A Stroll through Malá Strana's galleries

gallery left bank, mala stranaMalá Strana is a living art gallery where starry-eyed tourists look over sunlit rooftops, peer around mysterious alley corners, stare up at frescoes. And they want to take a piece of it home with them.

Art galleries are packed so densely they almost outnumber the tourists and you can see endless views of Prague through their windows of canvas - castles, rooftops, the Charles Bridge in fog, snow, and moonlight.

"Tourists are in a state of euphoria here," says Natalie Melnikoff, owner of the Prague Gallery. "Art is all around you, you get drunk on it." She says this creates two categories of buyers, "Tourists who want a scene of Prague, the most beautiful city in the world, and those who really love art and know about it."

Natalie claims tourists can buy quality art here for a fraction of what it would cost in Munich or Paris, though Jiri Štastný, co-owner of Gallery Left Bank, says this price gap is narrowing.

Even if you're one of those people who would sooner spend 300 crowns on a print of the Charles Bridge than 30,000 on a high-quality abstract oil, you can still enjoy a stroll through the Malá Strana galleries and see some excellent pieces, for free. Most galleries are open from about 10-6 daily, though some close on Mondays. Here's a suggested itinerary that will take you to the best galleries in the neighborhood.

Begin your art walk at Malostranské Námesti. At No 23, Galerie Art & Craft shows work by Czech artists in a variety of media. Memorably, Jaroslav Šolc paints highly detailed pieces with an elastic perspective that covers the frame.

Walking toward the Charles Bridge, you'll find Galerie Chez Annamarie at Mostecká 14, a warm, uncluttered space with well-chosen works. Hungarian owner Annamarie is there six or seven days a week. "If you have a gallery, you have to be there. An assistant might be unfriendly and you lose the customer." Annamarie says she doesn't feel much competition from other galleries. "They each have something different," she says. However, she says that the high rents mean, "It takes several years to make a profit."

Outside, turn left on Mišenská. You might see Jiri Štastný painting in the window of Gallery Left Bank at No 10. Jiri paints scenes of Prague "because I love Prague. The architecture is just amazing, and I want to take advantage of it," he says. "The only thing I don't like is that everybody paints Prague." He thinks that the Prague pieces can be good, "it just depends who the artist is." The gallery also sells abstract and representational work by fourteen other East European artists. Next door, Espresso Café shows rotating exhibits.

Mišenská soon spills onto U Lužického Semináre. No 10 is Galerie Peron, at five years old probably the longest-running gallery in the neighborhood - most galleries are under two years old, as some close shop and more open. Peron specializes in 20th-century Czech fine arts and design, and hosts auctions of its paintings, sculptures, furniture, and glass. Filmmakers have used its canal side terrace as a set.

Nearby at No 20, the Zuzuk Gallery is known for the work of Roman Zuzuk, an internationally acclaimed Ukrainian artist with a unique style in portraits, such as that of a man whose eyes, ears, and lips become naked women as he sits embraced by a hen.

If you're looking for a marionette that's a true work of art, backtrack along U Lužického Semináre under the bridge to Kampa Island where you'll find the most exquisite in the city at the Galerie Marionette, No 7, and Marionety Obchod at No 5.

Walk south along the river toward Museum Kampa, which reopened in September after recovering from flood devastation. Much of the museum's rotating Central European art works are evocative of communism and war, such as "Correct Side of the Slaughterhouse" by Kurt Gebauer, a 3.5m tall faceless, pointing figure made of chicken wire and netting.

Stroll back toward the Charles and cross "Devil's Stream" by the large water wheel. You'll come upon the John Lennon Wall, an outdoor gallery of sorts that has attracted dissident graffiti, such as portraits of Lennon and Beatles lyrics, since the '80s.

At the next corner, Lázenská 7, is the Prague Gallery. Owner Natalie Melnikoff has two small rooms crowded with high-caliber cubist and surrealist works. "If an artist is good, I will buy the work no matter what," she says. Natalie used to own six galleries in the city, but has pared down to one in today's difficult climate. "Business has been slower since September 11 but the main problem is that people sell prints cheaply in the streets. They say they are originals, when they're not. Most galleries are struggling," says Natalie, who once sold a painting to Phil Collins and gave a painting to passerby Václav Havel. "But a year or two will clear the field. Many owners don't know enough and will go under."

