My oldest daughter Deborah has always loved James C Christensen and his fantasy paintings of magical worlds. The entire time I was in Prague, I tried to remember his name, because the city reminded me so much of what I saw in his art. I am not sure how a man from Culver City, California, a modern painter, could capture the feeling of a place so perfectly, and yet this painting somehow embodies all I felt during the entire time I was in Prague. There is something about the city that feels almost too Disneyesque, as if it were all created by Walt himself just for our modern day delight.
Instead, this place sometimes called “The Magical City”, “The Golden City”, the “City of a Hundred Towers” (actually there are closer to 435 spires in Prague) and the “Paris of the East”, came into being in Neolithic times, and the first recorded fortified settlements were built in the 9th century. Over the centuries it has survived wars, invasions, disasters, more invasions and wars, and yet it remains, magnificent in its complexity and loveliness.
Our tour day was to include a long walk through “The Castle”, one of the largest fortresses in the world. The fact that it was about 33 degrees F and the skies were socked in with a dank fog made it all that much more mysterious. We were to see the Royal Palace, St Vitus Cathedral, and walk the Charles Bridge; places that have endured for centuries. Somehow it is impossible to talk about visiting Prague without at least getting a taste of its history.
(I am paraphrasing from a book called “Art and History in Prague – English Edition”, with a few tidbits added in by our local guide):
In the 900’s as a focal point for craftsmen and merchants, Prague attracted mainly Jews and Germans, becoming a Bishop’s See ruled by Dukes until it became an actual city between 1232 and 1235. The first University in eastern Europe was founded in Prague in 1348, and in 1419 some rebels threw out the Catholic leaders. Religious conflict followed for centuries and Prague actually declined during the rule of the Habsburgs when the capital was moved to Vienna. The city became more Germanized until the Czech revolt of 1618 and the “Thirty Years War”, and then losing that war caused even more decline in the city.
Between the 19th and 20th centuries Prague continued to develop economically and industrially, and with the influx of people and money, it became a center for cultural and intellectual development. It endured the brutal domination of the Nazis from 1939 to 1945. Our local guide talked of a treaty agreement between Prague and Germany during that time which was supposed to protect Prague but instead only allowed the Germans free reign to the city. She did say that the agreement managed to keep Prague from being completely decimated by the Nazis, even though thousands of Jews were killed.
The Russians liberated Prague from the Nazis, but the Soviet leaders thought the city was getting too uppity and on August 20, 1968, tanks were sent into Prague to let the people know they could not stand up against the USSR. The Communist Regime fell at the end of 1989 and on January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was separated into the Czech and Slovak Republics, in one of the few peaceful separations of a country in Europe. Our guide, Yarmilla, discussed the unrest during that period with dry humor. She lived most of her life under Communist rule, and seemed to take most of it in stride. She said every time the Soviets were on top, the statues would go down. Then the Czechs would be on top and the statues would go up again. Up and Down, over and over. Now the statue of Stalin is no longer on Castle Hill.
One thing she did say that was interesting, is that the Czech people have had religion foisted on them since the 9th century, and usually it wasn’t a religion of their own choice. The Czech people aren’t all that excited about religion at all, with more than 80 percent of the population claiming either Atheist or Agnostic beliefs. Seems strange to me in a city that has a skyline dominated by the spires and steeples and domes of some of the most beautiful churches in the world. On our free day (tomorrow), Melody and I slipped into a cathedral near Old Town Square during mass. My grandmother was Catholic, I listened to Latin mass as a child with her, and felt her pain when the Mass was no longer said in Latin. In this church in Prague, Mass was in Czech. It was beautiful, and the voice of the priest still haunts me.
But I am getting ahead of myself. As we boarded our tour bus at 8am, most of the group were dressed in big coats, hats, and gloves. Melody and I were not. We had checked the weather over and over and decided not to bring heavy clothes for the cold. Instead I had a fleece shirt, a wool sweater, and another wool sweater. I also had some nice thick tights under my jeans, but the gloves and hat didn’t make it on the bus with me. Dumb! Melody at least had on her boiled wool jacket, her comfy staple back at home as well, and lucky for me, her jacket had pockets.
