I am 75 years old and a retired book professional with nearly forty years of book selling for publishers, as a retailer and for a book wholesaler. Most recently, I have been a volunteer at a regional writers’ association and written book reviews.
My wife and I completed a two week visit to five cities in Europe– Prague, Vienna, Venice, Florence, and Rome. The trip was based primarily on books that I read from 2006 to 2016. Here are the books that influenced our choice of meals, hotels and sights/sites. All of the hotels, restaurants and most of the sightseeing that I write about I have reviewed for TripAdvisor.com (you can look them up).
David Downing was mentioned in my Vienna post, as well as his six-book series featuring John Russell. Russell travels not only to Prague and Vienna but also to Prague. He was in the latter when Nazis invaded that country. The books are loosely called “The Station” series because each one is named after a train stop on Berlin’s subway system. The author’s descriptions of life in Berlin is harrowing to say the least. Citizens were afraid all the time of being arrested for no reason and sent to a “camp” from which there was little hope of returning home. Even if you were not Jewish. John Russell visited Prague in more than one book and helped pique my curiosity about the city.
Phillip Kerr has about a dozen books featuring Bernie Gunther. Of all of the books I have read by Mr. Kerr, Prague Fatale was the one that was primarily set in Prague. This story involves the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich head of the Nazi SS and third most powerful man in Nazi Germany behind Hitler and Himmler. The operation was carried out by members of the Czech Army in exile who were trained by the British. This group of seven men were parachuted into Czechoslovakia in late 1941 or early 1942. The plan was code named Operation Anthropoid. There was a theatrical movie called “Anthropoid” released in 2016. We visited several places that were featured in the book (see below) and movie.
Steve Berry in his book The Columbus Affair departs from his “Cotton Malone” series to investigate the story of Christopher Columbus. Along the twisted path, the story wanders from the State of Florida (United States), to Vienna (Austria), Prague (Czech Republic) and Jamaica. An interesting part of the story involves the lost treasures of the Second Temple stolen in 70 by Titus (see the Arch of Titus under my section about Rome mentioned previously). In Prague, the protagonist, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist fallen on hard times, is chased through sites in the Old Town Jewish Quarter of Prague.
Alan Furst writes cerebral spy thrillers. In Dark Star, Andre Szara is a Jewish, Polish born, journalist and part time spy. He hates the Germans and Russians which gets him into serious trouble. The time is the late 1930s. Andre is based in Paris but travels to Berlin, Poland, Prague and other European places. At the start of the final climactic scenes, Andre meets with his German handler in Prague and is offered a way out of the trouble in which he finds himself.
SITES and SIGHTS
Prague is an amazing city with a history that goes back more one thousand years. Before I started reading the four authors above, my interest in visiting the city was zero. All I knew about it was that it was somewhere in Central Europe. I never realized how important it was to the survival of Jews for hundreds of years. The City suffered very little bomb damage during WWII so it is more or less the way it has been for hundreds of years.
To maximize our three full days, I booked two private walking tours for just my wife and me. Each was three hours long. We began each day at 10:00 AM at our hotel. I booked these tours through this website: www.jewish-quarter-tour.com, which came highly rated from www.TripAdvisor.com. The fee for each guide was a total of 125 euros to which I added 25 euros as a gratuity. Cash was the medium of payment since they did not take credit cards.
The first day was a tour of the Jewish Quarter led by Anna Sion a well-educated graduate student studying Jewish history. Anna is personable, knowledgeable and speaks better English than I write. Under her guidance we visited several historical sites that included museums, synagogues and the Jewish Cemetery. The latter was featured in more than one of the books mentioned previously.
The graves are layered about 20 feet deep. As the cemetery fills up, more dirt is brought in and the gravestones are raised higher. They are now very close together. During WWII, the citizens of Prague laid the stones flat so it looked like a plaza and so the stones survived the Nazi occupation. When the war ended, the stones were turned upright again. There is a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter that dates back to 1270 but Jews were in Prague long before that year. When King Ferdinand kicked the Jews out of Spain in 1492 (Columbus’ year of discovery), many of the displaced Jews ended up in Prague.
