Europe is an old friend and the slightest hint of an opportunity to return to it not only brings back memories but creates an inevitable sense of fernweh. It was in the year 2012 when I set out with a bunch of friends to explore the path less travelled- or what I thought atleast was my motive for the trip. We travelled to Eastern Europe, to the cluster of the most abetted countries, commonly chosen as the culture “represent” of what is vastly the now much scattered version of an empire- Hungary, Slovakia and Austria. Now whether it was the slow clad mountains of Salzburg from “The Sound of Music” or the grit and horror of the Slovakian “Hostel” which generated in us an inclination to go explore these areas, what we did miss out during that trip was to touch the fourth corner of this quadrangle- Czech Republic! Those 6 days we covered the capitals of Hungary, Austria and Slovakia- Namely Budapest, Vienna and Bratislava and yet having done so much, I still carried the feeling that somehow my trip wasn’t complete, and it was only recently that I was finally able to make peace with the incomprehensions in my mind. Anyhoo! So this February, I got a chance to go back to Europe- this time for work.. and miraculously, I found myself in Prague.
Wait there’s a catch. So there I was in Prague- 1. On a cold winter day, 2. just for a day and 3. completely alone (for the day). I have always maintained that travelling alone is often the best gift one can give him or herself.
Travelling alone to a far off country where no one knows your name, no one speaks your language and not a soul cares what you bring to the table (unlike most scenarios in our day to day lives) is …. liberating. I tell my friends all the time.. Going to a place where no one knows you gifts you a sense of freedom. You can be whoever you want, For a few days you can be someone you may never identify with in real life and there is such independence in that… Not necessarily the execution, but simply the idea of it.
Travelling solo is not easy, especially when you don’t speak Czech (or any language other than English) but more often than not, it does turn out to be one of the most satisfying experiences. So yes, There I was.. alone for the day in cold, white Prague and having lost all sense of time. As most would know, European winters can be misleading- The sun sets way too early and the nights seem fascinatingly long. So I got there in the morning, checked into my hotel and from there almost immediately left the hotel looking for the fastest way to cover the city in one day. Equipped with winter wear, a camera and a map as usual I was on the way to the nearest tram station.
Now one challenge I did not anticipate was that people seem to have chosen not to acknowledge English as a first, scone or third language in that part of the world. I am pretty used to now using sign language or picking up local words as and when in order to communicate as a Neanderthal but this time I was completely ill-equipped and there started my journey of finding the kind souls (1 out of 5) who would 1. understand me and 2. invest their time in actually guiding me through the city.
Following different groups of people around the winding lanes of the city, I soon found myself on the tram (Number 12) to Prague Castle.. and what led me to see more of the city in one day than I could have possibly imagine was how wrong my plan went and how hopelessly lost I was half an hour into my “Not so well planned adventure”.
Unlike most other places I go to, here I had no idea where I was until I actually got there and you’d be surprised how fascinating getting there is, when you don’t know where you’re actually going.
Oh hey, Charles Bridge (& Old Prague market/ square)
I got to Charles Bridge, the most iconic structure in Prague completely by accident. I have always maintained that the best way to actually see and understand a city is by getting lost in it, and this theory of mine provide itself worthy when I needed it the most.
I got here while making my way down the shopping market, literally following the smell of food. Now most people would actually know this if been to or planning a trip to Prague that the lane right opposite Charles bridge is actually one of the most famous tourist attractions full of continental restaurants, shadow theatres, back light theatres, hookah bars, tattoo parlours, street artists, bars and INSANE shopping arcades!
While all of this sounds and looked fascinating to me, following the crowd I actually ended up ON Charles bridge. The moment I Looked at it I knew I had struck gold. Nothing looks like that and doesn’t get famous.
Charles bridge, built in the 14th century is famous for the views it provides of the city built on a river, very similar actually to Budapest which its chain bridges and river sights. The bridge itself is home to street performers, graffiti artists and revellers taking a trip down history with bottles of beer in hand. The views are spectacular, even on a cold, foggy winter evening I got much more than I bargained for.
The statues lining the bridge are mammoths preserved in time and along the river sides one gets a good view of the night life of Prague. Definitely a must go for anyone travelling to this city. I know it sounds funny coming from someone who landed here by accident, but well.. been there done that!
Oh Hey Fred & Ginger! The Dancing House
Impossible to miss, hard to ignore and completely open to like or dislike, the dancing house is one of a kind. Right on the main road leading out towards the castle and standing by the riverfront, the dancing house is a symbol of modern contemporary architecture and is frankly, really REALLY hard to miss.
