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Czech out Prague

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No wonder visitors describe Prague as wonderful and beautiful.

There is also the tang of frequent references to St. Vitus, Wenceslas, Bohemia, Kafka and Dvorak.



This medieval city is full of lively, attractive people, some of them among the thousands who gathered in Wenceslas Square Nov. 17, 1989, to protest police brutality. Thus began the "velvet revolution" - the citizens did not bear arms - and by the end of that December, the communist regime ended and Vaclav Havel, a playwright and poet, was elected president.

Since, the West has gotten reacquainted with Prague, a joy to see and savor, inviting discovery via strolling, often on cobblestone streets. Hollywood frequently uses it as a set.

The Vltava River, which so enriches Prague, flows under the city's 18 bridges northward (to the Elbe and Hamburg, connecting it to the North Sea). The Charles Bridge (begun in 1357) draws people like a magnet with its 30 statues of saints. Notable is a bronze Christ on a cross with an arc of golden Hebrew letters.

A city sign posted nearby explains that a Jewish man, falsely accused of profaning that cross, had to pay for the quote from Isaiah, "Holy, holy, holy is our Lord of the Multitude." The intention was to humiliate the Jewish community. The cross and letters went up in the 1600s, the sign in 2000. The bridge must be visited twice, by day to see the statues clearly, by twilight for the drama.

My favorite statue, a knight with a golden sword, juts out from the bridge. He is Bruncvik, associated with the "Song of Roland." This is an 1884 replica of the original that was shot to pieces during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

The war was precipitated by an odd quirk in Prague's past: execution by defenestration, throwing people out of windows. In 1618, three of the Catholic king's representatives were tossed from the royal palace by Protestants. The three survived (perhaps landing on a dung heap). Soon after came the conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions, one of many.

It was among many sagas endured by Prague over the ages. It is now in the Czech Republic, which joined the European Union in 2004, as did Slovakia. Once Czechoslovakia, the two had a "peaceful divorce" in 1992, in the words of a guide.

Prague was larger than Paris and London in the 14th century, the age of Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. (New Town and Prague University were founded in 1348.) Then the Austrian Habsburgs took over for 400 years. One of them, Rudolf II (1576-1611), moved the royal court from Vienna to Prague. His taste for Renaissance buildings can be seen today. The Habsburg reign ended in 1918, when Czechoslovakia became an independent republic. But during World War II, it was a German protectorate (which spared Prague being bombed to bits). That was soon followed by four decades of communism. Over time, the people of Prague joined in many brave demonstrations for reform.

That recent gray past is hard to believe in the prosperous, pastel city of today. Around every corner are innumerable beautiful buildings, distinctively different, happily married by time. Any random walk has its reward of seeing a bounty of baroque and facades with fanciful painted decoration.

Any season is a good time to see Prague. Four Seasons Hotel Manager Rene Beauchamp highly recommends winter. It's easy to see why. Photographs of a powdering of snow on steeples and statues, balustrades and branches lend a fairy-tale look. The hotel is right beside the river, a few steps from the Charles Bridge.

Its central location makes it easy for tourists to see the city. As well as walking, there are trams and taxis, riverboats and paddle boats. I saw a boat shaped like a swan pass by a riverside restaurant, and a jazz boat, too. Jazz and classical music are immensely popular here. Churches double as concert halls. Music schedules are handed out to passers-by.

Mozart is celebrated, particularly at the neoclassical Estates Theatre where he conducted the debut of his "Don Giovanni" in 1787. He wrote music here, too, such as the "Prague Symphony." The film "Amadeus" was set in this theater and some of Prague's many palaces. One of the unlikely sets for many films is Strahov Monastery, with two libraries built and decorated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Theological Hall, its wealth of religious books dating back to the bejeweled Strahov Gospel of 860, is dominated by a ceiling so fantastic that it seems too lighthearted for a serious library. Lavish white baroque stucco surrounds animated paintings inspired by the Book of Proverbs.

