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Fairytale Prague

We walked toward the dark figure headed in our direction, our feet moving over ancient gray cobblestones worn smooth by the march of empires. He wore a long overcoat, rounded wool hat, scarf nesting neatly around his neck. Well insulated from the cold Bohemian afternoon. He had a calm, contemplative air about him, like a wizard or a cleric.

“You’re John Malkovich,” my wife whispers to him as we pass. “I love you.”

He mouths the words “Thank You”. Lets the momentary brushstroke of a smile whisk across his face. Nods his head. And then he is gone. Gliding off and vanishing amid the jumble of hard-working Czech citizens going about their daily business, unaware of the presence in their midst.

This is Prague. City of Surprises. Storybook city where you feel as though you could bump into a wizard or mystic holy man around the next dark corner, under the next aged archway, down the next narrow alleyway.

City where you might come upon a three-headed dragon in a small shop filled with hand-made wooden toys. Or discover a golden egg, painted in exquisite detail by a country artisan. Where you might find yourself falling in love with a colorfully-clad marionette. Or perhaps with one of the many young men or women roaming through the town in palace dress, trying to lure you to an intimate 14th century cathedral or grand concert hall for an evening concert of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.

Not only is it easy to fall in love in Prague, but it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with it as well, most particularly with it’s fairy tale architecture. There’s the Old Town Square where pastel pinks, greens and creams shimmer off the walls of centuries-old buildings. Where the Tyn Church reaches its spindly gothic spires into the sky. And where the astronomical clock turns the heads of tourists heavenward every hour.

Every hour, two small doors in the face elaborate time piece open and the twelve apostles rotate into view. Simultaneously, four figures representing the 13th century terrors of Greed (holding a money-bag), Vanity (a mirror), Death (a staff), and Pagan Invasion (represented by a Turk) spring to life. The clock tells time in multiple ways, but it’s much more pleasant to stand back and enjoy its beauty than to attempt to decipher its complex of wheels and alignments.

Far less complicated, but no less beautiful, is the Charles Bridge. This structure, lined with blackened statues of saints, arches its magnificent stone back over the steely gray Vlatava River. Stroll the bridge, linger at the various art and photography stands, watch an old man feeding the pigeons, and you’ll feel as though sharing a kiss with the right person could truly take you into Happily Ever After. From the bridge, the pull of Prague Castle standing on the opposite hillside can’t be resisted for long. Cross the bridge from east to west into the Mala Strana, a section of the city founded in 1257, climb the winding streets up through the charming collection of red-roofed cottages, and soon you’ll understand why Prague is often referred to as The City of 100 Golden Spires.

At the top of the hill, you’ll come to a pair of castle gates which admit you to Prague Castle. Perhaps better known simply as The Castle, as immortalized in Prague native Franz Kafka’s ponderous novel (and in Kafka, the much more accessible movie staring Jeremy Irons), Prague Castle is actually a collection of buildings, the highlight being St. Vitus Cathedral.

This imposing structure rises soot-smeared and gargoyle-studded in the middle of the grounds. And while it may be black on the outside, inside the Cathedral is filled with delicious jewels of light. Painfully vibrant reds, living greens, enslaving blues, burning yellows and hundreds more vivid ecclesiastic colors stream down into the hushed interior from exquisite stained glass windows. And, as if these visual gems weren’t enough, St. Wenceslas Chapel, encrusted with blood red jasper and royal purple amethyst, not only houses the Czech Crown Jewels, but is the crown jewel of the Cathedral’s twenty-one chapels.

It is difficult but advisable to pull yourself away from the mesmerizing colors of St. Vitus in time to watch the sun sink heavily behind the towers and turrets of the city, and bathe Prague in a dusty mellow glow. Thus inspired, you should be well-prepared to head back to town for an evening of food, fun and finds.

At night, Prague becomes even more atmospheric, more mysterious, more laden with the whispers of the past. And with the sun down, you may need to rely upon senses other than sight to navigate.

Follow your nose and you should be able to discover an array of intimate wood-paneled restaurants serving up hearty plates of goulash, heavy white dumplings (resembling thick, dense slices of white bread), and fragrant, satisfying pints of pilsner — all for under ten dollars. Or, if you have a more refined olfactory sense, you may find yourself wandering to the Circle Line Restaurant in the Mala Strana for delicate preparations of fallow deer, duckling, or pike-perch at prices that make a fine-dining experience even finer.

Follow your ears, and you may be led to a gothic stone cellar, where the Jazz Club Zelezna serves up sweet, warm grog and sweeter, hot jazz from some of Prague’s lesser known but not less talented bands. If the thick smoky air hanging low beneath the vaulted ceiling gets to be too much, a small used CD chamber offers relief.

Prague is a city that has learned to party in a relatively short period of time, and like a teenager just tasting the freedom of music and liquor, it gets its groove on ’til the wee hours of the morning. Radost FX, Musicland, and Club 007 are some of the best places to (respectively) lose yourself in a languorous lounge groove, dance the night away to some euro-disco, or butt heads with the locals at a punk party — all at prices that’ll have you buying rounds for the house in no time.

But if these diversions seem a bit too raucous, there’s always the chance to escape to the art-deco paradise of the Municipal Building where your eyes can drink up all the stylized splendor while your lips drink strong Bohemian coffee. As you sit in this masterpiece of mosaic and mood, and people watch through the tall plate glass windows, you’ll feel as though you are in Paris without the pretense.

But no matter what your taste for evening entertainment, if you conclude your night and your stay in Prague with a final stroll on the Charles Bridge, gazing up at the lights and spires of Prague Castle, you’re sure to find yourself believing, that fairy tales really do come true.

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