Prague is a BEAUTIFUL city!!!

For the past couple of days, I have explored the old town of Prague.  Yesterday, I took a 3 hour walking tour and today, I went back to get better pictures and see places that weren’t on the tour.  My little legs are a little tired!!!  Yesterday, according to my trusty pedometer, I walked 5 miles and today, I walked 10 miles!!!

I don’t know where to begin with all of the information and pictures that I have.  This city is steeped in history dating back to 900 and the buildings are just amazing!  Every corner that I turned today was a “Kodak moment”.  I just couldn’t stop saying “wow”!

Prague certainly has changed from when I was here 35 years ago.  I remember it being a beautiful and majestic appearing city but there was a sadness over it.  At the time I was traveling with two Canadians who I had met in Scotland.  We were only given a three day “travel visa” to get through the country of Czechoslovakia and into Poland.  It was November, so the days were short and it was cold.  I believe that they heated the buildings with coal because the whole city was covered in a thin layer of blackish dust…..it was everywhere….on the outside of the buildings, the cars and by the end of the day, us.

The store fronts didn’t have any pretty displays, just the basic. There were no bright lights and just the minimal street lights.  Buying something in the store was an event….you had to stand in one line to place your order.  Then, go to another line to pay for what you wanted and finally, stand in a third line to receive what you had bought.  Everything seemed to close up when it got dark.

If I remember correctly, we celebrated Thanksgiving here.  We bought wine, caviar (none of us had ever had it before and it was only about $2.00), cheese and crackers.  We had our little celebration back in our room.  I didn’t care for the caviar at all, it was too salty.

We were here in 1977, so it was 11 years after the 1968 take over by the Soviet Union.  I remember that it was some anniversary of the communist party and everywhere were these huge red banners with a silhouette of, I think, Lenin in bright yellow and the communist symbol of the hammer and sickle, also in bright yellow.  There were large numbers…I thought they might have been 150 but that would put the year at 1827 and there doesn’t seem to be anything significant to communism that happened during that year.  So, I don’t know but I do remember that these banners were hanging from just about every building.

It was as if the Czech people were being reminded that they were now under Russia’s rule.  Like I said earlier, you just felt a sadness and suppression all around you. Oh, and the cars….they were very old models of cars.  We were driving a 1968 Volkswagen Bug that was a real lemon…Peter and Ike had to give the Greek government money to take the car.  Our little Volkswagen looked like a Mercedes compared to what people in Prague were driving in 1977.  We even had people express what a nice car it was!  The Tatra car from Russia was a popular car throughout the Eastern block in 1977.  As you can see by the picture I found on the internet, it is a real tank!

As I wandered through the streets yesterday and today, I have just marveled at the change in Prague.  Gone is the coal dust film on everything.  The streets are full of people and tourist.  The stores have bright lights and are displaying the latest fashions.  The restaurants are full.  It appears that capitalism is booming.  I wandered into a mall today.  You would have thought you were back in the states….I was familiar with many of the stores H & M, Footlocker, Puma, Starbucks….oh my gosh, I even saw an advertisement for Hooters….and that really sadden me!!!  I won’t get on my soapbox on that one….it is enough to say that I don’t like Hooters!

It is expensive to be a tourist.  Most venues you have to pay to see….even some of the churches are hopping on board with charging you to see the inside of the church.  Today for example, I had to pay $6.75 to see a church and if I wanted to take pictures, that would have cost me an extra $5.00.  The charge for the picture taking is becoming more common, too….and more annoying.  Heck, I paid $3.75 for an espresso the other day.  So, yes, life in Prague has changed drastically from 35 years ago.

I have spent the last two days exploring the old district of Prague.  The Vltava River divides the city.  On the west side is the Castle and St Vitus cathedral and the Strahov Monastery, cross over the famous Charles Bridge and you are in the Old Town areas with the town squares and Jewish quarter.  This picture to the left is taken from the Charles bridge of the palace and St Vitus cathedral, the largest and most important church in Prague…..but more on that later!

As I said earlier, I got up this morning to get pictures before everything got crowded.   This is the Charles Bridge.  Construction of this bridge started in 1345 by King Charles IV.  It was completed in the 15th century and was the only connection to the castle and the old town of Prague.  It crosses the Vltava (also referred to as Moldau).

