To truly experience Prague, you need to put down the map, phone, and any other directional assistants, and follow your nose into the cobbled lanes that curl and slither through the old town. It’s then that the hidden treasures reveal themselves to those attentive enough to recognize the roads less taken and brave enough to step down them. That’s exactly how I discovered the Hotel U Raka, a place special enough to warrant a visit regardless of whether you’re a guest or not.
It starts with the neighborhood itself, Nový Svět, whose quiet back streets northwest of Prague Castle are full of 18th-century buildings, some with cannonballs from the Prussian siege of 1757 still stuck in the walls. Home to many artists (like U Raka owner Alexandr Paul), the neighborhood comes to an abrupt end on the west side at a section of the massive brick walls that once protected Prague. Here, in the back nook of a back nook sits two timber cottages that began in 1739 as horse stables and now make up the Hotel U Raka.
The romance of the exterior, which sometimes includes one of Mr. Paul’s vintage automobiles, magnifies tenfold once you buzz the door and step inside the cobbled courtyard that separates the two buildings and is peppered with all manner of antiques and rustic knick-knackery like cart wheels, mill stones, wooden animal sculptures, amphorae. Reception is up the stairs and to the left, as is breakfast area and several rooms, but just beyond those is a secret garden worthy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous novel.
An expansion of the first courtyard, the garden climbs the back hill to a second tier equal to the roof level of the main building adjacent. Here among the chirping birds, blossoming rose vines, and azalea, sakura, and magnolia trees is a level of Zen unmatched anywhere in Prague, perfect for a quiet book, intimate chats, and even work, thanks to fabulously strong Wi-Fi.
Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, waiters arrive with a menu of soups, sandwiches, salads, and desserts (including one of the best apple strudels in town, cooked daily by Mr. Paul’s wife, Bibiana), as well as the hot and cold drinks. In colder weather, a small café area in the first building makes up for the loss of the garden with a cozy, cottage ambiance warmed further by a wood burning fire.
With so much charm, the six rooms and suites (starting at $100 per night) have an almost impossible amount to live up to, but they make a valiant and often successful effort, with rustic brick walls, rough-hewn timber ceilings (tall people beware), wrought-iron beds, millstones and other rustic antiques, and still-life paintings and photography by the Bibiana and Alexandr, who purchased the dilapidated property in 1987 and launched a complete reconstruction that took three years.
The prized room, a “superior luxury,” comes closest to equaling the garden. In fact, it features a tiny one of its own in a glassed-in, Japanese-inspired sun room that opens directly onto the main one, while in the room proper is a well transformed into a light feature and an old oven stocked with kindling. All it takes is a single match to turn the romance up to 11. Just wait to fully snuggle in until you’ve taken a stroll through the neighborhood after dark, when the old street lamps glow and shadows thicken in deserted lanes in almost magical ways.
Magic is indeed the operative word at the Hotel U Raka, and it becomes all the more impressive for standing out so much in a neighborhood and city already steeped in it. In fact, it wouldn’t seem out of place to enter by tapping the brick walls three times with a wand to reveal the entrance. Thankfully, there’s a simple buzzer for us muggles.
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of the Hotel U Raka
Lead and room photo by Hotel U Raka. All others by Mike Dunphy