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I made my first acquaintance with this magnificent city during a trip with my parents in the late seventies. It was then the capital of Czechoslovakia and not as lively as it is these days. Nevertheless, the city’s timeless beauty and the magic of the legends, recounted by my mother, made a lasting impression on a little girl’s memory. In late April 2007, when I boarded the morning flight from Stansted airport I was not only planning a shooting trip to the capital of the Czech Republic; I also wanted to rediscover the grand city I remembered from my childhood. I was interested to find out if Prague had managed to preserve its unique character or had turned into a cheap magnet for noisy crowds of tourist from all over Europe. I had a long list of things to see. Prague is packed with architectural gems and there are certain sights one just cannot afford to miss.

The city’s most interesting landmarks are scattered over the four main quarters. Once autonomous towns, the four municipalities were merged into a single city just over 200 years ago. The river Vltava cuts the city in half. The Old Town and New Town lie on the east bank while Mala Strana (the Lesser Quarter) and Hradczany (the neighbourhood around Prague Castle) is on the west.

Across the river

The Vltava is the very reason for Prague’s existence. Early settlements were built near a shallow spot in the river where people and animals could wade across. Nowadays the site of the ancient ford is still a place for crossing the river but you do not risk getting your feet wet. This is where the first bridge on the Vltava was built in 1170. It was destroyed by a flood a couple of hundreds years later and subsequently replaced by a new gothic bridge. To this day that second bridge remains one of Prague’s most outstanding attractions.

The history of Charles Bridge stretches back to the reign of the king Charles IV in the 14th century. This was a prosperous period for the city. Many noteworthy gothic buildings were constructed and Charles University - one of the oldest in the world was founded. Prague was then the third largest city in Europe and the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charles Bridge is not just a means of crossing the river but a ten metre wide pedestrianised street buzzing with activity where street performers compete for the attention of passing tourists and artists display their paintings and sketches.

The Old Town Bridge Tower, situated on the first pillar of the bridge is open to visitors and offers views of the bridge, the rooftops of the old town and the castle on the other side of the river.

Legends of the Castle

Situated on a steep hill Prague Castle is one of the biggest in the world at about 570 metres in length. Home to the Crown Jewels of the Bohemian Kingdom, the cradle of the present Czech Republic, it has been a quiet witness to Prague’s long and eventful history.

It was there that one of the famous Defenestrations of Prague took place. The inhabitants of Prague are a very peaceful and friendly bunch of people indeed but their ancestors had a rather nasty habit of throwing the city officials out of windows if they were not entirely satisfied with their decisions (defenestration derives from an old word for window). The first of those acts was perpetrated in the New Town Hall in 1419. The second one, at the castle in 1618, sparked off the Thirty Years’ War. While the first one was a violent deed and the victims ended up skewered on the spears of a furious mob, the second defenestration was, to some extent, a story with a happy ending. The councillors tossed out of the castle window landed unharmed on a large heap of horse manure. It was not the end of the conflict though; the fact that the governors survived the fall spurred yet another argument. The lucky councillors and their supporters announced to the world they had been saved by the divine intervention of angels but their adversaries claimed they owed their luck to nothing more than horse excrement. With that kind of attitude it is no wonder that they ended at war with each other. The room in which the Second Defenestration of Prague took place still exists and you can view it during your visit to the castle.

For centuries Prague Castle has been the seat of the Head of State – from medieval Czech kings and the 16th century Hapsburg rulers to the presidents of the present Czech Republic. It has had many great residents and a few villains too. Perhaps the most infamous was Reinhard Heydrich - one of the most powerful men of Nazi Germany who made the castle his headquarters after Hitler had proclaimed Czechoslovakia a German protectorate. He did not stay there for long. Rumour has it he used to wear the Czech crown on his head and according to an old legend any usurper that does such a thing will be punished with a violent death within a year. Heydrich was assassinated a few months after assuming power. Regardless of the legend’s truth it was the citizens of Prague who suffered the consequences because Hitler ordered bloody reprisals as revenge for Heydrich’s death.

The history of the castle goes back to the ninth century and its buildings form an impressive collection of architectural styles. The Romanesque Basilica of Saint George was founded in the tenth century; the monumental Saint Vitus Cathedral is the oldest gothic cathedral in central Europe and was built in the times of King Charles IV; in Habsburg times some renaissance buildings were added. You will find virtually every architectural style of the last millennium including 16th century mannerism of the Golden Lane (Zlata Ulicka).

Golden Lane is my favourite place in the whole of Prague. It is a narrow cobbled street lined with eleven historic cottages so small that they look more like dolls’ houses than human dwellings. They were constructed in the times of the emperor Rudolph II - probably the most colourful character among the statesmen who chose Prague Castle as their residence. Rudolph who reigned from 1583 to 1612 held a court of strange figures including astrologers, magicians and fortune tellers. It is said that the Emperor had the little houses built to keep a host of alchemists there as it was his dream to discover the elixir of youth and, above all, how to transform common metals into gold. The truth is much less romantic; the street was created during the construction of the northern wall of the Castle and the emperor decided to give it to the castle marksmen. As there was not a lot of space there he made them build very small houses for themselves and their families. During the decades that followed Zlata Ulicka hosted both rich and poor people of many occupations including goldsmiths (hence the name). The most famous of the street’s residents was the writer Franz Kafka who used to live in house number 22.

