- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

PRAGUE — From my window, I watched crowds of young Italian and Czech schoolboys scamper across the Charles Bridge, stopping to gaze at the sandstone sculptures, black with age, that adorn both sides of the pedestrian bridge joining Prague’s Old Town (Stare Mesto) with the Little or Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana).

It was from the bridge that St. John Nepomuk was thrown to his watery death in the 14th century by order of King Wenceslas IV for refusing to divulge what the queen had told him in confession. The legend claims that as John drowned, five stars appeared on the water; the five stars have become the symbol of the town’s patron saint. Another version of the saint’s death holds that he had displeased the king over the election of an abbot.

The bridge was commissioned by and named for Charles IV, the Holy Roman emperor who became the Czechs’ most famous king. Among many other institutions and buildings, Charles established the Carolinum, the first university in Central Europe, with reformer Jan Hus as its first Czech rector.

Four carriages could ride abreast across the bridge, but today, it is for pedestrians only — and for street musicians and hawkers of art, jewelry and souvenirs.

The world is crisscrossed with beautiful bridges, but surely two hotels with catbird-seat views of grand bridges are the Four Seasons in Budapest and Prague with their stunning views of the Chain Bridge over the Danube and the Charles Bridge over the Vltava (the Germans call it the Moldau) as it winds it way through the “city of a hundred spires.”

Prague is an exquisite jewel, barely damaged by World War II. First settled by Celtic tribes in 500 B.C., it is made up of five towns: the Old Town; the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov; the Little Quarter; the New Town; and Hradcany, the village around Prague Castle on the hill above the Little Quarter.

Four hundred years of Austrian Habsburg rule left Prague with breathtaking classical and art-nouveau buildings and an unsurpassed tradition of music. Mozart lived in the Little Quarter, virtually unchanged since the 18th century, and wrote numerous works for performances in the churches of Prague, where they are still performed.

There’s so much music in Prague that pamphlets daily inform pedestrians who is performing what, where and when. There are concerts at 3, 5, 7 and at 8:30 p.m. Some, such as the concerts in the royal palace, have become daily occurrences; others vary in time and place, but there are always plenty of choices. Most afternoon concerts last an hour.

I attended a lovely performance in the Spanish Synagogue, a glorious golden hall built in pseudo-Moorish style and embellished with stained glass. It was a wonderful backdrop for a concert of operatic and other favorites.

The Spanish Synagogue is one of five synagogues in Prague’s Jewish quarter in the Old Town. When the Nazis invaded and took over then-Czechoslovakia in 1938, the ghetto was preserved because Hitler intended to turn it into a museum dedicated to an extinct people. Today, the five synagogues and the old cemetery are visited as though they are indeed museums, but not as Hitler anticipated them.

The Jewish cemetery was founded in the late 15th century; for 300 years, it was the only burial ground permitted to Jews. There are about 12,000 gravestones, but it is estimated that about 100,000 people have been buried there — on top of one another up to 12 layers deep. The oldest tomb is that of Rabbi Avigdor Kara, dated 1439; the last burial took place in 1787.

My view of the bridge, the river with tour boats gliding by, the Little Quarter across the river and Prague Castle on the hill was mesmerizing.

Had it not been for the seductive attraction of Prague’s streets, monuments, churches and synagogues, I would have stayed happily in my room watching the sun play on the water.

The town is irresistible. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Four Seasons to Charles Bridge.

I crossed the river, and a tram carried me up Castle Hill. From there, it was just a short walk to the 12th-century Strahov Monastery with its fabulous Gothic library. During the communist era, all religious orders were banned, but the monastery has been given back to the monks and is a working monastery and museum.

The Royal Palace (now mainly modern offices), the Cathedral of St. Vitus (the patron saint of dancers and dogs), St. George’s Convent and the palaces that make up the Prague Castle complex are vast. Time did not permit a thorough visit, so I strolled down Golden Lane, where 17th-century goldsmiths practiced their trade, and saw the house at No. 22, where Franz Kafka stayed with his sister for a few months.

My guide and I stopped for a slice of apple strudel and a coffee on the way down the hill. Czech apple strudel differs from its Viennese counterpart in that the apples are chopped rather than sliced and the pasty is lighter. A superb treat.

We passed many of the lovely mansions of the Little Quarter, now occupied primarily by foreign embassies, and the Schwarzenberg Palace with its trompe l’oeil facade. The Renaissance palace appears to be made of pyramid-shaped three-dimensional stonework. The illusion is created by sgraffito patterns, designs created by incising the outer coating of glaze to reveal a ground of a different pattern on a flat wall.

Back across the river, Old Town Square is a splendid large public space flanked by two churches, a town hall and several beautiful palaces. Jan Hus’ statue is in the center of the square, where 27 Protestant leaders were executed in 1621 by order of the Catholic Church.

I was just in time to watch the 15th-century astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall Tower strike the hour and see the mechanical figures of 11 apostles and St. Paul make their round.

