Bohemian Break – II

In my bright red coat I stand in the Old Town square in Prague on the first morning of our year-end holiday. It was stinging that cold, but the savoury aroma of sausages and the sweet smell of hot wine was in the air. The world seemed to have come together in that square to natter away.

Time should get stuck at your command on holidays.

Have you noticed how after that first day of any break, every other day just flies by?  It started on a note of Christmas markets at the historic square in Old Town where the Tyn Cathedral (in the backdrop) with its spires aspires to reach the skies. The Astronomical Clock Tower of Prague announces itself too with its tall, tall tower and a  clock that has kept time for 600 years. There is a legend about the clock and I cannot help but be fascinated by lores. Master Hanuš built the clock in 1410. The city councillors were delighted but suspicious. What if Hanuš replicated the clock anywhere else in Europe? They blinded him on a dark, dark night. But then I also think of the Mughal emperors in India who are known to have chopped off hands of architects and workers who built them their glorious tombs and structures.

Maybe the legend is not that hard to believe after all.

When the clock comes alive every hour, 12 wooden apostles show up in its windows. Flanking the Astronomical Dial, if you squint a bit, you can spot on the right a skeleton ringing a bell (Death holding its hourglass, but according to a tour guide, a supermodel 😉 ) and a Turk next to it. On the left hand side is a man with a mirror portraying Vanity. Adjoining him is the man with a bag of money and a stick in his hand, signifying miserliness.  They all move when the clock chimes. But the other four figures below, of an angel, chronicler, astronomer and a philosopher, on either side of the Calendar Dial, remain still. At the very end, a golden cockerel on top of the tower quivers its wings and crows, after which the bell rings. 
Decorative facades off the square
In the backdrop is St. Nicholas Church (you might say, another St. Nicholas? Ref: The stunning Lesser Town church in The Bohemia Break – I). This is a Baroque church in Old Town. My pick of it was a sculpture of an archbishop (possibly) holding a staff and peering into the distance with a bewildered look his face right on one corner of the facade.
The 14th-century Church of Our Lady before Týn
Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV 
At the end of the road is one of the early 13 gates into Old Town. Today the 11th-century Gothic tower divides Old Town from New Town. The Powder Tower is named after gunpowder that was stored in it in the 17th century.
The Art Nouveau Municipal House 
High ceilings, bay windows, mirrors and crystal chandeliers bring in touches of opulence to the cafe of the Municipal House.


On the bank of the Vltava, sits this muse on the Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic. It is a paean to 19th-century Czech society when businessmen and financial institutions took it upon themselves to build the grand Rudolfinum that would house an art gallery, a conservatoire and be the home of music.

Walking tours are my preferred way to get to know the inner workings of a city. In Prague an outfit called Sandemans does a neat job. We were taken on a walk in Old Town by Terry, a tour guide whose husband as it turns out is from Northampton (six degrees of separation is not a myth). For three hours, she entertained us — without making us snore. But there are exceptions to any rule. In this case, it was a quartet of Indians. They took a half a dozen selfies with the group, took more selfies, and when we all stopped for a break in an eatery, they looked around furtively to check if Terry was around and then proceeded to slink away midway. They had had their selfies, thank you.

Into Talmudic Legends & the Jewish Quarter

I was introduced to the story of Golem one night as we slipped into bed after a long day of walking in the city. We were putting up at the InterContinental Prague, a heartbeat away from the Jewish quarter. Every night, I would find a little bedtime story waiting on the pillow — making me feel like a child with her nightly ritual.

Way before Hitler came into the picture, anti-semitism in Europe was rampant. During the 16th century when Prague was ruled by Emperor Rudolph II, a rabbi decided that the Jews needed protection in the form of a massive creature made out of clay called Golem. He did not look anything like Gollum (ref: Lord of the Rings) if you are confusing the two. His creator was Rabbi Löw who breathed life into Golem by combining the elements of fire, water, air and earth. As it happens the best conceived plans in life go awry. Golem wreaked havoc upon the city and had to be destroyed by the rabbi. There are whispers that Golem was hidden in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.

The Jewish community used to live in the quarter which came up between the river Vltava and the Old Town since the 13th century. It served as a ghetto from the beginning, though from time to time, the walls of the ghetto were razed down by various administrations. Its startling feature is the Old Jewish Cemetery supposed to be the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. There are up to 12 layers of bodies stacked over the other, thousands of gravestones vying for space inside the cemetery which is home to the dead from the 15th-18th centuries.

