Ultratravel’s Smart Shopper: Prague
Slowly but surely, Prague has established itself as a popular city-break destination in Eastern Europe, with luxury shopping high on its list of attractions.
Twenty years ago, the Czech capital was still blinking in the sunlight as it emerged, beautiful but grubby, from under the heel of the Soviet Union. As Unesco- and European Union-funded workers started to clean the grime from its medieval streets, the city drew mostly backpackers and budget visitors.
Among the cheap hotels, restaurants and cafes, however, a fledgling luxury sector was also developing. Gradually, the city’s single five-star hotel – the Four Seasons, which opened in 2001 – was joined by a handful of smart boutiques and restaurants. And now? As the city celebrates the 700th anniversary of the birth of the Czech king Charles IV, even wealthy UAE visitors, who have traditionally bypassed Prague as they travelled to the old spa town of Marienbad, are starting to see why they should also spend time and money in the capital.
Prague’s attractions? In brief, reasonable prices for excellent quality. Although the Czech Republic is part of the EU, it stayed out of the Eurozone, and, in doing so, kept its own currency, the koruna (CZK). This decision has, in turn, helped Prague’s top hotels and restaurants remain markedly less expensive than those found in London, Paris and Rome.
Visitors will find these hotels excellent value as they act as the ideal base from which to shop. Though prices for luxury brands are no different in Prague, the city does have just about everything, from Armani to Zegna.
You’ll also find a slew of locally made products. Bohemian crystal glass, Czech porcelain, assorted antiques, wooden toys and puppets, cubist and art nouveau posters and ceramics, essential oils and herbal remedies, and even paper goods such as beautifully designed postage stamps all make alluring local purchases.
Their prices also make them as appealing as the top-quality, bargain-priced Czech dentistry and cosmetic surgery that is also growing in popularity with Middle Eastern visitors. Yet, it’s this traditional city’s aesthetic beauty that appeals most to visitors.
Unlike so many European cities, bombed into rubble during the Second World War, medieval Prague survived almost untouched. Its historic heart also survived the communist years, from 1946 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and since then, conservation-minded city planners have been commendably strict about maintaining the city’s architectural heritage. The medieval centre of Prague remains an area of such splendour – with the magnificent and traffic-free Old Town Square radiating narrow, pedestrianised old streets, lined with crooked old timber-beamed, frescoed buildings – that it looks more like a period-drama filmset than a living, breathing, modern-day city centre.
Though it’s profoundly pleasurable to shop in such surroundings, there is also an entire city of historical and cultural sites to explore. The art collections in Prague Castle – the largest walled castle in Europe; the astonishing, gilded art nouveau interiors of Municipal House and the rococo delights of the 18th-century Prague Estates Theatre, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni was premiered; the Communist and Franz Kafka museums; and the frequent opera, ballet and concerts. Visitors will need more than just a long weekend to take in all the city has to offer.
But to enjoy the city at its best, the rule is to visit in autumn or winter. While Prague is a proverbial gem, it is no longer a hidden one – what feels like half of Europe can be found milling around the city’s streets during the months of July and August. In October and November, however, the air is crisp and the streets are less occupied.
Although prices on designer brands are the same in Prague as they are elsewhere in Europe, the recoverable 20 per cent VAT on purchases costing over CZK2,000 (Dh303) each can mean a major savings. More importantly, there can’t be a more pleasant or convenient street to browse than the tree-lined Parížská, running off the central Old Town Square. Every single shop here houses a top international luxury brand. Cartier anchors one corner, Breitling the opposite, and from there to the bottom of the street they’re shoulder to shoulder. Labels such as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Burberry, Gucci, and Bottega Veneta are all here in what is effectively an outdoor mall. Other familiar names – Guerlain, for instance – dot surrounding streets such as Celetná, Ovocny, and Dlouha.
