This morning, under cloudy skies but mild temperatures in the upper-60s, we embarked upon the first of two guided tours of Prague booked through a local agency. Today's itinerary focused upon the Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) and the Charles Bridge. Our personal guide, Marek (along with a friendly young driver named Karel), turned out to be an impressive guy in his 40s who speaks nine languages--incredible! Throughout the tour he exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of Czech history, while setting a pace that was easily manageable for us.
The driver dropped us off in the vicinity of the Jewish Quarter, a three-block area in the Old Town that has been home to a Jewish community for a thousand years. Jews first came to Prague in the 10th-century, where they were allotted the least hospitable place in the city to inhabit. By the 16th- and 17th-centuries, Prague had one of the largest Jewish ghettos in Europe, with 11,000 residents. As in many ghettos throughout Europe, Prague's Jews faced institutionalized bigotry, harassment and pogroms for centuries, until Emperor Franz Josef II eased much of the discrimination and persecution in 1781. Near the end of the 19th-century, much of the ramshackle
Jewish Quarter was demolished, opening the way for the construction of many stately facades that to this day give the area its Art Nouveau appearance.
This neighborhood features several impressive synagogues, a museum honoring Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust and a cemetery containing over 12,000 old, eroded tombstones inscribed in Hebrew. We passed by the so-called Old-New Synagogue, perhaps the oldest synagogue in Europe, built in 1270. It continues to function as a synagogue, and has always been the most important synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. Although we had no time to visit the synagogues and cemetery, we may want to do so before leaving Prague.
Our next stop was the Old Town Square, which is the historic center of modern Prague, a city of 1.3 million people (and the capital of the Czech Republic). It's been a market square since the 11th-century, and became the nucleus of the Old Town when the Town Hall was built in the 13th-century. Although the market stalls of medieval times have been replaced by outdoor cafés and tacky souvenir stands, this vast square is ringed with colorful buildings, towers, steeples, statues--and hordes of tourists.
The center of the square
is dominated by a monument in memory of Jan Hus (1369-1415), a priest burned at the stake for his role as a religious reformer, whose defiance and heroic sacrifice have come to symbolize Czech nationalism and independence.
Another striking feature of the square is the Týn Church, one of the most impressive Gothic religious buildings in Prague, with its twin-spires towering high above ground level. Built from the mid-14th to the early 16th-centuries, the interior was reworked in Baroque style at the end of the 17th-century. Its organ, dating from 1673, is the oldest in Prague. We paid a brief visit inside the church, where the ornate embellishments are decidedly Baroque in style.
The Town Hall, built in the 1350s, is another landmark building located on the square. Perhaps the most unique feature of the building is the so-called Astronomical Clock, which is the world’s oldest astronomical clock still in use. This clock can display the time, date, position of celestial bodies, astronomical cycles and Christian holidays. The clock celebrated its 600th anniversary in 2010, although the original clock had to be restored after damage inflicted upon it during the final days of World War II.
to legend, this compelling landmark was created back in the 15th-century by an experienced clock master, who was selected by the city council to produce an original device that would measure time and have other functionalities as well. The main function of the clock back in those days was to depict the movement of celestial bodies (Sun and the Moon included), with the idea that time was merely a secondary element. The legend also refers to a prophesy whereby the city of Prague would suffer if the clock were to be neglected, and that the skeleton--which is one of the animated figures of the clock--would nod its head when it deemed the device had been neglected.
The clock puts on a little "glockenspiel"-type show at the top of each hour, with small figures representing "vanity" (staring into a mirror), "greed" (a Jewish moneylender), "hedonism" (a Turk with a mandolin), "Death" (a skeleton holding an hour glass), and the 12 apostles, who presumably exhort the masses to follow the straight and narrow path of self-righteousness. Marek had taken us into the Café Mozart for a coffee break, across from the clock, shortly before 11:00 AM, so we were able to
witness the brief show, including the bony skeleton tipping his hourglass while the money lender jingled his purse!
After our short but pleasant interlude at the Café Mozart, which had all the trappings of a Viennese coffee house, Marek led us from the Town Square toward the Charles Bridge, one of Prague's defining landmarks and tourist draws. This bridge, which spans the Vlatava River, was built to replace the one that had been badly damaged by floods in 1342. The bridge, called Charles Bridge since 1870, was begun in 1357 by Charles IV and was completed in 1402. The bridge itself is built of sandstone blocks, flanked at each end by fortified towers (Lesser Town Bridge Towers, Old Town Bridge Tower). Between 1683 and 1928, 30 statues of saints were carved to decorate the bridge, about half of which are now replicas.
Unfortunately, by the time we walked across the bridge, neither the crowd density nor the weather were ideal, but we did get our first view of the famous Prague Castle on the other side, which will be our destination on Thursday. It occupies a commanding position on a hill, and from its complex of buildings Czech
Viewed from Charles Bridge
leaders--from kings and emperors to Nazis, communists and presidents--have exercised power. The most prominent feature visible from a distance is the imposing edifice of St. Vitus Cathedral, where kings were crowned, royalty have their tombs and the crown jewels are stored.
When we had reached the west end of the bridge, we reunited with our driver, who delivered us back to the Vinohrady neighborhood where we are staying. We asked to be dropped off near a grocery store we'd located on Google maps, but soon realized that the store was not located where we thought it should be--and the actual street not on the map I had in hand. This resulted in a few moments of panic, until I found a nice guy in the grocery store who was able to clarify where we were, and it turned out to be but a short distance to our street.
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