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TRAVEL STORY

Best of Bohemia

Having busted out of a major poker tournament, Gambling’s Duncan Wilkie was left with plenty of free time to explore the historic city of Prague – here’s what he found

From cobblestones to clock towers, bistros to breweries and old-world charm to new-world decadence, Prague is a city that has something for even the most reticent of European explorers.

Whether your journey to the Czech capital is one concerned with cultural and architectural enlightenment or merely a means to consume your own bodyweight in pilsner and dance like a moron to pounding European techno, the ‘city of a hundred spires’ is the perfect place to jet off to for a long weekend this winter.

Situated on the historic Vltava river in central Bohemia, Prague has long been established as the political, cultural and economic centre of the Czech Republic. Indeed, its position as the Czech state’s most important city dates back over 1,100 years and, during the Gothic and Renaissance eras, Prague was also the seat of two Holy Roman Emperors and thus the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.

As such, a lot of the period architecture of the time is still in evidence today, with the Astronomical Clock in the city’s Old Town Square perhaps the most eye-catching reminder of Prague’s rich and varied heritage. Dating back to 1410, the clock is one of the oldest and most elaborate timepieces ever built and to this day remains one of Prague’s best-loved tourist attractions, with visitors gathering in the square on the hour, every hour, to witness its ‘Walk of the Apostles’ clockwork show.

Of course, the clock itself is not the only nod towards Prague’s former glories – in fact, the whole of the Old Town serves as a living, breathing monument to the traditional splendour of this historic city. Walking along the cobbled streets, visitors to Prague will find their various senses inundated with that sights, smells and sounds that hark back to the area’s vintage Eastern European charm.

With pastel-coloured cafés and bars providing a rich and striking contrast to the dark Gothic spires, Old Town provides an interesting collision between historic and modern. Würst and brezel (pretzel) vendors operate on the pavements outside chic gastro-pubs and the obligatory Starbucks outpost, while live performers play traditional Czech music just metres away from alternative cocktail bars serving all manner of hellish concoctions.

Certainly, just wandering around and taking it all in can consume the best part of a day in itself, so perhaps a better option is to take a quick tour of the area on the back of one of the many horse-drawn carriages that patrol the main square. While costing a few koruna, this is perhaps the best way to see the sights of Old Town without expending too much time or getting lost in the numerous winding alleys and backstreets that have proved the undoing of many a first-time tourist.

While in Old Town, it is essential that you take the walk over the picturesque Charles Bridge and enjoy its scenic views of the Vltava and the arts and crafts of the various traders that set up there during the day. Despite being a worthy sight in its own right, the bridge itself leads to another one of Prague’s most famous tourist attractions – the grandiose and vastly proportioned Prague Castle.

At a colossal 570m in length and 130m wide, Prague Castle is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as being the largest ancient castle anywhere in the world. The castle dates back as far as the 9th century, but has been rebuilt and added to numerous times since then, with the last major structural works being carried by Queen Maria Thereza in the second half of the 18th century.

The upshot of all that redevelopment is that the sprawling historical site now contains all manner of cathedrals, towers and other architectural curios and points of interest. A number of museums are incorporated into the castle grounds, with the National Gallery collection of Bohemian baroque and mannerism art proudly on display, as well as a traditional Toy Museum and a picture gallery of the castle itself.

In addition to all that, the castle is also the home of the Czech Crown Jewels – which are also well worth a look – but if all that historical sightseeing is starting to strain your frontal lobes, it’s probably time to start thinking about letting your hair down and exploring the city’s myriad bars, clubs and restaurants to get a proper taste of the extensive range of nightlife on offer throughout Prague.

Naturally, the Czech Republic – and Prague in particular – has long been synonymous with a high standard of beer, so your first point of call should be to hole up in one of the town’s numerous traditional bars or eateries for a sup of the local tipple. As well as the now world-famous exports Budvar and Staropramen, visitors should try the local favourite Pilsner Urquell as well as the Gambrinus and Bernard brews – the latter of which was recently voted Europe’s beer of the year.

With the average price of half a litre somewhere in the region of £1.20, it’s easy to get caught up in the novelty and let a quick drink turn into four or five – so before long investing in some hearty Czech grub will become more a necessity than a desire. Thankfully, traditional food is reasonably priced and readily available, with Czech staples like boiled dumplings (knedliky) with beef and sauce, meat goulash and fried cheese all affordable and filling options.

Particularly recommended for Czech food is Bredovský Dvůr, a popular restaurant just a short walk from Wenceslas Square, which should invariably be the next point of call on any serious night out in Prague. As the epicentre of Prague’s New Town, the square and surrounding area is home to some of the city’s most popular clubs, with the super-modern Duplex undoubtedly one of the coolest nights out in town.

If a bit of retro-chic is more your cup of tea, the nearby Lucerna Music Bar and Club is a fine place to catch live music during the week, and at weekends the bar transforms into Prague’s premier 1980s/90s themed nightclub. Although the venue is a million miles removed from the cutting-edge crowd that frequents Duplex, affordable drinks and a friendly, laid-back atmosphere make Lucerna a great fun alternative.

Of course, no round-up of any cosmopolitan European capital city would be complete without at least a cursory glance over the area’s casinos and gambling amenities – and thankfully Prague does not disappoint on this front, with a range of high-end venues scattered around Wenceslas Square and Old Town. One of the most popular of these, Casino Ambassador, sits right in the heart of the square at the hotel of the same name.

With a very liberal dress code and beginner-friendly sessions during the day, Casino Ambassador is a great place to learn about table games and poker in a welcoming and relaxed environment. Having recently been renovated, the facilities are all top-of-the-range and the casino is free to enter provided you hold a valid passport or ID card. However, for the more seasoned gambler, just two minutes walk away the Casino Palais Savari serves up a comprehensive range of slots, table games and poker in arguably the plushest setting anywhere in the city.

With all that just the tip of the iceberg of the many sights and attractions awaiting you, Prague really is the perfect city to lose yourself in for a few days this winter.

TRAVEL STORY ARCHIVE

City of light and love
Although there is never
6/2/2011
The Vegas of the Med
As a regular visitor
8/2/2011
Heading south
Got tickets for one
9/6/2010
Phoenix from the flames
Warsaw has risen from
10/5/2010
Melbourne bound
Poker travel agent and
24/3/2010
Best of Bohemia
Having busted out of
13/1/2010
Viva Sevilla!
Time for some culture
1/12/2009
Bier o’clock
Gambling editor Chris Lines
22/10/2009

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