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Small Pleasures Make Prague a Special Treat

Small Pleasures Make Prague a Special Treat

Small attractions seem to be a specialty of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. This 1,000-year-old Czech city also claims a grand castle, large and small public squares, countless churches, and palaces and houses in architectural styles that reflect the city's long history, but it's the little places that give it its charm.

For example, there's a row of tiny brightly painted houses tucked in against the interior wall of Prague's castle grounds. Built in 1541 for royal goldsmiths, they stand on a narrow street appropriately called the Golden Lane. The writer Franz Kafka lived in one, a structure that's remarkable for the minuscule size of its two rooms.

And then there are the house "numbers" that aren't numbers. Beginning in medieval times, owners distinguished their homes with small figures, such as animals or illustrations of a profession, sculpted in wood, stone, meta or plaster. You'll discover a wide variety of small bas reliefs on residences and businesses, although the city fathers introduced street numbers in 1770.

Prague has four major sections — the Old Town and the New Town on one side of the Vtlava, and the Castle Area on a hilltop across the river, and just below it along the river, the Lesser Town. All are easily reached from Prague's myriad hotels.

The oldest and most interesting are the Old Town and the Castle Area. Both offer numerous attractions. The Old Town Hall, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, has a famous 15th-century astronomical clock that on the hour displays figures of Christ and the Apostles at small windows above the clock face while a skeletal figure of death tolls the bell.

Embedded in the sidewalk next to the town hall on Old Town Square is a ground-level memorial to martyred Czechs who fought the Austrian Hapsburgs in the 17th century and lost. The memorial consists of crosses representing each of 27 nationals executed by the Hapsburg army after it defeated them at the battle of White Mountain in 1620 during the Thirty Years War. That loss took Czech Protestants out of the war and confirmed Bohemia as a Hapsburg dominion, which it remained for the following 300 years. If you're not looking for this memorial, you'll miss it.

Another interesting but often overlooked neighborhood in Prague is the old Jewish quarter, across the Vitava River, which is now the State Jewish Museum. Four of the city's six synagogues here are museums. Two of them — featuring books and artifacts associated with worship — are only yards away from the Old-New Synagogue, which is surprisingly small. Built in 1270, it's the world's oldest active Jewish house of worship. A few dozen straight-backed wooden seats line the walls in an early Gothic room that's taller than it is wide.

Nearby lies the incredibly crowded Old Jewish Cemetery, with stones jumbled together from the 15th to18th centuries and graves stacked as many as 12 deep. Its adjoining museum contains artwork produced by children in concentration camps during World War II. St. Vitus Cathedral, located inside the castle walls, is a huge Gothic structure that took nearly 600 years to build, beginning in 1344. For a small admission fee, you can take a walk down below where you'll see the remains of churches from the 10th and 11th centuries. At the end of a short winding tunnel lie the tombs of several Bohemian kings and queens. A chart on the wall will help you identify them.

Once the throne room of Bohemian kings, Vladislav Hall, built within the castle precincts by the 15th-century king of the same name, was the scene of tournaments, which explains its staircase built to accommodate horses. In one of the smaller adjoining rooms Czech Protestant court officials tossed representatives of the Catholic Hapsburgs out a window in 1618, triggering the Thirty Years War.

Prague offers plenty of other attractions, including Wenceslaus Square and the Charles Bridge. The square, located in the New Town, which was new in the 1340s, isn't really a square, but a wide boulevard named for its equestrian statue of a 10th-century Bohemian duke, Vaclav or Wenceslaus in English. Vaclav's brother murdered him, and the Pope later canonized him, recognizing him as Bohemia's patron saint.

The pedestrian-only Charles Bridge links the Old Town with the Lesser Town on the opposite shore of the Vltava. Commissioned by the Bohemian king, Charles IV, in 1357, it features towers on each end and 30 statues, most erected in the early 18th century, lining both sides.

To top off your stay in Prague, book an evening dinner cruise on the Vitava River during the summer months and relax while drinking beer and listening to live music as the city drifts by.