Nuns hobbled down the winding road below the monastery as the sun set over the frosted fields of Petřín Hill. We stood in the silence of the icy park, taking in the spired vista that spread out below us, beyond the gnarled barks and bare branches of trees that looked extremely cold and coated with frost. The December dusk was brightened up by the red roofs of Prague, interspersed with the occasional turquoise domes of churches. It was a serene moment that. Away from the madding crowds of Charles Bridge, the iconic baroque structure that spans the river Vltava and marks the historic capital of Bohemia.
We paused. Such moments of solitude in life require you to pause for as long as you can.
Then, as I was trying to take a few shots, such as the one you see above, I felt a nudge on my legs. I chose to ignore it. Another insistent nudge. I looked down. Next to my feet lay a bright red ball, and a black hound possibly 6 months old, 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 him? His old master said, “That ball is covered in mud, so you don’t have to.”
Mud be darned, I gave in to the nudger. Off went Ralph, streaking down the slope like a bullet, whizzing all over its frosted surface, once the ball was in the air.
We were in hysterics. The ball lay in clear sight, a beaming red. Yet there went Ralph running around in circles. After a good 10 minutes of us four rooting for Ralph, our attention riveted by a red ball and dog, success was had.
Ralph would have you remember, with droopy eyes and a solemn look, that he is a hound.
His romping grounds were in the part of Prague that is slightly elevated above the rest of the city. Petřín Hill is a steep-ish climb from Prague Castle — a walk that took us to the oldest Premonstratensian Monastery in Bohemia. Premonster what, did you say? Well then, hold on. It is a Roman Catholic religious order started by a German saint called Norbert in the early 12th century, basically to get the monks off their passive behinds and do more than just contemplate about the vagaries of life. He wanted them to take part in community service.
Cut to Strahov Monastery. A large complex of buildings built by a Bohemian king in the 12th century that became home to one of the oldest surviving monasteries of Premonstratensian Order in the world. The monastery’s claim to fame is a beautiful library that houses about 200,000 books, and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and religious texts.
Near the monastery, is a token of envy and inspiration. In the late 1880s, the world exhibition in Paris had members from the Czech Tourist Club as visitors. These members were left quite in awe of the Eiffel Tower. They raised money and a society to put up a tower in Prague that would be five times shorter than the Eiffel but have a similar effect upon the horizon of the city as Gustave Eiffel’s tower does in Paris. So, you have the 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.
Of Golden Lanes, Mystic Prophesies and Glorious Castles
We were in the land of Boii, which given its pronunciation, would be sexist and belong to only boys. But do not bother getting your hackles up. The Boii was a Celtic tribe which is said to have inhabited the region and given it its name, Bohemia. Many tribes occupied the land next with migrations as a common theme in those days. I took to the legend of Libuše who as the princess of a Czech tribe married a humble ploughman and used to have visions of the future in her castle in central Bohemia. In one of her visions she saw what Prague would go on to be – “a vast city, whose glory will touch the stars!” She also saw ‘a place in the middle of a forest where a steep cliff rises above the Vltava River. There is a man, who is chiselling the prah (threshold) for the house.”. She prophesied: “A castle named Praha will be built there. Just as the princes and the dukes stoop in front of a threshold, they will bow to the castle and to the city around it.”
In the Middle Ages, her vision came true. A Czech Prince built Prague Castle in the late 9th century. It was the seat of the Czech rulers always but in modern times it holds the offices of the Czech president.
The first time we beheld the castle was as we were making our way to the hotel from the airport. It was incredibly misty. Out of the mists of time, it seemed, loomed out the spires of the castle high above us. First impressions last.
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The old man with the Hurdy Gurdy on the way to Lesser Town took me to another time and age with his crooning.
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.
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.