PRAGUE—The Magic Kingdom of Europe


By Roy Heale

 Whether you arrive by train, car or plane, as you draw near to this city you will notice the skyline is capped by steeples, spires and turrets rather than being dominated by high-rise buildings. You might think you’ve arrived at the Magic Kingdom but in fact you’re in Prague–the jewel in the crown at the centre of Europe.

 With over one thousand years of history and architecture encompassing Romanesque rotundas, Gothic cathedrals, Baroque and renaissance palaces, art nouveau, neo-classical, cubist and functionalist houses and contemporary structures this truly is a fantasy land that’s here in the real world. Spared from the devastation of bombs during Europe’s two world wars, Prague is a blend of culture and architecture from many periods in history which rarely can be found all in one city. Strolling along the cobbled streets, absorbing the sights and relaxing in the tranquility is a remarkable change of pace for any vacationer.

 The capital city of the Czech Republic, Prague is comprised of five old towns nestled amongst undulating hills and sitting astride the river Vltava occupying approximately 500 square kilometres. Stunning panoramic views from the hilltops are complemented by the Vltava’s islands and river banks making the perfect setting for this city’s historic magnificence.

 The city’s roots of the five old towns still define its neighbourhoods today. Atop a hill on the west bank, is Hradcany, the ‘Castle District’. Below, is Mala Strana the 13th century ‘Lesser Quarter’, and close by, Petrin Hill offers fine panoramic views overlooking the city. On the other bank of the river, connected by Prague’s many bridges, including the famous Charles Bridge, is Staré Mesto, or ‘Old Town’, where Old Town Square offers many attractions. Adjacent is the 14th century Nové Mesto, or ‘New Town’ which includes the infamous Wenceslas Square. The fifth sector is the Jewish Quarter known as ‘Josefov’. Each with distinct character and architecture these communities afford a fascinating journey back in time with attractions, museums, galleries and scenery to occupy days of sightseeing and intrigue.

With a resident population of just under one million Prague has a thriving GLBT community which would more likely be found in a city several times its size. Perhaps this is due to the central European location and close proximity to other major European cities–Prague is approximately 300 kms from Vienna, Berlin and Bratislava plus Warsaw, Budapest and Copenhagen are only a day’s drive away–and the vast tourist population which now visits Prague throughout the entire year and not just during the summer months.

More than fifty gay businesses which include a diverse range of bars, accommodations, pubs, nightclubs, restaurants, cafes, spas, shops, sex clubs, movie theatres and more, are spread out equally amongst the five districts making the gay community a very integral part of the entire city.

The Czech Republic has very liberal, gay-friendly laws and same-sex domestic partnerships have been legal since May of 2006. However, throughout Europe the sexual liberation of the gay community is apparent in the bars and clubs where sexual acts are more public and the sex trade is more prevalent than we are used to in North America. Be prepared for the handsome young man that smiles at you from across the bar, he might be attracted by your good looks and great body, but it’s more likely he spotted the bulge in your wallet. Whichever is the case, you are certain to enjoy the diversity and choices that Prague’s gay business community has to offer. From cosy piano bars to trendy dance clubs and everything in between, the gay traveler will find plenty to make for a perfect vacation in the gay heart of Europe.

Prague Castle is the premier tourist attraction, situated high on a hill with spectacular views of the whole city. It is easy to spend a whole day visiting the various ancient structures or wandering through the magnificent, world famous gardens. This is the largest medieval castle complex in Europe and the ancient seat of Czech kings throughout the ages. The first known building on this site was erected in the 9th century. In the 12th century this was replaced by a Romanesque palace, and in the 14th century, under the reign of Charles IV, it was rebuilt in the Gothic style. A further reconstruction of the Royal Palace then took place under the Jagellons at the end of the 15th century. The builder, Benedikt Rejt, also added the now famous Vladislav Hall. After World War I, the interior and gardens of Prague Castle were renovated by the architect J. Plecnik.. Today, Prague Castle is the seat of the President of the Czech Republic and serves as the historical and political centre for both the city and state. The Castle and Gardens are open daily for tourists year round and the changing of the guards ceremony takes place hourly. This is a must visit for a real understanding of Prague’s historic significance in Europe.

