Yen's Blog

Lens, Wheels, Skates, Keyboard


Unforgettable Prague

Looking across the sea of domes, spires and red roofs towards the graceful towers of the St. Vitus cathedral, I think I’ve just fallen hopelessly in love with Prague. In the short time since the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism, Prague has become one of the premiere destinations in Europe. What stands out most here is the architecture, so diverse, so beautiful, and so concentrated in one place that you can easily be overwhelmed. But unlike other top cities in Europe, Prague doesn’t strike you as shrewd, calculating, or out to get your money. There is still a certain innocence, something that does much to relieve the occasional annoyance. Of course Prague is overrun with tourists, who like you are eager to explore its charms. But there are ways to beat the crowds or avoid them altogether, and there are still many places off the beaten paths awaiting discovery.

Even before we left, I had already started planning the return trip.

The heart of Prague is Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), which spans the Vltava river and connects the Old Town with the Castle District. The highlights are the stately statues which line both sides of the bridge. It looks most magical early in the morning, when the light is soft and the bridge is practically deserted except for a few locals hurrying to work.

The bank of the Vltava is a good spot to read or relax. And to take pictures :)

I only spent 2 days and 2 nights here. Like most people who visited Prague, I committed the mistake of making it too short. Next time it will be a serious courtship.

These are the things that I did not have time to do: – Climb Charles Bridge tower, Powder Tower – See the inside of the Prague Castle, St. Vitus. – See the inside of Strahov monastery – See more churches, synagogues, museums, concerts – Visit Vysehrad, Mala Strana, the Fred & Ginger House, etc.

I should have no problem findings things to do next time.

City of 100 Spires

Unlike many other monikers, Prague’s is an understatement!

Panorama from Strahov Monastery

In the Castle District, as you walk down from the Strahov Monastery, take the gently sloping walkway near the terrace cafe (if you didn’t come up this way). You’ll be greeted with several spectacular vistas of the city and the bridges. The path curves around a beautiful park as well.

Of Spires and Dome

Another panoramic view from the terrace below Strahov Monastery in the Castle District. The most visible structure is the distinctive green-topped domes and spires of St. Nicholas (in Hradcany), the slender white towers of St. Nicholas (in Old Town Square), the grey spires of the Tyn Church, and the monolithic Powder Gate.

A coin-operated telescope here (or your own long zoom lens) allows you to see much more details.

Dozens of spires and counting

Prague actually has not just one hundred but several hundred spires. But who’s counting. Here’s another view showing principally the Charles Bridge gate and St. Nicholas.

Old Town Hall Tower

The most popular vantage point in Prague is the Old Town Hall Tower. The ticket office is accessible through the main Tourist Information Office, a few doors left of the Astronomical Clock, on the 3rd floor (apparently many tourists miss this subtlety, so they have a sign stating precisely thus). A modern elevator whisks you to the top of the tower. Those so inclined can opt to walk the spacious staircase. The 360 degrees view will knock your socks off. I actually went up there twice. Luckily admission is only the equivalent of a few Euros. This is the view to the west.

The view all around the Old Town Hall tower is splendid. The best views of the rooftops are to the east and west, however. To get the most out of it, you really have to come up here twice. Once in the morning to shoot towards the Castle District, and once in the afternoon to shoot towards the Tyn Church. Some will agree, some will think this is a ridiculous suggestion and a waste of money. I hope those in the first camp will find it useful :) The soft morning light is better, as it can make the red rooftops appear almost translucent. This is the view to the east.

Panorama from Letenske Sady

I climbed the steep steps leading to an observation area atop a hill in Letenske Sady, just across the river from the Old Town via Cechuv Most, in search of the view I had seen in a postcard. Well, I never did find the exact spot (see the next tip), but the view up here is spectacular nonetheless. It’s also very breezy, perfect for a getaway from the heat below. This area is popular with rollerbladers and skateboarders.

I actually came up here twice, as it was stormy the first time with dust blowing everywhere. I wonder why I didn’t have enough time in Prague :)

Bridges over the Vlatava

I saw a really nice view of Prague’s bridges on a postcard photo which must have been taken from the hill in Letenske Sady. Though I never found the right spot. this view comes the closest.