About a dozen wooden stalls sell Czech souvenirs near the Town Hall — marionettes seem to be the specialty of the town. The area is dense with shops selling Czech glass and porcelain, Russian nesting dolls and copies of Alfons Mucha posters. But caveat emptor. Many of the dozens of money changers in Prague are unscrupulous and charge exorbitant fees for changing dollars into koruna (crowns).

I wandered through the Old Town to admire the art-nouveau sculpture on the 19th-century buildings before returning to the hotel for a sumptuous dinner prepared by the Four Seasons’ talented young Italian chef.

Traditional Czech food is very similar to Austrian: breaded pork schnitzel, roast duck, broth with liver dumplings and palacinky (crepes).

At the Four Seasons, executive chef Vito Mollica uses the best local ingredients — such as milk-fed Bohemian lamb and dairy products — to prepare a sophisticated Italian menu that is outstanding. I enjoyed one of the best appetizers ever at dinner in Allegro, the dining room of the hotel: the heart of a sweet, roasted onion, filled with asparagus flan in a beurre blanc sauce and decorated with fresh green asparagus tips.

For a perfect contrast, I tried one of the hot dogs sold from a cart in Prague’s beautiful Old Town Square. Akin to Polish sausage rather than a traditional wiener, the sausage on its nice fresh bun was a deliciously satisfying meal costing the equivalent of $1. For a snack, try one of the grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, similar to Italian panini, served in many of the city’s cafes.

PRAGUE SPRING

The brief but celebrated Prague Spring of 1968, when for a moment the communists appeared to be on the run, has blossomed into a rich cultural scene since Czechoslavakia became a democracy 15 years ago; it became the Czech Republic in 1993, when Slovakia became independent.

Prague is a year-round festival for tourists, a city of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque and 19th-century palaces, gardens, museums and monuments, with medieval streets, music in almost every church, and flourishing theaters and opera. There’s also ample good food and drink, be it the famous Czech beer or some of the country’s fine white wines.

In Budapest, once the second city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Gresham Palace, open less than two years, is the city’s newest luxury hotel. It’s located on Roosevelt Ter (Square) facing the Chain Bridge, the first bridge across the Danube between Buda and Pest. Before 1849, the river could be crossed only by ferry or a pontoon bridge.

According to local legend, the lions guarding the bridge at either end have no tongues, an omission that drove the sculptor to drown himself in the Danube in shame.

The bridge was destroyed by the Germans during World War II but rebuilt in 1949. From my window and little balcony in the Gresham, I watched the traffic busily crossing from Pest to Buda and vice versa.

GRESHAMPALACE

The Four Seasons Gresham Palace is not new by any means. It was built in 1906 for the Gresham Life Assurance Co. of London, designed by a Hungarian architect who was inspired by the art-nouveau and Viennese Secessionist movements. The building emphasizes bright colors, fluid lines, nature themes and fantastical designs.

The Gresham Palace was badly damaged in the siege of Budapest in 1944 and had a checkered existence from then on: British and American diplomats used it after the war; it was nationalized and divided into small apartments in 1948; when Hungary became a democracy in 1989, it was taken over by the city; in 1998, it was acquired by Gresco Investments Ltd. and transformed into a luxury hotel.

The best Hungarian craftsmen and artists were hired to re-create the Gresham Palace’s original splendor. The result is an art-nouveau gem of stained glass (some of it the original), stonework, mosaics and ironwork, including the gorgeous restored wrought-iron peacock gates at the entrance. Half of the lovely hall tiles are original.

Everything in the hotel, from the carpets lining the hallways to the light fixtures and even the copper plaques on the elevators indicating the floors, is true to style. Contemporary Hungarian art blends gracefully with the early-20th-century aesthetic. In the suites and bedrooms, comfort is entirely contemporary.

The Gresham has its secrets too: The original cabaret in the Gresham was operated by a man who is said to have spied for the British secret service; a famous Hungarian actress was a longtime resident when part of the palace was apartments. The palace itself was named for Sir Thomas Gresham, the British 16th-century financier who founded the Royal Stock Exchange and coined Gresham’s Law: “Bad money drives out good.”

The hotel can arrange a visit to some of Budapest’s contemporary artists’ studios — with the opportunity to buy directly from the artists.

I first visited Budapest when the country was still loosely tied to the Soviet Union. Almost two decades have passed since then, and the city has undergone phenomenal change.

The wide avenues of Pest and narrow, cobbled lanes of Buda are still here, as are the hilltop Castle District with its royal castle (now a museum), the 14th-century Matthias Church (which once served as a Turkish mosque) and Fisherman’s Bastion (so-called because the fish market once was held there). Heroes Square, St. Stephen’s Basilica and the colorful city market have been restored, not changed, on the Pest side of the city.

FAMOUS FOR BATHS

The 19th-century buildings and arcades of Pest are still dark with the grime of centuries, and residents, especially those with arthritic complaints, still bathe in the health-giving spring water that made the city famous.

