Michael had a three-day weekend at the end of October, so at the last minute we decided to go to Prague. We chose Prague because it was the only large European city that wasn’t expecting rain. We booked our tickets and our hotel, we looked for things to see and do in Prague, and as we packed our bags on Thursday night, we checked the weather forecast and saw that Prague was going to be hit with the first snowstorm of the fall and winter. Yikes! But our airline tickets were nonrefundable, so we soldiered on, and we had a ball, of course.
Rome doesn’t have bright fall colors. It’s just too mild here, I guess. So we were thrilled to find Prague full of the bright oranges, yellows, and reds of the falls that I remember.
We stayed in a wonderful hotel, the Aria, on the west bank (Malá Strana) of the Vltava River, which bisects the city. In addition to an interesting and comfortable room named for Ella Fitzgerald (each room features a musician in the art on the walls and has that person’s music playing on the sound system when guests first arrive), the hotel had a very good restaurant, Coda, where we had dinner the first night and breakfast each morning, and a wonderful concierge, Ivana Stehlíková, who made sure that we saw the most important sights and ate at her favorite places.
Recommendations in hand, we headed out for lunch at the Strahov Monastic Brewery in the Strahov Monastery, a steep walk up the hill west of our hotel. Ivana claimed that this is one of the best breweries in Prague, and we certainly ate and drank well! Pils beer was invented in Prague, and it is delicious—better than the Pilsner beers we know in the United States. As I recall, we drank wine only once, and that was at dinner Friday night. The tables in the brewery seated about eight people, and we were joined by a nice young couple from California. After chatting with them for an hour or so, the man said that he had just graduated from my alma mater, the University of Oregon! Mamma mia! So we whooped it up for a while about that and left them sipping brews. We had a great time with them.
Our next stop was the beautiful Prague Loreto. One website described it as “a religious pilgrimage site that was built in commemoration of the legend of a cottage said to have been the home of the Virgin Mary, which was transported with divine help to Loreto, Italy, centuries before Prague’s 18th century Loreto was built.” In the Prague Loreto is a replica of the cottage, Santa Casa, built between 1626 and 1631. The Loreto also features a beautiful church and many other treasures, including recently discovered crypt art.
Ivana told us that we must not miss Prague Castle, so we headed that way, stopping to watch a military parade and ceremony of some sort at the entrance. Prague Castle is enormous and dominates the landscape of Prague. It is a World Heritage Site, and historians believe that it was founded in 880. The largest coherent castle complex in the world, it includes almost every style of architecture of the last millennium, including gothic St. Vitus Cathedral and Romanesque Basilica of St. George. As you can imagine, the museums in the castle are fascinating! One of my favorite places in the castle was Golden Lane, a street next to the northern castle wall that includes 11 historic houses depicting life in the castle, including a psychic’s house. Franz Kafka lived there in 1916–17.
As we began hiking down the hill to our hotel, snow began to fall, and it fell all night and all through Saturday. Although it was quite cold when we were in Prague, it hadn’t been cold previously, so it took a while for the snow to stick.
On Saturday morning we ventured forth in the falling snow to see the eastern side of the city (Staré Mĕsto). Although we missed many things, we saw a lot: the Charles Bridge (without vendors, alas), the Astronomical Clock on Old Town City Hall (the clock was first installed in 1410 is the third oldest working astronomical clock in the world), the Powder Tower (a tower of the old city gates dating from the 15th century), the gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn (14th century), Old Town Square, and the Municipal House (a glorious Art Nouveau concert hall that opened in 1912).
Saturday evening we ate at Lokál, which apparently is one of Prague’s most popular restaurants for locals. We had a reservation in the upstairs room (as opposed to the basement) of the restaurant near our hotel. We had more excellent Pils and good Czech food at Lokál, but I felt as if we were eating in a beer hall. I preferred our lunch spot downtown Saturday, but I can’t remember its name (great food and great beer).
The weather was cold and clear Sunday. Ivana recommended an outstanding tour (Wittman Tours) of the Jewish Ghetto that morning, and that’s what we did. I can’t show you the inside of the synagogues because no photographs are allowed, but we saw several, including my favorite, the Pinkas Synagogue. On its walls are 80,000 names of Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Holocaust victims—simply staggering! It took four years to inscribe them all. Although the room was full of people, you could have heard a pin drop. The Pinkas Synagogue also includes a display of children’s art from the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp. The drawings are chilling—you can almost feel the terror. We can see these drawings today because a brave art teacher buried 4,500 of them underground in a suitcase.
We also saw the Maisel Synagogue, which is a museum today; the Old-New Synagogue, built in 1270 and one of Prague’s first gothic buildings (it was originally called the New or Great Synagogue, and when newer synagogues were built in the 16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue); and the spectacularly ornate Spanish Synagogue (every surface is covered by elaborate Islamic-style polychrome and gilded patterns). We didn’t see the Old Jewish Cemetery because we had to leave for the airport.
I wish we’d had more time and better weather. Prague is simply fascinating!