Bank of the Vlatava

A good spot to admire the roofs and spires of the Castle District, which was exactly what I was doing here. Honest.

The Powder Gate

This medieval gate was used for the storage of gunpowder. From here it’s a beeline to the Old Town Square. This is one of the handful of towers you can ascend to get a bird’s eye view of the city.

Charles Bridge

Perhaps the most unique and popular pedestrian bridge anywhere. Lined with stately statues, this bridge connects Old Town (Stare Mesto) with the Castle District (Hradcany) and is the focal point for locals and visitors alike. This is the venue for artists and street artists set up shop. While I was there, the only artist around was an slightly shabby older guy with his display of somewhat mediocre watercolors in front of the castle-side tower, though he didn’t look seriously interested in business. His American flags and the pop music from the radio made me think he was an expat, until he belted out “Take pictures” to passersbys in accented English. Of course, any tourist district from Boston to Prague wouldn’t be complete without someone like him :) About 9:30 the second artist showed up with his push cart.

At each end of the bridge is a massive tower, where custom was collected in the old days. When I was there, you could climb the tower on the castle side for a gorgeous view of the city. I couldn’t determine if the tower on the old town side was open.

This vantage point is reached via a pedestrian tunnel next to the Old Town Gate of Charles Bridge. I’m kicking myself for not making it here at night, when the lighting on Charles Bridge and the Castle would have made the view gorgeous.

Charles Bridge at night

As you can imagine, Charles Bridge is resplendent at night as a photographic subject. It’s also unequaled as a vantage point.

Arches of the Charles

This view shows the graceful arches of Charles Bridge. The bridges are, in order, Manesuv Most, Karluv Most, Most Legii.

Charles Bridge tower, Old Town side

Before setting foot on Charles Bridge, you would pass under this imposing structure, one of the finest examples of a Gothic tower. In its days, the tower served as a toll-collection point for traffic over Charles Bridge. They sure don’t make toll booths like that any more.

This shot was taken around 7:30am. Contrast the crowd here with that in the “Warnings” section :)

You can climb the bridge tower for a great view of Charles Bridge along its length. Unfortunately it wasn’t open until much later in the day.

Charles Bridge Tower, Castle side

In my opinions the view on Charles Bridge towards the Castle side is more picturesque, with the sea of red roofs crowned by the white walls of the Prague Castle and punctuated by the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral.

Old Town Square

The epicenter of the Old Town. This is a good place to begin your tour of Prague’s Old Town.

Tyn Church

The medieval spires of the Tyn church loom over the Old Town Square and are the most visible structure in the Old Town. For 2 centuries after the death of Jan Hus, it was Prague’s leading Hussite church. This is the view seen from the Old Town Hall Tower.

Here’s something interesting: the towers are not the same size! The right tower is wider and must be the masculine one.

Old Town Hall

Across from Tyn Church and in a style reminiscent of the main towers around town is the Old Town Hall. It’s a magnet for visitors who want to see the Astronomical Clock on its southern wall. Climbing to the top fo the tower is a must, though surprisingly few people actually, probably because the entrance is somewhat hard to find.

The astronomical clock

Arguably the secondmost talked-about attraction in Prague, the astronomical clock is easy to spot. Just look for the big mob congregating in the Old Town Square.

The show begins at the top of the hour. The apostles parade by, death chimes its bell, and the rooster crows. The show is surprisingly brief, though I came back twice to see if anything changes. It doesn’t. Others may disagree but I doubt that this is the attraction that keeps on giving.

On the other hand, the marvelously complex clock is fascinating. On the top face, 24-hour time is kept by 2 rings. The outer ring show Bohemian time in Gothic numbers, with the 24 at the bottom right, supposedly the hour of sunset. The inner ring shows the normal time with Roman numerals; XII at the top is noon, while XII at the bottom is midnight. Day is the blue area at the top, while night is the the dark area at the bottom. The big hand is indicated by the golden sun, the small hand the moon.