View of the Charles Bridge, see the ice protectors?

The bridge is a little over 2,000 ft long and 30 ft wide.  It is built on 16 arches with ice protectors jutting out from them.  At each end of the bridge are large towers.  In the 1700s, 30 statues were erected, mostly by wealthy families, on the bridge.  Most of them are of saints.  Today, the originals have been replaced with replicas and placed in various buildings around the city for protection.  

One of the most visited statues is the one of St John of Nepomuk.  He was the priest in the 14th century for the royal family.  The queen made her confessions to him. When John wouldn’t tell those confessions to the King, the King ordered his tongue to be cut out and then thrown off the bridge.  Notice the two plaques beneath the statue.  One is of a dog with his master. If you rub this, it will bring you fidelity and loyalty; for a dog represents both.  The other scene is of St John of Nepomuk’s demise.  It is believed that if you rub this, you will have good health and return to Prague.  I rubbed that one with all my might!!!!

One of the Charles Bridge Towers

The thing that amazes me is how did they do such construction of these structures back in the 1300s and sooner for that matter.  St Vitus Cathedral beginning construction started in the 900s!

The castle is on a hill!  It is quite a hike to get to it.  You can walk up the hills or there are stairs that can be climbed. I opted for the stairs…a good morning workout!

Before reaching the castle grounds there are several squares that you pass through. One is Loreta (that is how it is spelled) Square, where Loreta Church is.  Once inside, the quiet is a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the city.  Getting to the structures, you stroll along the cloister that are decorated with frescos of Mary’s miraculous appearances to the believers in Europe.  There is also a lovely carillon with 27 bells that plays on the hour.  I was there when it played and it was lovely.  

There are two structures inside the cloister.  The Santa Casa  (Holy House) is a very small building that supposedly houses a beam of Mary’s house in Nazareth.  This chapel is considered the most holiest of spots in the country.  This is the “little Bethlehem” of Prague and the starting point for many Czech pilgrims who make the journey to Europe’s most important pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.  Behind the Santa Casa is a small Baroque church.  It had a rich looking decor of marble and gold but according to “Rick Steves” they are all fake!

Along the cloister were plaques that were commemorating various women saints who, because of their Christian belief and refusal to deny it, were tortured and killed. I read a couple of them but decided that was enough.  In one of the corners, is a small chapel area that holds the statue of St Bearded Woman.  She is the patron saint for unhappy marriages.  The story is that the family of this woman arranged for her to marry a pagan man.  She prayed for an escape, as she didn’t want to marry him.  Her answer to prayer was she grew a beard and the man wouldn’t marry her.  This angered her father and he crucified her….see what I mean about the horrible deaths?  Today, people light candles at her alter who are suffering through unhappy marriages.  FYI, I didn’t light one!!!

Upstairs was the treasury that housed the various jeweled worship items.  The most impressive was a communion wafer holder (monstrance) that was in the shape of a large star burst and has over 6,000 diamonds.  This picture, that I got off the internet, doesn’t do it justice but it gives you an idea.  You can’t really tell but the diamonds encrusted each of the “spikes”. The way it was displayed, it just sparkled.  Can you imagine seeing this in a church service, maybe at night by candlelight with the diamonds sparkling?

Just down from Loreta Square is the Castle, which also has a square.  There are several palaces here and throughout all of Prague, for that matter.  There is the Schwarzenberg Palace that now houses the National Gallery’s collection of Czech Baroque paintings.  There is a Rococo palace that houses the archbishop today.  The palace which appears to surround St Vitus cathedral was built by Maria Hapsburg, during the reign of the Hapsburgs, the last of the four monarchy which ruled over the Bohemia area.  Today, many of the palaces are used for government buildings and office buildings.

Once inside the gates to the castle, you pass through a couple of courtyards surrounded by palaces and adorned with a fountain in the center.  Passing though another large gate, you come to St Vitus Cathedral.  It is a beautiful gothic structure.  I love gothic architecture!  It took 350 years to complete.  You can see the different color of the stone work from the picture that shows the older part of the church and the new. There are several kings and queens buried here as well as four patron saints.  Masters from Italy and France were brought in to do the mosaics and stain glass windows.

