Prague was the city of my dreams. It sat in my imagination as a Romantic ideal, somewhere exotic and richly historic that I longed to see. Situated on the Vltava River, the old town of Praha is overlooked by the magnificent palace complex, Hrad Praha (Prague Castle).
This is an extensive complex of buildings and gardens known to be constructed from c.800AD, though there is archaeological evidence of habitation at the site from 3rd and 4th millennia BC.
Tickets for the castle complex’s buildings are quite expensive, and are sold as either the long tour or the short tour depending on which sites you want to see. The short tour is 250ck and 350ck for the long tour. We felt the long tour was better value as it gives access to most of the sites and is valid for two days. We would have liked to take the audio guide, but the English language version was the same price as entry and so beyond our daily budget.
The one site not included in the long tour that we added on was the Cathedral Tower which rises well above the complex for a magnificent view of entire Prague. And given our private mission to climb as many spiral stone staircases as possible across Europe, how could we forego such an opportunity?
The St Vitus Cathedral at the Castle is simply an incredible architectural achievement. Its original design was quite humble, but over the 500 years of its construction it was transformed by multiple architects engaged by the monarchy to create a stately and reverent Gothic marvel. It features glorious coloured windows – a mixture of painted glass and (pres.) lead light – lending the interior an awesome presence. There are also numerous alcoves dedicated to different saints, some with reliquary. A grossly impressive silver tomb for a king is located near the main altar and behind the altar are graves for rulers from the 12 and 13oos.
The bell tower itself is said to possess mystical powers and has foretold the coming of major disasters on the city on numerous occasions; when the bell cracks disaster is nigh. It last cracked in 2002, 3 months prior to a flood that devastated Prague.
The complex also houses the very beautiful and reverent Basilica of St George which is much more sober in its design than that of the cathedral.
Despite the high entry cost, many of the castle’s main buildings are not open to the public. We were informed that little remains to be seen of the original decoration. During the Soviet era much of the remaining grandeur – frescoes, other decorative features and furnishings – was stripped and architectural changes made.
One thing that has surprised me is the implementation of ‘central’ heating, and even under-floor heating, as early as the late 1400s. Many of the castle’s rooms feature elegantly tiled furnaces fueled from a small adjacent room (keeping the servants out of sight, naturally?!). Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention to the castles and palaces we visited – did Versailles have such?
Other interesting features of the castle include its very situation on a large ravine to its west. Atop this is the castle wall with its ramparts and rooms still intact. A cheesy armoury display has been set up inside with a crossbow shooting range for tourists to try their hand. It was interesting to see the construction of the arrow-loops; these were effectively vertically centred, half-cylinder barrels which could be rotated 360 degrees, thus allowing the archer to shoot at a range of angles and remain protected.
We spent the morning our second day wandering through the extensive Royal Garden of the castle, from the queen’s summer palace back up to the main complex. Below the castle walls, looking towards the old town and the river, is a terrific terrace garden. In the C18th the terrace gardens were landscaped among the former fortifications of the castle. These offer several hours of rambling with lovely views over the red roofs of the city and the river.
In every city we are trying to take a walking tour to acquaint ourselves with a bit of history and orient ourselves. Our Prague tour was very good. Our guide had a group of 60 to contend with (his colleague was sick) and did a great job of both holding everyone’s attention and moving us through the streets! One memorable site was the Cathedral of St James, a fairly nondescript building on the outside but ornately decorated within. It has a legend that a thief hid inside one night in the attempt to steal the cathedral’s gold and silver artifacts; as he attempted to remove a particular artifact from a statue of the Virgin Mary the statue caught hold of the thief’s hand and held him tight until morning at which time his hand was cut-off to free him. The thief’s hand was then mummified and to this day hangs from a pillar near the entrance as a warning to would-be thieves. Macabre!
We also visited Prague’s second castle complex, Vysehrad, a short train ride out of the old town. The complex doesn’t have many remaining buildings, but is impressive for the fortress wall and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul – which is richly decorated with Art Nouveau frescoes. Other spots to explore include the Cubist Museum (in a Cubist architecture building!) and the Prague Museum, which was worth visiting for its excellent displays of pre-history through early settlement, middle ages, and development through to modern Prague.
Prague formed a particularly significant part of our trip as we celebrated our first wedding anniversary there. As the exchange rate was very good, we may have celebrated multiple times 🙂
We found a wonderful cafe/restaurant overlooking the river with a prime view of the castle at sunset – Cafe Slavia. We were able to have a 3-course meal with drinks for equivalent AUD$30. The bistro seemed to have a mix of locals and tourists and the wait staff were very friendly and happy to test their English skills. The menu featured a traditional and modern Czech menu. We started with a lovely salad with goat’s cheese (surprised we were to have a whole wheel of goat’s cheese vol-au-vent). For main, the schnitzel with potato salad was delicious! As was Josh’s very rich meal of Turkey stuffed with camembert and cranberry (again, a whole wheel). Needless to say we walked the 45 minutes uphill road home rather slowly.