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Out and About, Travel

Discovering the magic of Prague, part 1 – Wenceslas Square

When on holiday, I become an entirely different human being, much less anxious and tense than my usual self. There’s no fretting, no urge to prepare for anything; nothing matters but the “here and now”. However much I may miss certain things I left home, or dread the thought of others, there’s no space for them in my short-lived holiday universe: whatever happens, they’ll all be there when I come back.

My trip to Prague was no exception to this Golden Holiday Rule. The five days I spent there earlier this month were full of bliss, charming sights, and excellent food. Even though the demands of work and college started taking their toll again the very day I flew back, I brought home a lot of good memories I want to keep close to my heart. I’ll share some of them with you in this post…and maybe a couple more afterwards!

Day 1: From Wenceslas Square to Old Town Square

When visiting a new city, I like to indulge in the feeling that I’m stepping into the unknown, and walk around without a map. That usually does the trick on the first day, when there’s little time to plan a proper tour, but the urge to not spend the first few hours simply unpacking suitcases is too pressing.

Blissfully map-less, my partner and I left our rented apartment shortly after checking in, and started wandering around the nearby Wenceslas Square. We walked up to the National Museum, and then down again towards Stare Mesto, the Old Town.

Prague - Wenceslas Square seen from the National Museum

A view of Wenceslas Square from the National Museum

It being 7pm, the shops and cafes in the surrounding streets were all closed, but Wenceslas Square was still crowded and open for business. There were locals doing their last shopping errands, and visitors heading to the Square’s most popular destinations: tourist-trap restaurants, gambling joints pretentiously advertising themselves as “Casinos”, and notorious night clubs. I was amused to read that the Time Out guide we had borrowed described them as Prague’s “brothels”: in the world of suited and booted doormen and polished Gentlemen’s Clubs, is there really anyone who uses the word “brothel” anymore?

Wenceslas Square - Neon Signs

The combination of Casino and Halal Grill (top left) looks quite unusual to me!

A few minutes before its closing time, we had the chance to sneak into one of Prague’s numerous Palace of Books stores. While there are seven of them in town, the one in Wenceslas Square is the largest, occupying four floors of a shopping arcade: indeed, the word “Palace” is extremely appropriate!

Its four floors are packed with books of all sorts, in a massive space that looks halfway between a no-frills department store and an indoor market. Think the biggest Waterstones you’ve ever seen, and take out the fancy wooden bookcases and comfy armchairs. I could have settled for living a happy bookworm’s life in such a place – but, alas, most books were in Czech!

Palace of Books Prague

Inside the Palace of Books

As we continued exploring Wenceslas Square, I was delighted to notice that open-air cafes and sausage stalls are as popular in Prague as they are in Vienna: a city that charmed me when I was seventeen, which I would like to see again, with the wiser eyes of a more seasoned traveller.

Prague’s street stalls serve the same purposes of London’s all-present high street fast-foods, and Italy’s pizza-by-the-slice and kebab joints: offering a quick meal solution to tourists and hurried passers-by, and giving relief to the alcohol-ridden stomachs of party people after a night of clubbing. Prague’s street cafes, however, are much more peculiar than the usual, mass-produced McDonald’s and the average corner kebab shop: Wenceslas Square’s Cafe Tramvaj looked so cute with its night lights on, that I simply had to stop by for a picture!

Praha - Wenceslas Square Sausage Stall

A street cafe in Wenceslas Square

At night, a radical transformation unfolded before our eyes. The crowd dispersed, the dark descended; to my eyes of tourist, who had only seen it once at its most lively, Wenceslas Square looked almost deserted.

The clusters of men hanging about the sidewalks started looking dodgy; I started feeling vulnerable, despite not being alone. Simply standing there, capturing a few shots of Prague’s nightlife with my camera, was enough to make me fear I had become a magnet for someone’s bad intentions. But that was just a passing impression: people were still around, merrily heading towards another drink, or their next dance. London’s suburban high streets and shopping mall parking lots are empty at night; the lesser alleys of Soho are, too. Wenceslas Square, with its alluring club fronts and throbbing neon signs, was still alive.

Praha - Wenceslas Square by Night

(Coming up: Part 2 – Old Town Square)

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