A walk across Prague

BY RICK STEVES Modified: October 16, 2012 at 12:12 pm •  Published: October 16, 2012
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Known as the “Golden City of 100 Spires,” Prague boasts a fairytale medieval Old Town, historic churches and synagogues, and perhaps Europe’s largest castle.

A good way to introduce yourself to the city, its layered past, and its resilient people is with a walk across town, starting on lively, urban Wenceslas Square, weaving through the atmospheric Old Town, and ending at the picturesque Charles Bridge.

Huge Wenceslas Square, lined with great buildings and loads of history, is the focal point of Prague’s modern, New Town Quarter. It’s named for King Wenceslas, the “good king” of Christmas-carol fame, sitting astride the big equestrian statue at the top of the boulevard. The statue is a popular meeting point among locals, who like to say, “I’ll meet you under the horse’s tail.”

Wenceslas Square has been center-stage for much of modern Czech history: The creation of the Czechoslovak state was celebrated here in 1918. An inspiring memorial here commemorates Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, two college students who set themselves on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of the Czech Republic the year before.

Twenty years later, giant crowds converged on the square, jingling their key chains and chanting, “It’s time to go now!” in the lead-up to the peaceful overthrow of the communist government.

The Czech people have a rousing enthusiasm for blowing raspberries in the face of authority —even voting to name a fictional comedic character, Jara Cimrman, as their “Greatest Czech of All Time” and devoting a museum in Prague to his “life.”

From the 14th-century rebel Jan Hus (who challenged Church corruption roughly a century before Martin Luther) to the flashes of revolt that sparked the 1989 Velvet Revolution against communism —the Czechs have maintained a healthy disrespect for those who would tell them how to live their lives. (Remembering the mediocre jobs the communists assigned them, Czechs quipped, “They pretended to pay us, we pretended to work.”)

From the bottom of Wenceslas Square, it’s a short walk down skinny, tourist-clogged Melantrichova street to Prague’s quaint, compact Old Town Quarter. On the way you’ll pass the wonderful open-air Havelská Market, a thriving hotbed of traditional-though-touristy Czech culture. Here you can browse for handcrafts, including fun “kitchen witch” marionettes meant to hang in your kitchen for good luck.

Whether in a crowded market, restaurant, or taxi cab, be aware of your surroundings —Prague is awash in pickpockets and con artists. Wear your money belt; pay with cash instead of a credit card at restaurants; and find out the going rate for taxis before you get taken for a ride.

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