At the nearby corner of Karmelitska and Tržište, the Ramovani framing shop exhibits fine art by young Academy students - peers of owner Honza Bernasek, who is only 24.

Walking up Tržište, the Galerie Tržište at No 3 showcases Slovak owner Kata Kissoczy's renowned "art puzzles". Vibrant patterns of gold and red evoke a detail from a Klimt painting, but if you look closely, you'll see that each color is a separate interlocking puzzle piece. More art than party game, the puzzles are designed to be hung on the wall.

Next door, Galerie Millennium feels like a museum, with hardwood floors, an arched ceiling, and more space than most in this high-rent neighborhood. In the current exhibition, large canvases depict industrial and post-apocalyptic scenes. Shows change monthly and focus on modern living artists, usually Czech and Slovak.

Now walk up Nerudová, a street dense with architectural beauty and galleries. Galerie U Cerveného Beránka at No 11 sells oils of Prague, some awkwardly realistic, others evocative of van Gogh or Monet.

No 32, Romen-The Little Shop is packed with a bewildering array of colorful paintings, sculpture, carvings, photography, jewelry, clothes, and even CDs by Roma artists. Pavlina Radlová, the shopkeeper and reputedly a talented fortuneteller, says her store houses what is likely the largest collection of Roma art anywhere.

Just two doors up, Le Saints Galerie occupies its own niche with a nice collection of representational and abstract works from all over Eastern Europe. The place bustles with couples looking for living-room art.

Galerie D-ART (No 46) showcases the work of Russian owner Vladislav Dmitriyev: large canvases with contrasting, expressive scenes of rooftops and cobblestone streets. "We tried to sell more abstracts, but it's useless," says manager Katerina Veselá. "People buy things they can see and understand."

Continuing up, Nerudová turns into Úvoz. At No 3, the Art City Gallery boasts oils by the well-known Armenian painter Harir Gharib, whose work merges mythological figures with textured, mosaic-like patterns.

At No 24, the former flat of the famous Czech photographer Joseph Sudek is now a gallery bearing his name. The gallery hosts rotating exhibitions borrowed from Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts.

Next door, the newly opened Pa°rawa°n shows work by owner Nadja Rawa and fellow graduates of Prague's Academy of Art, Architecture and Design. Rawa's prize-winning technique marries oil painting with architectural photographs bubbling from the canvas in relief.

If you're feeling hungry, stop in Malý Buddha, a popular Asian restaurant that also calls itself a gallery by virtue of the Chinese masks, Thai Buddha statues, and Tibetan tankas gracing the walls.

At the top of the hill, the Strahov monastery is home to two museums/galleries. The Strahov Gallery houses a valuable permanent collection of art from Gothic to Romanticism, and shows rotating exhibitions on the ground floor. From inside a church, the Miro Gallery hosts exhibits of lithographs and sculpture by famous modern artists such as Dali, Magritte and yes, Miro. Most of the work is for sale.

If you descend the castle steps, or Zámecké Schody, you'll find the neighborhood's newest addition. Atelier-Galerie Anna Skorko/Viktor Mandzyuk is owned by a Russian wife/Ukrainian husband team, whose pastels of lovers evoke Chagall.

Next door at No 2 is Galerie C&M, with Prague-themed watercolors and oils by Russian owner Tatiana Rogacheva. Thunovska 19 is Benoni Galerie, featuring the unique "elliptical" art - realism through a fisheye lens - of Russian artist Ulian Benoni and his students at Prague's Benoni school. Farther down at No13, Art Gallery Europe shows Prague by night and under snow.

If you're not thoroughly saturated by art by this point, rest your weary feet at Na Pradle, a mod café displaying fine art by Czech artists. Tucked behind Ujezd bar at Besední 3, Na Pradle also houses a theater playing Czech-language shows almost nightly. Here you can take inventory of your stroll through Gothic and modern Prague: how many watercolors do you have in that bag you're carrying?