Published on February 23rd, 2010 | by Ann Rickard0
Travel – Summer heatwave in Prague
On the hour every hour they gather in the sweltering sun. Hundreds of them, all jostling for a good place, craning their necks like storks, looking up, waiting for the clock to strike.
The Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Hall Tower in Prague’s main square is quite the attraction. When the big hand strikes the hour, the clock chimes merrily, and out on the top tower high in the clear blue sky, a man in medieval costume appears. He blows a trumpet. The crowd claps. The crowd disperses. That’s it. An hour later, another crowd is back for a repeat performance.
In the height of summer in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, this gathering at the foot of the 15th century tower goes on from dawn to dusk. We watch in amusement from our window in our attic room at the Hotel U Prince in the historic heart of Prague. It’s intriguing to see such large crowds gather for so brief a ceremony. Not that we’ve spent much time in our hotel room. There’s just too much going on in Prague in summer and we’ve spent three days in wide-eyed wonder exploring the city, even joining the crowds at the Astronomical Clock more than once. You can’t help it.
The unusually high temperatures have everyone in the city guzzling bottles of water, and cafe proprietors trying to keep their customers cool – one enterprising bloke brings out a hose every 15 minutes to spray grateful passers by.
But we’re Aussies, used to the heat, and we can walk easily from the Hotel U Prince to Charles Bridge, Prague’s famously romantic Gothic bridge linking the two sides of the city: the Old Town and Mala Strana. There is a lot of history on the bridge if you care to study it.
Construction began in 1357 and the bridge still holds up as strong and handsome as when it was first built. Being pedestrianised means the bridge is crammed with people all day and night. Artists will sketch your portrait while you sit before them. Buskers and musicians entertain. Vendors will sell you postcards and souvenirs. Before you realise it, you are part of the busy parade, stopping to lean on the heavy bridge rails looking down at the tour boats gliding by, photographing the striking buildings flanking the Vltava River.
Baroque statues line the bridge (copies, originals are in museums), the most popular, the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk with his halo of five stars. To rub the statue, they say, will bring you good luck, and you’ll need good luck to fight your way through the crowds pushing for their turn at a rub.
Once over the bridge it is a delightful stroll up to the Prague Castle through the handsome streets of Mala Strana or Lesser Town as it is known. Mala Strana huddles prettily around the foothills of the castle and you could spend hours, even days getting lost in its charming cobbled alleys. You may be lost but you won’t starve. Falling into one of an endless variety of traditional Czech pubs and cafes for sturdy nourishment is easy. Blackboard menus with Czech favourites – pork knuckles, duck dumplings, beef and potato soup – beckon everywhere.
Prague escaped military action during WWII so almost all of its historic and beautiful buildings, including the ancient burgher houses, remain undamaged and intact. It’s a joy just to walk and admire the architecture.
Up in the castle it’s a case of joining the crowds queuing to go inside the Saint Vitus Cathedral within the castle. The queues are always long in summer, but they move quickly and you’ll find yourself inside the vast, cool space of the church within 15 minutes. A guide will recount the history of the church – most of which you may not take in, there is a great deal of it – but you will love looking high up to the intricate stained glass windows, to the tombs of the Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors, to the Gothic architecture and to the silver tomb of Saint John of Nepomuk – the unfortunate fellow on the bridge with the halo of five stars everyone wants to rub. He was thrown in the Vltava River after being tortured for not divulging secrets of the confessional. Now he is a national saint in the Czech Republic.
Once you’ve done the cultural thing and eaten your fill of dumplings, you will probably want to shop, and it is Bohemia crystal you will most certainly buy. The famous crystals are everywhere, glittering, sparkling, twinkling pieces of glamour, displayed in large shops and tiny hole-in-the wall stores.
As for us, no crystal buying, but a climb up to the rooftop bar at the Hotel U Prince for icy gin and tonics while taking in the splendour of the Old Town views over terracotta roofs.
We’ll go back to Prague one day, perhaps in winter when the city is cloaked in soft snow, or maybe again in summer to join the crowds at the Astronomical Clock. It must be so. We rubbed the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge and to do so not only means good luck, it means a definite return to this beguiling city.