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Forget the Watch, It's Prague

Transcending—and Savoring—Time on the River Vltava

by André Gayot

The city of Prague exudes an air of serenity
Prague exudes an air of serenity

Why do we love Prague? Of course, because it's a beautiful, romantic city that still looks like an 18th-century engraving recalling Mozart composing his Don Giovanni here. But there's more to it. Something impalpable that you cannot see and touch. I got a clue, one morning, when the apostles following the statue of death started their hourly rotation above Prague's famous Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, under the eyes of thousands of bewildered spectators; the show repeats every 60 minutes.

Astronomical Clock The Czech version of Manneken Pis at the Kafka Museum
Chronus plays his naughty game
every hour
The Czech version of Manneken Pis

On its Zodiac calendar, the clock tells us in different ways (in gothic or roman numerals) the time it is or we believe it is, with the merry-go-round of the colorful statues above the dials. For 500 years, the crowds have been fascinated by this representation of time. Eternity, infinity? Is time relative like everything else? Indeed, what helps us to share this Einsteinesque proposition is the special atmosphere of Prague. After the golden age of the reign of the Great Charles IV (Charlemagne, the grandfather of the European Union, who hired French architects to make Prague a European capital), this city that has known so many convulsions still exudes an air of serenity. Its soothing, accessible human dimension helps us enjoy its beauty without being submersed by its magnitude.

Charles Bridge invites to linger
Charles Bridge invites to linger

Maybe it slows the clock to follow, in all modesty, in the footsteps of the monarchs who for their coronation walked the Royal Route beginning at the Powder Tower next to the Municipal House in the lower quarters of the town. They call it "Nove Mesto," New Town. This appellation also helps us to feel younger, since the construction of the "new" city began in the 15th century.  The royal path winds its way up to Hradany where the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral is smack within the fortifications of Prague Castle. This single pilgrimage allows us, as we tread this antique itinerary, to admire some of Prague's highlights, along Celetna Street and into the Old Town (Staré Město). We stop at the Town Square to watch the astronomical clock on the beautiful town hall tower. Next, Týn Church and especially St. Nicholas Church are gems.  Karlova Street takes to you to Charles Bridge―the number one attraction of Prague over the river Vltava with its thirty statues and exuberant life. Mosteka Street climbs up the hill to the Matthias Gate opening onto Prague Castle and its riches.  Our 72-Hour Vacation in Prague will show you in all details more of the best of Prague.

Descending trough the apple orchards from the top of nearby Petrin Hill, embellished by a rose garden, and gazing at the peaceful scenery we return into this century, taking a break half way down at Nebozizek restaurant where they serve light lunches, salads and grilled mixed meats, and pike perch in a pleasant airy, clean setting.

In the city proper, the simple but well done food of Zahrada v Opere was a pleasant surprise.  Hardly visible, tucked in the back of the Prague State Opera house, it features a modern but subdued décor and a menu whose highlights include a poached foie gras served on pear purée, salmon tartare and beef carpaccio.

Another notable eatery, though not inspired by the Czech terroir, is Zinc Restaurant at Hilton Prague Old Town, an imposing modern structure―maybe a tad too glassy and metallic for this environment. An Asian chef proposes fusion cuisine with a chicken in a coconut and lemon grass sauce; a Panang duck curry re-visited: slow cooked, shredded leg in a coconut milk reduction; and an East-West dessert as well combining a caramelized pear tatin with a Mango sorbet.

Stop to smell a rose near Petrin Hill Magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral
Stop to smell a rose near Petrin Hill
Magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral

One may find debilitating a visit to the absurd world of Kafka, resuscitated in a small museum and preceded by two metallic gentlemen urinating—upon the command of a computer. Their wet performances incite more hilarity than reflexion on the absurdity of our world.

One will promptly recover one's appetite if sitting in for dinner at a table of Allegro, one of the top restaurants of central Europe.  In the handsome setting of the Four Seasons Hotel Prague, chef Andrea Accordi prepares (during asparagus season) a risotto that really transcends this old Italian favorite into a delightfully new gastronomical pleasure. The ingenuity of the Risotto Vialone Nano (ai Pestelli) with white asparagus and Parmesan cheese ice cream served with Mediterranean langoustines and red seaweed powder gains 16/20 on the Gayot rating scale.

Allegro at the the Four Seasons Hotel Prague
Delightful Allegro restaurant

Andrea has more of his creations to offer, like the royal pigeon baked in a cocotte on the bone, with a vegetable casserole scented with pesto, deep fried panissa (chickpea cakes), the leg caramelized with rosemary, Sorana beans and young broad beans liver and long pepper ice cream—a complex and successful dish reminiscent of the Pigeon André Malraux at famous Lasserre of Paris. Among the antipasti (Andrea is Italian) we liked Andrea's sophisticated preparations, such as the blue fin tuna roulade of tartar with the deep fried zucchini flowers, and medallions of eggplant with mozzarella foam or the marinated Iberico pork neck cooked in sugar with crispy manioc in a lime and lemon grass jus. You can't pass on the Andrea's gelati including a flirt of vegetables with buffalo mozzarella ice cream.

To finish in style, watching the tranquil waters of the Vltava river flow and sipping a more than decent glass of a local Cabernet, such as Glos Collegium Vinitoru, seems to us another good solution to forgetting the sound of the ticking clock.end tag

(Updated: 09/14/09 SG)

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