Wenceslas Square – a 700-metre-long boulevard – is a 10-minute walk away and is the other main area for clothes shopping, home to international high-street brands such as Zara and H&M. Though the quality is the same, the design ethos in Prague is more office wear/middle-of-the-road than in the high-fashion London or Hong Kong branches.
Department stores and malls
The five-storey Palladium is easily the smartest out of Prague’s many malls. Brands, and there are approximately 180 of them, range from Armani Jeans, Esprit, Marks & Spencer and Michael Kors to Puma and Villeroy & Boch. Again, prices are on a par with Western Europe, but quick and knowledgable service makes for a pleasant shopping experience.
Nearby, Kotva, built in the 1970s, is worth a visit. Not only does the department store offer a glimpse back into life during the drab days of communism, but the ground-floor beauty section is the best source in the city for the pure, high-quality herbal tinctures, essential oils, and natural skin creams that the Czech Republic is known to excel at. Prices start at CZK211 (Dh32) for a phial of lavender oil.
Czech crystal and porcelain
Moser is easily the best place to buy handblown, lead-free crystal for which the Czech Republic is rightfully famous for. Luscious emerald, sapphire or canary yellow vases, and elegant gold- or silver-rimmed crystal drinking glasses are all housed over three carpeted floors in a 13th-century building, the House at the White Unicorn on Old Town Square. Though it is a delight to simply browse this old-world and museum-like venue, if you are looking to make a worthy purchase, consider a chunky 28-centimetre violet Alexandrite “Fantasy 3151” vase (€1,862 [Dh7,640]) or a hand-cut water tumbler (€23 [Dh94]).
At Artêl – launched in 1998 by an American resident who spotted the potential for capitalising on Prague’s reputation with younger, cooler ranges – the big sellers are black-and-white handblown beakers. Customisation is the big thing here, with hand-engraved or sandblasted decoration on handblown glasses, priced at CKZ 13,165 (Dh1,999) for a set of six.
The wonderful Prague Kabinet showcases top Czech brands from Nymphenburg, which has produced “white gold” porcelain animals and figures since the 18th century. Verreum, set up in 2009 to revive the 19th-century technique of silvered glass, is also sold here. Its ethereal vases, bowls, lamps and candlesticks almost shimmer. Prices start from CZK4180 (Dh635).
Perfumes, skincare and jewellery
Golden Crown jewellery shop, situated in a small square at the foot of the Old Town Square, is an inviting little baroque store that dates back to the 14th century, set up by Charles IV’s pharmacist. Visitors will find a captivating ambience for browsing, with amber and silver necklaces priced from CZK 6,980 (Dh1,060).
A minute’s walk from the top of the square is the tiny, Parisian-boudoir-like Madeleine perfumery that sells niche brands such as Grossmith and Roja Dove. Prices are equally Parisian, but it’s a fragrant delight and the owner is happy to open out of hours for customers who like to shop in privacy. Nearby, the apothecary-style Botanicus has become such a cult favourite in China that you have to steel yourself for the noise level as customers rush about, filling wicker shopping baskets. Organic plant-derived skincare is the speciality: cocoa butter soaps at CZK99 (Dh15), and jasmine or marigold face creams at CZK428 (Dh65) for 125ml.
Two streets away, Manufaktura specialises in wood toys and puppets around the CZK698 (Dh106) to CZK1,047 (Dh160) mark. And on the other side of the river near the Mandarin Oriental at Ale Ale, the young Czech jeweller Alena Chládková and her husband sell their vivid artisan glass beads that they fashion into necklaces, decorated goblets and jugs, bead-decorated wire baskets and the like, from CZK593 (Dh90).
Among the half-dozen contenders, the best is on the left bank of the river, just north of Charles Bridge, in the same cobbled riverside yard as the must-visit Kafka museum. Cihelna is a light-filled trove of handmade art, glassware and ceramics – large and small, from a titanium steel chandelier that looks like traditional red Bohemian glass, to oversized serving bowls that look light enough to float (CZK2,265 [Dh344]).