The art-nouveau Gellert thermal baths, at the foot of Gellert Hill on the Buda side, are visited by locals and tourists alike. Treatments include saltwater inhalation, mud packs, steam baths, and outdoor and indoor pools. The baths are municipally run, and patrons pay a set all-day fee. If you don’t stay all day, you get a refund upon leaving.

Despite all that has not changed, there is a liveliness to the city, especially in Pest, where the streets are lined with trendy shops — many selling the exquisite Hungarian Herend porcelain, and cafes, restaurants, hotels, bars, banks and ATMs.

The magnificent Hungarian State Opera House, built in neo-Italian Renaissance style in 1884, has been refurbished, and its grand staircase, auditorium, private meeting rooms and terrace once again glow with elegance and Old World charm.

The lovely riverside walk across the square from the Gresham is animated with strolling tourists, schoolchildren and hand-holding couples enjoying the view of Buda and the Danube bridges. Budapest’s Great Synagogue, the world’s second-largest synagogue, has been restored. Camille Saint-Saens and Franz Liszt once played the great organ here.

A museum around the corner houses exhibits commemorating the history of Hungarian and Transylvanian Jews; in the courtyard behind the synagogue is a metal weeping willow honoring the victims of the Holocaust.

What is particularly noticeable in today’s Budapest is the change in the culinary traditions of the city. Though Hungarian gulyas soup, chicken paprika, game and pastries are still readily available, food and wine have taken on international sophistication. Happily, Hungarian goose liver remains relatively inexpensive, ubiquitous and delicious.

The Four Seasons in both Budapest and Prague may well have the best kitchens in the two cities. Abdessattar Zitouni, a Tunisian with long experience with Four Seasons hotels in Montreal; Caracas, Venezuela; and Houston, among others, is the executive chef at the Gresham Palace.

A warm, talented man, Mr. Zitouni puts a new twist on traditional Hungarian dishes and also prepares wonderful contemporary Mediterranean food. He prepared a seven-course tasting meal for us and escorted us on a tour of the 19th-century Budapest Central Market, pointing out the best places to buy handicrafts on the second floor as well as goose foie gras, sausages, salami and paprika on the main floor.

GUNDEL

The venerable 19th-century Gundel restaurant, founded in 1894 and since 1991 the property of restaurateurs George Lang and Ronald Lauder, has been restored, refurbished and reopened to become once again one of Budapest’s most sought-after dining venues. The menu is based on traditional Hungarian cuisine, and the wine cellar boasts more than 100 wines from Hungarian vineyards.

While Czechoslovkia was known for its light, dry white wines, similar to Austrian gruner veltliner and Riesling, Hungary was known for robust red wines and sweet white tokay. Buda’s hills were covered with grapevines until the phylloxera plague destroyed them in the 19th century.

In the 15 years since the end of the communist regime, the quality of the wine has risen rapidly. Even the red wines have become more subtle.

LAKEBALATON

Our little group set out for a picnic and tasting at the winery of Istvan Jasdi at Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake, about 55 miles southwest of the capital. Accompanying a delicious array of typically Hungarian cold cuts, pickles and cheeses were nine terrific white wines, all elegant and well balanced, some made with chardonnay grapes, others with Riesling, pinot gris and local grapes.

“Everything had to be relearned,” Mr. Jasdi said as he brought out wines from the six acres he cultivates. “We have had only 15 years to learn about quality. The Soviets bought everything; they did not care about quality.”

After lunch, we visited the Tihany Benedictine Abbey, founded in 1055 on a small peninsula jutting out into Lake Balaton from the north shore. The abbey’s Latin charter contains words in Hungarian, making it the oldest documentation in the Magyar language. The abbey was destroyed in the 17th century and rebuilt in baroque style in the 18th century.

Back in Budapest, we dined on a Hungarian version of Thai curry in one of the city’s trendy restaurants.

Prague and Budapest are still capitals in Mitteleuropa, and the dollar goes considerably further than in Western Europe, but the cities are no longer quaint or unsophisticated. In the one big world where we all live, Prague and Budapest retain a unique charm that makes a visit special indeed.

• • •

There are no nonstop flights from Washington to Prague or Budapest. Foreign carriers have connecting flights from their European hubs, such as Austrian Airlines through Vienna — or nonstop flights on U.S. airlines through New York.

Four Seasons Hotel Prague, Veleslavinova 1098, Prague 1, Czech Republic 100 00; 420/221-427-000; fax, 420/221-426-666; visit www.fourseasons.com.

Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest, Roosevelt Ter 5-6, 1051 Budapest, Hungary; 36-1/268-6000; fax, 36-1/268-5000; visit www.fourseasons.com.

The Four Seasons hotels in both cities will arrange walking tours and guides on request. Check with hotels for special packages.

Gundel, Allatkerti Ut 2, 1146 Budapest, Hungary; 36-1/468-4040; fax, 36-1/363-4840 www.gundel.hu

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