by BEN LERWILL
The two castle guards march rigidly across the cobbles on a 35ºC summer’s day in Prague. Hundreds of heat-baked tourists look on from the shade. The guards clump into position by their sentry boxes then stop, in full glare of the sun. They’re wearing sky-blue jackets, white polo-necks, peaked caps and aviator shades. And there they stand, as upright and unmoving as the castle behind them, while camera-phones click and melting ice creams drip vanilla splotches onto the royal square.
A year ago, Prague Castle — still the official residence of the country’s president — was the subject of a bold piece of activism. Three local artists, masquerading as chimney sweeps, removed the presidential flag from its rooftop pole and replaced it with a giant pair of red boxer shorts. The scarlet undies flapping in the Czech breeze were a rather pointed rebuke to the leader, who, a few months earlier, had also been pelted with eggs. So much for Slavic reserve.
Prague knows all about dealing with the vicissitudes of power. The riverside city — by most measures one of the prettiest in Europe — has experienced life as the capital of both the Holy Roman and Habsburg Empires, and endured Nazi and Soviet occupation, witnessing more overthrows, crackdowns, religious squabbles and ideological struggles than any one place might reasonably be expected to handle. And these days? Millions of visitors continue to converge on its bars and baroque Old Town, but the city still evades an easy label. […]
The time when the Czech capital was seen as a byword for lads-on-tour weekends is fading. Away from the centre, former mills are becoming private galleries, street-food markets are springing up and one-time warehouses are being reinvented as office space or artisan delis. It’s a familiar story, of course, but can’t easily be dismissed as a fad. Even on the restaurant terraces of the Old Town’s quieter squares, there’s a classier, more relaxed feel than in days gone by.
On the banks of the Vltava River, the Saturday morning market is in full flow. Organic juices are being mixed, river trout are being prepared, farmhouse cheeses are being portioned. A few minutes’ walk to the north, meanwhile, the Charles Bridge is heaving with buskers and pedestrian traffic. Sunshine beats down on the scene.
The bridge is one of Prague’s must-sees, a 500-metre span of burnished cobbles, baroque statues and held-aloft selfie sticks. The city’s inhabitants have been flowing over its arches for more than six centuries and, fittingly, the man the bridge takes its name from is still seen by many as the father of the nation. King Charles IV was famed for his patronage of culture and the arts. And having been educated in Paris, he was also responsible for introducing the Czech lands to what is today one of its lesser-known gifts: wine.
“The mentality around wine is still very different to beer,” says Roman Novotny, the young sommelier at Bokovka wine bar, while pouring out a glass of Moravian white. “I was out having lunch once with four friends, all of them drinking beer. I ordered wine and they started saying ‘Really? Alcohol in the daytime?’ — and they were serious! But these days, Prague is moving, new habits are developing. It’s why people are drawn here. […]”
One blessing of visiting Prague in a heatwave is that the city has plenty of green space. Among the urban expanse of high red roofs and gothic pinnacles, various leafy hills erupt out of the cityscape. It’s on one of these — a mellow hump of parkland known as Riegrovy Sady — that I sit and stare back across the city one afternoon.
Way off in the distance, meanwhile, it’s possible to pick out a giant red pendulum on a hillside above the river, swinging back and forth. It’s the first time I’ve noticed it. When I ask around, I get the story. It transpires that the Prague Metronome has been in place since 1991 as a permanent art installation. What’s more, it occupies the precise spot where a 17,000-ton statue of Stalin once stood. Today — as it’s done for the past 25 years — it looks over the city, ticking away the passage of time.
Back up at Prague Castle, the guards are still standing stock-still in the fierce sun. They’re doing an admirable job of staying straight-faced as people pose for photographs at their side. But for one guard, it looks like the strain of the weather is starting to take its toll. Behind his sunglasses is the focused expression of a man who, when he knocks off for the day, wouldn’t half fancy finding somewhere for a drink.
To read the full article visit Natgeotraveller.co.uk.
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Jordy & Nass