Also check out Designshop at DOX; Fox Gallery; De-Sign; and Modernista for excellent reproductions of furniture by brands such as Adolf Loos. Kubista, on the ground floor of the famous cubist building House of the Black Madonna, built in 1911, located on Celetná, is best for unique cubist-influenced glass and ceramics. Expect to pay more, however, as prices can start from CZK698 (Dh106) for a mere cup and saucer.
Where to stop for coffee
Cafe-hopping is a must as good coffee and cakes are a third of what you would pay in the UAE. Historic cafes abound, but for the best coffee and cakes, served in a romantic old-Vienna-style grand cafe, where you can linger for hours, the art nouveau cafe at Municipal House and Kafka’s favourite, Cafe Slavia, which overlooks the river and Charles Bridge, are the tops. The coffee is excellent, as is a slice of cake with fresh cream – all for less than Dh50. The cafe at the 1970s department store Kotva is also a must. Here, try the luridly iced gateau for CZK16 (Dh2) while sitting among stout, seen-it-all pensioners. An abundance of cool new cafes now dot Parížská. Tempting spots include Bake Shop, which, in an airy setting of a black-and-white mosaicked floor and bare wood counters, serves up some of the best cakes in the city: raspberry macaroons (CZK46 [Dh7]); flapjacks, thickly sliced and treacly (CZK99 [Dh15]); and perfect little brownies (CZK9 [Dh14]), just right with a cappuccino (CZK 79 [Dh12]). Meanwhile, catching a glimpse of the best view of the entire city is reason alone to visit the cafe at the marvellous hilltop Lobkowicz Palace in Prague Castle.
Comfortable flat shoes are essential, given the ubiquitous cobblestones. Trams criss-cross the city – CZK25 (Dh4) per journey – and the Metro is equally cheap and efficient. Guided sightseeing in a vintage 1930s open-topped car costs CZK2,750 (Dh417) for four for an hour. Taxis are metered and cheap, but check the likely fare before each journey. From the city centre to the airport, 16 kilometres north of Prague, should cost about CZK710 (Dh108). By airport bus the 30-minute journey costs CZK 65 (Dh10).
Where to stay
By the 14th-century Charles Bridge that spans Prague’s central river, the 157-room Four Seasons, which opened in 2001, murmurs “grand hotel” from the second you walk into the rug-scattered marble-floored lobby. Obliging staff, burning candles reflected in antique mirrors and the heady scent of hyacinth or roses gracing the central table are all a delight.
There are Persian rugs in the bathrooms; deeply carpeted bedrooms with well-lit desks; and those small touches – such as a china jar of biscuits, windows that open fully and reading lights exactly where you need them – that make you smile.
The newly unveiled Ava spa looks sumptuous. In CottoCrudo, the first restaurant in Eastern Europe to win a Michelin star, breakfast is superbly wide-ranging, and at dinner securing a table overlooking the river adds the final touch. Double rooms from CZK11,720 (Dh1,780) per night, including breakfast and taxes.
The Mandarin, which opened in 2006, is the smaller and more private of Prague’s top two hotels. In a cobbled courtyard, about a 10-minute walk from Prague Castle, across the river from Old Town Square, the property is set in a 14th-century former monastery, and has just 79 rooms and suites, many interconnecting. It’s popular with visiting celebrities (Madonna, for one), who like the seclusion and security, not to mention the city’s best views from the interconnected top-floor suites. But even the standard rooms couldn’t be more comfortable, especially if you arrive jet-lagged and need to sleep. Beds are celestially comfortable and the soundproofing and blackout curtains are the best (with birdsong rather than traffic noise when you open the windows). The big treat here is a session in the spa – a lovely space with first-rate massage therapists – followed by supper in Spices, where a light Asian menu allows for a guilt-free baked banana with salted caramel as the final flourish. Double rooms from CZK11,030 (Dh1,675) including breakfast and taxes.
Read this and more stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, September 29.
Published: September 27, 2016 04:00 AM