As the skies began to clear, betraying earlier forecasts predicting frantic rain throughout the day, we ventured through Old Town and the Jewish District. By this time, crowds had begun to congregate in the Main Square, mouths agape and phones pointed at the Astronomical Clock, baying for the hour hand to swing to its vertex. Of course, the hour comes and goes, and a rather underwhelming rooster pops its head out, does a little dance, and retreats to the safety of the Clock. This is accompanied by the disappointed crowd dispersing into the Old Town.
The crowds thinned not one street removed from the Main Square, and we wandered through stony alleys for stops outside the Estate Theatre, one of Europe’s oldest theatres and the site of debut of Mozart’s Don Giovani; the Powder Tower, marking the gate to the traditional old town; and the Municipal House, which, at least according to our guide , serves delectable pastries and cakes.
We made our way to Wenceslas Square. Perhaps the most notable event in recent Prague history took place in this city square, when Prague and Czechoslovakia were locked behind the Iron Curtain. Placards erected at the far end of the square remind the public of the gruesome events of 1968.
Prague Spring was crushed as swiftly as it bloomed. While the head of state Alexander Dubček pushed for progressive reforms of economic decentralisation and increased individual liberties, the USSR overseers did not take kindly to these proposals, sending half a million soldiers to occupy the country. Non-violent push-back against the Soviets culminated in hunger strikes and the self-immolation of students Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc in Wenceslas Square. Their legacies lived on even in 1989, as anti-Soviet protests on the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death are thought to have catalysed the fall of communism in the Czech Republic.
We paced into Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. While Jews were thought to have settled in Prague since the 10th century, the district today mostly consists of buildings from the early 20th century. Only a few structures remain from before this time; of particular note are the Old New Synagogue and the Jewish Cemetery. The Old New Synagogue is peculiarly named as it was a newer synagogue when it was built in the 13th century, acquiring its current name as the synagogue was replaced with the Spanish Synagogue in the 17th century. Legend claims it to be the burial site of the mythical Golem. The Jewish Cemetery was used between the 15th and 17th centuries, but continually struggled with the lack of space. As such, over 20,000 people are buried there in unmarked, stacked graves in order to save space, and its dense and sprawling headstones were the inspiration for the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Finishing our walk on the shores of the Vltava, we stand at the foot of the Royal Way, the traditional coronation route of Czech kings. The Royal Way technically begins at Republic Square and the Powder Tower, leading towards the river. However, the most spectacular stretch of the Royal Way is undoubtedly that of Charles Bridge and Lesser Town across the river. Until the mid-19th century, Charles Bridge was the only bridge permitting passage across the Vltava, making it an invaluable connection for trade between Eastern and Western Europe. Statues stand proudly on either side of the bridge, depicting the legends of various patron saints. Nonetheless, the original statues are no longer displayed today, and have been replaced by replicas. Charles Bridge is today the site of swarms of tourists and street stalls touting various souvenirs. The bridge remains busy throughout the day and most of the night, only offering a brief respite in the early morning.
Crossing Charles Bridge, we decided to have a late lunch at Café Savoy, opting for curd cheese dumplings filled with apricot confit – locally known as Ovocné Knedlíky. The dish calls for a drizzle of melted butter and cane sugar, making the dish an interesting combination of sweet and tangy. The café itself has a simultaneously subdued and grand interior; the glazed wood furnishings contrast strongly against the ornate ceiling paintings. The restaurant also has its own bakery, offering fresh confectionary every day.