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Travel & Holiday

Discover hidden spaces of Prague

Charming attractions and unexpected beauty abound in the Czech capital for the tourist who goes off the beaten track.
The Sunday Times - November 25, 2012
By: Evan Rail
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Discover hidden spaces of Prague As winter sets in, take in the beauty of nature at Prague’s many picturesque parks. - PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SYNDICATE

Prague - Strains of soaring voices echoed down the well-worn cobblestones of Prague's Old Town. For days, leaving the neo-Baroque library where I write, I had heard the same music spilling down Bartolomejska Street - although like a ghost it always seemed to disappear just as I approached.

Making a guess, I stuck my head through the doorway of what seemed to be an abandoned building with peeling plaster and dingy windows. Inside, weird paintings decorated the walls and rough-hewn furniture had been cobbled together.

As I entered a long, dark room, a chorus of young women returned to their task - knocking out a spot-on, spine-tingling version of Mozart's Requiem in the middle of a lazy afternoon.

So many scenes in Prague display similar touches of the city's standard-issue strangeness, a quotidian surrealism that often blends the elegant with the near-hallucinatory, that makes the modern Czech capital a hard-to-understand place, especially for outsiders such as myself.

But after 12 years of living here, I have come to make the city my own, figuring out how Prague's various parts fit together and finding charming attractions and unexpected beauty just about everywhere I look.

This, despite having settled in one of the most overexposed parts of the city - its historic centre. Less than five minutes by foot from Namesti Republiky and its immense Art Nouveau palaces, and 10 minutes from the Gothic steeples of Old Town Square, my wife Nina and I set up house among the most romantic views, as well as the biggest busloads of tourists, the lamest of souvenir shops and the most inauthentic of pubs.

And yet, I quickly got over the downsides of living "downtown". Instead, what I discovered amid all the gimcrackery were overlooked joys that most tourists probably never saw - a kind of hidden Prague, both old and new, where every day meant another elegant statue or beautiful facade I had never noticed before, another renovated park or refurbished embankment, another cool new bar or restaurant that was not yet in the guidebooks.

Inspired by Vzorkovna, the cafe where I had encountered the angelic chorus, I decided to spend a few days tracking down Prague's best hidden attractions and new developments, or at least those that were unknown or new to me.

Based on my own experience, I would recommend not skipping the tourist zone. Avoid the Royal Way, the city's historic coronation route, to be sure, but do not miss the city's newest brewpub, Pivovar U Tri Ruzi, which opened right off the route earlier this year. Meaning "At the Three Roses", the pub can be hard to spot among the area's galleries and bars.

But the handful of beers produced here are real head-turners, including a solid, almost sugary Vienna lager and an excellent polotmavy, or half-dark. The burgers here are some of the city's best.

And take the warnings about places such as Wenceslas Square with a grain of salt - at least during the daytime. Prague is a very safe city and many of the grittiest areas, including Wenceslas, are finally getting cleaned up.

When our family visited the square one morning this spring, we discovered that the western half had just gone car-free, creating a huge additional amount of space for shoppers and strollers, and transforming much of Vaclavak, as locals call it, into a much friendlier area for pedestrians.

After visiting the city's best spirits shop, Kratochvilovci, to track down a bottle of Hammer Head whiskey - the bizarre, pre-Velvet Revolution Czech single malt released a couple of years ago to rave reviews - you can step out into the broad, car-free street with impunity and admire the grand facades on either side. A similar situation is under way at Hlavni Nadrazi, Prague's main train station, where a renovation is finally shaking off the last of its communist-era decor.

Despite the central position of the Vltava River, which threads through the city like a needle, the waterfront has long been overlooked.

Lately, however, you can find a lot happening along the river, from the bustling Saturday-morning farmers' market along the Rasinovo Embankment in New Town to Jazz Dock, one of the city's best spots for live music, on the other side in the Smichov neighbourhood. Here, international acts such as John Abercrombie and the Legendary Pink Dots, as well as local favourites such as Tony Ackerman and the Kasparin Quartet have performed in the 31/2 years since it opened.

While Prague's public transportation works extremely well and crooked cabdrivers are much less common than they used to be, the best way to get a feel for the city is in a pair of comfortable shoes. After dropping off my son at his preschool in the Petrska neighbourhood, I walk the breadth of Old Town, from its north-east to its south-west corner, taking in the full sweep of old Prague.

Without adding more than a couple of minutes to my 20-minute commute, I can explore innumerable variations of my journey. Sometimes I stroll directly down Na Prikope, the city's main shopping strip, dodging the tour groups and buskers and taking notice of newly opened stores downtown such as the Lavmi boutique at Truhlarska 18, which sells unusual, locally designed wallpaper, lamps and other housewares.

Sometimes I walk down rustic, unmodernised streets such as Provaznicka and V Kotcich, enjoying views that look just like the rest of the city did before the Velvet Revolution. Often, I take one of the many mysi diry (mouse holes), the little passageways that run between Old Town streets such as Celetna and Stupartska. If you see a gate or a doorway at a crook in the road like the two at the end of Michalska Street, check if it is unlocked. In all likelihood, you will find a hidden pathway.

Many such paths offer wonderful views, as I discovered when I struggled to find something that seemed as if it would be impossible to miss - a new walking and biking trail in the Zizkov neighbourhood, after hearing it described recently by Pitr, a neighbourhood friend.

"It's very long, and fairly private," Pitr said. "But the interesting thing is that it's almost completely hidden. If you don't know exactly where it is, you will never find it."

Even natives can be surprised by the city, as I discovered when I decided to check out new developments in the Karlin neighbourhood with my Prague-born, Toronto-based friend, Matej.

Before we had found our apartment in the centre, Nina and I had originally wanted to live in the area, which is north-east of Old Town and south of the Vltava. Karlin was cheap and somewhat rundown but with great architecture and a very real neighbourhood feel that stemmed from its narrow streets and its setting between the tree-covered hillside and the river.

Matej and I were shocked to see how much had changed in recent years. We started by having lunch at the Red Hot Chilli restaurant, which opened in May last year and perhaps the best of the many new places in Prague specialising in Vietnamese cuisine, offering crisp and aromatic summer rolls and sweet-and-sour bowls of bun bo nam bo, a beef and noodle salad, right on the district's main street, Krizikova.

Afterward, we walked over to the park in front of the sprawling elementary school on Lyckovo Namesti - my vote for the prettiest square in Prague, although a complete surprise to Matej - and admired its immense, Mucha-style murals dating from the early 20th century.

On some of the nearby buildings, we could still spot a few scars from the high-water line of the flood of 2002, but many had been recently repainted in pink, yellow and other flowery pastels.

After taking a few photographs, we stopped by the neighbourhood's new coffeehouse star, Muj Salek Kavy, for a knock-out cup of estate coffee - something that I always thought could not be found in Prague - from Graciano Cruz of Panama, accompanied by a fat slice of spicy-sweet carrot cake.

We later headed back down Krizikova to a wine bar called Veltlin, where we found a dark, intimate little salon and an array of bottles with a surprising theme. All were sourced from the wine-making regions of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, focusing on the region's most traditional varietals - Czech veltlinske zelene as well as its better-known Austrian cousin, gruener veltliner, Zweigeltrebe from the Czech Republic's Moravian wine region, and Zweigelts from Trentino, in northern Italy.

Waiting for our glasses gave us a chance to catch our breath and Matej took a moment to send his wife, Chelsea, a text message.

When he had finished, he said that he had been repeatedly writing to tell her how much Prague had changed, how different things were from the last time they had visited.

They were, I replied, but much of it seemed to depend on knowing where to look.

New York Times


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