Prague on the rise Vibrant Prague rivals Paris, Venice as Europe’s most beautiful city

A carriage driver crosses the grand main square of the Old Town district.

PRAGUE — The shell craters stand out in low relief, small blemishes in the grand, dark edifice of this city’s national museum.

They are a reminder of the grim times, when the Prague Spring protests of 1968 were quashed by Soviet Union tanks and blood painted the streets below.

Today, they seem relics of a distant era. Rivaling Paris and Venice as the most beautiful city of Europe, Prague, freed of Soviet shackles in 1990, has made a quantum leap to (relative) prosperity in little more than 20 years.

Although its lagging per capita income still prevents the nation from bearing the euro as its legal tender, and such opulent shopping signposts as Prada and Dior can be misleading, signs of vitality are apparent everywhere: in cafes, galleries, shops and along the serpentine sweep of the Vltava river, crossed by 18 elegant bridges.

Chief among them is the renowned Karluv Most (Charles Bridge), festooned with 30 striking statues that seem decorous on a sunny day and ominous on a dreary one. Erected in 1357, it was the city’s only bridge for five centuries.

All in all, the tableau would win the approval of Prague’s most famous literary son, Franz Kafka, though he’d likely be appalled at the invasions of tourist hordes, not to mention the infections of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and, yes, even Hooters, that compete with the graceful Old World architecture that is the city’s trademark.

Tourists have showered Prague with cash, helping restore the glory of its heyday as, variously, capital of the Holy Roman Empire and centerpiece of the Habsburg dynasty. Not even 2002’s extraordinary flood, the worst in 200 years, did much to slow the renovations.

This intensely romantic Central European metropolis of 1.3 million is now a polished gem, somehow blending a millennium’s potpourri of architectural styles — Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Cubist, Art Nouveau, Renaissance — into a seamless panorama.

Where to begin? Wallenstein Palace? The Jewish Quarter (home to Europe’s oldest still-open synagogue and the city’s best jazz clubs)? St. Vitus Cathedral? The ornate Mala Strana (Little Quarter) and its Baroque St. Nicholas Church?

Most first-time visitors gravitate to the huge central square of Stare Mesto (Old Town), whose grandeur is breathtaking (even if it seems to have been conceived by Walt Disney). Nearby is the popular Black Light Theater, featuring an Asian-derived performance style enlivened by intricate illusion, mime and acrobatics, now a Prague specialty.

Just across the river, and offering a splendid overlook of the city, is Prazsky hrad (Prague Castle), the world’s largest ancient castle at seven football fields in size. It is here where the monarchs of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors and the presidents of the former Czechoslovakia and today’s Czech Republic had their offices. The Czech Crown Jewels also reside here.

For the time being, locals advise against visiting the aforementioned national museum, the Narodni Muzeum, as much of it is closed for extensive renovations.

While such websites as www.prague.net provide useful suggestions, the most fortuitous approach to seeing the sights is to take a local walking tour or simply wander. Get pleasantly lost in the maze of Old Town’s streets and you just may find yourself “transitioning” to Nove Mesto (New Town), which is not “new” at all, dating as it does to 1348.

It is this district that harbors a national landmark, the light-hearted U Fleku brewery and restaurant (11 Kremenocva), believed to be the world’s first brewpub (1499). Even the oompah music is more charming than corny.

Though you won’t find it at U Fleku, which serves its own dark elixir (Flekovsky Lezak), Czechs invented (1842) pilsner beer, and arguably the greatest of all lagers is the country’s still-thriving Pilsner Urquell. The nation’s No. 2 lager, Budweiser Budvar, was once locked in a long trademark dispute with American brewer Anheuser-Busch. But beer lovers worldwide know that Budweiser Budvar is to our familiar Bud what Dom Perignon is to Kool-Aid.

For those brews, try the much-favored literary tavern U Zlateho Tygra (17 Husova) in Old Town.

Czech cuisine is rather more varied than that of neighboring Germany, and if you had to pick one place in Prague to savor a meal, you could do much worse than Cafe Louvre (22 Narodni), across from the National Theater and sporting a fine view of the river.

Offering a view every bit as impressive as Prague Castle, and a favorite spot for locals, is Vysehrad, another castle complex. Built in the 10th century on a hill overlooking the Vltava, situated within the fortress’ high walls is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul and the amazing Vysehrad cemetery, resting place of many luminaries from Czech history, among them Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana, Karel Capek and Alphonse Mucha.

Local legend holds that Vysehrad was the location of the original settlement that evolved into Prague, though it remains a legend.

Far more concrete is the city’s (and the country’s) tumultuous political and religious history, marked by the protracted Protestant-Catholic strife of the 30 Years War (1618-48) and, by contrast, Prague being one of the few European capitals undamaged by World War II (the Czech Resistance struck an agreement with the Germans).

The city’s once large (120,000-plus) Jewish population was less fortunate, walled into a ghetto by Vatican fiat in the 1200s and later all but annihilated by the Nazis. Only an estimated 4,000 Jews remain in all of the Czech Republic today.

Not far from the city is Terezin, where one may tour the haunting Terezinstadt concentration camp, a sobering experience to say the least.

But Prague will not let you feel melancholy for long. It is a city vibrant and alive — inexpensive by the standards of most European capitals — with diversions aplenty and history around every corner.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.