We’re standing outside the entrance gate to Prague Castle. The line through the security entrance is getting longer and, as we wait for the last few to join us for our walking tour through Prague’s early history, our guide is thinking of ways to beat the queue!
A week ago we had no intention of visiting Prague but a last minute decision and cheap airfares have bought us here. The lack of research is worrying but our smartest move is to join Context Travel’s Introduction to Prague: Charles Bridge and Beyond tour that give us a basic overview of the historical centre of the city.
A quick walk through the town to our meeting place revealed a very pretty city but I know there is much more and cannot wait for the layers to be revealed.
Our guide, Pavla, proposes that we should walk around the northern side of the Palace and down into what was the original moat to head to another, lesser known entrance. Apart from a pleasant crowd free walk amongst the trees, there is no queue at this gate! It’s a great suggestion! Along the way we learn a little of Prague’s early history.
Prague Castle sits on top of a hill overlooking the city. This is no mere coincidence.
In the late 800s, this site was chosen for the castle. The river below gave the city access to trade and the view from the hill meant that you could see the enemy coming. A community had already settled below the hill where originally wooden houses and the first stone houses were built.
The most significant period in Prague’s history is that of the rule of Charles IV from 1346-1378. When he was elected head of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles made Prague his home. This was the making of Prague. It became an important political and business centre.
Charles started the building of St Vitus Cathedral in the Palace grounds. He built the King Charles Bridge, Charles Street and Charles Square and established the first European university, the Charles University. He also established the New Town, with its grid style streets, outside the Old Town. It’s 650 years old but is still known as the New Town.
Prague was flourishing when Charles died in 1378 . He had gained territories each time he married one of his four wives. Prague was bigger and more important than Paris but after he died in 1378, Prague was never as important again. His son, who took over the rule was not as charismatic or as strong as Charles.
Prague Castle, the largest medieval castle in Europe, is a collection of buildings that cross many different eras and architectural styles.
There are three courtyards within the Palace. We’ve entered into the second courtyard where the Treasury Building with its semi circular shape stands before heading to St Vitus Church and the Royal Palace in the third courtyard.
St Vitus Church
St Vitus Church is a medieval cathedral built in the gothic style in 1344 by King Charles. By the time of the religious war in 1420 the cathedral was still not finished. In fact, it would take another 500 years before the Cathedral was finally completed. In Charles’ time, the building was started from the east end and only got as far as the transept. It did however incorporate the original round Romanesque chapel and basilica that was built in 1066. The entrance then was via the Golden Mosaic door on the side.
An interesting point that Pavla mentions is that the Czechs are not religious. At a recent census only one third of the 10 million population said they were religious. Most of these were Catholic. This is very different to Poland who was going through the trials of communism at the same time and where most of the population are religious. The reason for this is that during the 40 years of communism in Prague, the churches went underground as nuns and priests were taken prisoners. In Poland they were allowed to practise.
In the church we see the magnificent silver tomb that holds the remains of of St John, Prague’s most revered saint. St John of Nepomuk was the priest who was tortured and thrown off the Charles Bridge in 1396 when he would not reveal to King Wenceslaus IV (Charles’son) the Queen’s confession. There is a plaque on the bridge that marks the spot where he was thrown from. Today, many believers touch and pray at this site. As he was thrown, five stars were seen to come from the river, so all the statues you see of St. John have him with five stars circling his head!
The original King Wenceslaus, he of the Christmas carol fame, ruled from 921 until his brother murdered him in 935. He was buried in the original rotunda but is now interned in the Chapel of St Wenceslaus. The upper part of the chapel’s walls are covered in brilliant frescoes that depict his life and the lower part is decorated with over 1300 semi precious stones and paintings about the Passion of Christ.
You can’t enter the Chapel but look through the door for the small doorway to the right of the coffin. This leads to the crypt where the Crown Jewels are held. Seven keys held by seven different people are needed to open the door. This only happens on important ceremonial occasions….the last being in 2003 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s independence.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is not grand. The ground floor dates back to the 1100s but Charles built another floor over this in the 1300s. The ceiling here has no support at all. It is held by pillars from outside. In those days it was used as a jousting arena by knights on horseback.
Maria Theresa, the most famous Hapsburg monarch who reigned from 1740-1780 renovated Prague Castle in 1750 so most of the rooms are from that era. This new palace incorporates the older parts of the Palace.
Our last stop in the Castle is at Golden Lane, a street of medieval houses dating back to the end of the 15th century. Originally they were built for marksmen, but alchemists were supposed to have moved in a bit later but many believe this to be legend. What is known is that the famous Czech writer, Franz Kafka lived at number 22 for two years from 1916.
The Lesser Town (Malá Strana)
In 1540 fire damaged this part of the city destroying the medieval wooden houses that stood there.
After the fire, wealthy aristocrats arrived and built the beautiful Baroque and Renaissance palaces that we now see in Malá Strana. Today these palaces are home to many embassies.
We wander through this part of the town and down to the low lying Vltava River. The river is prone to flooding and in 2002 the flood was so bad that many of the first floors of the buildings adjoining the river were under water. The water level rose to two thirds of the arch of the Charles Bridge. In 2013 flood gates were installed to stop the flooding. They’re not easy to see but if you look in the ground at this low level you will be able to see where they rise from!
We then head across the Charles Bridge to the Old Town passing the thirty statues of different saints that line the bridge. Many of these are replicas, with the originals now exhibited in the National Museum
Old Town Square
Old Town Square boasts many different architectural styles. There is Gothic architecture of the 1300s, the Renaissance buildings of the 1500s, the Baroque style Church of St Nicholas, Rococo Palaces and Classicism buildings of the 1700s. You’ll also see art nouveau buildings. With the expert guidance of Pavla, I can now see that Old Town Square has them all!
The Old Town Astronomical Clock is one of the most important sights in the Old Square. It is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world. The town hall was established as the seat of Old Town administration in 1338. It started life as a patrician’s home, undergoing many renovations and additions through the centuries. The clock tower was completed in 1364 but it was not until 1410 that the clock, built by a clockmaker and an astronomer, started operating. The calendar dial was added in 1490 when the facade was decorated.
One of the stories surrounding the clock is that its purported maker, Jan Hanuš was blinded after he had finished the clock so that he could never build another. The records show he was not the maker of the clock but this hasn’t stopped the story becoming a legend.
The astrological dial, the calendar dial and the moving figures all make up this incredible timepiece.
On the hour, crowds gather to watch the small doors at the top open and figures of the twelve apostles circle. Don’t blink..it is over in 10-15 seconds
It is a fitting finish to our fabulous introduction to Prague.
Context Travel have many tours in Prague covering different periods in the city’s history. Our walking tour, Introduction to Prague Walking Tour was perfect for us. There is a great selection of history tours covering different periods in the city’s history, interesting architectural tours and a Jewish Prague Tour. The other tour I loved the sound of was Great Minds, Grand Spaces: Prague’s Cafe Tour.
To see all Context Travel’s Prague Tours, head to their web page: Context Travel’s Prague Tours
Context Travel are known for their small group tours led by local docents who are very knowledgeable. The difference it makes to be introduced to a city with the knowledge of a fabulous guide cannot be underestimated. They have tours in many cities around the world from Stockholm to Shanghai, Barcelona to Buenos Aires and Naples to New York so check their website to see if your next holiday destination is there!
Disclaimer: My tour with Context Travel was complimentary. All opinions are my own. Having taken Context Travel tours in other countries, I know their tours are excellent and have no hesitation in recommending them.
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