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The greatest success story of post-Communist Europe, Prague has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. The energy unleashed by the end of decades of repression during 1989’s bloodless “Velvet Revolution” doesn’t seem to have abated yet, though the infrastructure has markedly improved, making this the perfect time to visit the “City of a Hundred Spires.”
Given its location at the crossroads of west and east, it’s unsurprising that Prague has had a turbulent history. Much of its current architectural glory dates back to the 14th century, during the long reign of Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Moravia and Holy Roman Emperor, who established a university in the city and laid out the New Town. During the 15th century, Prague’s development was hampered by the Hussite Wars, a series of crusades launched by the Holy Roman Empire to subdue the fiercely independent Czech noblemen.
|Prague Art Nouveau|
The Czechs were eventually defeated in 1620 and Prague was ruled by the Hapsburg family for the next 300 years. Much of the Lesser Quarter, on the left bank of the Vltava, was built at this time, its appearance owing much to the Baroque tastes of the Austrian nobility.
With the creation of the modern Czechoslovak state in 1918, Prague was able to regain its status as a European capital (seceded to Vienna during the Hapsburg years.) Though it went on to be occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets, most of its finest buildings escaped World War II essentially intact, thus ensuring its future appeal. It contains one of the world's most pristine and varied collections of architecture, from Art Nouveau to Baroque, Renaissance, Cubist, Gothic, Neo Classical and ultra-modern.
In contrast to the preserved beauty of its appearance, Prague isn’t known, even now, for the refinement of its cuisine. It’s robustly Central European and fairly heavy, based on meat (usually pork or beef), sauerkraut, dumplings, potatoes and soup (as a starter). It is filling, however, and the game dishes and soups are brought off with true gusto.
Many of the good restaurants are quite small, so it’s best to reserve well ahead of time, as they tend to fill up quickly. Prices are relatively inexpensive by west European standards, although they soar as you approach Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) and Malo-stranske namesti, so if you're on a budget, eat outside the historical centre.
Czech beer, however, is famous world-wide. The best-known brands are Pilsner (Plzenske) and Budweiser (Budvar), but just as good are Radegast, Staropramen and Velkopopovicky Kozel. The favorite aperitif is Becherovka, a Czech-invented liqueur, potently herbal and touted as having medicinal qualities. Plum brandy (slivovice) is also popular.