Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017

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Czech it out

Prague's storybook setting is the perfect place for families

Prague is frequently described as a fairy tale destination. It is, after all, the sort of place where horse-drawn carriages clip clop along cobblestone streets edged with buildings so quaint they could have been designed by the Brothers Grimm. Yet that doesn’t mean that the Czech capital is a yawn-inducing Sleeping Beauty. On the country, it has much to offer energetic families. With experiences like these in store, your vacation story is bound to have a happy ending.

Castle capers

Kids and castles are like peanut butter and jelly: they’re just a classic combination. So Prague Castle (hrad.cz) is an obvious first stop. Dominating both the city’s skyline and its history, the millennium-old complex ticks all the boxes for young visitors. Exhibit A: its centrepiece, St. Vitus Cathedral. Even those who’d typically balk at seeing some antiquated church will swoon over the sanctuary’s gargoyles, gem-encrusted chapel, creepy crypt and climbable tower. Factor in the seven-hectare property’s other assets (think ramparts plus assorted regal residences) and it’s easy to see why this is Prague’s top attraction.

Kick off your visit at The Story of Prague Castle multimedia exhibit in the Old Royal Palace. It includes elaborate models, wow-worthy artifacts and interactive installations, along with displays on attention-grabbing topics like medieval feasts and education through the ages that set castle history in context. Before leaving the grounds, consider a stroll passed the crooked cottages of Golden Lane, one of which was once occupied by Franz Kafka. While kids won’t care about the existentialist poster boy, the dollhouse-like structures are themselves delightful.

Bridge with the most

Because Prague is bisected by a river, every “most” (that’s Czech for bridge) matters. In terms of historic significance and aesthetic appeal, though, none can match Karluv Most: Europe’s longest medieval bridge. When it was built in the 14th century, the 515-metre span supported by 16 graceful arches was hailed as an engineering marvel. Today, Karluv Most (aka the Charles Bridge) is still the quintessential way to cross the Vltava River. That’s no secret, of course, so you must expect crowds.

Parents with little tykes can avoid the worst of them by traversing the bridge early in the morning. Otherwise, simply embrace the bustle. In warm weather, the contingent of musicians, contortionists, caricaturists and souvenir peddlers grows as the day goes on. By nightfall, when the floodlit castle looms in the background, the bridge assumes a carnivalesque quality. Whenever you go, be sure to have your progeny search among the 30 statues lining it for the one of St. John Nepomuk, who was thrown to his death from the bridge in 1393. Rubbing it reputedly brings good luck. (FYI: leaving from Old Town, it's the eighth on the right, but you aren’t obliged to share this info with them straight away).

Cruise control

Spring through fall, anyone walking across the Charles Bridge can’t help noticing all the on-the-water action going on below. You see, the workaday Vltava also offers loads of recreational opportunities. Sightseeing boats ply the river, providing multi-lingual commentary of the attractions en route. If you’d rather pedal your own boat several waterfront operators can set you up with pedalos. Rowboats are available too. (They charge about $6 and $4 per hour respectively.)

Local families love taking the trip from Central Prague to suburban Troja. A winding, 75-minute journey with the Prague Steamboat Company (praguesteamboats.com) covers virtually the same scenery as a conventional cruise. Even better, it delivers you to the 60-hectare Prague Zoo (zoopraha.cz). The newly renovated complex, housing over 5000 animals, ranks among the continent’s best and, in terms of popularity, is second only to Prague Castle. Total cost for the boat ride and zoo admission? $16.25 adults, $9.50 for children over two.

Extended holidays

Prague is, perhaps, most beautiful at Christmas. However, you don’t have to arrive in December to feel the holiday vibe. Families can get into the spirit of things anytime by paying their respects to the “good king” of carol fame at Wenceslas Square or St. Vitus Cathedral (where his relics are held). As if that wasn’t enough, the city boasts two Baroque churches dedicated to Ol’ Saint Nick: including a showstopper in the Mala Strana district that features a gilded statue of the original Santa Claus as well as frescos depicting his life.

If your gang is more interested in the goodies Santa delivers; then head to Old Town’s Havelská Tržnice (Havels Market). Crammed with marionettes, wooden trains and other folksy toys, its open-air stalls evoke his North Pole workshop.