The incongruous addition to the quarter is Paris Street or Pařížská. Wandering beneath buildings that were pulled down and rebuilt in the 20th century blending together many architectural styles from the Neo-Baroque to the Neo-Renaissance, it is easy to lose yourself in the grandeur of it. The windows in each building are just massive displays of haute couture. Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Bottega Veneta, Fendi, Salvatore Ferragamo, Prada, Gucci. The roll-call of designer boutiques are here.

The quarter did have residences yet it was completely in contrast to the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. The Hungarian Jewish quarter was hip, bustling with bars and eateries. Its Czech counterpart was as quiet and sombre. A mood of contemplation steals over you as you walk through it. It is difficult not to tear up listening to stories of the Holocaust anywhere. It is no different an experience in Prague. Plus there is the hair-raising fact that Hitler wanted to keep Prague’s Jewish Quarter intact as a ‘Museum of an Extinct Race’.

The Bohemian gilded look of Restaurant U Stare Synagogy (Restaurant at the Synagogue) on Paris Street
Jewish Town Hall
The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest active synagogue in Europe. It dates back to the year 1270 and there is a story attached to it during the rule of the Reich. A Nazi agent who entered its attic (where the Golem is supposed to have been hidden) never made it back from the synagogue. After which, the Gestapo gave it a wide berth.
Life goes trotting by on Paris Street


The Church of the Holy Spirit borders the Jewish Quarter. In the 16th century, during the reign of Ferdinand I, Jews had to attend Catholic services at the church.
Paris Street
Spanish Synagogue built in the 19th century over an earlier synagogue in the Moorish Revival style. Inspired by the Al-Andalus style of architecture.
Many Jews from the city lost their lives at the Terezin Concentration Camp.


Points of Pride

It is difficult not to come across these famous Czech personalities when you are walking the streets of Prague. You know them.

There is Franz Kafka. The man who penned works in German such as The Castle and The Metamorphosis. I understood little of him when I read him, a long time ago that is. His morbid thoughts were a disquieting read for my young brain. The man who craved solitude ‘not like a hermit’ but ‘like a dead man’ for his creativity, was born to a German-speaking Jewish middle-class family in the Jewish quarter of Prague.

Here you see Kafka next to the Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. Kafka wrote of a young man riding on another man’s shoulders through the streets of Prague in a short story. 
Cafe Kafka is situated in the house into which the writer was born in 1883 and where he lived with his family for two more years before shifting to a house on Wenceslas Square.
The corner building on the left hand side of this photograph is Kafka’s birthplace.

I do not have photographs of Alphonse Mucha. But I did buy beautiful postcards that depict the Art Nouveau style of art work by this Czech artist who was born in a Moravian town in 1860. Mucha’s art work is what you see when you see most Art Nouveau pieces. Beautiful, dreamy women decked up in Neoclassical robes, surrounded by lots and lots of flowers on a pale pastel palette. Mucha lived in Prague in his later years and dedicated his time to decorating the Theatre of Fine Arts in the city and putting up murals at the Municipal House.

The third personality is one of my favourite writers and probably yours too if you have read him. Rainer Maria Rilke. The Bohemian-Austrian poet was born in Prague. There must be something about the air of the city you might be inclined to think, because just like Kafka, whose father beat him up often and considered him a failure because of his creative bent of mind, Rilke had a bad childhood. Rilke’s mother dressed him up as a girl probably in an effort to console herself for the loss of a daughter who had died before Rilke was born. Later in life, despite where his talent lay, Rilke was forced to join a military academy. A few lines from Rilke that make your heart ache with the beauty that lies in them.

“Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.”


Christmas the Czech Way

Klobása (pork sausages) and conversations in the Old Town Square
I had this sweet treat first in Zakopane, Poland, and then in Budapest. In Prague, it is known as trdelnik. But its original name is kurtsoskalacs and it hails from Transylvania. 
Spit-roasted pork
Grilled cheese. I had already tried a Polish cousin of this in Zakopane and loved it. I was delighted to spot this in Prague.
To offset the saltiness of the cheese, they serve it with a sweet-tangy plum jam.
Handmade crochet the traditional Czech way
Chicken kebab and sausage noons
Come with me, he says. Till what we saw did make us quite sad.
A donkey, a sheep, a goat and a pony tied up inside a very small enclosure in the middle of a Christmas market. The donkey, for example, started every time he turned any which way. 

The Vintage Way of Going Around

These cars are apparently vintage cars produced in the Czech Republic during the 1920s. You can take expensive tours around the city in these. But they are not bank breaking either.