Step into the Old Town Square in Prague and journey back in time, six or seven hundred years. As you stand in awe, the dramatic history of Prague surrounds you. This square (Staromestske Namesti) with it’s ancient buildings and magnificent churches, is one of the most beautiful historical sights in Europe. Dating back to the late 12th century, it started life as the central marketplace for Prague. Over the next few centuries, many buildings of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles were erected around the market, each bringing with them stories of wealthy merchants and their lives. Today the square is skirted with sidewalk cafes providing the opportunity to sit with a cocktail in hand and absorb the magnificence. Here you will find the famous Astronomical Clock mounted on the side of the Old Town Hall. Join the crowd in front of the clock to observe the procession of the Twelve Apostles–on the hour, every hour, a small trap door opens and Christ marches out ahead of his disciples, while the skeleton of death tolls the bell to a defiant statue of a Turk. This will prove to be one of the many Prague magical moments in time.

 Additionally in the Old Town is The Municipal House Concert Hall & Exhibition Centre which is Prague’s most prominent Art Nouveau building. Situated on the site of the former Royal Court Palace, this impressive building is a popular attraction, with visitors drawn in by the art nouveau gold trimmings, stained glass windows and sculptures, as well as the café, French restaurant and regular exhibitions and classical concerts.

Although the attractions in Prague are too numerous to mention in one story, the Charles Bridge, the Museum of Communism, Old Town Square, Dancing House and the National Theatre are also worthy of every tourist’s agenda. Some unusual attractions can be found in The New Town including the Grand Hotel Europa whose Art Nouveau Café is known as the Titanic Café. When the Titanic’s architect was visiting this café it inspired him to create a replica on board the actual Titanic and now this has become an important part of maritime history. This Hotel was also used as one of the sets for Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movie.

Much of the gay life in the Czech Republic is centered around Prague but the surrounding countryside is well worth visiting. This country is renowned for beautiful scenery, meandering rivers, small towns and centuries old castles and you won’t be disappointed if you venture outside of the city.

 There are several organised day trips into the country or you can simply rent a car and explore for yourself what the Czech Republic has to offer. Nearby fourteenth century Karlstejn Castle, thirteenth century Krivoklat Castle and Loket Castle are just a few of the ancient monuments which are available for exploration.

Emperor Josef II founded the town of Terezin in the late 18th century. It is an outstanding example of a military fort in the style of Classicist architecture. The Terezin Memorial is a tribute to the victims of Nazism and the Holocaust with the Ghetto Museum, cemeteries and other mementoes of modern European history.

The Karlovy Vary region of healing springs and health spas is renowned all over Europe for the effectiveness of their spa treatments. You might want to indulge and experience for yourself the rejuvenating mineral springs.

Whatever you choose for an excursion and change of pace you will feel like you are creating your very own fairy tale as you experience the local Czech charm.

Staying gay in Prague offers several different options in the heart of the city and surrounding neighbourhoods. There is an excellent inexpensive subway and tram system which allows you to stay anywhere and always be close to wherever you are going. Several choices are gay or gay friendly and in the central areas Guesthouse Arco, Toucan Apartments, Ron’s Rainbow Guest House and Old Town Apartments are all gay owned. A short subway ride will take you to the highly recommended new, exclusively gay Guesthouse Nouvum Garden Bed and Breakfast with cosy modern rooms, cocktail bar and spa facility. Or you can also take the subway to the gay Villa Mansland where the Villa’s staff will be happy to entertain you during your stay in the cocktail lounge or in the beautiful gardens.

 Whatever style of accommodation or price range you may be seeking, gay Prague has a variety of choices to offer at reasonable rates compared to some of Europe’s other major cities.

Since all of Europe’s low-cost airlines are now flying into Prague the gay tourist has been quick to follow and this city truly has become the heart of Europe’s gay community for both quick get-aways and extended vacations. If you are planning a visit to this fairy tale magical kingdom then be sure to plan early and make your reservations well in advance of your holidays.

Following in a tradition that dates back centuries, you are sure to be treated like royalty–or at least a queen– in Prague.

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