Nearby is Philosophical Hall, with beautiful wood and gilt bookcases holding books of the sciences and another ceiling fresco, this one with a vivid blue sky and figures of philosophers of the ages.

Fast forward to another architectural delight, the Municipal House, a triumph of art nouveau in the early 20th century, constructed for official and social events. This palace for the people could be considered a museum of design. It is a triumph of ornamental embellishment, from the sculptured figures outside to the smallest detail within, even the door handles.

Visitors can dine in the restaurants, or easier still, stop for coffee in the Kavarna cafe. While there, the pianist with a lively repertoire even played along when the Hare Krishna jingled by. Nearby is the Old Town Square where tourists flock to see the Astronomical Clock, where on the hour figures of the apostles pass by two windows high on the town hall tower. Much more impressive to me in that square was the formidable figure of Jan Hus in bronze, erected in 1915. The cleric was burned at the stake in 1415 for speaking out against some of the Catholic Church's corrupt practices. The base of his memorial is a popular place in the square to hang out and watch the passing parade of people or to meet friends.

Many memorials are crowded into the Old Jewish Cemetery in the former ghetto. Like other ancient cemeteries, the grave markers, no longer upright, lean into different angles of repose. But here more than 10,000 tombstones, from 1439 to 1787, represent only some of the thousands buried here. Pebbles placed on the tombstones serve as tokens of remembrance.

Finally, I recommend two churches for their atmosphere and sterling qualities - silver especially. One is the St. Vitus cathedral, within the walls of Hradcany Castle, with foundations reaching back to the ninth century when the city began its prominent role in Bohemia. (St. Vitus, an early Sicilian martyr, is the patron saint of Prague.) The castle today accommodates the offices of the Czech president.

The cathedral is worth a wander, particularly for the art nouveau stained glass windows by Edward Mucha, the chapel and the tomb of another Christian martyr, St. Wenceslas, a prince killed by his brother in the 10th century.

But the 3,700-pound silver showstopper for me was the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk, a tall, 18th century design with life-size silver angels holding up his coffin with a silver figure of the saint atop it. The Church of Our Lady Victorious has as its famous resident the Prague Baby Jesus (Bambino di Prague), a wax statue from Spain, donated to the church in 1628. The small figure with numerous impressive vestments and a reputation for miracles stands on an altar that is ablaze with silver.

Later, in the gift shop, I watched a woman buy a small replica of the statue for a friend. Abruptly, she stopped a passing Czech monk, who had been welcoming tourists in English, and asked him to bless her souvenir. He didn't miss a beat. Everything came to a halt. Shoppers bowed their heads. It was an impromptu prayer, but he spoke eloquently. What a pro. That was one of many memorable moments in a swell city. Consider seeing it for yourself.

IF YOU GO

Staying there: Four Seasons Hotel offers a superb staff, luxurious comfort, location and glorious flowers - in-house florists are a Four Seasons tradition. For information: (800) 545-4000 or www.fourseasons.com.

Dining there: The Four Seasons' Allegro restaurant has a view of Prague's castle and cathedral as well as delicious cuisine.

Kampa Park Restaurant on Kampa Island not only has a close-up view of the Charles Bridge and a heated, covered terrace, its halibut on risotto with lobster cream is a diner's dream, www.kampapark.com.

Cafe La Veranda features fusion - new wave food and decor to match; www.laveranda.cz.

V Zatisi has attractive dining rooms, good food and mentions by Egon Ronay; www.vzatisi.cz.

Getting there: Flying Czech Airlines out of New York offers the chance to enjoy Prague atmosphere hours before arrival. It began in 1923 with a one- or two-passenger biplane; by 1925, its twin-engine aircraft carried 12 people. For information: www.czechairlines.com or (800) 223-2365.

Getting around: Radka Vocetkova, a licensed guide, speaks excellent English and is enthusiastic about her city. E-mail, psaryhome@volny.cz.

What to read: "Prague, A Traveller's Library Companion" (Whereabouts Press) gives visitors a sense of the literary tradition and imagination of Czech writers.

Janet Sutter is a former Copley News Service writer and editor.



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