Squeezed between Prague Castle and the River Vltava, the district of Mala Strana is a bit of a revelation. Often referred to as the Lesser Town, this beautiful area is one of the most historic in Prague, and after the Old Town and Prague Castle it’s refreshingly light on mass tourism. Lovely winding cobbled streets, pleasant little courtyards, 16th century buildings, Baroque churches, riverside parks and interesting museums make it an area worth slow exploration. There are also good restaurants and microbreweries serving up some interesting variations on traditional Czech beer.
Compared to other central areas of the city, Mala Strana feels more peaceful and a little calmer. After the tourist hoards mobbing the castle it came as a pleasant change of pace. I wandered down the hill leading away from the castle and found myself next to the Charles Bridge. There was a street market selling large hunks of roasted pork and giant sausages with horseradish sauce, an enormously popular ‘snack’ amongst Czechs and tourists alike. I had a snack and a beer before plunging into the surrounding streets.
In Kampa Park I came across some of sculptor David Cerny’s weird and wonderful ‘babies’. These large bronze sculptures of crawling people with bizarre heads are a destination in their own right, obvious by the parts of the sculptures that have been made shiny by the rubbing of thousands of people. Next door to the ‘babies’ though is the Kampa Museum, an excellent modern art gallery housed in an old mill. There were two fascinating exhibitions of Czech artists Frantisek Kupka and Jaroslav Paur, neither of whose work I’d seen before.
After an hour of appreciating art, I hit the streets again and spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering Mala Strana’s alleyways. It’s not a very big area, but it’s easy to feel a little lost at times in the narrow lanes. The area dates from the 13th century, when it was settled by merchants and craftsmen who serviced the royals and nobility up the hill in the castle. In later centuries aristocratic families built magnificent palaces and gardens in the area, some of which you can still visit today.
A quirk of the area’s houses is that many still retain their original ‘numbering’. Before actual numbers were introduced, houses had symbols carved or painted above their doorways. A rising sun, three fiddles, a blue fox or a lion rampant. It’s interesting to just wander around spotting them. The best part of all this, was the fact that there were no tour groups to be seen. That is a rarity in central Prague.
Before leaving Mala Strana, one final thing I had to do on my way back to the Old Town was to visit the John Lennon wall. This is almost as bizarre as David Cerny’s ‘babies’, although it at least has an interesting back story. Today, it’s largely a wall of graffiti, some related to the Beatles and John Lennon, and is a prime backdrop for selfies. The Lennon Wall started in 1980, just after his death. Someone, presumably in the dead of night, painted a picture of Lennon on the wall – an anti-Che Guevara from Liverpool.
It soon became a symbol of opposition to the communist regime, and although it was painted over again and again, new graffiti would reappear. I watched people posing for photos; listened to some Beatles tunes played by a busker; and then retired to the nearby John Lennon Pub for a well deserved pint of pivo. After visiting the crowded castle, I very nearly didn’t bother wandering around Mala Strana. I’m glad that I did. In touristy Prague, the area retains a sense of timelessness.