Nuns hobbled down the winding road below the monastery as the sun set over the frosted fields of Petřín Hill. Beyond the gnarled barks and skeletal branches of trees lay the spired vista of Prague, the December dusk brightened up by the city’s red roofs and turquoise church domes. A serene moment away from the madding crowds of Charles Bridge which spans Vltava River in the historic capital of Bohemia. We indulged that pause because how could we let such a moment pass by unnoticed.
Then as I was taking a few photos I felt a nudge at my legs. I ignored it. Another insistent nudge. I looked down. Next to my feet lay a bright red ball and a black hound pup staring at the ball with the kind of love I reserve for a cupcake on a peckish day. His name was Ralph. And yes, please could I toss the ball for his six-month old lovable self? His old master interjected: “The ball is covered in mud. Don’t feel you have to.” Mud be darned, I gave in to my young nudger, and off went Ralph streaking down the slope like a bullet. The ball beamed at us from where it had rolled down to but Ralph kept running around in circles. It took him more than 10 minutes to detect it. But he would have you know with a thump of his tail that he is a hound, yessir.
A steep climb from Prague Castle, Petřín Hill has the oldest Premonstratensian Monastery in Bohemia which in its baroque library of stucco and frescoed ceilings tucks away hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and religious texts. On this hill, you will also sight a tower which looks like a squat version of the Eiffel Tower. In the late 1880s, the world exhibition in Paris was visited by members of the Czech Tourist Club who decided that they wanted a share of the pie. They raised money and installed their own version of it, so you have Petřín Lookout Tower which at night is lit up as incandescently as the original it hoped to replicate.
Prague’s Eiffel does not do a bad job.
We were in the land of Boii which given its pronunciation could be accused of sexism. But there’s a simple explanation which is that the Boii was a Celtic tribe which is said to have given the region its name. A host of tribes occupied the land. Migration has been an eternal theme through the ages it seems. I took to the legend of Libuše, the princess of a Czech tribe. She married a humble ploughman and used to have visions of the future in her castle in Central Bohemia. Prague, Libuše foretold, would turn out to be ‘a vast city, whose glory will touch the stars’. In the Middle Ages, her vision came true when a Czech Prince built Prague Castle in the late 9th century. Since then it has been the seat of the Czech rulers. In modern times it serves as the office of the Czech president.
The first time we lay eyes upon the castle — as we drove in a cab to the hotel from the airport — it was through a veil of mist. We might have been in an older time, the spires of the castle looming above us with an otherworldly persona. First impressions last.
For a view of the famous 100 spires of Prague, you have gotta climb. A Bohemian mathematician had made a count of 103 spires in the 19th century, and after, Prague came to be referred proudly to as the city of a hundred spires. The incentive of climbing these lookout towers (besides walking off all the gingerbread men, pastries and hot chocolate) is the sheer range of architectural styles your eyes shall be treated with. Spired Romanesque rotundas, Gothic cathedrals and Baroque places of worship give way to the 20th century Art Nouveau and Cubist schools of thought.
Bridges of Bohemia
Starting the new year in fairy-tale mode means that you’ve got to battle the hordes on Charles Bridge. This Gothic marvel of a bridge gets its name from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, who had its construction started in the late 14th century.
“How is the bridge even standing?” observed my (very) irate husband. But stand it does – that bridge that has seen much more than tourists, caricature artists, buskers and sellers of miscellaneous stuff. It has witnessed terrible floods and execution too post a famous battle when leaders of an anti-Habsburg revolt were executed and their severed heads displayed upon the Old Town bridge tower. It was 1621 and it was a measure taken to make the Czechs think twice before revolting against the Holy Roman Emperor.
In Czech, the baroque quarter adjacent to the castle is Malá Strana. It may be deemed Lesser Town but nothing about it is lesser than the other parts of town. It is dominated by St. Nicholas Church, which when you enter it cows you down with its baroque splendour, and around the quarter you have these old, old burgher houses and quaint, cobbled lanes that branch off quietly while tempting you to go down them to escape the crowds.
Hunting Out Green Fairies
The bohemian drink in Bohemia. Could not get more apt, right? The art lies in sipping and not downing the favourite tipple of poets and writers to get drunk merely, connoisseurs will have you know.
Because the Czech are known for their hand-carved puppets since the Middle Ages. I am fascinated by this art form because it takes your imagination places with an just inanimate, wooden object.
‘Stop Stop Little Gingerbread Man’
Remember the gingerbread man from the fairy tales? Well, I met them aplenty in Prague.
Christmas means that the air in Prague will be redolent with the fragrance of gingerbread. In the Middle Ages, there were gingerbread baking guilds in the Czech Republic. Gingerbread travelled all the way from ancient Greece and Egypt to Europe with crusaders who in the 11th century introduced spices into the kitchens of the European wealthy.
In the Lesser Town quarter of Prague is a Gingerbread Museum. While it is not actually a museum, you will lay your eyes on a massive variety of gingerbread girls, shoes, bags, warriors, kings apart from the customary gingerbread man who receives careful attention from a woman with a piping bag at the till. I wanted to buy one of each. But the overpriced tags pricked my conscience and that soothed the alarmed look away from my husband’s face.
The wonderful sweet and spicy aromas will drive you into the arms of the gingerbread man of Prague. There is nothing more moreish than a cute little gingerbread man to tuck into on a December evening along with a cup of coffee. And on that sweet, spicy note, I shall leave you with the promise of a follow-up post on Prague’s charm.
The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.
View all posts by Arundhati Basu