independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Prague: Gothic at its most glorious

Jumping head-first from a plane is one adventure that wasn't on my bucket list but on a recent trip to Prague this all changed. The city break of city breaks is what the 'heart of Europe' offers. Soul-satisfying comfort food of epicurean standard, exquisite buildings in nearly every style of architecture and the only Skydive simulator in Eastern Europe makes Prague an exciting and diverse place to spend a few days.

Economic woes aside, the average Irish person has at least one city break annually. Spots such as London, Barcelona, Paris or Rome feature high on our destination list but a few days in Prague has so much to offer.

Prague has an old-world charm like no other city in Europe and there's a reason for this. Such is the beauty of Prague that the artistically minded Hitler wanted the Bohemian city to be the cultural capital of his prospective empire, and so the Nazis left it unscathed during the Second World War.

Today, it's the best preserved medieval city in Europe and so, as a tourist, you'll easily get lost as you meander your way through the narrow little cobble-stoned streets of Prague.

I spent my nights in what was the central post office during the city's communist period. I stayed at the Boscolo Autograph hotel; a delightful five-star hotel with high ceilings and marble staircases. The bedrooms had once been used to rifle through post and censor all of the State's correspondence. The hotel is only a couple of minutes' walk from the Old Town Square and is a great place to stay while visiting this politically diverse capital.

The major port of call for tourists is Prague Castle, which is more of a campus than an actual castle and houses St Vitus Cathedral, the Royal Palace, Golden Lane and other interesting structures. Lovers of architecture will enjoy a visual feast here because if you stand in the one spot just outside the Royal Palace and do a 360-degree turn your eyes will absorb six genres of architectural style in the one rotation. There's Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicist and neo-Gothic.

Even if the intricate detail of the different styles don't grab you, their diversity makes for a very interesting wander.

That's the thing about Prague, it's a city that really lends itself to walking, which is a nice thing to be able to do when you're on a short break and want to take in as much of the place as possible. If you go up to Prague Castle in the afternoon and start making your way back down to the city centre late afternoon/early evening, you'll see this gorgeous city and all its Gothic spires and towers illuminated by the city's lights.

Walk down the Old Palace stairs and head towards the famous Charles Bridge that brings you into the Old Town.

The historic bridge dates back to the 14th Century and the old stonework really puts the strength and endurance of this European city into context.

Once you get over the bridge you're right in the heart of the Old Town, where quirky little antique stores litter the streets, as do shops selling traditional Czech glassware in every colour. It's a lovely way to finish off the day and there are restaurants aplenty in the Old Town Square. One place I thoroughly enjoyed was the Summer Terrace at the U Prince Hotel in the square, which has outdoor heaters, so the time of year doesn't matter much and it allows you to enjoy good Czech food while you sit among the colourful rooftops and arches of the city.

Food is such an important part of Prague life, and after a day spent walking around the city you'll have a ravenous appetite for the local cuisine on offer – and, fortunately, you'll find Czech restaurants are very, very generous in their helpings. Traditional Czech food always involves meat. Pork and beef are staples, as is duck. They like their food wet and so are also generous with their sauces. The famous Czech dumplings are perfect for mopping up the juices. If you're not in the mood to spend hours poring over the menu and want a quick in-and-out bite then go for the Smazeny Syr. Cholesterol worries aside, this yummy dish is basically a thick slice of floured cheese that is fried and served with potatoes.

After dinner take a stroll into the Old Town Square, but make sure you do it on the hour mark. At the Old Town Hall you'll discover the third oldest astronomical clock in the world – it goes back to 1410. It's not hard to spot, as dozens of people gather around the timepiece every hour. Figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures come alive for the hourly clockwork show and as soon as it's one minute past the hour, the crowd disperses.

Most weekend breaks usually revolve around shopping, walking and eating, but if you do go to Prague it would be a pity not to check out Eastern Europe's only Skydive Arena. I was highly excited to have a go; I'd get to experience jumping out of a plane without actually having to jump out of a plane.

It basically involves donning a helmet, goggles and a jumpsuit and going inside a huge glass cylinder where wind blows up from a steel mesh below at speeds of up to 280 kilometres an hour. You may be as safe as houses inside the chamber, but the mind really does believe the body is falling from the sky and it's a thrilling experience.

Prague suits every season, but the spring is a particularly good time to visit as summer sees an influx of tourists descend upon the capital. After everything this vibrant and thriving millennium-old city has experienced, from restrictive regimes to foreign rule, a short holiday here will do the Irish psyche the world of good.

GETTING THERE

Joyce Fegan travelled to Prague courtesy of Sunway holidays. Sunway has an offer of four nights B&B in a 3* Hotel in Prague from June to September from €219 per person including flights and taxes. One way flights to Prague are from €56 including taxes. For this and other deals to more than 70 destinations worldwide check out www.sunway.ie or phone 01 288 6828

Irish Independent

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