Each city around the world has its own feel. On our first walk over Charles Bridge and through the Old Town streets we find Prague to be one of the busiest historic districts to date – hordes of people jostle for space, inevitably someone steps in front of Rick’s camera as he is about to click, buskers a plenty, beggars kneel with their heads bowed, restaurant staff wave menus like flags… yet somehow I seem to be floating in a mystical space. Rick has the same sensation.
Is this due to Prague Castle looking down like a silent fatherly sentinel, or is it the bridges’ many religious statues embodying protection, or the Old Town churches’ hovering presence, or perhaps it is the strains of Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi reaching through the din with a soothing effect – or all of the above.
Our Prague Photo Gallery
We never tire of traipsing over Charles Bridge built in 1357 and graced with 30 religious statues (the 18th century originals have since been replaced by replicas). Many people stop to touch the shiny spots (from a zillion previous touches) below the statue of Saint John Nepomuk (1345-1393). He was thrown off the bridge at the behest of King Wenceslas IV (not the good Wenceslas I, of the Christmas carol) and drowned in the Vltava River. Why? He was confessor to the Queen and refused to divulge what she revealed – hence becoming the 1st martyr of secrets of the confessional.
Further along, the exact spot where he was tossed over is designated by a cross resting on the stone ledge with a raised plaque behind – it is said that a wish made while touching this cross will come true in one year and one day….which I have recorded to remember the day my wish is to come true.
A narrow and crowded street leads from the bridge to the Old Town Square. Our eyes are first drawn to the Gothic spires of Týn Church (1365), which dominates the skyscape from its location just behind the square.
We merge into the crowd in front of the Clock Tower of the Old Town Hall. It is almost on the hour when it will do what it has been doing for over 600 years …and it does…we are entertained by a parade of apostles and a bell-ringing skeleton. This magnificent clock face purportedly tells the position of the sun, phases of the moon, the astronomical cycles, and feast-days from the Christian calendar.
The square also is home to St. Nichols Church (mid-18th century) and the Jan Hus Monument (erected in 1915 on the 500th Anniversary of this religious reformer’s execution, an early critic of Catholic doctrine).
For sure each and every of the country’s rulers could monitor most nooks and crannies of their subjects from the lofty Prague Castle.
We hoof up to this mega complex, chuckling at the entrepreneur spirit of whoever thought to raise a small snack shop on scaffolding from a lower level for access to a thirst-quenching drink near the top of the climb. And low-and-behold even further up on an old stone platform one can obtain a royal coffee at this exalted Starbucks.
The structure that holds us captive is the St. Vitus Cathedral – which witnessed coronations of kings and queens, and is the continual seat of the Archbishop of Prague. It is a site to behold – its gargantuan Gothic presence entices us to view it from every angle and to envision the activity over the centuries.
The cathedral was begun in 1344 during the reign of Charles IV; built on the site of the original Romanesque rotunda. The construction took nearly 600 years, finally competed in 1929.
We next venture into the cavernous interior – with stained glass so beautiful it surely is a gathering place for off-duty angels, saintly visits, as well as being a divine resting place for its long-time crypt residents.
Wenceslas I, born c.907 (yes, the Christmas carol Wenceslas) became the Duke of Bohemia (the ancient name for the Czech Republic) in 921 until his assassination in 935; the murder plotted by his brother Boleslav the Cruel. Known for his kindness, Wenceslas was elevated to king and sainthood, becoming the patron saint of the country.
This beloved King Wenceslas has his own chapel, where most of his bones rest in a grand sarcophagus. His skull rests in a special lofty place on the other side of the cathedral, except on September 28th of each year. On this day, known as St. Wenceslas Day, his saintly skull is taken in procession to the church where he was murdered, then back to St Vitus.
All in silver, with angels holding the ends of a deep red canopy is the burial place and monument to Saint John Nepomuk, with the distinguishing five gold stars around his head, as on the Charles Bridge statue.
The list is long of the many saints, sovereigns, noblemen and archbishops entombed in the cathedral; another of prominence is the white marble mausoleum in front of the main altar, with the crypt beneath, dating back to 1589.