Foodie Tales

U Svobodnych Zednaru carries a Freemason symbol but let that not mislead you. They simply like the masonic touch to the decor.
The food at U Svobodnych Zednaru is excellent value for money and here you can see the look of glee on my husband’s face at the prospect of goulash. He had loved tucking into this classic meat stew in Austria and Hungary. I love charting the way food too travels. Goulash might be deemed Hungarian in origin, but it arrived in Hungary only with Turkish soldiers in the 16th century.
Home of Pilsner
Lokal is a chain of Pilsner pubs that serves up excellent fare amidst traditional Czech decor from the 70s. It is popular with locals, so it runs to full capacity on most days.
Chocolate cheesecake. Unputdownable proposition. Also, gets over real quick.
A Parisian style cafe from the early 1900s with clients of the likes of Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein (when he was a professor at the University of Prague).
In the old days, you could make calls to anyone in the city using this receiver and the codes.
The beautiful interiors of Cafe Louvre that was shut in 1948 for a while by a communist coup. 
The local Czech beer on tap at Cafe Louvre is worth its hoppy value.


James Dean restaurant. Only because I am a James Dean lover.
Enter Hotel Paris. The 1904 building is Art Nouveau with ceramic mosaics, an elegant staircase with  ornate wrought iron railing, brass motifs, etched glass mirrors and golden chandeliers.
Cafe de Paris
Reduta Jazz Club. Prague’s oldest jazz club was started by a bassist in the 1950s. The club became a symbol of the Velvet Revolution at the end of the ’80s. It hosted an impromptu saxophone performance by Bill Clinton in the ’90s.
The Bakeshop in Prague
Rugelach, a traditional Jewish pastry, stuffed with nuts and chocolate, at The Bakeshop.
Cranberry and orange brownie at The Bakeshop. Heaven in a small square.



The places I have talked about are all inexpensive and yet they serve up sumptuous food. If you are in Prague, do have a look in. You might come out with a wide smile and a sigh of content.





In Bohemia

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.

Adi at the tennis courts in Strahov. I wonder if monks play tennis, in robes.
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Petřín Lookout Tower
Steps that lead to Petřín Park from the tower
Grounds of Strahov
The castle from across the Vltava
Prague Castle, turrets and spires all in one frame
St. Vitus Cathedral dwarfs you just like Lincoln’s cathedral in England
Stained art inside the cathedral
The tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors lie inside the cathedral
Christmas stalls in the castle grounds
Golden Lane, a 15th century quarter with a row of tiny houses built into the fortifications of the castle, is said to have got its name from alchemists who lived there. But according to Terry, a walking tour guide, the name was arrived from the habit of soldiers peeing in it after long sessions of swigging beer. The lane did house the military barracks for some time. The famous resident of Golden Lane was Franz Kafka who worked in House no. 22 for a year.
Gothic magnificence of the cathedral
View from Castle Square at night
One of the best lookout points in the city — Castle Square
Sunset at Castle Square
The king and the jester with an Asian woman who is dressed as ?
Gates of Prague Castle
The kind of view one could get used to

Gold-Tipped Towers and Spires

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.

The Old Town Bridge Tower, now blackened and weathered with the years since it was built in the 1300s to protect Old Town from marauders from the north, has views across the Vltava. The Gothic tower has just about 138 stairs. Not much? 😉
From atop the 210-ft tall Old Town Bridge Tower
The many spires, rotundas and domes that emerge out of Prague Old Town
For a bird’s eye-view of of Prague’s Old Town, you enter the Klementinum and climb its Astronomical Tower. The large complex, above 2 hectares in area, was the handiwork of Jesuits who arrived in Bohemia in 1556. Again, like the rest of the city, it has an array of architectural styles to offer because the reconstruction of the former Dominican monastery, in which the Jesuits lived, took roughly 170 years. Don’t be too put off by the brusque air of the old lady who stands at the till and treats you like a slow child if you ask one too many questions. And, reach by 10am so that you can grab the first tour.
The Mirror Chapel inside the Klementinum. One of the rooms that is bound to make your jaw drop. Till, of course, you make your way up and enter the portals of the famed library which you have probably seen lit up in all its baroque gorgeousness. Muted gold seems to leap out at you apart from the thousands and thousands of tomes – there about 20,000 – is this fantastic library that was started by the Jesuits in the 1700s as part of the Jesuit University they had set up. But the thing is that it is extremely well preserved, so the library is almost dark and you have got to peer in to get all that gorgeousness. I do not have a photo to share with you all because photographs are strictly off the charts.
This was like a sneak peek into what lay ahead once we got to the top of the Astronomical Tower of the Klementinum.
Then you climb up the 172-odd stairs of the Astronomical Tower and get this view of Old Town. This was always a viewing platform since the 18th century when it was built but Jesuit scholars and their students carried out their astronomical and climate measurements in the tower.
Take a turn around the tower and you get a view of the castle in the distance and the white towers of Strahov too.


