Whenever possible I prefer to explore on foot and without any kind of set plan. I grabbed my free map from the airport taxi, hopped on to the Metro and for no particular reason, got off 20 minutes later at Wenceslas Square. The guide book doesn't have much good to say about it :
"Wenceslas Square should be the central and main attraction of the capital. Instead it is quite dilapidated and noisy, and after dusk it is better not to venture there at all."
What the frak ?? This is categorically NOT TRUE. If you want a dilapidated town square, see Arecibo, where the buildings are full of trees.
Whereas in Wenceslas Square, you'll find this :
I decided to head up to the Astronomical Clock since this entailed a walk through the really rather nice square and looked easy to find on the map. And it was - just follow the crowds. The narrow, labyrinthine streets are crowded, no getting away from that (the wide open squares, however, are not - Wenceslas Square "can and has comfortably held 400,000 people", says my guide book). But the crowds don't really matter, because the atmosphere is very pleasant. I mean this literally as well as figuratively. I don't know what it is about Czech food, but the smell of cooking from the vendors at the end of the square is particularly intoxicating. In the end I opted for a sausage in a baggette*, which, unlike most other street food, tasted as good as it smelled.
* This is the basic unit of street food. You can probably find it on distant planets where the atmosphere is mostly methane and the inhabitants have seventeen different words for "marmalade".
The Astronomical Clock was more impressive than I was expecting. For a start, it's almost at eye level, so it's easy to see. Parts of the mechanism are original and date back to 1410 (perhaps even earlier - no-one's really sure), but over the centuries it's suffered many disasters and reconstructions. Nonetheless, it's an ornate and beautiful feature.
What really won me over was the fact you can can go up to the top of the tower for a proper look at Prague. Here's where not reading the guide book pays off, because that way everything's a surprise bonus. £3 is well worth it for the view alone, though I maxed it out by walking up (instead of taking the lift) and reading the information panels.
Just as the clock itself isn't too far above ground level, so it is with the tower also. It's low enough that you not only get a good view of the nearby buildings, but you also hear everything happening at street level, like the street musicians. Prague, in short, seems to have a convivial atmosphere not found in other cities except at Christmas.
From the tower I decided to make for the Charles Bridge, which in this case is something I did actually plan to visit. Built in 1357, it's lined with gothic statues and is a major tourist attraction, so it seemed like a safe bet. Unfortunately it's a victim of its own success, because by 11am there's really no point going. It's simply rammed, verging on impassable. Why this should be I'm not sure. It certainly is a very nice old bridge, but it doesn't let you see into the future or turn base metals into gold.
|There's a bridge behind the crowds.|
From Charles Bridge I walked up to Prague Castle, sipping a hot mulled wine from a polystyrene cup as I went. There needs to be a word meaning complete and total contentment, because that's what walking through Prague on a crisp October afternoon sipping hot wine is like.
I only wanted to have a look at the castle, because the guide book says that visiting every part of it can take at least 4 hours. It's not really a castle in the traditional sense (maybe it was once, I don't know), more a collection of historic buildings. Like this one - St Vitus cathedral, which has been an unsightly blot on the landscape since 1344. Honestly, I don't know why the locals put up with it.
St Vitus is practically youthful compared to St George's basilica next door, which was founded in AD 920. I mean that's just silly. Later, after I went back to the institute for a short while, I went there for a concert featuring Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Suffice to say that I now only wish to hear music if it's played in an 8th-century stone resonance chamber.
After that I went back, buying some trdelnik from one of the many street vendors in Wenceslas Square. This is something I thoroughly recommend, and I hope it becomes popular worldwide (but gets a better name). Charles Bridge remained crowded, but nowhere near to the extent it was earlier in the day. Possibly this was because there were now two huge eyes keeping watch on everyone at either end of the bridge.
This is a mass of illuminated plastic spheres arranged - I suppose - to look like a cloud. The tendrils hanging down are pull-cords so that passers-by can turn the lights on and off. Wonderful - even if it does look like something that's about to attack the Enterprise.