I can’t resist going down into the most underground of crypts, by guided tour only…finding out the tour available this day is in Czech does not deter me. I leave Rick comfortably on a bench with a coffee and follow Ms. Soukupova and eight others down well-worn stone steps and into a dank dreary underworld. Along the rough stone walls are remnants of the 10th century rotunda. Around a few more bends is the crypt. Through strong steel bars we squint in the murky light at the six sarcophagi that were moved into this crypt in the 1930’s, after it was given a face-lift with painted walls and a marble floor. Some of the famous rulers interned here include: Charles IV (yes, the king that began this great cathedral), Václav IV (ruler from 1378-1419), and Rudolph II (ruler from 1576-16l1).
St. George’s Basilica and once Convent to Benedictine nuns is across a square behind St. Vitus. The original built in 920, was rebuilt in the 12th century, the Baroque façade a 17th century addition. A 12th century fresco is a definite highlight!
At the end of the lane is Daliborka Tower, a former Prague Castle dungeon named for its first inmate, Dalibor of Kozojedy. This young knight was sentenced to death in 1498 for sheltering rebellious serfs. A legend is told about how he asked for a violin while imprisoned, which he learned to play, captivating the citizens of Prague with beautiful haunting melodies – all were saddened the day the playing ceased – this legend is now an opera.
Some other draws are the Old Royal Castle, the changing of the guard each hour, the Story of Prague Castle Exhibition, and more – a full day for sure!
Another day we wander around Kampa area, with its broad park down by the Vltava River. The streets are filled with shops and small restaurants. One terrace café has such a narrow stairway down to its riverside tables that it utilizes a green “walk” and a red “don’t walk” signal light to indicate if the passage is free.
The Franz Kafka Museum is nearby. Kafka is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His novels and short stories have garnered the term “Kafkaesque” to describe other writers whose prose have a similarity to Kafka’s real life situations that are incomprehensible, complex, illogical and bizarre. A perfect time to re-read his “Metamorphosis” while in the midst of where he was born and lived most of his life – its tale of alienation as powerful and creepy as my fist read, yet am drawn into its absurdity and the complex mind of this Jewish German lawyer who wrote in his diaries – “I am nothing but Literature and can and want to be nothing else.”
Original Feast of Old Prague
Kampa area is where we find “Vysoký dum ’99” (Tall House, which opened in 1999) with the décor of a long-ago peasant village eatery. And “Original Feast of Old Prague” is exactly how our grand meal is described on the menu. Teresa, our server, warns us to be careful as she places the hot cast iron frying pan before us, filled with roast pork and smoked pork in thick slices, braised cabbage with bacon, and a huge roasted duck leg with thigh – the latter of which I am tempted to hoist to my mouth with my hands, as in the pre-utensil days, but refrain. On another plate are three types of dumplings, perfect to cut into bits and mop up the juices in the frying pan. Pilsner Urquell mingles with the flavourful heavy-on-meat dish, which is typical of Czech cuisine. Teresa times the finish of our meal flashing a blue bottle of Becherovka, saying, “Czech favourite, many herbs, good medicine.” Of course we bend, and although potent (38% proof) it is delicious in small sips, and probably a good thing we share one glass – as she follows this with two peppermint snaps – a fine finish. The price of this “10-out-of-10” feast – $30 CDN!!
“Two Trdelink please”, I say – the urge to share GONE! This traditional Prague pastry is wrapped around a “tradlo”, the name of the wooden or metal pole they are rotisserie cooked on. Once off the pole, the browned pastry cylinders are then rolled in cinnamon and sugar. Is it any wonder we succumb to the fresh baked scent each time we pass by this little shop?
Out on the streets again I am faced with a challenge….busker, busker, busker…so much talent – a difficult decision – but the winner of the Butler Busker Contest is Washboard Band….no wait!…it’s a tie with Water Glass Tunes.
From early morning until late in the evening the combined effect of Prague’s stunning edifices shrouded in a 1000 years of legends and myths, the up-beat crowds and warm locals leave us light-hearted, although the delectable cuisine leaves us a smidgeon heavier in the derriere-department.
Costs – Rick, my Finance Minister calculates our Prague visit (for accommodations, food, entry fees, travel) at $208CDN a day.