Prague Old Town

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July 19th 2010
Published: February 1st 2011
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'Gate number...... ok, where are we?'
'You're in Stansted love!' came the cheerful reply from a nearby traveller looking far too perky for 4am as my sister and I gathered ourselves from the airport floor.
Having spent half the year in Mexico and already having a job in Spain lined up for the new term I wasn't really thinking about travelling over the summer holidays. Fortunately my sister had other ideas and took charge of arranging a trip to Prague for a few days. Sitting in my room in Mexico I had aquiesced and left her to make all the descions.
Thus I found myself leaving home, so early in the morning it hardly seemed worth having gone to bed, less than two weeks after arriving home from Mexico!
On arrival we were met by the owner of the hostel and quickly driven into Prague. The hostel has proven to be a fantastic choice on my sister's part and we have a lovely room and a tiny kitchen shared with the people in the other three rooms. The building is old and our first floor apartment is accessed by a sweeping staircase while the hallway is artfully decorated with mouldings along the walls and ceiling and the front is heavy and ornate (and very difficult to open!)
We collapsed in the hostel until dragging oursleves outside determined not to waste any of our rather short stay in the city. Our hostel is opposite the National Museum, which in turn stands at the top of Wenceslas Square, which seemed like a good direction to set out in. The misleading name of 'Square' had not prepared us for the long avenue filled with shoppers and tourists. At the top we passed the museum and near to it two memorials, one in memory of those killed during the Communist era and a second specifically to student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in protest at the Soviet invasion. The latter is sadly an unimpressive cross shape rising part way out of the pavement and it felt disrespectful that I had practically tripped over it before I noticed it.
Also standing at the top of Wenseslas Square is a large statue of St. Wenceslas himself. Saint Wenceslas was duke of Bohemia from 921CE until his murder in 935CE. He is the patron saint of the Czech State, and better known to the rest of the world from the christmas carol. We walked down from his statue, amogst the hubbub of the busy streets.
Prague's architecture is beautiful and remained undiminished despite the number of buildings bearing rather English signs; we in fact passed Marks and Spencer and Debenhams and we've already been told there's a Tesco by our hostel.
Wenceslas Square is 750m long by 60m wide and was laid out over 600 years ago during the reign of Charles IV and originally used as the Prague horse market.
It took us almost 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other at which point we decided we'd better start using the metro tomorrow.
My sister determinedly unfolded a map and tried to locate the closest historical landmark. While she fretted over reading the map I looked around at the buildings beside us before pointing out that the large impressive gothic tower before us must surely be worth looking at as well. Sure enough the tower was in fact Prague's Powder Tower, originally built in 1475 during the reign of King Vladislav II at the site of an 11th century gate, one of Prague's 13 original city gates. The 65m tall tower is the gateway to the medieval Royal Route which leads through the Old Town over the Charles Bridge to Prague's castle on the hill.
Deciding any route favoured by kings must be a good place to start we followed the road through the tower and down towards the Old Town Square. Dating back to the late 12th century, the Old Town Square started life as the central marketplace for Prague. Over the next few centuries, many buildings of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles were erected around the square.
We went in search of tourist information and passed the famous astronomical clock. At the tourist information we were able to buy the 'Prague Card' giving us access to lots of attractions in the city and basically gave us an itinerary as we aimed to just do as many as we could to get our moneys worth.
Back outside a large crowd was gathering to watch the clock strike the hour. The oldest part of the clock or 'Orloj' is the mechanical clock and astronomical dial,which date back to 1410 whenthey were made by clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň and Jan Šindel, the latter a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Charles University. Later, around 1490, the calendar dial was added and clock facade decorated with gothic sculptures.
The clock is without doubt very beautiful. A stationary background represents the Earth and the local view of the sky and Golden Roman numbers at the outer edge of blue circle are the timescale of a normal 24 hour day and indicate the local time. Inside the large black outer circle lies another movable circle marked with the signs of the zodiac which indicates the location of the sun on the ecliptic. At the outer edge of the clock, golden Schwabacher numerals are set on a black background. These numbers indicate Old Czech Time (or Italian hours), with 24 indicating the time of sunset, which varies during the year from as early as 16:00 in winter to 20:16 in summer.
As lovely and technically brilliant as all this is, it is quite difficult to actually discern the time from all the elaborate moving rings and hands. More simple to follow are of course the wooden figures. The four figures flanking the clock represent four things hated at the time the clock was made; Vanity, shown by a youth holding a mirror, Greed, shown by a stereotypical Jew with a money bag, Death, depicted as a skeleton ringing a bell, and a Turk representing the infidel. There are also twelve statues of the apostles which all rotate and can be seen every hour as the clock chimes.
After watching the clock chime we went inside to make use of our new Prague Cards.
After King John of Luxembourg accorded the citizens of Prague the privilege of having their own district council in 1338, they decided to build a Town Hall, paid for by a duty levied on wine. The almost 70 meters high tower was completed in 1364. Due to continuous expansions, the building is now a colourful collection of gothic and renaissance-style façades. Originally the building served only as the city hall of the old town, but later became the city hall for all of Prague.
Inside we were able to see the Council Chambers where the Bohemian Kings were elected, the chapel and the interior of the clock where we could see the apostle figures on their work break. Afterwards we took the lift all the way to the top of the tower where we were treated to a beautiful view across Prague's red rooftops. After edging around the top view point we walked back down and stopped in a small room beautiful decorated with mosaics before returning to the square to take photos and finally admitting defeat after our early morning and returning to our hostel. It was past 5pm when we actually reached the hostel after walking the length of Wenceslas Square for the second time in the day. We located trusty old Tesco close to our hostel and spent the evening in our room and read through the guide book to make plans for the next two days as aimlessly wandering is all well and good but liable to end with us missing something important.

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