When we got out of the bus, we were assaulted by really really cold damp air and I managed by walking with Melody and keeping a hand in one of her pockets, and switching when the free hand got too cold. It was COLD! The bus let us off outside the castle gates and we walked past an old Czech building from the 13th century, across the moats, and through the castle gates into layer upon layer of history. Many of the buildings that were first built in the 1200’s had been destroyed and rebuilt over and over, and the austere architecture of the Viennese period was evident in the Royal Palace and some of the courtyards. Still, the wild nature of the Czech people could be seen in the statuary guarding the main gate to the First Courtyard, and then as we walked through the Matthias Gate into the Second Courtyard, the magnificence of St Vitus Cathedral was overwhelming.
This Cathedral took my breath away. Only completed in 1929, St Wenceslas built the Rotunda of St Vitus in 926 on the same site. More than a century later, a Romanesque basilica rose, and then on these foundations a Gothic cathedral was later erected in the first half of the 14th century. The Renaissance steeple was added in the 16th century, and the bell tower holds the largest bell in Bohemia from the 16th century. Plans were drawn in 1872 to complete the grand building and the main portal wasn’t actually completed until 1929, 1000 years after the death of St Wenceslas.
This cathedral is a masterpiece of neo-Gothic architecture, with a gorgeous rose window, many beautiful stained glass windows, magnificent tombs and crypts, the tomb of St Wenceslaus, and my favorite of all, a gorgeous stained glass window by Alfons Mucha, famous art nouveau artist and resident of Prague. The tomb of St John Nepomuk , patron saint of Bohemia, is made of tons of solid silver. Legend has it that St John Nepomuk refused to tell the King what the King’s wife had confessed to him and was tortured and thrown in the Vltava River as a result. There are other versions of the story, but he was canonized as a worthy saint in the 1700’s and it is said that when he was killed, seven stars appeared in heaven. In the statues, there are only five, so where are the other two? Either way, if you touch his statue on the Charles Bridge, it is said either that a wish will come true, or you will return to Prague. There are many more photos of St Vitus Cathedral online here if you are interested.
Even inside the cathedral, it was chilly, and once back out on the courtyard the air was still foggy and cold. I was really looking forward to the promised coffee shop which didn’t open until ten thirty or so. I was also very glad for Melody’s warm hands and pockets! We next entered the Royal Palace, that was originally built in the 12th century on the site of the 9th century prince’s court.
The most important and impressive room was Vladislav Hall, built at the end of the 15th century. The floor was originally packed dirt for the horseback jousting matches held there, and the stairs were built especially to accommodate the horses entering the hall. The room had a quiet dignity, and our guide gave us another architecture lesson discussing the use of the beautiful gothic ribbed vaults. Melody and I got a kick out of the small hidden laughing faces tucked away into the arches, something that no one seemed to notice but us.
We wandered through more of the palace to the room containing the famous “Defenestration Window”. Defenestration actually means the act of throwing something out the window, in this case people. Prague is the defenestration capital of the world, with two major events, and many others in between. You can read about it here. The stories are a bit funny, with the third floor window not being high enough to cause the death of the people thrown out due to the huge pile of dung that was below the window. By this time I was really wishing that the huge green ceramic heaters were actually working, because it was still really cold.
Finally we walked across another courtyard to a quiet little coffee shop, all warmed up and cozy with the smell of pastries and coffee and actual HEAT! Whew! Our group squeezed into the small space and were treated to coffees by our guide Lorena. I also had an apple strudel which was nearly perfect.
After warming up in the coffee shop, we continued our tour through the castle by wandering to the famous Golden Lane, a picturesque little street also referred to as “Alchemists Lane” where alchemists pursued the myths of the production of gold. Yarmilla thought the truth of the name was more picturesque, with chamber pots being emptied out the windows daily and turning the streets “gold”. ewwww. Once home to the craftsmen and the poor folk of the castle, there are now little shops and lots of tourists.
We descended the stairs from Golden Lane to an open view of Prague below us, but not before Melody found the stairway to the castle dungeon. By this time I was getting a bit tired of stairs so I left it to her to explore the depths of the dungeon. Dungeons are really creepy, sort of like catacombs. Melody loves all that kind of stuff.
If you are up for it, there are more photos of Prague Castle, the Royal Palace, the dungeons, and Golden Lane online here.
Next: The afternoon of our tour day: a Czech lunch, the Charles Bridge, walking through Prague, Old Town Square, and the Jewish Quarter.