Afterwards, flip your mental calendar forward by continuing on to Old Town Square, where the most striking attraction is a 600-year old Astronomical Clock. Operating like a giant cuckoo clock, its intricately-carved figures pop out on the top of the hour from 9AM to 9PM, and the anticipation that ripples through the eagerly waiting throng makes every minute seem like a New Year’s Eve countdown.

Say shalom

A different layer of civic history comes to light in the old Jewish Quarter. While the neighbourhood was largely razed in the 19th century, the past lingers on at sites like the Staronova Synagogue (synagogue.cz): Europe’s oldest active synagogue and the former home of Rabbi Loew, creator of the mythical Golem. Built in 1270, its dark, sparsely-decorated interior invites quiet contemplation. And that’s a good thing considering Loew’s “creature” is still said to sleep in the synagogue’s attic. Reading Built by Angels, a picture book by New York dermatologist Mark Podwal, is a wonderful way to prep small fry for a visit there.

Little, admittedly, can prepare youngsters for the quarter’s other major site — the Jewish Museum (jewishmuseum.cz) — so bring Kleenex and brace yourself for some tough questions. The museum displays its world-class collection in a series of restored buildings, the most poignant being the Pinkas Synagogue. The main floor walls of its Holocaust Memorial are inscribed with the names of 77,297 Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis, and an upper gallery exhibits drawings children at the Terezin “transit” camp made before being deported to Auschwitz.

Rickety architecture

Having emerged from World War II pretty much intact, Prague has an encyclopaedic array of architectural styles. Indeed, every important pre-war period is represented – and your observant offspring can often spot several within a single building. Take St. Vitus Cathedral: nearly six centuries in the making, it’s a magical mash-up of Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Neo-Gothic elements.

Budding architecture buffs whose tastes are more modern are welcome to poke around inside a pair of early-20th century icons: the Municipal House (obecnidum.cz), an Art Nouveau confection that, appropriately, contains a sweet café, and the House of the Black Madonna (ngprague.cz), a renowned Cubist construction that contains a themed museum.

Contemporary structures are equally impressive, and the remarkable range inevitably draws stares (or fits of giggles). Frank Gehry’s undulating Dancing House (dubbed “Drunken House” by some detractors) and the Stanice Strizkov metro station (picture a giant glass fish) are two examples. The 216-metre Zizkov Television Tower, which resembles a rocket dotted with metal babies, is another case in point.

Rock me Amadeus

Mozart, believing he was unappreciated by his fellow Austrians, fled to Prague in 1787 and promptly fell in love. The feeling was mutual and, since Praguers are still mad for Mozart, you shouldn’t leave without hearing his music. How to best go about it, though, depends on your brood’s age and level of interest. Teens might be ready for a full-on night at the opera at the gorgeous Estates Theatre (estatestheatre.cz), where the maestro himself conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni.

Tweens, conversely, would probably prefer one of those widely-advertised “best of” concerts. Their tourist-to-local ratio is clearly higher. However, the ticket prices are lower (say, $20 compared to the $30-$70 range), and the shows are shorter. Most, moreover, are staged in historic venues; hence there’s plenty to look at if they eventually tune out. Alternately, you can get your fix with some strings attached at the National Marionette Theatre (mozart.cz). Performances aren’t aimed at preschoolers (its version of Don Giovanni runs for two hours … in Italian). Nevertheless, puppetry does make the experience more accessible. Tickets are $32 for adults, $26.50 for children.

Adventuresome eating

At first glance, traditional Czech cuisine might not appear to be a natural choice for children. Pork knuckles, pickled sausages and sauerkraut don’t normally appeal to under-age palates. Nor does the other main menu item: Czech beer. (There’s a reason why natives call it liquid bread; the legendary libation is so ubiquitous it essentially counts as a food group.) With that said, kids find some old-school dishes strangely compelling. Fast food fans gravitate to deep-fried potato pancakes and rizek (a variation on the schnitzel theme) because they share a distant kinship with McDonald’s hash browns and nuggets.

Satisfying a sweet tooth is also easy. Like other members of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the Czech Republic is big on desserts. Ovocne knedliky (dumplings filled with plums or apricots), doughnuty kolace pastries, crêpe-style palacinky and pernik ginger cookies are particular favourites. Letting your crew ingest all that fat and sugar might understandably give parents cause for concern. But, on holiday, eating qualifies as cultural immersion.

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