The second day we met our guide Alice at our hotel. She took us by taxi to the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral complex overlooking the city. Many people walk up but for us senior citizens a taxi ride was better suited. The castle was started in the 10th Century making it one of the oldest sites of national government in Europe. We learned about Jan Hus, a Czech and a Protestant reformer, who predates Martin Luther by nearly a century. There was a music quartet playing outside of the entrance of the Cathedral that was featured in a Rick Steves PBS show on Prague. They were playing The Moldau by Smetana which is the Czech national song, akin to God Bless America. I have been aware of the music since my freshman year at Colby College in 1959. I was not aware of its significance to the Czechs.
The following photo shows part of St. Vitus Cathedral.
On our own, we took in the world famous Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square. It was a 10 minute walk from our hotel in Prague. This needs to be on your bucket list. The clock is over 500 years old and tells more than the time of day, the month, the phase of the moon. On the hour, it also has a parade of the 12 Apostles. Watching the watchers was as much fun as seeing the 12 Apostles. Just before the clock worked its magic, it began to rain. Bummer! The following is a photo of the Astronomical Clock.
From the Old Town Square, it is possible to join one of many City bus tours, which we did. We took a Martin Tour that I rated only 2 stars (out of five). It was touted as a two hour tour but lasted only 75 minutes. On the tour we passed by Wenceslas Square (yes the Wenceslas named in the Christmas carol). In 1918, the end of WWI was celebrated here. The Nazis announced their takeover of the country here in 1939. The victory of the Allies in WWII was celebrated here. Most recently, when independence was attained after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Czechs made merry here. There is a large statue of Wenceslas on horseback located there. It is one of the largest squares in Europe.
The bus tour also took us up to the Castle and past the Charles Bridge that was constructed about one thousand years ago. It is a pedestrian only bridge and leads to the Castle heights. The Moldau River now known as the Vltava (pronounced Voll-tava) divides the City of Prague. There are all kinds of boat trips available on the river.
We also passed the St. Cyril and St. Methodius Cathedral. This is the site of the final stand of the 7 Czech patriots who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich (see the book by Philip Kerr previously mentioned). There is a small museum there. Go pay your respects.
We stayed at the Myo Hotel Caruso, U Milosrdnych 2, Phone: +420774598866. It is located one block from the Moldau, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. The staff was helpful in arranging taxis and making dinner reservations/recommendations. The room was very nice, the beds were comfortable and the bathroom (WC) was en suite. A buffet breakfast was included in the price of approximately. US$100 (100 euros). It did have an elevator (lift) an important consideration if you travel with lots of heavy luggage.
Our first night in Prague, I had made a reservation by e-mail at Bila Krava, Rubeshova 83/10, Prague 120 00, Phone: 420-224-239-570 for dinner at 7 PM. It is a country French restaurant specializing in steaks from their own herd. Our dinner totaled US$52.00 (about 50 euros) including 2 filet steak dinners, salad, birthday dessert, soft drinks and tip. A bargain in any language.
At our hotel’s recommendation, the other two nights we dined at Pepe Nero, Bilkopva 134, an Italian restaurant two blocks from the hotel. The food was very good. The first night we had two different pasta dishes with bottled water. Total cost with a gratuity and dessert was about US$40.00 (36 euros). The second night we taught them about NY style pizzas. Also very inexpensive and good. They make an excellent tiramisu for dessert.
For lunch after our Jewish Quarter Tour, we ate at: Vkolkovne, V Kolkovne 910/8. It is across the street from the statue of Franz Kafka. My wife had a burger and I had Wiener schnitzel. We drank soft drinks. Our bill was US$32.00 (29 euros). Because the portions were so large, neither of us could finish our meal.
The day we went to Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock, we had lunch at Café Lippert, Old Town Square, Mikulashska 19/2. It is tucked into a corner of the Square so you need to look carefully for it. It does have outdoor seating although we chose to eat indoors since it was raining. My wife had chicken schnitzel and I had goulash. Again really huge portions. We saved room for apple strudel that was to die for. Total cost was about US$35.00 (32 euros) plus gratuity.
For the most part we walked. Occasionally we took taxis that were reasonably priced. To get from Prague to Vienna, we took a train, booked first class, worth the extra fee. The train at times ran at over 100 miles per hour. You did not realize you were going so fast. It took about four hours.