There are so many beautiful parks and public gardens in Prague, but unless one knows where they are or stumbles upon them by mistake – as I often did having taken a wrong turning on my way to somewhere else – most are rather difficult to find. Having just panted my way up the deceptively steep Old Castle Steps to reach the entrance to Prague Castle, I had decided to take a descending lane just by the gates that I presumed would lead me around the perimeter of the Castle. Instead, it led me to the steps of a rather charming, little turreted building with a Castle official sitting inside it asking for 10Kc before he would allow me to continue. Intrigued, I paid the nominal fee (approximately 30 pence / 0.40 Euros / $0.50) and found myself wandering through the stunning terraced Palace Gardens Beneath the Castle.
As well as the amazing views over the city, the perfectly manicured shrubs and a complete lack of fellow tourists hovering around (bliss), there was also something different to discover on every terrace level. One flight of steps led me down into the beautiful Baroque Ledebour Garden with its romantic porticoed mini-palace.
Inside this dainty, Italianate building the walls and ceilings were covered with delightful mock-Grecian style frescoes and figures, one of which I couldn’t help but see an uncanny resemblance to cinema legend Orson Wells.
Leaving the gardens a little while later, I made my way to the equally beautiful Wallenstein Garden just around the corner, although it took me quite a while to actually find it. I spent the best part of an hour circumnavigating what I’d hoped were the Garden’s outer-perimeter wall, looking for the entrance or at least any sign to suggest that beyond the wall was indeed the Garden my guidebook insisted I should visit. I did find what looked like the courtyard of a Government building or Police headquarters with guards lolling around the grounds and not a spec of greenery in sight. The sign by the curb of this courtyard certainly didn’t suggest in my mind that across the tarmac and beyond the arch ahead was indeed a public space of utter tranquility.
Having watched several members of the public casually walk across the courtyard, disappear through the arch and not draw the attention of the guards in the process, I decided I would attempt to do the same. I reached the steps of the arch without being whisked back at gunpoint to the main road and walked down the steps into yet another enchanted public space.
As well as the beautiful palace architecture, the Garden was also home to a rather unusual stalactite grotto.
Although not entirely taken by it aesthetically, I was in complete awe of its grand scale and marvelled at the power of nature to create such a wonder. As I stared at it for a little while longer I thought my eyes were starting to play tricks on me.
A few blinking exercises later, the prominent face was still there and for a split second I congratulated this apparent fluke of nature. But then I started to spot even more distinct and rather comical faces all over the grotto, some human, some animal-like. And then the penny finally dropped; this wasn’t a natural phenomenon at all, this was (as a nearby sign later confirmed for me) a man-made piece of art by a local artist with an interesting sense of humour! The fact that the rock was bone dry should have told me straight away that water alone didn’t create these stalactites. Embarrassed by my gullibility, I moved on.
The views over Prague are breath-takingly romantic. But whether seen from the top of the Old Castle Steps, along the statue-adorned Charles Bridge or by the banks of the charming Old Town, there was one strangely familiar structure that punctured the skyline from almost every viewpoint in town, and I was fascinated to know what it was.
The Petrin Lookout Tower stands at the top of Petrin hill, one of the city’s largest green public spaces. It is both an observation tower open to the public, and a transmission tower … and yes, the similarity to Paris’s Eiffel Tower is deliberate.
A group of Czech officials visited the World Exposition held in Paris in 1889 and were so impressed with the then new Eiffel Tower they decided to build their own version in Prague on their return. Two years later the Petrin Tower was revealed. Although not quite as tall nor as stunning as its Parisian cousin, the Petrin Tower is certainly well worth climbing the 299 steps (or taking the lift for a few Koruna more) to the top for yet more amazing panoramic views across Prague and the countryside beyond.
The actual observation level at the top is a tad small but enough to hold around twenty to thirty people at a time. The structure itself may look as though it has seen better days but it is well maintained and safe to climb. I was amazed however, to find that the windows in the observation room could easily be slid across so the more adventurous tourists could lean right out with nothing but their balance to stop them from falling the 63 metres down to the tarmac below.
As my ticket didn’t grant me access to the lift, I had to take the ‘manual’ route back down again. The spiral descent left me as dizzy and as delirious as Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway were after attempting the same on the Eiffel Tower in the Ealing movie classic The Lavender Hill Mob.
I needed a sit down after all those steps and plonked myself on the nearest park bench. Once Prague had finally stopped spinning I noticed that even the public street furniture here emulates the city’s wry sense of humour.
There are two main ways to get to the Petrin Tower; the easy way and the stamina-testing way. The easy way is to take the delightful Petrin funicular built in the same year as the tower. The station is at Ujezd (trams 12, 20, 22 & 57 stop in front of it), near the west bank of the river, south of Charles Bridge. All of Prague’s public transport travelcards and tickets are valid on the funicular which departs every ten minutes and takes as long to reach the top of the hill (via the midway stop of Nebozizek). From there it’s a short, effortless walk to the tower.