Some of the stain glass windows give a modern appearance and I believe, were installed during the 1920s.  I do know for a fact that Mucha designed one of the stain glass windows in the Art Nouveau design in 1931.  To the left is a photo of Mucha’s stain glass window. All of the stain glass windows are beautiful.  One has mostly red, another mostly blue and another, yellow.  I will post more pictures of the various windows on my webshots photo page.

There is so much more to the castle area. I didn’t take the tour as I feel that I had seen enough and spent enough time there. Plus, I just didn’t want to deal with the throngs of tourist and tours that were coming through.  Even though I arrived at St Vitus church at about 15 minutes after it opened, it was already swamped with large tour groups and it only got worse the longer I stayed there.

Finally, on this side of the river, I made my way to the Strahov Monastery.  Again, inside the gates, it was a welcome relief after fighting the crowds at the castle!  This monastery is one of the oldest, it was founded in 1143, Premonstratensian Order in the world.  During medieval days, the grounds of the monastery housed various industries, agriculture and education.  During the time of its greatest success, it had a booming economy with its own vineyards and brewery.  Today, it still houses a beer hall!

The Romanesque church is dedicated to the Assumption of St Mary.  It is closed but you can look inside through the glass doors.  The library is filled with 10th-17th century books in rooms that are elaborately painted.  Sadly, I was there during the lunch hour and it was closed.  I just enjoyed walking around the grounds, enjoying the amazing view of the city and listening to the church bells as they chimed the hour.

Dripstone Wall, Wallenstein Gardens
A very intimidating look, no?

From the monastery, I walked through their garden and headed down the hill toward the Charles Bridge area.  At the foot of the hill, I revisited the Wallenstein Gardens, which I had discovered on an earlier walk and was included on our tour.  It is another beautiful oasis from the bustling city.  It was originally built by the highest ranking general of the Hapsburg dynasty.  Today the Czech Senate is housed here.  One of the most unusual features and a first for me to ever see is the man-made wall called the Grotesquery, or dripstone wall.  It is along one whole wall and is supposed to represent a limestone cave.  Supposedly, there are creatures faces carved into the wall.  I did see a couple, but you have to look very closely.  Next to this wall is a large aviary that houses 5 huge owls. I think they were great horned owls.  I asked the guide for the purpose of keeping them and he said that owls represented wisdom.  So, does that mean if you house owls, you will be wise?  Although they were beautiful to look at, I couldn’t help but feel sad for them being caged.

Continuing toward the Charles Bridge, I passed the narrowest street in the city. It is called Devil’s Lane and leads to a restaurant on the canal.  Today, there is a “pedestrian light” to assist people coming and going!

After this stop, I crossed back over the Charles Bridge and made my way back to the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock.  I remembered this attraction from my first time in Prague.  It is right next to the Old Town Hall.  This clock is over 500 years old and is amazing, although I couldn’t begin to figure out what time it is by looking at it!  On the hour, the various statues flanking the clock start ringing bells.  At the top of the clock, the two doors open and the 12 apostles parade by.  The rooster is suppose to crow but the day I saw it, it didn’t!

To end my day, I made my way to the Municipal Building to catch the final tour of it.  The Municipal Building was built in 1905 and isn’t a building for government as we would associate with the word Municipal but it was a building for socializing.  It was built during the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy and the Czech people felt that they needed a place for their cultural events.  It is an important building to the Czech history.  In 1918, the declaration of Czechoslovakia was announced in this building and in 1989 negotiations for the Velvet Revolution took place here which ultimately lead to the independence of the country from the Soviet Union.

The whole building was very impressive and done in a combination of Art Nouveau (nature, flower and animal motifs) and the Empire (ancient Roman and Greek motifs) style. I primarily wanted to see the Mayor Hall which was decorated by Alphonse Mucha.  There were paintings on the ceiling by him and everything in the room, curtains, light fixtures, furniture was designed by him.  As with his work, there was much symbolism….the eagle representing the strength of the Czech people, a man sacrificing himself for the nation represented masculinity and the struggles with disasters showing the resilience of the people and hope for the future.

The day ended enjoying a coffee and listening to a young man play his guitar in the square.   

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