We sent motoring journalist Daniel Ford off to the Czech capital, tasked with navigating its medieval, narrow city roads in search of a Secret Circuit.
Prague is a medieval town, and its wonderful character meanders in its own pleasant way along the east and west banks of the Vltava river. It has a series of lovely bridges, beautiful buildings with picture-postcard facades, good food and world-famous beer.
But medieval character means narrow streets. It also means cobblestone streets that you share with trams. The road is liable to split confusingly in two directions after you pass under an ancient bridge, or will continue to be a thoroughfare despite the appearance of some steps in what was the road, or will simply and unexpectedly come to an abrupt dead end.
It’s not the city; it’s the fact that we are used to cities bowing to our need to rush on through. Slow down, readjust, and enjoy Prague. The capital of the Czech Republic is for gentle driving: taking your time to feel the curve of its streets, catching glimpses of its people as they go about life and even smelling the air in the night breeze as you ease though its streets with the window down.
Beating the Crowds
So let’s start this night-time tour at the pace with which we mean to go on. I swing round towards the Charles Bridge. By day the entrance is mobbed, and your memento pic would include assorted characters from school parties and middle-aged tourists. At night, it’s all ours. As the bridge is pedestrianised, I park up and stroll out through the tower to enjoy the 15th-century bridge and its 31 statues and sculptures.
Now we loop back round through the narrow streets, under archways and past small craft shops and local bars as we wind our way up to the Prague castle. It’s actually more like a small town, and there are yet more couples strolling around now-empty restaurants, cafés and galleries.
We wind our way back down the hill and across the Manesuv bridge, past the Rudolfinum, home of the postered Philharmonic orchestra, then past icons of a different type of culture: the Four Seasons hotel; Brioni; Boucheron. Then we swing into the old town and it’s welcome to the house of fun. Just enjoy getting lost; it’s all you can do. Here be dragons: streets with steps, cobblestones, one-way systems and dead ends galore. Don’t turn on the sat nav to escape, that’s cheating.
Echoes of the Past
We pass the imposing neo-renaissance National Theatre with its gold statues perched on top, and its neighbour, the starkly modern New Stage, which looks like it has been made from tinfoil. And at the next bridge as we turn east, there’s more variety to go with the city’s traditional architecture. The “squashed building” as I dub it is more commonly known as the dancing house, and had a big fan in President Václav Havel, a previous leader of the Czech Republic who lived nearby.
So to the heart of the city, and the huge National Museum looks serenely down on the action. We drive slowly around what is more a long, sloping boulevard than a square, past the historic art nouveau Grand Hotel Europa. Then we leave the square where Czechs have always gathered at significant times: the forming of Czechoslovakia in 1918; a demo against the German occupation in 1939; the rise of communism in 1948; the Prague spring uprising that Soviet tanks put down in 1968 and, in 1989, the Velvet Revolution as communism came to an end.
Back to the river and across the Legii Bridge, we pause before the lit steps in the Petrin Park near where we started and see the artworks that are a memorial to the victims of communism. Then there’s one last chance to enjoy the cobbles.