I MET A POLISH COUPLE at The Beer Museum, a pub renowned for serving more than 30 specialty Czech draughts. The man, an architecture student with floppy blonde hair and a zip-up wool sweater that he wore as a turtleneck, was waiting for his girlfriend over a creamy stout; I ordered a five-beer sampler for myself, and had tipsily asked him his thoughts on Prague’s city planning when his doe-eyed girlfriend, as blonde as he, sat down with us and ordered a golden wheat beer.
“I love Prague,” she said without hesitation. She works in the Old City district as a veterinarian. “Name a better city in the world,” she challenged.
It was a trick question, and I said as much. But there’s an argument to be made: Prague is a definite contender for architecture (incomparable), cost (honest), public transit (efficient and cheap) and culture (a classical concert every night, a rock show every weekend), not to mention its unfairly delicious breads, beers and cheeses.
The only problem, really, is that everyone knows it. The once-quaint cobblestone streets are beaten down with thick crowds of tourists from around the world who huddle together, clicking photos behind the defensive wall of an unavoidably ostentatious guide, who nod in vague interest at refurbished apartment buildings and that ridiculous Astrological Clock. (It’s cute, but worth bursting out in applause at the end?)
Most cathedrals and synagogues cost money to enter, and I found delving into my religious history a bit too costly for the time, so I opted instead to escape the Old City and, in the words of my host here, “Go for a wander.” The small shops are charming and silly. By the river, south of the inexplicably crowded Charles Bridge, there is a kitschy medieval souvenir shop run by predictably bored employees with graphic tees and scowls who sell things like skull earrings, axe keychains, dulled broadswords and thick gothic cross necklaces, purportedly in theme in Prague’s eerie gothic style. Down the street you can find a few homemade arts and crafts stores operated by kinder, older women who speak much less English and spend their days surrounded by knitted teddy bears and children’s books. I later stopped for a latte and slice of jablečny, which the woman said was apple pie, but is much heavier (then again, all food is heavier here) and is filled with chopped nuts and over-plumped raisins.
Soon the sun was to set behind the hill, so I decided to make use of those last sunlit moments by strolling through the grounds of Vyšehrad, a quieter castle complex benchmarked by the towering gothic Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, which is powerful but somehow less impressive than Prague Castle’s Basilica of St. Vitus (I guess it’s just smaller?). The basilica and it’s surrounding orange-roofed houses on that grassy hill caught the direct sunlight so beautifully against the dark gray clouds overhead that the colours seemed something out of an impressionist painting, and the few of us there stood for as long as we could in silent awe.