Pleasures of Prague

By Paul Bradshaw
Photos Courtesy of Czech Tourism

Czeching it out is a must-do when visiting Europe. The Old World European country has a fabled past and an exciting future. Here, we take you to the heart of the metropolis and show you where to go and how to do it. And, even attend a formal masked ball.

Prague is a city with something to prove, even though it is the capital of the Czech Republic and boasts over a million residents. Long the darling of the creative set, Prague is now firmly established as a luxury destination, with all the food, shopping and high-end accommodations that come with it. Once dour locals are bursting with enthusiasm to shake the memory of Communist rule and show the world their rich, vivid history—and preview their vibrant, creative future as a world culture capital.

The old palace hotels have been joined by new aspirants. Design hotels are popping up all over town. Moods, Hotel Elephant and The Icon are some of the cool new additions. The Augustine, Sir Rocco Forte’s five-star luxury retreat, is carved out of a 13th Century monastery. All clean lines and chic simplicity, The Augustine is pure luxury, but with a playful nod to the asceticism of its previous occupants.

Set in the Mala Strana district, just across the river from the Old Town, The Augustine, along with the Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons, define Prague’s super-luxury category. One thing the Augustine has over its competitors however, is the actual St. Thomas Monastery, which is part of the hotel complex. Through a discreet door just off the lobby you’ll find the cloisters of the working monastery where, by appointment of course, one of the friendly monks will be happy to listen to your troubles. Of course, if you want a more traditional approach to de-stressing, there is The Augustine’s sublime spa, with a full repertoire of treatments. Try the Ila Experience, a bespoke two-hour combo of heavenly experiences (voted best treatment concept by the GALA Spa Awards) that will leave you in a blissful haze of serenity and calm.

If your idea of stress relief involves a little retail therapy as well, rest assured—all the usual suspects abound. Cartier, Dior, Vuitton, Gucci, Hermes and Prada have outposts on or near Pariszka, the main shopping drag. But it is the quirky mix of ever-evolving local boutiques that will really turn your head. Pop in to At Work and its sister store, The Address. Then stroll down and across the street to Simple Conceptstore with its champagne bar and perfectly curated collection of books, music and objets d’ can’t live without.

Hipster, Meet Old World

Looking for something a little more contemporary? That’s easy. Venture to the emerging Smichov neighborhood to see what’s next. The Meet Factory is a vast industrial building that has been converted into a center for contemporary art, with gallery and performance spaces, as well as an art café and nightclub. Then, check out the FUTURA Center for Contemporary Art, a three-floor exhibition space showcasing both international and Czech artists. Don’t miss the new Artel Design Shop in the Mala Strana district, for the latest in contemporary Czech design, too.

As terrific as these spaces are, it’s not necessary to stay indoors to see amazing works of art. The quantity and caliber of serious public art in Prague already rivals its western counterparts. Provocatively engaging installations are sprinkled liberally throughout the town, each positioned for maximum impact or surprise effect, from the ever- evolving, block-long graffiti art ode to John Lennon, to the giant bronze baby sculptures of David Cerny that crawl along the banks of the Vltava.

So much is happening in Prague right now, that one starts to wonder what is beyond the city limits. With the city becoming such a popular destination, it was inevitable that people would start to venture outside the city, into what the old-timers call Czechlands, a beautiful, bucolic setting of rolling hills and charming villages.

Three hours south of Prague, in the southern Bohemia region, is Cesky Krumlov. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Cesky Krumlov is a fairytale village built along the banks of a winding stretch of the Vltava, its narrow, winding streets echoing the river’s twists and turns. Dominating the bluff above town, Krumlov Castle stands watch over the sea of red tile roofs below.

As you walk through the village, you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the back lot of a major movie studio. The buildings are covered in a signature style of trompe l’oeil, which, from a distance, does trick the eye. Upon closer inspection, you realize that these daunting stone façades are actually beautifully crafted, detailed works of art.

Masked Ball

The perfect time to visit is late June for the annual Chamber Music Festival, held at the Krumlov Castle. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be royal, the Festival’s Baroque Night is your chance. Imagine stepping back in time and attending a party at court. Masked partygoers in period costumes fill the castle’s ballrooms. Baroque chamber music guides the uninitiated through a court dance lesson, as servers in full livery pass flutes of champagne and delicious canapés. The worries of the 21st Century seem miles and miles away.

But that is just Act One of this fantastic party. Soon, the “royals” have decreed that the dancing is done. After giving you a moment to catch your breath, you are ushered through the castle into a most spectacular small, court theater for a performance. The theater is an exquisite example of baroque architecture, perfectly preserved, complete with the original mechanics and scenery. This yearly performance draws the best operatic voices in the Czech Republic.  You would expect nothing less from a command performance.

After the final curtain call, you take the secret passageways of the castle to the private royal gardens, where there is more music and merriment, with an enormous selection of desserts to satisfy your sweet tooth. The night is brought to a dazzling conclusion with an enthusiastic display of fireworks.

As the last, dazzling report starts to fizzle, you gaze down at the village below you, the ribbon of river glowing in the moonlight, and you can, for a moment, feel what’s it’s like to be royal.

How do you follow that act, you ask? Why, return to your royal fantasy the next night for a performance at The Revolving Auditorium. Located at the opposite end of the royal gardens from the castle, this is a theater where the scenery doesn’t move. The audience does. Set on an oval riser, the seating area actual twirls around slowly, revealing different scenes being acted out in different parts of the park-like gardens. The operatic performance truly comes to life in the three-dimensional setting while the beautiful grounds give the staging a much more vivid, real, feel than just sitting in an enclosed space, watching through the fourth wall.

Afterwards, stroll through the moonlit gardens down the hill to the village proper, cast aside your Royal Persona, and drop into Cikanska Jizba, a local pub. Known in these parts as a Romany bar (it’s not polite to call them Gypsies) this tiny, out of the way watering hole offers lively music in the Romany tradition well into the night to remember. You may find that being a commoner has a lot to offer, too.

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