We’ve only been in Prague for a few hours – but we’ve already received two warnings over our safety.
The cautions come not from the police, but our tour guide, Ron. “Don’t go up there,” he warns in a thick Czech accent, pointing to the murky brown attic of the Old New Synagogue, where the Golem, a supernatural creature, is reported to still lie. “You might not come back down.”
He proceeds to tell my friend Tina and I about the mysterious Maharal of Prague, who created an artificial human from mud and clay in the late 16th century to protect the Jewish community.
Ron then lowers his voice theatrically. “When the attic was renovated in 1883, no Golem was found. However, a recent legend tells of a Nazi agent climbing to the attic during the Second World War and trying to stab the Golem – but he died instead.”
We are then informed that the broken steps leading to the attic have been so designed to prevent any further “curious visitors”.
On that cheery note, we tour inside the synagogue itself, a grand 13th century Gothic building still used by the Jewish community today.
I am captivated by the rich stonework and antique furnishings and especially by an ornate chair to the right of the altar, which is cordoned off.
I start to head over and Ron emphatically tells me to stop.
He holds his finger up to caution me. “Don’t sit there, young lady. That was the Maharal’s chair – and legend has it that anyone who sits there will die.”
Feeling suitably spooked, I decide not to risk it.
We explore the Jewish quarter, Josefov, visiting the six synagogues in the city. Pinkas Synagogue proves to be an especially moving experience.
We walk around in silence, looking on the walls at the names of those who perished in the Holocaust.
Ron then takes us to the Old Jewish cemetery, the largest in Europe. I am astounded to see the crooked Gothic gravestones piled upon one other, jostling for space, and learn this is due to it being the only burial place for Prague Jews from the 15th to 18th centuries.
Exhausted from the day, we take a cab back to our hotel and I marvel at just how beautiful this city is. Boasting quaint cobbled streets and magnificent architecture, the pastel colours of Prague paint a pretty picture in the late afternoon sunshine. I am struck at how fairytale-like it all seems. Our driver, Tina, laughs, interjecting that it is nicknamed “The City of One Hundred Spires” for a reason.
The Intercontinental fits nicely into this theme. The grand hotel looks like a palace, all flags flying and gold embossed exterior. The interior is just as impressive, boasting a grand lobby and bar. Part of its appeal is that it is centrally located in Praha 1, near the Jewish Quarter and close to kosher restaurants. On our hunt for dinner, we end up in the Chabad milky restaurant Shelanum, a small and homey diner that smells wonderful to our famished noses.
The next day we head to Thierenstadt (Terezin), a Nazi transit camp where tens of thousands died from malnutrition and more than 150,000 people were held for months or years before being transported to other camps, including Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Our guide takes us through the Minor Fortress, describing the purpose of each room and area in the camp, using the building numbers that were originally used by the Nazis. Seeing the barracks with the original beds and furniture intact is an especially stirring experience. We enter another room, lined with sinks that have no plumbing. Our guide informs us this was to fool Red Cross inspectors into believing that people were humanely treated and had access to fresh water.
We visit a vast execution space near a moat, where gallows still swing. I stand there, but soon feel suffocated by the thick air, almost hearing the cries of the victims, the ringing gunshots and the cruel laughter of the guards.
We are glad to leave and make our way to the Major Fortress, which houses the Museum of the Ghetto. The highlight is the artwork from the thousands of children held at Thierenstadt. Many were sent on to their death at Auschwitz, but some survived to tell their story. The exhibits are effective in chronicling the story of the camp, and many of the visitors that day are deeply moved.
The last stop on our tour is to Prague Castle, which according to the Guinness Book of Records is the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000sqm, or more than 18 acres.
Our guide brings the majestic castle to life by exploring the turbulent history surrounding the various buildings, and their royal and presidential connections. We then stroll down Golden Lane, a fascinating ancient street dating from the 15th Century.
It’s interesting to learn this was where fine artisans lived and worked, fulfilling the requirements of the residents of the castle.
We cannot leave Prague without crossing the famous Charles Bridge, a 14th century stone bridge linking the two sides of Prague. Lit up at night, the views of the Vltava River, the city, the towers and sculptures in the bridge are simply amazing. Our day is rounded off with a sumptuous dinner at the Chabad Grill Restaurant, which offers sumptuous cuisine at an affordable price.
I opt for the schnitzel, which hand on heart is the best I’ve ever tasted (sorry, mum!). Full to the brim, we while away the evening by exploring the Old Town Square, with its enchanting Astronomical Clock and little souvenir shops, before ending up in the vibrant Wenceslas Square.
Naomi stayed at The Intercontinental Prague for three nights, priced £351 pp, hotel and flight included, via lastminute.com
Wittmann Tours: www.wittmann-tours.com/tours
Free Original Prague Castle Walking Tour: http://free-prague-tours.com
Shelanu restaurant: http://shelanu.cz