I however chose the other route. My guidebook recommended to take the path along Vlasska for its scenery and only hinted on the need to climb some steps up the side of the hill along the way. The scenery may have been worth the energy but I was too busy puffing for breath, wiping sweat from my brow and coaxing my knees to not give up to see any of it behind me. Once past the US and German embassies, the Vlasska road is a long, steep, lonely climb. Beyond this point it is also a one way lane for traffic going downhill only, so any hope of a bus or taxi passing by to rescue me and take me up the rest of the way was futile. I didn’t see any signposts to reassure me I was on the right track but the increasing altitude and the popping of my ears suggested I was at least climbing up some hill in Prague. After about twenty minutes I came to a fork in the road and the foot of a set of steps which I began to ascend, still not quite sure whether this was the way to the tower. The steps seemed endless.
After around another half an hour’s climb I finally reached the top of the steps and landed on flatter ground. Still no signpost to speak of, I heard a crowd and saw what looked liked the tower between the trees in front of me, so I headed for it. Finally, I had the confirmation I needed: a sign pointing to the tower … right in front of the tower!
Less strenuous and much easier to find at lower ground is the emotionally moving John Lennon Wall opposite the French embassy. After his murder in 1980, Czechs suffering under Communist rule were inspired by Lennon’s pacifism in his later years and painted his image on the wall in homage to the musician, and silent protest to the authorities. The struggle between the police who continuously painted over the image and the Czech people who painted it back became iconic in the city’s struggle to revolt and break free of Communist oppression. By the end of the decade the revolution was won, and the city was liberated … apart from the wall which to the frustration of the owners – the Knights of Malta – has attracted thousands of tourists yearly ever since adding their own messages of love and world peace, and paying homage to Lennon and the Beatles.
The modern National Nederlanden building or the ‘Dancing House’ – after the Czech architect behind it Vlado Milunic nicknamed it ‘Fred and Ginger’ – stands on the east bank of the river, right by the Jiraskuv Bridge. It is absolutely lovely and further illustrates Prague’s cheeky sense of humour.
In contrast, the Old Town Square, one of the largest city squares in Europe, is surrounded by stunning examples of medieval architecture and craftsmanship.
The Astronomical clock is over five hundred years old and although looks gothically romantic as well as remarkable for its age, it is actually rather sinister in detail: Death (the skeletal figure to the right of the top face) rings a bell on the stroke of each hour, and is kept company by his fellows Invasion, Pagan and Vanity (he’s the one on the far left gazing into a mirror). Either side of the lower face are the city’s crusaders against those evils above: the Chronicler, the Angel, the Astronomer and the Philosopher. The top face is a complex yet accurate chart of time and its path through the zodiac. It is an absolute marvel and tourists flock to it hourly to see the mechanisms crank into gear. The movements however are slight and barely noticeable as the moving figures are high up from street level and rather small in scale. As a result, most spectators leave a few minutes later disappointed having clearly expected to see more. Surely the fact that after half a millennium the clock is still working perfectly, should be enough to satisfy?
One of the charms of Prague is that literally around every corner there will undoubtedly be something weird and wonderful to discover. When walking back to my hotel from the Old Town Square I took a short cut through to the quiet courtyard beyond the gate of the Klementinum. Being early evening, the courtyard was quiet and peaceful albeit not aesthetically exciting … until I looked up:
This modern sculpture called Vlastovka is of a little girl playing with a paper plane depicting “the innocence and peace of childhood”. I have to admit when I first set eyes on it I nearly jumped out of my skin! Reassuring myself that it wasn’t actually a real child sitting on a precariously high ledge, the figure reminded me of those charity collection boxes shaped in the form of a blind child that used to stand outside sweet shops in the 1970s and 80s. My guidebook incorrectly said that this figure was of a little boy, but Magdalena Poplawska the sculptress who created it, kindly contacted me to confirm it was indeed of a little girl and explained more about the symbolism of the piece (see her comments at the end of this blog).
The food in Prague is fantastic, although the more traditional dishes, tasty and hearty they may well be (yummy sauerkraut and potato dumplings) are probably best eaten in moderation due to extremely high animal fat content in them. The food is absolutely drenched in the stuff!
Smoking is big in Prague and to do so in public places is not only legal but seems to be obligatory. Even though there are designated areas for smoking and non-smoking in bars and restaurants, there is often as little as a postage stamp separating the two so trying to eat without the smell of nicotine wafting over your dumplings can be near impossible.
Finally, there are several unique museums dotted around the city of which the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments I particularly enjoyed (more aww-factor than wow-factor). But I also paid a visit to the Museum of Communism which although small was full of fascinating propaganda posters and artefacts, and documented the city’s struggle and revolution over the oppressive regime in minute and moving detail. Yet, the highlight of this museum for me was its location, which couldn’t be any more ironically situated if it tried.