Viewed from Royal Gardens
Our guide and driver, Marek and Karel, met us at 9 AM this morning for the second part of the Prague tour we had booked. The weather here yesterday was miserable, with rain and gusty winds most of the day, but the forecast is for improving conditions later this afternoon. Today we are to visit the Prague Castle, a castle complex dating from the 9th-century.
The castle is the official office of the President of the Czech Republic, and has been a seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 750,000 square feet, at about 1,870 feet in length and an average of about 430 feet wide. The castle is among the most visited tourist destinations in Prague, attracting over 1.8 million visitors annually.
The castle buildings represent virtually every architectural style of the last millennium. Prague Castle includes Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the Romanesque Basilica of St. George, a monastery and several palaces, gardens and defense towers. In addition, the castle houses several museums, including the National Gallery collection of
Bohemian baroque and mannerism art, an exhibition dedicated to Czech history, the Toy Museum and the picture gallery of Prague Castle, based on the collection of Rudolph II.
There was light rain falling when we arrived at the north side of the castle complex, but we still enjoyed a brief stroll through a portion of the Royal Gardens, a pleasant green space landscaped with flower beds, trees and a variety of statues.
We passed by an interesting Renaissance building on the south side of the Royal Gardens, directly above the Stag Moat, that was built from 1567 to 1569. It served as a ball games hall, and later as a riding school and stables. During the reign of Josef II it was used as a military storage facility, but today it serves primarily as a venue for art exhibitions, concerts and special social events.
Along with hordes of other tourists, we passed through several courtyards until reaching St. Vitus Cathedral, the bigger-than-life Gothic giant with its twin towers soaring 269 feet into the sky. Now under the ownership of the Czech government, it is the largest and most important church in the country, and contains the tombs
of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors. Although construction began in 1344 under King Charles IV, wars, plagues and incessant religious bickering delayed its completion for almost 600 years.
As we entered the cathedral, its cavernous proportions quickly became apparent--the 400-foot-long nave (central aisle) is longer than a football field, and the vaulted ceiling is 100 feet high! For the next 90 minutes Marek guided us around the interior, where we viewed numerous side chapels, tombs, memorials dedicated to saints and other revered figures--and the many stained-glass windows that create such a dazzling and colorful aura to this cathedral.
One of the most outstanding sights in the cathedral is the Chapel of St. Wenceslas, which houses relics of the patron saint of the Czech nation. The room was built between 1344 and 1364 with a ribbed vault, and the lower portions of the walls are decorated with over 1300 semi-precious stones and paintings depicting the Passion of Christ. Above the altar rests a Gothic statue of St. Wenceslas created in 1373.
For centuries, Czech kings were crowned in front of Wenceslas' red-draped coffin. A small door with seven locks, in the southwest corner of the chapel,
leads to the Crown Chamber containing the Czech crown jewels, which are displayed to the public only once every eight years or so; seven VIPs with keys must assemble together to access the jewels.
Another impressive tomb, which is said to contain a ton of silver, is that of St. John of Nepomuk, who was a 14th-century priest to whom the queen confessed all her sins. According to a 17th-century legend, the king wanted to know his wife's secrets, but the priest dutifully refused to tell. The infuriated king proceeded to have John tortured and eventually killed by being tossed off the Charles Bridge, where there is a plaque commemorating the event. The Czechs--even those who are irreligious or atheists--display a strong affection for this and other patron saints (e.g., St. Wenceslas) because they exemplify Czech identity and independence.
After exiting the cathedral, we walked along its southern side to view the so-called Golden Gate (the cathedral's main entry for centuries), where in 1370 Charles IV commissioned a monumental decoration. The result was a glittering Italianate mosaic depicting the Last Judgment, with himself and his queen shown kneeling beneath Christ and six patron saints.
Behind the cathedral
sits one of the oldest structures in the castle complex, the Basilica of St. George, which is a Romanesque-style church founded by Wenceslas' father around the year 920; the present structure dates from the 12th-century, with its Baroque facade coming later. This was the burial place before St. Vitus Cathedral was built, so the tombs contain the remains of the earliest Czech kings. The atmosphere inside this church is decidedly medieval, but its simplicity is very appealing.
Our final stop before departing the castle complex was the Golden Lane, a collection of tiny, old, colorfully painted buildings along a narrow, cobblestoned alleyway that originally housed castle servants. Today they house displays of those medieval days, including recreations of a pub and a goldsmith's workshop. These munchkin-sized houses were actually occupied until World War II, and the Czech writer Franz Kafka lived here briefly in 1916-17.
When we had completed our walk through the Golden Lane it was time to begin quite a long (but gradual) downhill slog on cobblestones, with several sets of stairs to negotiate, until we reached the point where our driver was waiting for us. We asked to be dropped-off at the Náměstí Míru (Peace
Square), which is a pleasant 10-minute walk from our apartment, where we enjoyed a late lunch on the outdoor terrace of a swanky Belgian-themed restaurant (Bruxx).
Postscript -- An interesting sidebar regarding our guide, Marek, who did such an outstanding job explaining Czech history and Prague sights to us during the tours. One of his "claims to fame" is that several years ago he personally led Rick Steves, the travel guru himself, on a Prague city tour! Turns out Steves wanted to refresh his knowledge in order to update one of his guidebooks, and he hired Marek to do so.
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