An American family takes on Prague’s castles and history

by Laura Stanley
"Are there castles you could show me?" my 11-year-old daughter, Sonia, asked her Czech second cousin. It was two months before our trip to Prague, and already the e-mails were pinging daily.

"Yes, yes," 12-year-old Antonia replied, "plenty." She and her sister, Cecelia, 9, were keen to introduce Sonia to their Prague, which includes the zoo, the Sarka nature preserve, paddleboats on the Vltava River, and the botanic garden's tropical greenhouse. "If you draw a butterfly," Antonia wrote, "you can go for free!"

To be sure, these spots wouldn't ordinarily be at the top of an adult's must-see list—not, at least, in one of the most exquisite and richly historic cities in Central Europe. But, my husband, Charles, and I reasoned, we had nine days and we'd be staying in the thick of things, at the Pension Dientzenhofer, a Baroque town house in the cobble-stoned Mala Strana, or Little Quarter. Besides, we were making the trip to reunite with Antonia and Cecelia and their parents, my cousin Tom Zahn, who, like me, grew up in suburban New Jersey, and his Czech wife, Marie, whom he met in Prague after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when he was working as a storyteller—and boarding at her parents' house. The two now run P.A.T.H. Finders International, a firm specializing in tours of the capital and visits to ancestral villages for clans of Central European descent. What better guides could we have?

We started with a jaunt through the city center. Stretching from Prague Castle, on its high hill, eastward to the crowded streets of Stare Mesto (Old Town), Prague and its eight centuries of fanciful buildings gave Sonia her fix of fairy-tale architecture. The river runs through it all, and you can cross the Vltava via the 15th-century Charles Bridge—if you can wade past the buskers and souvenir sellers. To avoid the throngs, Tom and Marie devised a strategy: hit the popular sites just as they open, and spend low-key afternoons in parks and gardens. Antonia's list was spot-on; here's what else we discovered.

Marionette shops
You'll meet some wonderful Czech characters—such as the gray-green pond troll Vodnik, who keeps the souls of the drowned in jars. Sonia opted instead for a fresh-faced maiden in a lacy Moravian folk dress.

14th-century house signs
Back before everybody could read, symbols, rather than street addresses, were painted or carved above people's front doors. In Mala Strana, we spied a green stag, golden fiddles, a white swan, and a pretzel.

Petrin Hill
The grassy slopes overlooking the action are perfect for a Czech picnic of cheese, sausage, and black bread. You can pick wild cherries and ride a funicular to a miniature Victorian castle with a fun-house hall of mirrors. Petrin Hill's Eiffel Tower replica—one-fifth the size of the original—is the best place for panoramic views of town.

Strahov Monastery and Library
Everyone comes to see the 18th-century frescoed ceilings, but for kids the fun thing is to find the golden safe where Copernicus' heretical book about the solar system was once kept under lock and key. (1/132 Strahovské Nádvori)

Saint Vitus Cathedral
Remember King Wenceslas from the Christmas song? His tomb is ensconced in a jewel-encrusted chapel in the heart of this landmark. But first, check out the front-door panels: one depicts how Saint Vitus' arm, a relic from Rome, was escorted all the way to Prague on a palanquin. Yes, Sonia, yuck. (in Hradcany;

Historical village and botanical gardens
At this hands-on open-air museum in Ostra, a short train ride from Prague, Antonia and Cecelia led Sonia on winding gravel paths to meet a "medieval" rope maker, a potter, a blacksmith, and a weaver. In the cavernous timber dining hall, the girls devoured millet pancakes with applesauce while we grown-ups sipped house-brewed mead. (

Seven Swabians Tavern
You eat out of wooden trenchers at this Hradcany district restaurant lit by candles. We ordered smoked pork over noodles, duck with bacon dumplings, and Bohemian pancakes with plum jam and cottage cheese. Doesn't sound kid-friendly? Our crew ate every bite. (14  Jánsk´y vršek; 420-2/5753-1455; dinner for four $70)

When to Go
Prague gets hot and crowded in summer, but fall and spring are ideal times to visit. And you can score great fares on Czech Airlines.

Where to Stay
•    Pension Dientzenhofer Minutes from the Charles Bridge. 420-2/5731-1319;; doubles from $115, including breakfast.
•    Family Hotel Okor In a parklike setting on the edge of town. 420-2/3390-1031;; doubles from $117, including breakfast.
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