The statues flanking the top face represent: War (the Turkish soldier holding a mandolin), Death (the skeleton), Greed (a moneylender holding a money pouch), and Vanity (medieval fop holding a golden mirror).

The bottom face depicts the Zodiac, together with rural scenes. The outer ring is inscribed with tiny Saints’ names, one for each day of the year, though the letters are too small to read, unless you have a telescope or are 9 feet tall.

What time is it? :)

Church of St. Nicholas, Old Town Square

The creamy baroque Church of St. Nicholas is a stark contrast to the medieval austerity of the Tyn Church. The green-domed church is a popular venue for classical music performance. If you’re not sure, just ask anyone in wigs and 17th-century costumes. There is another Church of St. Nicholas across Charles Bridge in the Castle District, also with green domes. Guess one can’t have too many of a good thing.

“Forbidden” view of St. Nicholas

Normally views of St. Nicholas are either too high or too low. However in the Old Town Hall Tower there is a window overlooking the church. This area is roped off, but you can ask nicely (I simply pointed to my camera then to the window, and the nice lady smiled and nodded. Oh, the beauty of sign language :)

Wenceslas Square

This pedestrian-friendly boulevard is Prague’s main commercial thoroughfare. I was pretty excited to see a bar owned by none other than Jaromir Jagr, one of the best hockey players in the world.

King Wenceslas statue

In front of the National Museum is the statue of King Wenceslas (Vaclav). He is surrounded by four Czech patron saints.

The National Museum

The lavish interior of the National Museum right behind the statue of St. Wenceslas. From here you can look right down the splendid Wenceslas Square, which is really more a wide pedestrian-friendly boulevard than a square. The natural history exhibits are rather forgettable, but the views will not be.

Statue of Charles IV

Just before you walk onto Charles Bridge, there is little square on the right side with a statue of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, builder of the Bridge. In his hands is the contract for Prague’s university, the first in central Europe. The four statues at the his feet symbolizes medicine, law, theology and art.

The statue is most resplendent at night.

Loreta Convent

I didn’t have my map with me so I mistook this convent (also referred to as Loretto) a little uphill from the Prague Castle for the Strahov Monastery. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go inside Strahov Monastery so this would have to do. The tour, which can be completed in 15 minutes, takes you through the interior of the courtyard and the somewhat modest treasury located on the 2nd floor. In the center of the yard is a copy of the home of the Virgin Mary in Nazareth. Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside

The Rudolfinum

A former parliament house, this building is now a venue for concerts and art exhibitions.

The façades of Josefov

Prague’s former Jewish district is arguably the nicest neighborhood anywhere, Paris included. The district is lined with rows after rows of splendid Art Nouveau buildings. One could go crazy here trying to imagine all the photo ops.

Jan Hus Monument

Jan Hus was a religious reformer who pre-dates Martin Luther by a century. He was excommunicated and burned in Germany. He became a symbol for Czech nationalism. This monument, prominent in the Old Town Square, was erected in 1915.

The Spanish Synagogue

The Moorish-influenced Spanish Synanogue blew me away with its spectacular interior. The walls are covered in a mesmerizing maze of intricate, colorful tracings. My biggest gripe: no photos allowed inside! Understandbly the delicate paint may be sensitive to the flashbulbs which many tourists fire at reckless abandon and which they fail to realize would be useless in a situation such as this. Still I couldn’t help but feel a little miffed.

The Jewish Cemetery

Of Prague’s Jewish attractions, I found the jumble of moss-encrusted tombstones in the Jewish cemetery and the exotic Spanish Synagogue to be most fascinating. The only way to see both of them is to buy the ticket for all of Prague’s Jewish sites, which at around 9 Euros was a little stiff. You get a heavy discount if you have an International Student ID Card. In fact, of all the cities I visited on this trip, Prague is the one place where you can take the most advantage of the International Student ID Card, so grab it before you go if you’re a student.

The Jewish cemetery is connected to a museum showing some period furnishings and both religious and secular artifacts.

Cechuv Most

Prague is full of delightful architectural gems like this Art-decoish bridge.

