Art, History and Beer in Prague

Prague, Czech Republic — Having survived the Nazis, the Soviets and wars great and small, with hardly a scratch to show for it, Prague has emerged as a wonderfully winsome city, with the perfect mix of the modern and the historic.

Nestled in the bend of the surprisingly majestic Vltava River, which is awash in tour boats, kayaks and fishing dinghies, Prague today is only besieged by tourists. It is a proud city, particularly its Old Town, where remnants of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and recent centuries mingle and are within easy walking distance.

Never a great nation, and frequently not a nation at all, the Czech Republic is justifiably proud of its urban crown jewel, without which we would know precious little about the country (Can you name another Czech city?).

Like their weather, the Czechs are a bit overcast and hard to read. They are not naturally demonstrative or engaging, like Italians. Their bloodless revolt against Communism in 1989, and their amicable divorce from Slovakia in 1993 are both termed "velvet." And how many countries have a playwright for a president?

Perambulating the cobblestones of Old Town, past looming, well-cared-for cathedrals with dark Gothic spires and solemn stone arches, where statues of martyrs and bas-reliefs of angels and demons seem to lurk above every footfall, one would assume that the Czechs are a profoundly religious people. In Old Town Square, a huge crowd gathers faithfully on the hour beneath the 15th-century Astronomical Clock to watch figurines of the Apostles parade by the windows above, as a gilded, grinning skeleton chimes the bell that brings us all closer to our final reckoning.

Religion and Czech history have often been indivisible. During a 1419 theological dispute that would lead to a 14-year war, Bohemia — the heartland of what is now the Czech Republic — introduced to the world the arcane activity known as "defenestration," whereby one throws people with whom one disagrees out the window.

On closer inspection of modern religious practice, however, one finds the church pews generally roped off. And the hourly congregation watching that divine clock consists entirely of tourists, many observing from a patio bar, with a Pilsener in hand. The locals, it turns out, are among the least religious folks in Europe, ergo, the world.

When it comes to beer, on the other hand, they are quite devout. Czechs lead the known universe (yes, including Germans and Australians) in beer consumption per capita. But the standard "local" brews you can use, Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen, are now owned by foreign conglomerates, so purists may want to order truly indigenous suds, like the unpasteurized and tangy Bernard dark lager.

While modern Czechs may not be religious (more than 80 percent don't fancy a Supreme Being), that doesn't mean they don't value their fractious convoluted past and centuries of grand architecture,whether ecclesiastical or secular. For a brief time in the 14th century under Charles IV, Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Czechoslovakia became a modern nation between World Wars I and II, only to be ravaged by Germany in 1938 and hijacked by the Soviet Union in 1948. In 1993 the country split, spinning off Slovakia. Free at last the past 20 years, this nation of little more than 10 million people is justifiably proud of the role it played, if mostly as a supporting actor, in European dramas.

Old Prague's cozy neighborhoods, myriad museums, castles, theaters, restaurants and stately bridges across the Vltala are easily reached on foot or by tram. Not all of the architecture is Middle Aged and stolid. Apartment buildings sport a pleasing pallet of gelato-colored facades, and the relatively modern and vivacious Obecní dům, or Municipal House, in Republic Square will stop you in your touring tracks. It is among the finest examples of the Art Nouveau movement that swept the city toward the end of the 19th century. Restored to its original grandeur after the fall of Communism, its lemon-cake exterior is embellished with eclectic flourishes — from a stained-glass canopy and classical statuary to sculpted vases, cartouches and mosaic depictions of Czech history and culture. A major convention destination, it features an elegant restaurant, billiards and card rooms and a concert hall, all lavishly appointed.

During high season, April through October, its 1,200-seat Smetana Hall offers regular jazz and classical music concerts: grand ones such as performances by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, as well as lesser recitals by rump ensembles pounding out Mozart's greatest hits for 900 korunas ($45) a pop.

One could argue that merely sitting in this arresting venue is nearly worth the price of admission, gazing at its grandiose wall and ceiling frescoes, gilded lamps, stuccoed sculpture and other ornamental gewgaws. If you are on a budget, however, book the building tour, which is $20 for a family of four, and enjoy the music in Old Town Square, which is rife with free concerts. A passable cello foursome costs but a few korunas tossed into the hat.

If there is a complaint about old Prague, it is that there is simply too much to see and do in but a few days. Should we have perused the Sex Museum or the Franz Kafka Museum rather than the Torture Museum, where water-boarding devices are on display? Or perchance should we have taken in the musical "Dracula" at the Divadlo Hibernia Theater as opposed to the bus tour to Karlštejn Castle, a restored 14th-century marvel an hour outside the city — where the crown jewels of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire once were squirreled away?

Did my wife and I spend enough time browsing the tony boutiques (Dior, Ferragamo etc.) that litter Paris Street (methinks we did)? Should we have ordered pig's knees rather than pork knuckles? Actually, we ordered neither.

Despite what we missed we didn't do badly. We crossed the Vltava via the historic Charles Bridge to St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle (the world's largest) on a hill overlooking the city. The cathedral is other worldly in shape and size, sporting diverse architectural styles from French Gothic to Baroque (the edifice took 500 years to finish, after all, and tastes do change), relics and sumptuous tombs of kings, saints (St. Sigismond was beatified despite having had his own son strangled to death).

The park, gardens and observatory on Petrin Hill were worth there trek. Then we took a tram to a restaurant overlooking the river , where both the view and the food were superb.

If there is one thing not to miss, it is the Jewish Museum, a complex of historical centers, galleries and synagogues. The 19th-century Spanish Synagogue, so named for its Moorish style, is breathtakingly beautiful.

The exhibits in the Pikas Synagogue take away one's breath for a different reason. The names of Jewish victims of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia are displayed on the walls, and the walls and the names go on and on and on. A second-floor exhibit displays a sampling of drawings made by local Jewish children imprisioned in Czechoslovakia from 1942 to 1944. About 8,000 of them were deported to the East: 242 survived.