Czech. Republic

Prague – Castles and Cathedrals

To the 1.3 million people who live in present day Prague, I say this. You lucky buggers. The street you walk on to work is lined with beautiful Baroque buildings and sidewalks are an ever-changing mosaic of black and white tiles. If you prefer, you have the option to zip around on the metro if that’s more your speed. Yes, you are dodging tourists for 4 months, but you also have one of the world best cathedrals and a bazillion other churches to visit when it gets too loud or too hot. You have a serene park that you can visit via funicular, cheap and plentiful beer; even your thunderstorms are impressive. If you manage to get bored of all that, prostitution is legal.

Other than the latter, we sampled all of the above in our first serious attempt to tackle Prague. The day started with a trip to Prague Castle, seen here later in the day via the St. Charles Bridge.

20140528-091823.jpgNow, it’s not a traditional castle in the sense that there aren’t turrets and battlements; the spires you see belong to the St. Vitus Cathedral. It’s a sprawling complex that is the official residence and office of the Czech President. It’s like the White House, if the White House was the largest ancient castle in the world with history dating back to 870. So, on second thought, it’s not like the White House at all, except for the fact that Mr. Prez lives and works there. If Mr. Obama wants to have a chat over a cup of coffee, Prague Castle is where he goes.

The castle buildings represent every architectural style popular within the last millennia. There’s your basic 10th century Elfin hall, a huge chunk of 14th century Gothic architecture in the middle. Renovations after a large fire in the 1541 included a lot of Renaissance style outer buildings and there’s an Art Nouveau stained glass window in St. Vitus.

The complex holds 4 churches, numerous large courtyards, 4 palaces, 5 great halls, 8 gardens, a riding school, a couple of towers, 1 gaudy street lined with gift shops, several museums and 1 statue of a boy with a shiny penis (more on that later).

You can kill a whole day here, they have a variety of packages to choose from. We went with the middle of the range and settled on seeing the Old Royal Palace, St. Vitus, St. George’s Basilica and The Golden Road.

We started with the magnificent St. Vitus’.
20140528-101316.jpgSt. Vitus Cathedral is where the Archbishop of Prague hangs his excellent, pointy hat. It’s full and fancy name is St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert Cathedral. Three saints for the price of one, and yes, it’s that St. Wenceslas. It also contains the tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors. The present day Gothic cathedral was founded in 1344 and has taken 600 years to be considered ‘complete’. Over the years, due to fire and distraction, and not to mention many generations of architects, the cathedral had turned into a badly repaired, higgledy-piggledy mish-mash of styles. In 1844, in came the John Levys of Cathedral Managers, the “Union for Completion of the Cathedral of St Vitus in Prague”, whose aim was to repair, complete and get rid of “everything mutilated and stylistically inimical” about the cathedral. They systematically got rid of bits that didn’t make any sense in a Gothic-style cathedral, down to re-doing past repair work so that all the caulk and stone matched. Despite the fact that entire western half of Cathedral is a Neo-Gothic addition, much of the design and elements developed by the architects hired by the UCCCSVP were used in the restoration, giving the Cathedral as a whole a harmonious, unified look.

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The interior is breathtaking, lined with exquisite stained glass windows. Alfons Mucha designed a window that depicts St. Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech people, surrounded by scenes from the lives of Slav Saints. The window’s center from top to bottom compiles 1000 years of national history.20140528-103739.jpg20140528-104025.jpg20140528-103837.jpg20140528-103810.jpg20140528-104146.jpg20140528-103906.jpg20140528-103853.jpg20140528-104224.jpg20140528-104243.jpg20140528-104252.jpg

The cathedral is 407 ft long and 200ft wide; you can fit a football field inside (including the end zones).

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20140528-105231.jpgI wonder why people don’t build cathedrals anymore?

