Castles, clocks and coffins

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July 21st 2010
Published: February 6th 2011
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Our poor aching feet carried us to the nearest tourist attraction to the hostel - the National Museum. While we hobbled up the stairs I noticed a woman sitting in a wheelchair at the bottom looking confused as to how she was supposed to enter. I told her I'd find out and managed to send someone to the wheelchair accessible door around the corner whilst I ran up the main steps again to begin my own visit. The National Museum is the largest and oldest museum in the Czech Republic. The neo-renaissance building was designed by Josef Schultz and built between 1818-1891. We walked up the main staircase through the grand entrance hall and began a very fast visit. We raced through displays of natural history, paleontology, and much more. The entire museum is a work of art in itself and the ornate ceilings are covered in paintings. We made an ashamedly short visit but had many other places we wanted to see and so we hurried to the nearest metro and 20 minutes laters were walking to the castle at Vysehrad. Having already discovered there isn't anything particularly 'castle-like' about Prague Castle we were even more confused by Vysehrad. Walking down a long path we saw the 11th century Rotunda of St. Martin on the grassy bank beside us, and directly ahead a large stone gateway. Beyond that we found another castle complex without a single building I could describe as a castle.
Like Prague Castle it is more of a fortified area with a church and various other buildings.
Local legend holds that Vyšehrad was the location of the first settlement which would later become Prague, though this is unsubstantiated. What is known is in the 10th century, 70 years after the establishment of Prague Castle, a church and fortified trading post were built on a cliff top overlooking the Vltava River.
In 1085, Vratislav II, a prince of Bohemia's founding Premyslid dynasty, built a castle here and Vysehrad, or the "Castle on the Heights", became the stronghold of Prague. This lasted 40 years, before his successors returned to Prague Castle, and the city developed around that area instead.
Not much remains of the castle and we were very confused as the first place we found past the gate was Vyšehrad Cemetery, where many famous people from Czech history are buried. We strolled through the graveyard which has some impressive tombs and many interesting gravestones. I am rather fond of the one with a pair of clawing hands on top, and had the notion that those hands placed on the ground in front of a stone reading 'buried alive' would be very amusing... or strange and deeply disturbing. One or the other!
We walked around to the front of the impressive Church of Saint Peter and Paul and then walked on to the outer stone wall and through a doorway that led to an impressive view across the river.
We wandered back and found an underground museum, also free on our Prague Cards (wonderful things!) From there we stopped at the cafe and indulged in apple pie and ice cream.... just because. We walked back across the grass and relaxed near the chucrh beside the large statues depicting figures from folk tales.
After a lengthy walk around in search of a toilet, then a map, then an attempt to find where we were. We next went to visit the casemates. In 1742, during the French occupation, French armies built a casemate - a maze of underground tunnels and storage halls - in the fortress. Later Prussian and Austrian armies enlarged the casemates so they now go into the hillside for miles on end, though only about 1km are open to the public. We entered through the Brick Gate and followed the tunnels into the Gorlice, the main vaulted hall, where the armies used to store ammunition and supplies and which now house some of the statues from the Charles Bridge. About half of the statues on Charles' Bridge are original but a few have been removed for protection from weathering and are stored underground at Vysehrad. The casemates were once almost completely destroyed. In November 1744 the Prussians aimed to blow up the entire fortress as they were leaving Prague. They brought 133 barrels containing gun powder into the casemate.
The last soldier lit two fuses which would have started the explosion, but three brave Vysehrad men went down into the casemate and were lucky enough to find and remove these fuses leaving the fortress and the casemate intact.
It was really cold in the tunnels although since we had a fairly quick tour it was enough that it was blissfully cool after the heat outside and then just as we started to chill off we were back out in the sunlight.
We finally left the castle and hopped on the metro getting off near the old town centre and walking to St. Agnes of Bohemia Convent. The convent is the oldest Gothic building and one of the most signifcant convets in Bohemia. The convent and the church were built between 1231-34. Princess Agnes, the daughter of Přemysl Otakar I, and sister to King Wenceslas I, chose a spiritual life and founded a convent here in 1234 for the Poor Clares, an order of nuns associated with the Order of St Francis. She founded the only Czech religious order, the Order of the Knights of the Cross with a Red Star; and spent her life helping the poor and sick. St. Agnes was beatified in 1870 and canonized in 1989.
The convent also houses historical art and we wandered through several rooms containing images of religious figures in paintings and altarpieces, statues and stained glass. We visited the Chapel of the Virgin Mary built from 1238-1245 and the ajoined Church of St Francis. We also saw the tomb of St Agnes who is buried within her old convent.
Not yet finished with our day's sightseeing we headed towards the Jewish quarter, a move we rather regretted as for our aching feet it seemed far longer than it appeared on the map and when we arrived we found the only tickets for sale were group entrance to several places in the district and as we were running short on time we decided it wasn't worth it. We did at last see the synagogue from the outside and the interesting Hebrew Clock, no more difficult to tell the time on than the astronomical clock!
We hobbled back towards Charles' Bridge where we aimed to see the sunset. We started by revisiting our Chinese buffet, and then relaised we still had too much time before sunset so decided to kill some time by visiting the 'Ghosts and Legends of Old Prague'. We'd seen a poor corpse white woman waving fliers at everyone passing so we walked in the entrance, slipped past the looming black figure of death and bought our tickets. Inside was a room full of plaques telling local ghost stories and statues and models bringing to life the tales. Several 'ghosts' were visible appearing through the walls and after running around the top room we descended the stairs into the darkness below. I practically had to force my sister down as she c=suddenly convinced herself there were going to be people dressed up and jumping out at us from below. There weren't; and I pointed out 'health and safety' demands would prevent over-zealous actors from actually grabbing people's ankles as they came down the stairs. The lower room was unimagintively full of models of characters from the stories and nothing scarier than fake human skeletons and dark croners, but still fun none-the-less.
Out in daylight again returned to Charles' Bridge and sat down to bring some relief to our feet whic ave been unremittingly smacking the pavements of Prague hour upon hour. As we sat, my sister wincing at her particularly swollen ankle, a Spanish tourist came up purely for the purpose of informing her that her ankle looked disgusting!We hobbled the length of the bridge and watched the sun set glittering across the water and warming the buildings of the far bank. We went in search of the nearest metro stop which wasn't at all near as it turns out! Our detour did forunately bring us around the river bank with a clear view of Charles' Bridge in the last glow of the sunset and we eventually found the metro and arrived back to the hostel where we promptly collapsed.

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