Life is all about give and take, right? So when a friend came all the way up to London to cheer on my marathon efforts last week, it seemed only right that we flew out to Prague to repay the favour. What a chore!
Steeped in history, orange rooftops and a whole lot of charm, Prague is the capital city of the Czech Republic. And somewhere that I’ve wanted to visit for a really long time. Combine that, with a big city marathon and, in my opinion, you’ve got yourself a pretty perfect city break.
Our hotel was almost right on the River Vltava, so I followed it North towards the charismatic old town. Let’s start with some basics. The biggest thing you need to know about running in Prague, is the cobbles. They are everywhere, and you cannot get away from them. Don’t get me wrong, they look beautiful, but they move, they’re slippery and they’re basically a runners nightmare. Don’t say you’ve not been warned!
Every Saturday there is a market on the bank of the river selling everything from delicious smelling breads, to freshly cut flowers and from vegetables I’d never seen before to Czech beer. Definitely worth a visit.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, and also because I’d heard the views from the top are incredible, I crossed the river to head up Petrin Hill. With 600 feet of elevation in about half a mile, what better way to shake out my marathon legs, ey?
In addition to the cobbles, the other thing to be aware of when running, or even just walking around Prague, is the trams. They’re a really efficient and cheap way to travel around the city, but the don’t half move quickly.
With my back now to the river, there were some really pretty streets before I started the real climb up Petrin Hill with a humungous set of stairs. I’m writing this 3 days later and my legs still haven’t forgiven me!
The first memorable part of this section was coming face to face with this series of statues.
After a quick Wikepeadia search, I found that it’s a memorial to the victims of communism. The statues get progressively more decayed as they get further away from you and symbolise how political prisoners were affected by communism. In the 41 years following the end of world war two, 205,486 people were arrested, 170,938 were forced into exile, 4500 dies in prison and 327 were shot trying to escape.
The History of Prague
One of the best things we actually did over the long weekend was a WWII walking tour. I don’t know about you, but at school we learnt lots about occupied France, the London blitz and Auschwitz, but far less about the likely of Italy, Czech and other areas. Our tour guide was fantastic and I was absolutely captivated for the entire two hours. I swear school trips were never this engaging or informative! As a brief summary, after the Munich agreement/betrayal, where the leaders of the UK, France and Italy met and agreed that Adolf Hitler could legally take Czechoslovakia if he promised not to start war in Europe (that went well!), it was the first country to be occupied by the Nazi regime.
Fast forwarding through the next 6 years of occupation, including a great story about the only assassination of a high ranking Nazi official during the entire war, to when Germany finally surrendered on 7th May 1945. 1.5 million German soldiers poured into Prague in an attempt to escape the red army.
Prague played host to only one battle during WWII, and it was then, after the war had finished. With the Russians and Americans close, the Czechs started an uprising to take Prague back. Poorly armed by comparison to the Germans though, thousands lost their lives while much of the world celebrated freedom. As well as being the first occupied, they were the last to be liberated. The red army finally arrived two days later and were a symbol of hope. If you add that to the initial betrayal from the West, it’s maybe easier to understand why the country willingly voted in a communist government that didn’t fall until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Anyway, back to the running!
The Petrin Tower
When I finally made it to the top, the views were spectacular. An array of orange roof tops, dotted with the gothic spires of churches. To be honest, the picture doesn’t do it justice. At the top of the hill, there is also a tower inspired by the Eiffel Tower, but only one fifth of its size. Still, if you wanted to add a further 299 steps to your climb, I imagine the views would be even better still. There was also scurry of native red squirrels around this area, which is the first time I’ve seen one in years.
Next, I wove my way through the gardens to the castle. From the old town, the castle is an imposing sight across the river. It’s the world’s largest ancient castle and construction started in a mind blowing 870AD. As well as being a huge tourist attraction comprising of a multitude of buildings including churches, palaces, halls and towers (you can easily spend a whole day exploring) it now houses the president of the Czech Republic. You can tell this was an early morning run as the area in front is usually bustling with people.
I followed the castle stairs back towards the river. They have a real romantic feel, and oh, there’s the cobbles again!
The Charles Bridge
If you’re going to cross the river, the Charles Bridge is probably the most iconic way to do so. Its stone construction and multiple arches make it stand out from the rest. It’s also gated at each end by huge, gothic arches and has 30 statues along it’s length which give you plenty to look at.
The Old Town
From the Charles Bridge, I followed the maze of cobbled streets into the old town, the heart of the city. As you can imagine, during the day it’s packed with tourists, so if you’re planning on running, get there early. Otherwise there’s a strong probability you won’t be able to move, let alone run. It’s a great place to explore though. The architecture keeps you continually looking upwards, while the smell of cinnamon donuts fills the air.
Eventually I ended up in the old square, the beating heart of the old town. Even at this time it was bustling with people. Like many cities, Prague has a network of underground cellars and catacombs. Most of the eateries around the square make full use of them to create atmospheric underground bars and restaurants. Weirdly, you may notice that despite being below ground level, many have windows that have been bricked up. Once upon a time, these cellars used to be at ground level, but due to problems with flooding, residents in Prague gradually built up the level artificially by as much as 8m, burying the old street completely. Another random fact for you!
As the square was getting steadily busier, I decided I’d best keep moving. Turning the corner, I passed the famous astronomical clock. Its working mechanism is the oldest in the world, and has been keeping time for the last 600 plus years. If you’re lucky enough to see it chime on the hour, you’ll see the skeleton of death pop out.
While eating in the main square is more expensive, there are some great places slightly off the square. I can absolutely recommend the Grand Cafe Orient, on the second floor of The House of the Black Madonna, where I had a ‘little Czech cake’ in beautiful art deco surroundings. The building was also one of the bases of the resistance during WWII.
Return Along the River
To mix things up, I ran along the top of the river on the way back to the hotel. It’s a beautiful tree lined section interrupted only by bridges and the odd tram whizzing past. One thing to look out for are the small gold plaques imbedded in the cobble stones outside some of the houses. You can actually find them all over the city, particularly in the Jewish quarter, and with the exception of two, they are written entirely in Czech. Zavarazden traslates as ‘murdered’, and they mark every house where a Jewish citizen was taken during the second world war. In addition, you’ll find wreaths on the walls in every place that a Czech lost their life during the uprising and liberation of Prague in 1945. Like much of Europe, a poignant reminder of the cities history.
Whatever you are looking for in a city, Prague has it. It’s a charismatic, romantic, oldy worldy fairytale of a city, with a hugely rich history and some of the most beautiful architecture you’ll see anywhere. The beer is good, the people are friendly, and if you’ve never had ice cream in a cinnamon donut cone, have you even lived yet?
And in case you’re wondering, the marathon cheer duties went well. Despite the cobble stones, Jess ran her first sub 5 hour time, knocking a whopping 25 minutes off her previous PB. I think it’s safe to say that she would recommend Prague! Run Czech 2020, anyone?