V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Prague: A city for all seasons

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Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers March, 2008.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- There's an unshakeable kind of melancholy in the Czech air.

Perhaps it's the steady drizzle of an unrelenting November sky, or the rain-soaked clouds which hover close over Prague Castle, but the brooding weather lends the city an extra dash of appropriately bohemian romanticism.

Prague is an inscrutable mix of the senses: Moody, lusty, haunting, lethargic and richly romantic.

The spectre of its communist past is being steadily erased by the appearance of opulent, high-end stores like Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Hermes, which line the streets.

Since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when the communist leadership resigned, and with the country's recent entry into the European Union, Prague has grown in popularity as a tourist destination and is now the sixth most visited city in Europe.

Even in the coolness of late autumn, Prague is bursting with tourists who seem to make up the majority of the people ambling up and down the cobblestone streets of the Old Town.

Heated wine and beer patios are busy at all times of the day in this square. They provide a welcome reprieve for weary feet, as Prague is a city that's best explored on foot with sites of interest within reasonable proximity to each other.

Sit on a patio with a mulled wine or pint of pivo, and watch amusedly as the square repeatedly fills at the stroke of every hour, with tourists craning their necks to watch the apostles chime the time from the Astronomical Clock.

I imagine it's as monotonous to the Czechs as it would be for the Brits to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace -- a ritual that must be performed at set times, and likewise has to be witnessed in order to deem a travel itinerary complete.

But it's a great place to soak in the sights.

The Tyn Church, my favourite church in the city for its twin towers, is especially bewitching at night, its Gothic beauty lit into a haunting presence under the cover of night.

People-watching is also its best in the Old Town Square, given the traffic that flows in and out of the area.

On the way to Prague Castle, you'll traverse the deservedly famous Charles Bridge, a 520-metre-long and 10-metre-wide sandstone bridge where musicians serenade, buskers entertain and 75 petrified figures of saints flank your crossing.

Once you've hiked your way to the hilltop, you'll enter Prague Castle, the seat of the Head of State, housing the remains of Czech kings, coronation jewels, historical documents and other Christian relics.

The sprawling complex has made it into the book of Guinness World Records as the largest continuous castle in the world, and is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

I've arrived on a lucky day, when the palace is throwing open the doors to its lavish dining halls and gold-guilded ballrooms, which are normally closed to the public.

Despite its royal splendour, it's the servants and tradesmen quarters that leave a more lasting impression. On the northern edge of the castle fortifications, tucked away from the riches of the royal palace, is a short, narrow alleyway called the Golden Lane. The Miniature doll-like houses, which sit beside one another in a neat row, are where the castle's riflemen and, later, goldsmiths, used to live.

The 16th-century dwellings are now small charming boutiques and shops for tourists, who cram themselves into the cloistered space.

While the city's impressive mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture and rich history may be standalone reasons for a visit, a word of warning: It's not for the cuisine that one travels to the Czech Republic, unless you don't believe in fresh fruits and vegetables and are content with tri-coloured -- no more, no less -- plates of food.

This is comfort food -- rustic peasant fare -- the height of its glory in its simplicity and, dare I say it, often the best kind of food. A typical, old Czech meal of pork, dumplings and cabbage is found in virtually every traditional Prague restaurant -- food that's not fit for the dainty.

It's hearty stuff, rib-sticking gastronomy that weighs heavily in the stomach. I tuck into a plate of dough dumplings, soft, white pillows that sop up the pork gravy marvelously.

Slowly the colour returns to my cheeks after a day spent in the rain and wind. The gravy and cabbage -- which looks deceptively like sauerkraut -- are surprisingly sweet.

By week's end, I'm feeling like a bloated, oversatiated carnivore of the most brutally predatory kind, having consumed the equivalent of a whole, four-legged animal.

After being stimulated by sight and taste, a fitting end to a full day is to partake in one of the many classical concerts around the city.

At the foot of the Charles Bridge at the St. Francis of Assisi Church, a trio performs pieces by Handel, Mozart and Bach under the sobriety of the Baroque setting.

Our mezzosoprano's buttery voice and the organ's thunderous chords cling to the violin's strains and fill the church.

And if one is inclined, before retiring to bed you could answer the Tyn Church's haunting beckon and enjoy one final nightcap with a glass of warm wine in the Old Town Square, where old spirits never sleep.

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BOTTOM LINE

GETTING THERE

Czech Airlines operates flights to Prague from Toronto and Montreal. Visit canada.czechairlines.com for fare information.

MORE INFORMATION

For details on all aspects of travel to Prague, contact the Czech Tourist Authority at czechtourism.com or 416-363-9928.

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