A TNT Travel Writing Awards 2009 entrant
Author: Phil Larkin
An enchanting song in one of the Irish operas contains the line “I dreamed I dwelled in marble halls.” In my case, however, during four days in Prague, I felt that I came close to living out that dream. Some cities so surpass all the normal boundaries of aesthetic beauty that they require some description. Prague is one such city. This second visit, made with Ciaran, John, and Aiden, has reinforced my belief that even though the Austro-Hungarian empire may not have been the most powerful the world has ever seen, it certainly possessed the finest cities in Europe, beating even the splendours of Paris, Berlin, and Madrid. Prague, is the jewel in the crown of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, a firmly-held opinion of mine that has not been dented by my latest visit.
It was interesting to return after an interval of some years to see whether time has wrought any changes to the city. I am happy to aver that if there have been any changes, they are for the better, with Prague, as the capital of the Czech Republic the very epitome of a thriving, cosmopolitan, wealthy central European city, something which is reflected in the vast number of quality cars, and the clothing fashions sported by the local population. Some may say that the city has become over touristised – I disagree – Prague is an experience to be shared with the world. Although we saw old Soviet style cardboard box apartments on the outskirts of the city centre from our vantage point of the Observatory (offering great views over the city), it is clear that Soviet domination never managed to destroy the essential soul of Prague, or that the sophisticated and intelligent Czechs never forgot how to manage a wealthy civic society.
It is no exaggeration to say that most of our four days (or three and a half, to be pedantic) were taken up simply wandering around the Old Town Square gawping in wonder at the sheer magnificence of the architecture, which ranged from Gothic cathedrals to the baroque castle at the epicentre of the Old Town.
One sad moment for me came when I saw the statue of Edvard Benes, last democratically elected President of pre-Soviet Czechoslovakia, who after seeing his country overrun by the Nazis, was to die a lonely figure in exile due to the totalitarian designs that Stalin and the communists had on Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War II. It should perhaps serve as a lesson against being complacent about the democratic freedoms enjoyed by ourselves in the West and now happily shared by the Czechs themselves.
Aiden, a photo junkie, literally found new wonders around each corner to feed his addiction. It is easy to see the secret of Czech success in Prague – top quality education in celestial surroundings, and cultural experiences readily available to all. One cannot walk 100 feet during the day in the city centre without someone planting a flyer in your hand advertising some classical concert in the majestic opera houses or cathedrals of the city. One thing which differentiates the Czechs from the more folksy Poles, however, is their attitude to religion, which borders on the sceptical – evidenced by the fact that it is very difficult to actually gain access to the interior of a church or cathedral in Prague – a great pity.
Okay, so we didn’t reside in a baroque marble palace during our visit there, but our hostel did provide a very good substitute – comfortable (if basic) rooms and a first rate continental breakfast for the equivalent of around £10 per night. It also had the merit of being within ten minutes walking distance from the Old Town Square. It also contained two good bars, a pizza/pasta restaurant, and a bowling alley. And there is no need to frequent five star hotels or expensive restaurants to find delicious Czech food – we ate like kings in a pub just off the city centre at a very reasonable price. The local service is efficient and scrupulously polite.
I hope to return one day.