The weather forecast called for thunderstorms, which started up as we walked around St. Vitus’. You could hear the crashes of thunder, which lent quite an exciting atmosphere to the surroundings. We walked to the exit to determine the extent of the rain…it was absolutely pissing it down. We extracted our water proofs from Angus and scurried across the courtyard to a covered arch where we enjoyed our packed lunch. The rain continued through a couple of rounds of I Spy, which John had never played. After the shortest round of 20 questions (Beard, in 5 guesses) the rain tapered off enough to venture to our next stop: The Old Royal Palace. Photography was forbidden, unless you happen to be super sneaky. This is the great hall, which looks very Elfin to me. This trip has inspired many home-additions for Nashville, such as celestial murals and dragon spouts; now I have to figure out a way to fit in some of these ceilings.20140528-110235.jpg
Our ticket included admission to The Golden Lane, which sounded quite promising. Along the way, we saw this guy doing his job, like a boss!

20140528-110508.jpgThe Golden Lane is the smallest street in Prague. The houses are stuck onto the side of the castle walls. In 1597, the emperor Rudolph II decided to give this narrow space to the marksmen who guarded the walls. There were a lot of marksmen and not a lot of space, so the houses are very tiny. Since then, servants, merchants and civilians have lived on this little street; Franz Kafka lived in #22. Currently, you have to pay admission to get in and all the houses are full of knick-knacks. We were besieged by Germans and their brollys.

20140528-111155.jpgAfter exiting souvenir alley, you enter a courtyard, wherein resides a statue of a young man with a very shiny penis. In fact, its the only shiny thing on him which lead us to assume that a lot of people took the time to give it a good shine as they passed. We hastened to the wall and paused a moment to watch the crowd. Young and old, Slavic to British, people stopped and took giggly pictures. This women was sent to investigate, and shortly afterwards, was joined by several other grannies who cackled through a series of photos. As it turns out, nothing unites the people of the world more than an opportunity for a rude photo. I shudder to think what might have happened if our dear Chelsea was with us.

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Our visit to Prague Castle had come to an end, but there was still a couple more stops for the day. Mala Strana (Little Quarter) is a maze of cobbles and grand doorways. It also houses a Starbucks, the tower of St. Michael’s Church and a funicular railway. We visited all three, in order. It took 5 sweaty minutes to climb the 305 stairs to get to the top of the bell tower, but it was worth it for the view (it almost always is). Prague stretched out below us; it’s weird to think that it’s population is about the same size as Nashville. Prague seems to go on for ever.

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20140528-113016.jpgThe climb back down left me with wobbly calf muscles.

John’s funicular fascination drew us towards Petrín Hill, as the summit of the hill is reached by a funicular that first operated in 1891. The top of the hill is almost entirely covered in parks and attractions. The Lookout Tower is a 63.5 meter high steel framework tower, strongly resembling the Eiffel Tower. Sneakily, because the rather squat tower sits on a hill, it’s pinnacle is actually higher than that of the real thing. My legs were still a bit wobbly from the last climb, so we did not attempt to go to the top.

20140528-113817.jpg50 meters to the right was a Mirror Maze, constructed for the Prague Expo in the 1800’s. It was well worth the admission price and provided the shot in the arm required to keep us marching on. There was almost no one walking around the park, so we mostly had this dizzying distraction to ourselves20140528-114348.jpg20140528-114414.jpg20140528-114431.jpg20140528-114451.jpg20140528-114505.jpgOther than maze, there was also a distortion chamber, which will fuel my nightmares for the next 10 years,

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At this point, we were far away from home and beginning to get hungry for dinner. We descended down the funicular and crossed St. Charles Bridge back to our side of the river. Construction of the current day bridge began in 1357 and finished in the early 1500’s. It’s length of 621 meters is lined with 30 baroque-style statues. Beginning in 1965, all of the statues have been replaced by replicas and the originals belong to the National Museum.

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20140528-115526.jpgIt’s probably the most photographed location in Prague.

We were in dire need of some tacos and the apartment was in dire need of a good skillet. We ducked into a mall to get the latter and tramulated our way back to the flat for the former. John worked his magic and we dined well. Tomorrow promises more rain, achy feets and another full camera roll.

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