The Weekend Australian
3 July 2010
Cruising the Czech Republic's own Little Venice
by Kerrin O'Sullivan
If we are in Little Venice in the Czech Republic, can we safely assume that Big Venice is still in Italy? Why? Because Prague's Little Venice has all the charm of the Veneto, but in miniature.
It is the brochure from tourist information that lures us to a Little Venice cruise with its promise to view Prague "from the most unusual angles". We have explored the city from the usual angles, so how can we resist?
We join the tour by descending a polished wooden staircase from the quay to where a small motorised barge is moored under one of the sixteen arches of the 650 year-old Charles Bridge. My husband, who has an uncanny knack for stating the obvious, comments how much less crowded it is under the bridge, compared to on top.
Yet, having battled the tourist hordes crossing the bridge, the 31 gesticulating statues of saints, postcard-sellers and the odd pickpocket, I think I can see where he is coming from.
Upon boarding we accept a complimentary lager and, as we sit, a complimentary ice-cream, the combination of which makes for a novel touring experience in itself. As we coast away from the moorings on the Vltava River towards the Certovka Canal, the massive timber battens clamped to the bridge's stone pylons come into view. Designed to break the ice, they prevent the river from freezing over. Not since 1953 has the mighty Vltava, Prague's aptly named "wild river", been allowed to form ice. Only dog-eared postcards I find for sale in the Old Town attest to its glorious past when frozen over, as a winter playground for ice-skaters.
On the right bank we see the black roof and golden crown of the Czech National Theatre, one of the symbols of national identity, built from citizens' money contributed during the Revival, and famous for introducing works performed in the Czech language. The statue of the composer Smetana, best known for his symphonic poem Vltava - Die Moldau, surveys us from the shore.
On the Hradcany bank ancient red-roofed houses, hanging gardens and cobbled lanes ascend from the water's edge up to the walls of the imposing Prague Castle. Behind, the Gothic spire of St Vitus Cathedral soars. Aromas of goulash and garlic drift from the waterside restaurants.
"If you are rich, go there - very nice. If not so rich, don't go there," is the advice from our guide in a crisp Czech accent. We drift past the crimson umbrellas of Café Marnice, shaded by the lush green trees which occasionally drop pistachios onto its customers. Once a working mortuary, the café is popular with tourists but apparently less so with the more superstitious locals. "I hear the coffee is to die for," quips my husband, the newly self-appointed cruise comedian.
While distracted by the visual feast of Prague's panorama - the parapets, bridges, medieval towers and Baroque mansions - we have slipped into a canal known as the Devil's Stream (Certovka), so-called because a notoriously villainous old woman once lived beside it. Flowing between Mala Strana and the emerald oasis of Kampa Island, the canal was originally built as a defensive moat around the monastery. It is as if we have glided into the Middle Ages: rows of burgher's houses press together, a churning wooden mill wheel traverses the stream and ducks paddle by.
As we leave Little Venice to return to the wharf I am reminded of the area's Italian namesake, also replete with winding lanes, candelabra gas lamps and footbridges. While Prague's pretender emanates charm, even a sort of Venetian melancholy, Prague's Little Venice is actually just one canal.
Whatever unusual angle you view it from.
© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan