Our apartment was gorgeous, a huge, art-filled contemporary two-bedroom unit located in the restored historic U Kapra building. The living room windows opened onto a picture-perfect view of Male Namesti, a sort of junior version of Old Town Square, which was itself just a block away. Everything about the place was top-of-the-line, except for the price, which was – at today’s exchange rate – $1725/week.
For those of you who want to follow up on this, it is called Old Town Suite Apartment at Prague Apartments U Kapra. The realtor is Svoboda & Williams in Prague and our agent, Klaudia Stegnjaja, was a delight to deal with, both via the internet and in person once we were in Prague. She gave us all sorts of great advice and assistance when we were there, way above and beyond the call of duty. We recommend the apartment, the company and Klaudia with great enthusiasm. Here’s the TripAdvisor listing:
Since we are vegans, we expected to make good use of our marvelous kitchen, cooking dinner at home from time to time. But that didn’t happen much. For one thing, there weren’t any groceries with fresh veggies in the immediate neighborhood, and we really didn’t want to waste too much time shopping for food elsewhere. For another, there were so many little local restaurants around that offered some sort of acceptable vegetable and/or pasta dishes, that we just decided to make do as best we could eating out.
Most of the Prague natives we met advised us not to eat at the restaurants on the square, because they were over-priced tourist traps. They were probably right, but for us, choosing a restaurant was mostly a matter of dietary necessity. Convenient location and good service in the midst of daunting crowds meant a lot to us, too.
So we did eat out a fair number of times in tented, heated Old Town Square outdoor restaurants. We liked the Hotel U Prince’s Italian restaurant best– and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten its name. But its view of the square, the Astronomical Clock, and the strolling crowds was marvelous. We thought the food was quite good, and the service excellent.
Finally, about mid-way through our Prague week, we found the vegan restaurant Country Life, at Melantrichova 15, which was about four blocks from our apartment, and we were totally happy. Their grocery next door sold some decent fresh veggies for cooking an occasional meal at home, and the restaurant offered a bounteous selection of very good food by any standard. For deprived vegans, it was heaven. The food there is served cafeteria style and is exceptionally reasonably priced. You make your selections, pay by weight and settle down in one of two quite pleasant dining rooms.
It turns out that there actually are a fair number of vegetarian restaurants in Prague that we simply never got to. We got lost looking for Maitrea, located at Tynska ulicka 6, behind the huge Tyn Church, one block off Old Town Square. That sounds pretty simple, yes? Except that at night, in a heavy rain . . . well, as they say back home in Philadelphia, forget about it. The only other people crazy enough to be out walking in that weather were a pair of Aussies who were as lost as we were. We shared a laugh and sloshed on and on, finally winding up having veggie pizza and beer somewhere or other. Somehow, we never got back to Maitrea in the daytime. So much to do . . . so little time!
All of this makes us sound incredibly nutritionally virtuous, doesn’t it? Hah! We were totally shameless about desserts. We’d go to all this trouble to find vegan, or vegetarian food –– and then we’d snag a gelato practically every time we passed a place offering it.
So, all in all, restaurant eating for us in Prague was governed by wherever we happened to be that served the occasional green vegetable, or pastas that weren’t swimming in cheese. You’ll need to learn about the city’s great food from another reporter. Sorry about that!
Our visit to Prague was the first time that we ever used the services of a private guide. What a wonderful, enriching experience it turned out to be! Before we left on our trip, we had contacted Eva Trkalova on the internet, whose guide service (http://www.trkalova.guide-prague.cz) was highly recommended on a TripAdvisor forum. Eva paired us up with Martina Kaderova, a licensed guide who works with her, and we worked out a plan in advance for three half-day tours. We explained that we were in our mid- and late-70s, and that I had troublesome knees, so that we were not really sure how much walking I would be able to do at any given time. But Eva assured us that these are truly personalized tours, and we would make any adjustments that seemed desirable as any need arose.
Martina met us in the lobby of our apartment house in the morning, and we were off to Josefov, the former Jewish ghetto, just five or six blocks from where we were staying.
When you’re traveling, how you react to a new place depends on what you bring to it to start with. A broad curiosity and openness to new experiences and ideas are, I think, quite enough to make for a happy tourist just about anywhere. So you can approach Josefov from that perspective, and come away with a great deal. It’s a fascinating place. Or, if you happen to be the two of us, you bring to it a passion for history and a strong emotional connection to the people of Josefov, as American Jews who lost virtually all our European relatives in the Holocaust.
The Jewish Museum in Prague, to use the official name, is actually comprised of six historic sites in Josefov. A seventh, the oldest structure, is the “Old-New Synagogue,” built in the middle of the 13th century in Gothic style. It is not actually part of the Jewish Museum, and religious services are still held there, but it can be visited separately at the same time, and that is much worth doing because of its exceptional antiquity. You step through the door and a strong sense of its age seems to settle down on your shoulders. It’s quite an experience. The other synagogues date to the 1500s, the early 1600s, and – the newcomer of the bunch – the “Spanish Synagogue,” dates to 1868. They all contain permanent exhibitions ranging from the History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia to Jewish Customs and Traditions. Apart from the exhibits, the buildings themselves, each quite different from the other architecturally, are spellbinding.
The Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535, has been turned into a Memorial to the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia murdered by the Nazis. On its walls are inscribed the names of the Jewish victims, their personal data, and the names of the communities to which they belonged. In 1968, the Memorial had to be closed because ground water had penetrated the building´s foundations, endangering the structure. The Communist regime deliberately held up renovation work and the inscriptions were removed. Finally the building was repaired and, in 1992-1994, the 80,000 names of the Jewish victims of Bohemia and Moravia were rewritten on its walls. The experience of standing there in 2013 surrounded by a seemingly endless sea of painstakingly hand-lettered names is profoundly moving.
Housed in the upper floor of the synagogue is an exhibition of clandestine drawings done by Jewish children deported to the Terezin concentration camp, about 45 minutes north of Prague, during the Second World War. It is a heartbreaking presentation. Only a few of the Terezín children survived; the vast majority were deported to Auschwitz where they were exterminated.
A different experience entirely is the large Spanish Synagogue, which quite simply is an astonishing work of art. Designed in the Moorish Revival style, with virtually every interior surface tiled, painted and gilded in spectacular Islamic polychrome designs, it is a must-see for everyone who visits Prague.
Finally, there is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Try to imagine seeing 12,000 ancient, weather worn tombstones jammed together and leaning every which way in a soundless chaos. The oldest tombstone here dates from 1439, and the 12,000 visible tombstones represent just a small fraction of the number of people interred here. For many years, the authorities did not permit Jews to be buried outside of the ghetto, and eventually, when they ran out of room, they brought in earth and added layers, to accommodate many more thousands of burials. We were told that there might be as many as ten layers and many of the tombstones we were seeing, from historic various periods, emerged over time, risen from below to the upper layers. Burials took place there until 1787.
We spent three hours here guided by Martina, whose knowledge of the history of Prague’s Jewish community was enormously impressive. She gave context and color to everything we saw, and made our experience in Josefov unforgettable.
NEXT: Part 3: Prague Castle, Mala Strana, John Lennon, the Upside Down Horse