This is an experience of Prague like no other. The capital of Bohemia needs no introduction as the most beautiful city in Central Europe, with plenty to delight the cultural traveller for a week or more. Yet many a façade screens halls and rooms and works of art of the highest interest which can scarcely ever be seen except by insiders. Other fine places are open to visitors but hard to get to. Gaining access to the inaccessible is a major strand of this tour.
Pursuing the private and straying off the beaten track will not be at the expense of the well-known sights, among which are some of the most fascinating buildings and artworks. But here participants are enabled to focus on the essentials and as far as possible to visit when crowds have subsided.
Prague enjoys an unequalled density of great architecture, from Romanesque to modern, but it is the fabric of the city as a whole rather than individual masterpieces which make it so special. The city has the advantage of a splendid site, a crescent of hills rising from one side of a majestic bend in the River Vltava with gently inclined terrain on the other bank. A carapace of red roofs, green domes and gilded spires spreads across the slopes and levels, sheltering marvellously unspoilt streets and alleys and magically picturesque squares.
Though the whole gamut of Czech art and architecture is viewed, the tour has an emphasis on the period from the 1870s to the 1920s. The spirit of national revival and the achievement of independence (in 1918) inspired a ferment of creativity among artists, writers and composers. A bewildering variety of styles drew on earlier Bohemian traditions, led Art Nouveau into highly innovatory directions and pioneered some radical and unique features at the dawn of modernism.
Another high point in Prague’s history was the fourteenth century, when Kings of Bohemia were also Holy Roman Emperors and the city became one of the largest in the western world. The Gothic cathedral rising from within the precincts of the hilltop Royal Castle is one of the many monuments of that golden age, and the exquisite panel paintings from this era, now excellently displayed in the Convent of St Agnes, are among the chief glories of the city.
Subordination within the Habsburg Empire from the sixteenth century curtailed Bohemia’s power but not its wealth or architectural achievements: some of the finest Renaissance buildings in Central Europe arose here. In the eighteenth century, some of the richest landowners of the Baroque age built palaces here.
In the city where Mozart had his most enthusiastic audiences and where Smetana and Dvořák reached fulfilment, there is still a rich musical life in a range of beautiful historic opera houses and concert halls. There will be the opportunity to attend performances.
The itinerary given here does not list by any means all that you see. Nor does it indicate all the slots for free time, which is necessarily a feature of a tour of such richness and variety.
Fly from London Heathrow to Prague at c. 9.45am (British Airways). After settling into the hotel, there is a first exploration of the ancient core of the city on the right bank of the Vltava. A dense maze of dazzlingly picturesque streets and alleys converges on Old Town Square, surely the prettiest urban space in Europe, with shimmeringly beautiful façades – mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau. Then a special visit to the Obecní dům (‘Municipal House’) to see the glorious suite of assembly rooms created 1904–12, a unique and very Czech mélange of murals and ornament.
Drive up to Prague Castle for a first visit to this extensive and fascinating hilltop citadel, residence of Dukes and Kings of Bohemia from the 10th century and now of the President. The Old Royal Palace rises from Romanesque through Gothic to Renaissance, the chief glory being the largest stone hall in Europe and its extraordinary vaulting. There follows privileged access to a wonderful sequence of halls not open to the public, dating from the 1570s to the 1930s (state occasions permitting). Visit the cathedral of St Vitus, a pioneering monument of High Gothic, richly embellished with chapels, tombs, altarpieces and stained glass. Return to the Castle District to see the delicately arcaded Belvedere in the Royal Gardens, the finest Renaissance building in Prague.
Continue the tour of the Old Town Visit the Church of St. James, a Gothic carcass encrusted with Baroque finery after a fire in 1689 and the Gothic Týn church, at the heart not only of Prague but also of Czech history. There follows the 13th-century Convent of St Agnes, where one of the world’s greatest collections of mediaeval painting is brilliantly installed. A walk in and around Wenceslas Square, threading through a succession of arcades, takes in some outstanding turn-of-the-century architecture and decoration and early modernist masterpieces.
See highlights of the New Town by coach. There is a special tour of the National Theatre (1869–83) to which all the leading Czech artists of the time contributed, and a visit to the Schwarzenberg Palace to see a new exhibition of the Czech and European Baroque. Visit the Veletržni (Trade Fair) Palace of 1928 which this year hosts a new exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first Czechoslovak Republic.
Walk across 14th-century Charles Bridge, the greatest such structure in Europe, wonderfully adorned with sculptures. In the Lesser Town visit St Nicholas, one of the finest of Baroque churches in Central Europe. Walk through a sequence of delightful gardens on the south slope, followed by a visit to the infrequently opened Wallenstein Palace, a rare example of a 1630s residence (now the Senate).
See the treasures south of the centre by coach, among them St John Nepomuk ‘on the Rock’, a little Baroque masterpiece (rarely accessible), the bizarre phenomenon of Cubist houses and the fortress of Vysehrad, rising high above the river and enclosing a cemetery with the graves of many great Czechs. There is a quick visit to the Prague City Museum to see the extraordinarily detailed model of the city made in the 1830s. A riverside country retreat, Villa Troja is a 17th-century Italianate mansion with a French formal garden.
Strahov Monastery has commanding views over Prague and two magnificent library halls, which by special arrangement we enter. Then walk down the hill, passing the formidable bulk of the Černín Palace and the delightful façade of the Loreto Church. driving to the airport for the flight to London Heathrow, c. 2.45pm.
Journalist and historian. He was a foreign correspondent for The Times throughout the 1980s and early 90s, covering central and eastern Europe. His books include Austrians: Tales from the Vienna Woods, Hitler’s Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Mystery, Balkan Hours and A History of the Habsburg Army (2014).
View excerpt from Richard Bassett’s lecture – ‘Austria’s Horatio Nelson: Admiral Tegetthoff and the Battle of Lissa (1866)’ (London Lecture Afternoon, October 2017).
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,970 or £2,770 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,510 or £3,310 without flights.
Air travel (economy class) on scheduled British Airways flights (aircraft: Airbus A320); private coach for airport transfers and excursions; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts and 4 dinners with wine; all admissions to museums; all tips for restaurant staff, drivers and guides; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer and Czech guide.
Hotel Paris, Prague is a 5-star hotel built in 1904 that retains the Art Nouveau theme throughout. Comfortable and elegant but not fussy with a good restaurant and café. Very well located in the Old Town close to Obecní dům (Municipal House). Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
There is quite a lot of walking, much of it on roughly paved streets, some on inclines. The tour would not be suitable for anyone with difficulties with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Fitness is essential.
Between 10 and 20 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'The privileged access and special visits enhanced this trip tremendously.'
'The lecturer was excellent – very informative.'
'It made great sense going on both Bohemia and Connoisseur's Prague as things fell into place more.'