time. Fortunately, no vehicular traffic was allowed. We sat down in one of the many restaurants for dinner and while the ambience was awesome, the food was average at best. The drinks were actually terrible but served in fancy glasses. The worst was actually the service where the waiter stood on our table demanding a tip. Lesson learnt on dining in an obvious tourist trap! The rest of the evening was actually much better as we walked around and explored the beautiful old town and its lovely architecture. The Church of Our Lady before Tyn stands out in the night sky against the backdrop of other stunning baroque buildings from the early part of the millenium.
The next morning agenda began with a walk to and across the most famous landmark of the city, the Charles Bridge. There are actually a number of bridges across the Danube and some of the best shots of the bridge are from the other bridges or some of the restaurants on the castle side of the river. The bridge itself carries some history with original construction dating back to the twelfth century but the current stone version was built in the fourteenth century. It stood as the only connection between the old town and the castle till the middle of the nineteenth century. With a number of statues and gargoyles lining the edges and ornate gates on both sides, this stone bridge is a stunner.
Across the bridge there are some museums, churches and of course the castle which encloses the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral. The sheer size of the facade and the amazing beauty of the interiors makes it a must visit. The church was founded in the tenth century but the current gothic structure was built only in the fourteenth century and even that was left half finished for centuries and completed only in the last hundred years. Overall it took almost 600 years to complete. The interiors are quite immaculate, largely driven by their recent construction, but the stained glass work is quite outstanding. The gate to the castle is right in front of the main facade of the cathedral making it hard to get a good front shot. The castle side of the bridge also houses some cultural landmarks and some amazing pieces of street art. The Lennon wall commemorates the Beatles with some colorful graffiti and attracts a lot of crowds. We actually visited late night and managed to find it totally devoid of any visitors – it was amazing.
There are several day trips one can take from Prague. Two of the most famous are Cesky Krumlov (a UNESCO heritage town) and Kutna Hora, a small town with one of the most unique churches in the world. We had time to do just one and chose the later due to its sheer shock value. The Sedlec Ossuary in the town is decorated with skeletons of over 40,000 people. Most of these were actually exhumed from graves of people buried in its cemetery which was a very popular burial site in central Europe. While its not very large, the interiors make for an extraordinary viewing experience. There is a chandelier of bones and skulls while there are just several massive piles of bones and skulls that have all been treated chemically to preserve them. While it wasn’t too crowded when we went, off late this site has attracted so many tourists that they have limited photography to those who have sought permission 3 days in advance. The small town also boasts of a massive Cathedral of Assumption of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist. There are some amazing stained glass windows and a large organ. The town has some really nice small places to eat and our cab driver, who happened to be from the city, was able to recommend some really nice places.
The most amazing feature in the old town square, besides the churches, is the astronomical clock or the Orloj. This fancy medieval clock dates back to the year 1410, though various elements were added over the next century. The clock was also repaired several times as a legend states the wellbeing of the city is dependent of the proper upkeep of the clock. The hands of the clock not just show the time but multiple dials also represent the positions of Sun, Moon and the zodiac. It is actually possible the take an elevator up to the top of the tower in which the clock is based. The view of the city and the square from the top is worth the money.
Prague had developed a reputation for being the affordable party capital of Europe. There are a lot of bars and restaurants all around and most drinking holes are open very late. Absinthe seemed to be a popular drink, as were several flavors of Schnapps. The Austrian Spritz was popular here too, though bartending across the city was quite a sophisticated art. We discovered several small restaurants across the city and the ones away from the bustling crowds almost always had better food. The only exception was the Trdelnik – sort of rolled cinnamon cake served in a cylindrical shape, filled with ice-cream. The most touristy areas served the best of this local desert. The other commonly found features in the popular areas are the several museums of torture. These small and expensive museums usually host graphic displays of how medieval witches and criminal were tortured and killed – definitely not for the faint hearted but worth a peak.