Most of the castle areas are open to visitors. However, I would not recommend visiting the Golden Lane during its official opening hours; it is much too crowded and you cannot even dream of taking photographs. And here is one of the many paradoxes of Prague. Between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm you must buy a ticket to enter the street through the gates which are guarded by uniformed men. At other times (early in the morning and later in the afternoon up until midnight), admission is free and there are no guards. You are welcome to enter and wander around freely. And most importantly majority of tourists choose the hours of paid admission to visit so if you turn up early in the morning you can have the place to yourself.

Not so Lesser Quarter

At the foot of the Castle lies the area called Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter) which was founded in 1257 under King Otakar II. The residents were mostly skilled German craftsmen invited by the king. The name Lesser Quarter comes from its position just below the Castle on the left bank of the river, opposite the larger town on the right bank.

Contrary to its name and origins the Lesser Quarter is by no means a humble relative of the bigger towns of Prague. For many years from the 17th century its inhabitants were mainly Czech nobles who left an impressive legacy – a plethora of stunning palaces and luscious gardens. These days many of those aristocratic homes have been turned into residences for foreign ambassadors. The area is known as “the Pearl of Baroque” as the baroque style introduced after the great fire of 1541 dominates the architecture today.

Mala Strana is ideal for an excursion away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is one of the most charming parts of Prague with a unique atmosphere of narrow winding streets and small cafes. You can relax in the park on Kampa Island which, with its maze of narrow bridges water mills and canals, is sometimes referred to as the Prague Venice.

For a photographer, the highlight of the Lesser Quarter has to be the 318 metre high Petrin Hill. The 30 minute stroll to the summit is steep but pleasant as it passes through beautiful gardens and orchards. The less energetic can also take the funicular railway from Ujezd Street. A small version of Eiffel Tower, the 60 metre Petrin Lookout Tower is located on the top of the hill. The 299 step climb to the viewing platform is definitely worth it as the views are breathtaking; you can see and photograph the whole of Prague, the river with all the bridges and, on a clear day, distant mountain ranges.

Town Old and New

On the opposite bank of the river there is another ancient quarter to explore. The oldest part of the city was granted municipal rights in 1230. The Old Town Square houses two of the most famous symbols of Prague – The Church of Our Lady of Tyn with its iconic twin towers and the Old Town City Hall with the astronomical clock.

The clock was constructed in 1410 and its dial shows astronomical events such as movement of the sun (the clock depicts the sun going around the Earth in line with medieval beliefs), phases of the moon, the seasons, the equinoxes and the zodiac. Under the clock dial there is also a calendar painted in 1805. The mechanism with the figures of the twelve apostles was added a few decades later. Every hour the procession of the apostles, followed by a rooster’s crow, draws hundreds of tourists to the square. It is well worth seeing but if you are not a great fan of crowds you may choose to watch the whole event from the tower that houses the clock. You will not see the figures on the clock move around but the view of the sea of people gathered to watch the spectacle is quite an unforgettable sight. The town hall is also a good vantage point to view the square, the Church of Our Lady of Tyn and other surrounding buildings.

The adjacent New Town is not as new as the name may suggest. Like many other things in Prague it dates back to the medieval times of King Charles IV and it is said to be the very place where Faust used to practice black magic and made a pact with the devil to sell his soul in exchange for knowledge.

The heart of the area is Wenceslas Square (Vaclavskie Namesti) stretching out from the boarders of the Old Town to the monumental edifice of the National Museum – home to expansive collections equal to those of the most famous museums in the world. In spite of its name the square is in fact a very large street 750 metres long and 60 metres wide. Its history goes back to the 14th century when it served as a horse market of international significance. These days it is still the centre of business and community life.

While the city is rightly famous for its historical buildings you should not ignore modern Prague. You will find gems of modern art and architecture all over the place. My favourite is a couple of so-called dancing houses (when you see them you’ll know why) on the right bank of the river in the New Town. They are also affectionately referred to as Ginger and Fred after the famous dancing partnership Rogers and Astair.

How was it for you?

So did Prague manage to retain its charm in spite of its popularity? I would definitely say yes. The local authorities turned the influx of tourists into a source of funds that enabled them to renovate the city’s monuments and improve the infrastructure but at the same time managed to preserve its unique relaxed atmosphere. Although Prague has become known as a destination for stag weekends I did not encounter any. Like any tourist place there is a vibrant night life but this adds to rather than detracts from what is a beautiful city.

There are of course many tourists around at all times. Without any exaggeration Prague deserves the title of the city that never sleeps. I got up before dawn one Sunday morning to photograph the sunrise on Charles Bridge. At 5 am there were still a few revellers on their way back to their hotels from the bars and pubs trying to take some pictures of the river and the castle with their mobile phones. They soon disappeared to be immediately replaced by some early birds with SLR’s and tripods intent, like me, on shooting Prague in the eerie light of the early morning.

This is living proof that Prague is an irresistibly photogenic city.

Published on the Travel Photographer of the Year website September 2007