Some useful gears

Photo Equipment: – A tripod for night-time and interior shots. I bought an antique, used Gitzo for the trip; it cost way too much but the tripod paid for itself. It fits inconspicuously in my backpack. I only pulled it out when needed. I saw a pro lugging a backpack that must have weighed 50lbs with a Bogen 3001 strapped to the side, and felt pretty good about my light load.

  • For roof tops and spires, I think a long zoom lens and (circular) polarizer are useful. Bad things that can and did happen:
  • The polarizer causes vignetting at wide-angle, despite precise, printed claim otherwise.
  • My telephoto refused to focus, auto and manual, at the shorter zoom end, actually since Cesky Krumlov. The day after we left Prague, the front internal element FELL loose altogether. Thanks a lot Nikon. I’m blaming it for all of my out-of-focus shots :) It’s in the shop now.

Walking about

The castle guard I thought these guards at the government quarter of the Prague castle are supposed to remain perfectly motionless and emotionless. If I’m not mistaken there is a distinct smirk on his face.

Serendipity on Charles Bridge.
As I was setting up this shot on Charles Bridge, this lovely brunette waltzed right into the frame. Some people…

Taking picture of the picture taker As I packed up and was about to move on, large-format guy showed up with his view camera and carbon-fiber Gitzo tripod. I felt pretty good because a pro was shooting from the same spot I just shot from a little earlier. Then I felt bad because I realized he’d be making a lot of money and I wouldn’t :(

Stumble on a photo shoot on Charles Bridge When you’re out and about early, you’re more likely to run into scenes like this photoshoot. Was it worth setting the alarm at 6am? It didn’t seem so back then, but in retrospect the answer is a resounding yes :)

City of models Czech women all look like models. If they aren’t, I think they should be! They are very attractive and very tall. I feel like Bulliver in Brobdingnag. I saw one painting the motorway(!) and almost had an accident. I hope the Czech Ministry of Transportation is doing something about it for the safety of motorists.

Driving in Prague

I like to be able to get up early and walk to the center of attractions. This necessitated staying in the center of town. The downside was the difficulty of navigating the streets there by car. Prior to Prague, I had driven in Paris, Strasbourg, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Innsbruck, etc. with mixed success. Prague proved to be the toughest challenge yet! Our hotel was on Truhlarska street. But I found that thanks to the warren of one-way streets it was impossible to get there from the South! If you think otherwise I’d love to know how. The streets seemed to be designed to keep you away from the Old Town. After several attempts we kept finding ourselves on the way out. We had an excellent map (out of several) from Insight with all the one-way streets marked (though not for all the streets as we found out). In one attempt we found ourselves at a dead end — the back of the National Museum; as it turned out later our planned route would have taken us through the National Museum and down Vaclavske Namesti. Boy were we clueless. I think we must have seen every attraction in Prague twice during the ordeal.

Finally we decided to cross the river, then double back towards our destination. Voila.

Running with the mobs?

This is what Charles Bridge looks like around noon. I’m all for human interactions, but this would be a bit much. Wanna avoid the huddled masses? Set the alarm at 6:30am as I did (but make sure you check with your companions first, they get grouchy for some reason :) By this time I was finished with my photo shoot and was ready to go home and, what else, take a nap :)

Notice the road sign on the upper right? Apparently no marching band is allowed :)

A hop from the Old Town

We booked our accommodation at Hotel Salvator through (say hi to Pavla). Hotel Salvatore is a 3-star hotel in Nove Mesto, but is just a stone’s throw away from the Powder Gate. We booked a 5-person apartment for about 150 Euros a night, kind of pricey but the size is palatial. The breakfast buffet is sumptuous, served in the atmospheric basement. To get to our room, we’d have to pass through several layers of locked doors. I’ve never seen so much security in my life! Our room door has 2 dead-bolt locks! Parking is in an underground garage a few blocks away (included in the price quoted above).

Pros: Extremely picturesque, splendid architecture, vibrant atmosphere, cultural abundance, comparatively inexpensive, models everywhere” Cons: Packed with tourists even in June In a nutshell: The beginning of a beautiful friendship