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Astronomical Clock in Prague's Old Town Square

Astronomical Clock

At the very heart of Europe, the Czech Republic offers a remarkably rich travel experience. Historically part of a loose alignment of Central European kingdoms, the modern Czech Republic has emerged from 40 years of Communist rule with bright hopes for her future. Never underestimate a people who acclaim a playwright as their president. Musicians, artists and writers played a key role in bringing the communist government to its knees, and Vaclav Havel, playwright to president, led his country, a modern miracle of democracy and free enterprise from 1993 to 2003.

The Czech city of Prague is no longer Europe’s best-kept secret, but it rarely falls onto the “A List” of must-see European capitals. Savvy travelers may want to rethink this, since the Czech Republic is emerging as one of the world’s most popular destinations.

After all, Prague is a living fairy tale. The city rests on the sloping banks of the Vltava River, the main artery of Bohemian waterways. The spires of Gothic cathedrals join the parapets of baroque and Renaissance castles, like so many upheld lances glinting in the sunlight. Cobblestone streets connected by arching and ancient stone bridges blend with the cosmopolitan atmosphere of modern Prague.

At the center of Old Town Square is the amazing Astronomical Clock, which began ticking in 1490. Every hour wooden figurines representing Greed, Vanity, and Death perform a morality play as the sun moves through the 12 signs of the zodiac. This is a perfect symbol of Prague’s medieval magical mystery tour. Every great city in Europe is a spectacle, pulsating with drama. Prague is a lyric opera.

Old Town Square originated as a marketplace in the 11th century. It is surrounded by a gallery of churches, palaces and the Old Town Hall, which has long witnessed acts of high drama: processions of Bohemian kings, public beheadings, Nazi shelling, Soviet tanks, Communist speeches.

In today’s Prague, first thing in the morning, blacksmiths, carpenters and potters set the square clattering. Merchants fill booths with embroidery, gingerbread, wooden toys, and Bohemian crystal to the accompaniment of a lively Czech jazz band cranking out Basin Street Blues.

Rich in avant-garde art, literature, and music, flowering in a landscape of Gothic and baroque, this part of the world gave birth to Dvorak, Freud, Mendel, Rilke, and Kafka. Here originated soft contact lenses and Bata shoes, as well as the polka and gourmet Pilsen beer!

Mozart and Liszt became famous in Prague. In fact, Mozart’s first production of Don Giovanni took place at the Estates Theatre. To see it performed there supports Flaubert’s declaration that ‘the three most beautiful things in this world are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” One seldom sees an opera in such perfect, jewel-like proportions, immediate and intimate.

In fact, it seems there must be a classical concert or opera gala every half-hour in Prague. From lunchtime quartets at the castle to pre-dinner Bach and Vivaldi at the National Museum, the informal offerings seem inexhaustible.

Prague is nicknamed “City of a Hundred Towers” because its skyline abounds with historical monuments that have stood witness to hundreds of years of history. In fact, the heart of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As if this cornucopia of diversity weren’t enough on its own, a vacation in the Czech Republic is reasonably priced compared to other European countries. Most Czech Republic escorted tours that feature Prague will include Vienna and Budapest in the mix as well, and off season prices average $1400 for a 7-night vacation package.

When you’ve done London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome for the umpteenth time, consider adding Prague and the Czech Republic to your list. You won’t be disappointed!