Not much to see here, except the sheer creativity of whoever came up with this and more importantly, why!Extremely different from the Baroque, Gothic architecture which Prague is famous for, the building looks completely diverse from the other monuments lining it for acres on both sides. Ironically, it is two buildings away from the Opera House and the National theatre, pointing out even more distinctly the structural variations and obvious thoughts of design.
All the World’s a stage-Opera House, The Prague National Theatre
Come to think of it, a lot of places that Prague is famous for are actually located surprisingly close to one another. Take it from a lost traveler who was surprised at every turn and corner… get out of Charles bridge to run into the dancing house.. take the next turn and come across the iconic Prague National Theatre- The alma mater of Czech history and Art! Truly one hell of a walking tour.
Home to Opera, Ballet and Drama I’d definitely recommend an actual show booking here to understand the evolution of the Czech form of expression through song and art. The theater is lined on both sides by several historic monuments displaying the famous baroque architecture. This road in general is one of the busiest in the city and is a good choice to watch and observe the everyday lives of the people of Prague.
Prague Castle- Old Royal castle, Belvedere castle, New Royal Castle
My entire plan for the day was actually resting on getting to the Prague Castle.I had decided that if there was one thing I wasn’t leaving Prague without seeing, it would be the Prague Castle- the largest ancient castle in the world!
Who would want to miss that?- The Largest Ancient castle in the world according to Guinness book of world records and the seat to the kings of Bohemia, Roman emperors as well as Czech presidents!
Now one must understand that the Prague castle ground is home to some of the most iconic monuments that Prague is famous for – Basilica of Saint George and St. Vitus cathedral amongst many others. The old and New royal castles stand tall, spectacularly surrounded by the Royal gardens and innumerable halls and bell towers. The royal garden tours last all day owing to the magnitude of land covered by these spectacularly maintained gardens.
Enter the castle, and it feels like a town by itself, levels of stone monoliths, stairs and vertical verandahs leading into alleys and more levels of stone structures on either side; cobblestones lining the entire length and breadth of 18th century fortresses cut into rock and panoramic views of the castle grounds from the view point.
I missed my stop at the castle, and so I walked back almost two miles to it in the freezing sub zero temperature only to be welcomed by the most profound sight of the castle hiding behind the dense fog which had now taken over the winter day.
Slowly, and bit by bit the castle walls started coming into view as I moved closer to the Prague castle.
By this point I felt like I had walked majorly uphill over half the city, but as soon as I set foot in the castle ground.. I knew it had all been worth it.
St. Vitus Cathedral, Basilica of St. George, Kohl’s fountain
Walking around the enormous structure, leading into grooves and crevices on either side and evert corner of it, I came across the St. Vitus Cathedral- a gorgeous piece of history standing tall and sure through the centuries so far. The visual delight of seeing Kohl’s fountain against St. Vitus cathedral is highly endearing. One of the most important churches of Prague and tomb to several roman and bohemian emperors, the cathedral is crowned by a huge tower. The sight go Kohl’s fountain against the cathedral is one of the most famous pictures clicked by tourists and this spot is definitely worth the time spent in usually getting here.
For many who have been to Spain, it may remind you of the Segrada Familia Church in Barcelona, and believe me, it is equally stunning. Standing right opposite the St. Vitus cathedral is an equally enthralling structure, the crimson red Basilica of St. George.
Between the two monuments lies the kohl’s fountain making this square one of the most prominent ones of Prague and definitely not one to be missed.
Now converted into a house of Bohemian art these buildings represent gothic architecture and are silent memory keepers of the golden age of Czech history. The castle grounds are spread over 7000 acres and it almost seems to occupy all of the city when looked at from above.
This fort actually dominates over an entire region of Prague which is called Visehrad due to the presence of the same. Located within the walls of the fort are the basilicas of Peter & paul and one of the most famous cemeteries of Prague. Built on the river Vitava, it is supposed to be the first settlement which later grew into Prague over the years and is usually open to the public 24/7 owing to its gorgeous and well spread gardens which spread out expanding out of the fortress walls. To be honest, I avoided spending too much time here because 1. A cemetery garden on a cold, winter evening looks and feels far from appealing as the “Night is dark and full of terrors” and 2. Cold winters also mean snow clad, white gardens.. which honestly were the least exciting prospect for my one day travel through the city of Prague.
So long, Sweet Praha..
Prague meant a lot to me as a trip for several reasons, and one above all others- more like unfinished business. I had a desire to visit Prague once upon a time, missed the opportunity having come so close, finally completing the circle I started after 6 years feels like a neat ribbon tied on a beautifully wrapped present. I look forward to going back at some point in life, this time if only to sit with a cup of hot chocolate on a bench in the Visehrad fort gardens, under the warm-warm summer sun. Just me and Praha.. and a Brighter sky.