Thursday, 30 April 2009
For centuries it has been known as Zlatá Praha or Golden Prague - a glittering jewel of art and architecture nestling snugly at the heart of Europe. Home to emperors and kings, artists and astronomers, this beautiful and fascinating city has worked its subtle magic on generations of visitors, and lent inspiration to musicians and writers from Mozart to Dvořák and Kafka to Klíma.
Kidnapped by communism for 40 years, Prague has returned to the capitalist fold to become one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations. Largely undamaged by the ravages of WWII, its cityscape offers a smorgasbord of stunning architecture, from the soaring verticals of Gothic spires and the buxom exuberance of baroque domes to the sensuous elegance of Art Nouveau maidens and the chiselled cheekbones of Cubist façades.
There are glitzy shopping malls, designer restaurants and cool cocktail bars galore, a feast of film and music festivals, and a packed programme of opera, ballet and drama. Smoky jazz cellars and rock basements compete with DJs and dance clubs into the small hours - no matter how late it is, there's always a party happening somewhere - and then, heading home after an all-nighter, there's the mystical silence of the mist-shrouded Charles Bridge at dawn.
As well as its cultural treasures, Prague offers another precious commodity - the liquid gold of Bohemian beer. The Czechs have been brewing since at least the 9th century - they invented Pilsner, the world's first clear, golden lager, in 1842 - and Czech breweries still produce some of the world's finest beers.
Above all, Prague is to be explored at leisure, whether venturing along the medieval lanes and hidden passages of the Old Town, strolling through the many wooded parks or taking a leisurely cruise along the Vltava. Everywhere you go you will uncover some aspect of the city's multilayered history - in its time Prague has been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, the first Czechoslovak Republic, the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the Communist Republic of Czechoslovakia, and the modern, democratic Czech Republic.
Despite the onslaught of mass tourism, the city's dark and mysterious soul survives, haunted by the shadows of Kafka and communism. For those willing to wander off the beaten track, to risk getting lost in the city's maze of alleyways and courtyards, a deeper, truer experience of Golden Prague awaits.