Czech it out on foot

Czech it out on foot
PHOTO: The Straits Times

BREATHLESS after climbing 87 steep steps to the top of the Astronomical Tower, I gazed in delight at the gorgeous view of the picturesque old town in Prague.

An azure sky was the perfect backdrop for the rows of red roofs and the glint of the Vltava River that wends its way through the capital city of Czech Republic.

Far below, I also caught sight of the famous Charles Bridge and could make out the hordes of visitors on it.

I would soon be one of those, I thought to myself as I clambered gingerly down the steps. I was finishing my tour of the Klementinum, one of the largest building complexes in Europe.

In the tower I was in, meteorological measurements have been collected since 1775. In its Meridian hall are original astronomical instruments, and the exquisite Mirror Chapel is the venue for classical music concerts.

The complex also has the Baroque Library Hall, called the most beautiful library in the world, with exquisite frescoes and historically valuable globes.

I wouldn't have known about it had my colleague not alerted me to its existence. And how serendipitous that she happened to see a Facebook post about it while I was en route to Prague.

And here I was, happily exploring the complex that was built between the 16th and 18th centuries, originally as a Jesuit dormitory. You have to join the 45-minute guided tour, which costs CZK 220 (S$12).

Made for walking

Prague's Old Town is a pedestrian's delight. Narrow cobbled streets flanked by lovely old buildings are best explored at a leisurely pace.

The best place to start is at the top. Lovely views from the Strahov Monastery grounds set the tone for the day. From here, I could see the town spread out below, basking in mellow sunshine.

I couldn't linger long, so after many shots of the picture-postcard scene, I made my way to Prague Castle, pausing to admire the distinctive black-and-white sgrafitto technique on the walls of Schwarzenberg Palace, now known for its collection of Baroque Bohemian art.

A crowd had gathered outside the gates of the castle, waiting to watch the ceremonial Changing of the Guard at noon, which is a formal handover with a fanfare and banner exchange.

The castle was once the seat of the Kings of Bohemia and is now the official residence of the president.

The complex is huge, covering over 7ha, and comprises palaces, churches, great halls, museums and state apartments. The most dominant of all is the St Vitus Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece that has seen the coronation of Czech kings and queens.

Commissioned by Charles IV, construction began in 1344 and was finally completed in the 20th century.

In the royal tombs below the crypt are interred kings, queens and patron saints of the country. The crown jewel is the Chapel of St Wenceslaus, who is the patron saint of the country. It is decorated with semi-precious stones, and a series of paintings depicting the Passion of the Christ.

Usually packed with visitors, it is difficult to find a quiet spot from where you can admire St Vitus's stained glass windows and vaulted ceiling.

Nonetheless, I was awestruck at the scale and richness of the cathedral, one of the most beautiful I have seen.

Back in the present

Getting out of the cathedral felt like stepping through a time-travel machine. Outside, the narrow lanes were crowded with visitors - Prague is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world - and I had to navigate carefully to avoid bumping into people.

As I had a two-day ticket to the castle, I could walk down Golden Lane with its mini townhouses now converted into quirky souvenir shops. I also peered into the claustrophobic basement of Daliborka Tower, which was used as a prison.

My route led me down the hill and along narrow streets lined with cafes and souvenir shops to the Charles Bridge, the most famous of the 17 bridges built over the Vltava River in Prague.

The 14th-century stone bridge is lined with 30 Baroque statues of religious figures, and the roughly half-kilometre walk across gave me a lovely vantage point to admire the old town rising high above.

Once across, I continued my walk and reached the Old Town Square, famous for its Christmas markets and the still-functioning Astronomical Clock.

Every hour, the 12 apostles pass by the window above the dial as some sculptures move. When the apostles finish their journey, the golden cockerel at the top crows and quivers its wings, the bell rings and the clock chimes the hour. I reached the square just in time to catch the engaging display.

Surrounding the square are pastel coloured buildings of Romanesque or Gothic origin. Among the most beautiful are the Church of Our Lady before T´yn and the Kinsky Palace.

In the centre of the square is the Jan Hus monument, built to commemorate the reformer who was executed for his beliefs. As dusk falls, and the lights come on, the square takes on a magical air.

Continuing on, I reached the Powder Tower at the edge of the old town. It gets its name from the gunpowder it used to store. Next to the tower is the Municipal House, Prague's most prominent Art Nouveau building, which houses the Smetana Hall, the biggest concert hall in Prague.

My walk through the old town complete, I rested my aching feet in the Grand Cafe Orient, on the first floor of the Cubist building, the House of the Black Madonna.

The unhurried atmosphere was perfect for unwinding with a cup of coffee, and for once, I didn't mind the indifferent attitude of the waiters.

The writer's trip was organised by Czech Tourism.

GUIDELINES

- I flew to Prague on Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.

- The currency is the Koruna (CZK). Though the country is part of the EU, euros are not widely accepted. S$1 = 17CZK.

- The Czech Republic is known for garnets and crystal, but make sure you buy from a trusted retailer. I was directed to the Erpet store in Old Town Square. Remember to ask for your tax refund if you spend above CZK2,000.

- Make sure you try the Czech garlic soup, a flavourful broth with onions, cheese and crunchy croutons. It is a perfect way to warm up in cold weather.

- Czechs love their beer, and there are many pubs where you can sample the best local varieties.

- Catch a midday classic concert (from CZK390) in the beautifully decorated Concert Hall at the Lobkowicz Palace.

Go to sgtravellers.com for more stories.

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