The spires of Strahov Monastery

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.


Charles Bridge leads the way to the castle quarter and Lesser Town from atop the Old Town Bridge Tower.
Adi took a break from jostling with the crowds with a fake smile
But what cannot stop you from gaping at Charles Bridge are the rows of 30 saints flanking you. They make you think that you are being watched and that there is a somebody watching over you. In this case, 30 somebodies. Towering above me here are the saints Norbert of Xanten (the one who started the Premonstratensian Order), Wenceslas (Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century till he was assassinated) and Sigismund (King of Burgundy).
That is John of Nepomuk. This unfortunate man was deemed a martyr because he was confessor of the Queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge the confessionals. On the orders of Wenceslas IV, King of the Romans & King of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk was drowned in the Vltava in 1393. Since then he has been declared to be a protector from floods and drowning. Though why, you would think. He could not protect himself from the waters.
What could their sins have been?
Charles Bridge
You see why the other bridges pale in comparison.
Svatopluk Čech Bridge, an Art Nouveau style bridge, from the window of our room at the InterContinental Prague.
Below Charles Bridge from where some boats take off on their cruises.


At night, the crowds melted away on Charles Bridge. The mist rolled in and I could imagine it as the perfect setting for a thriller.
A taciturn John Le Carre-esque spy walking by with his shoulder hunched, a single stream of blue smoke released from the cigarette in his hands…

Lesser Town

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.

Spires of St. Nicholas Church show up from every part of Lesser Town. The town existed even before the Baroque period. But fires razed it down and it was rebuilt in a Baroque style.
St. Nicholas Church. If you have one church you would like to pay an entrance for, it is this one. It was built in the 18th century by a father-son duo of the famous Dientzenhofer family of Bavarian architects.
The frescoes inside take the breath away. It is all about art that makes you feel the exalted power of a place of worship.
During the Communist Era, the State Security used the bell-tower of the church to keep an eye on things in town. But it is worth its while to spend time inside this church and soak in all the elements that make the Baroque style what it is. The interiors are ridden with Baroque drama, exuberance and grandeur.


More Baroque presence on the streets of Lesser Town
Church of St. Joseph at Republic Square. A Renaissance Capuchin church with an adjacent monastery. It grabs the attention with its simplicity and yet you can spot the two Baroque sandstone sculptures of St. Jude Thaddeus flanked by two angels.
Poetic touches
Lesser Town was the brain child of King Ottokar II of Bohemia in the 13th century. As a royal town, its residents had to be chosen by the king who decided to throw out the original residents and invited German merchants and craftspersons in.
In the latter half of the 14th century, Charles IV extended Lesser Town and built the Hunger Wall. As terrible as it sounds – the mind immediately leaps to think it was an evil thought process at work – its original name gives you an idea about why it was named thus. It was called Chlebová or ‘built for bread’. Even though it was built as a medieval defensive wall, it is said to have been a strategic ploy of the Holy Roman Emperor to feed the poor by giving them employment. The Hunger Wall was built at a time when there was a famine in the city.
Lesser Town Bridge Tower, just as you get off Charles Bridge.


The Church of St. Thomas is part of an Augustinian monastery. The 18th century church was built upon the foundations of an older Romanesque church, it is supposed.
All roads lead to St. Nicholas in Lesser Town.

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.




Bohemian Marionettes

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.

In the old days, European recipes called for ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, molasses and ginger. I wonder if the recipe is still the same for these smiling men in the picture. The English are supposed to have tweaked the recipe for a lighter version in the 16th century. And guess what, the first gingerbread man came from Queen Elizabeth I. She had got them baked for visiting dignitaries.
At the Gingerbread Museum, where you can dip them in a chocolate fountain and bite off their cute little heads.
Reproductions of wooden molds that were used in medieval times to tell the story of the day. As you can see in this shot, they would depict kings, queens and religious figures.
Gingerbread houses and trees and all things merry
Gingerbread stalls and pop-up shops are a feature you will not want to miss during Christmas.
In the old days, lovers are supposed to have gifted their loved ones gingerbread men tied up with ribbons.

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.