It’s Sunday in Prague. A horse and rider, both massive and both in richly decorated medieval garb, push through the crowded old part of town, a big black eagle flapping heavily on the horseman’s shoulder.
This is the prelude to further ancient high-jinks: jugglers, odd music and the thudding of old drums, plus more horses clattering about with lances.
It feels like a moment from Prague’s Bohemian past; just what you’d expect from an exotic central European city that in its best days was bigger than Paris and London at the time, and was the spiritual and material power base of the Holy Roman Empire.
Prague is one of the few important European cities left relatively intact after many years of wartime devastation and occupation. The Russians departed a few decades ago, thankfully leaving it pretty much as they found it.
It is also very popular, for good reason. It’s not so baffling to negotiate as Venice, it’s more intimately beautiful than Rome and not so grandiose, and it seems substantially cheaper here to eat well in pleasant surroundings than in many European capitals.
What is retained is an exceptional variety of historic styles, manners, architectural gems and music, and some lively activities on and along the river Vltava.
The usual restaurant and cruise boats are pretty enough, but here they share the water with some really dotty aquatic diversions: ridiculous floating cars, swan-shaped canoes and vain attempts by the adventurous young in huge plastic bubbles to walk on water.
There’s a well-patronised party and pub scene along the banks of the Vltava where you’re more likely to hear rough Dixieland and cinema ditties from the 1930s than anything by Dvorak or Janacek (but you can always catch them at the headquarters of the famous Czech Philharmonic).
Not incidentally, Prague saw the first performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni; there’s a ghoulish statue in the city to prove it.
Over this spectacularly wide river, one of the most attractive bridges in Europe (the Charles Bridge, named for the Emperor Charles IV) enlivens its whole length with statuary: a procession of saints, prelates, notables and monuments. It leads the eye dramatically to the main event up the hill, where one of the true glories of late-Gothic building in Europe, St Vitus Cathedral, dominates the city and attracts some of the biggest tourist queues. You can only avoid the queues and the recent scourge of selfie-sticks here by getting up early.
In this wonderful building, you get lots of gold, great bursts of over-the-top later-Baroque decoration, a particularly macabre Bohemian twist to the imagery, and soaring stained glass from many periods, including some modern work by Czech artists. The overall effect is a weird blend of inspired gloom and a rich dazzle of colour.
There’s a formidable castle up there as well, and a few minor ones, along with a torture chamber stuffed with ingenious horrors to remind you that the Emperor’s apparently unshakeable golden realm included a parallel dark reality.
Prague is Kafka territory, and one of the least florid buildings (huge, blank-walled, minimalist) looks and feels like something from a Kafka nightmare and perhaps should be a museum to the revered Czech author. (It’s not, but there is a Kafka museum in the city.) The drab edifice that is the National Gallery in Dukelskych Hrdinu is where the modern paintings are.
Plenty of fairly routine Czech paintings inhabit the vast white spaces here, but the real bonus is a staggering roomful of early Picasso, and three magnificent Kokoschka panoramas of the Charles Bridge. This room alone is worth the trip (mine, from Munich, took six hours by train).
It’s rewarding to get lost in Prague, which is a guarantee of constant visual surprise when you look to the street names with their plethora of consonants. Navratilova Street is easier and pays a nice tribute to the gifted Martina. But it’s in those with unpronouncable names that you get bursts of casual luxury and small shocks from the past.
The souvenir shops are full of puppets about witches, trolls and goblins from the blackest forests, constant reminders that this place insists on its differences. The currency is crowns not euros, and don’t expect to find the New York Times on every newsstand.
Voltaire pointed out that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. It doesn’t matter now, but the bits that survive give the tourist one of the best European travel experiences available.
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Before you travel, visit an RACV shop for guide books, maps and luggage.
Don’t forget travel insurance and your International Driving Permit.
INCLUDE Prague in an itinerary with RACV Cruises & Tours’ specialist European holiday partners.
Some of the best river cruise trips include central Europe.
MORE prague.eu/en czechtourism.com