Scattered with little silver stars, the sky was a vivid deep purple. The waters down below reflected the sky’s hue, peppered with occasional shades of orange bouncing off table lamps from restaurants by the bank.
The castle lit up in all its glory, stood tall, adding a finishing touch to this beautiful image. It felt as if time stopped, letting us savour this moment to our heart’s content. Resting my arms on the iconic Charles Bridge, I wondered about all those who had got a taste of this breathtaking view in the past. Had the chariots that strolled over the bridge in the 14th century stopped to watch the Vltava flowing calmly below? What about the Soviet soldiers who patrolled the bridge at night during the 60s invasion?
They say you haven’t seen Prague unless you have seen the Charles Bridge. Commissioned by King Charles IV and built in 1357 by architect and builder Peter Parler, the bridge, which is a history lesson and architectural wonder rolled into one, is undoubtedly the most frequented spot in Prague. And, the reason for this is, as Henry Thoreau would attest, all good things in life are free. As winter transitions into spring, the bridge, however, becomes almost unnavigable, thanks to thousands of tourists who flock to the city. It soon becomes a riot of selfie-sticks and loud banter. The calm, the beauty and the tranquility I experienced seem like a distant dream. It is at night, well after midnight, that the crowds and the clouds clear up, and magic comes alive.
In a city like Prague, which is Europe’s fifth most-visited city, one would expect spiked-up prices and expensive experiences. But the little-known truth is that the best views of the famed 100 spires (the count has now gone up close to 1,000, I hear) and the most memorable experiences in the city can be enjoyed without spending a single rupee (or koruna, if you may).
So here’s our guide to other such hidden gems that will add to your unique Prague experience and are completely free:
The Lennon Wall
Although he has never visited the city, Beatles star John Lennon and his spirit stays alive in Prague. It was shortly after Lennon’s death that his face along with the lyrics of a famous Beatles song appeared on a wall in one of the many quaint streets here. Although it has been whitewashed many a time following this, the wall kept getting painted over and over again with graffiti and political messages.
To this day, the wall stands as a sign of rebellion against Communist oppression (which had also banned Western pop music then) and a celebration of freedom of expression. It is not surprising that the Czechs identify with Lennon’s pacifist ways. The Velvet Revolution that brought three-fourth of the Czechoslovakian population to the streets in 1989, and ended 41 years of the authoritarian Communist rule here, was a rather peaceful protest. And, guess what, you, too, can make your mark on this progressive and evocative work of street art for free.
Stroll through Vyšehrad
For some of the best aerial views of Prague, head to what is, perhaps, one of the best-kept secrets of the city – the Vyšehrad fortress. The erstwhile seat of the King of Bohemia, Vyšehrad is an indispensable part of the Prague skyline. Legend has it that it was here that Bohemian Princess Libuse got the prophecy that the city of Prague will be founded nearby.
The fort, the grounds of which is free to enter, also hosts the magnificent neo-Gothic Church of St Peter and St Paul, and Slavin, a cemetery that houses the remains of some of the most notable Czech creative minds. One can also visit the oldest known building in Prague, the Rotunda of St Martin, at Vyšehrad. If you have the time, walk down from Vyšehrad, along the promenade alongside the Vltava River, to reach the Bridge of Legions that connects the Old Town to the Lesser Town.
Situated right in the centre of the city, Wallenstein Garden is believed to be the first palace garden to have been built in Prague. It belongs to the Wallenstein Palace, which is the present seat of the Senate of the Czech Republic. Open during the months from April to October, this garden also plays host to many free concerts and performances.
The most impressive feature of the garden is the Sala Terrena, an open space with three gigantic arches, the walls of which are decorated by frescoes and stuccoes. Try spotting Apollo, Hercules, Adonis and Venus from among the tall, lean statues of Greek gods and heroes that line the length of the garden. Most of these are copies of the works of famous Dutch artist Adrian de Vries, which were looted by the Swedish as war booty in the Thirty Years’ War. In contrast to all the primness of the garden stands a unique wall of artificial stalactites or dripstones, among which hide snakes, owls and monsters. And, once you are tired of these artificial and mythical creatures that inhabit the garden, walk to the adjoining aviary and watch some exotic birds in action.
The Petrin Hill
The first time I visited Petrin was by accident. In a city like Prague, which is full of small hilltop gardens, it was an evening walk turned too long that led me to the discovery. But, trust me, Petrin Hill is not that hard to spot. Come to any of the many viewpoints in the city that offers you a good look at the skyline, and look for what looks like a replica of the Eiffel Tower. That is the Petrin Lookout Tower and the 318-metre-high hill that it stands on is where you need to head to.
The climb up the hill is a bit steep and can take anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour, but the walk is pleasant with ample clearings to take rest and wooded areas to explore.
The hill also offers many viewpoints to capture some picture-perfect frames of Prague. Atop the hill are a number of attractions, the main being the 60-metre-tall Petrin Tower itself (modelled after, yes you guessed it, the Eiffel Tower), followed by a mirror maze, an observatory, a church and a rose garden.
To climb the 299 steps of the tower and get a better view of the city (and on clear days even a good bit of the countryside beyond Prague), you need to buy a ticket. But the walk up the hill is totally free and worth the time and energy spent.
Prague, with its cobblestone streets and vintage architecture, is a city that is easy to fall in love with. With an extremely affordable exchange rate, it is also one of the cheapest European cities to visit for Indians. And, it is one of those crazy places in the world where beer is actually cheaper than water. Now, if all this doesn’t make you want to visit Prague, I don’t know what will!