If you were asked to design a theme-park town for St Valentine’s Day, you might think of twisted Gothic spires and Renaissance palaces fit for a princess. You’d add frivolous baroque churches, art deco domes and a fanciful hilltop castle, all arranged around city squares and cobbled lanes and view-gazing hills. A river would gurgle through the middle of your town, and the afternoon sun would caress the city, turning the river to molten orange and old spires to needles of gold.
In short, with romance on the mind, who wouldn’t think of a place just like Prague? True, its Gothic churches are a little creepy, but its Cinderella palaces are suitably fanciful. Locals dress up in Mozart wigs, and even the guards at the castle wear uniforms created by the costume designer from the movie Amadeus. Prague treads a ﬁne line between historic preservation and theme-park fantasy, yet somehow pulls it oﬀ. Even better, when spring arrives, bringing warmth and a blush of ﬂowers to the city, its romantic side emerges in full force and the spirit of love seems to linger at every corner and viewpoint.
Start oﬀ at Prague’s Staré Město, or ‘Old Town’, which lies at the city’s geographic and historic heart and is a good place to begin a hand-in-hand meander through time. The largely medieval quarter has survived virtually intact but for the occasional baroque additions, and it is a charming warren of cobbled, crooked streets bursting with restaurants, cafés and tourist shops where you can pick up lovers’ gifts such as Bohemian crystal and garnet jewellery.
Staré Město’s winding streets lead eventually to a vast main square, which has been at the heart of Prague’s life since the 10th century. Easily one of Europe’s most beautiful urban spaces, the square is surrounded by tall baroque buildings picked out in pastel colours and overlooked by twisted Gothic spires like illustrations from a fairy tale. A huge art nouveau statue of 15th-century Czech martyr Jan Hus stands at its centre.
Linger, though, at the giant astronomical clock affixed to the town hall, which has been marking the hours since the 15th century. Every hour, on the hour, a skeleton rings a bell, apostles emerge from the clock’s window and the sun moves through the signs of the zodiac. Take time out for a typical local honey cake or strudel in a pretty café below.
Move on to the Vltava river, where Charles Bridge is one of the city’s most romantic highlights and is lined by the statues of medieval saints. They provide a series of shepherd’s crooks, swords and pointed mitres against the backdrop of city towers and spires. Jazz ensembles, violin players, Frank Sinatra imitators and other buskers entertain passers-by as the river glimmers below.
For a truly romantic moment, return at dawn, when the silhouettes of saints are outlined against the emerging light, old-town rooftops appear from the mist and you might have the bridge to yourselves. Alternatively, veer oﬀ to Kampa, an almost-island of gardens and miniature vineyards. It’s a great spot for a tender stroll or a picnic on the grass, with stunning views of Prague’s many monuments to get you in the mood for love.
On the far side of Charles Bridge lies Malá Strana, the aptly-named ‘Little Quarter’ squeezed between the river and hills. Its relatively quiet back streets provide an atmosphere of the 18th-century Prague Mozart would have known. Clustered around the great green dome of the Church of St Nicholas are baroque palaces and garden courtyards of Bohemia’s former nobility, now mostly taken over by government offices and embassies. Buy some Czech-style open sandwiches in a bakery, ﬂop down on a park bench and gaze at the buttercup baroque of the surrounding buildings: proof that there are still some beautiful corners of the city barely disturbed by tourists.
As you walk further uphill, both the views and the rococo palaces become more spectacular. Černín Palace (now home to the foreign ministry) is a colossal wedding cake, the Strahov Monastery a mad dream in pink and gilt. You’re now in Hradčany, the castle district on the summit of Prague’s hill. It’s an aristocratic showpiece surrounded by vineyards and forests, just the place to capture that perfect photo of Prague’s spires down below.
Looming over Hradčany, the vast bulk of Prague Castle oﬀers a façade of glittering windows and impressive walls, topped by the fanciful Gothic spires of its bold cathedral. At night the castle glows in spotlights like a surreal fairy-tale vision, its reﬂection shimmering in the ripples of the Vltava below. It isn’t so much a castle as a vast sprawl of palaces, government offices, outbuildings, museums and courtyards. The complex has always been at the heart of Czech history: an imperial residence during Prague’s Golden Age, a brooding presence during the Stalinist regime, and more recently a symbol of the country’s new-found freedom.
The castle is entered through gates topped by grim statues of the Battling Titans, under which fresh-faced young guards stand surrounded by a swarm of tourists. Wander on through the medieval wood-beamed coronation hall, the gingerbread cottages of the Golden Lane (once home to palace servants) and the world’s largest toy museum. The castle oﬀers spectacular views from the windows: a chequerboard of tiled roofs and green domes tumbling down to the Charles Bridge and a lazy, picturesque sweep of the river.
Equally impressive and just as romantic is the interior of St Vitus Cathedral, a kaleidoscope of glowing stained glass, baroque madness and royal tombs at the heart of the castle complex. Squeeze your way up the Gothic cathedral tower and peer down at gargoyles, ﬂying buttresses and metal spikes topped by rooster weathervanes. Below you lie the courtyards of the castle and the gardens laid out by the Hapsburgs; around that a sprawl of mansions, elaborate as whipped meringue, fall away in a tumble of rooftops and church spires to a river glinting like molten silver.
This is better than any theme park: a thousand years of history at your feet, arranged to perfection. It’s a great place to pop the question or, failing that, for a quick kiss. After all, this is Prague, and love is in the air.
5 Senses – Sound PRAGUE SPRING INTERNATIONAL MUSIC FESTIVAL
Prague is one of Europe’s cultural capitals, famed for its music and opera, but also for hosting theatre, ballet and a variety of annual and occasional festivals. The Prague Spring International Music Festival is a highlight. Running from May 12 to June 3 this year, the series of music events includes concerts, opera and church recitals, as well as pop music, and showcases the country’s top performers as well as international guests. www.festival.cz