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Irene's Adventures

Czech Republic - Prague

CZECH REPUBLIC | Tuesday, 5 November 2013 | Views [3350]

St. Vitus Cathedral

Be prepared for LOTS of walking on hilly cobblestone streets.  Bring a map or GPS!

man hole cover

Our arranged taxi picked us up at the airport and delivered us through a maze of crooked streets to the Royal Road Residence. The hotel made a mistake in our booking, and thinking we were 4 people, not 2, they booked us into an apartment! Wow! It was spacious and luxurious – with 2 king beds and 2 double beds.

 Royal Road Residence

We asked the receptionist about a place to eat. She recommended two places nearby. Giving us a map of where they were located, we chose the one that had the simplest route.

We turned left from our hotel, walked about 100 meters up a curved cobblestoned street to be awestruck at the magnitude and beauty of the Charles Bridge Tower, lit up for the night. We didn't realize we were that close to it when we booked the hostel. We turned right at the corner, walked another block, turned right again and about 15 meters in, on the left hand side was the Potrefena Husa restaurant.

The service was exceptional and the food amazing! I had beef tartar that came with bread that was so heavy, one slice weighed was almost as much as a small loaf in Canada, and 6 lovely, whole garlic cloves to rub on the bread before spreading the tartar. It was a taste bud delight. The portions were very large with an appetizer really being big enough for a meal. We washed it down with the award winning Staropramen beer, then ended the evening with a couple glasses of old Port.

We then wandered around the Old Town, getting our bearings and peering into shop windows at the abundance of Swarovski crystal ornaments, chandeliers, sculptures and jewelry. There were lots of other glass sculptures in the most unique shapes as well. It is no surprise that Bohemia boasts Daniel Swarovski as their own.

 Swaarovski  glass art work

The Charles Bridge is a famous historic bridge that crosses the Vltava river. Its construction started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished in the beginning of the 15th century. It was the only means of crossing the river Vltava (Moldau) until 1841.

The bridge is 621 m long and nearly 10 m wide, resting on 16 arches shielded by ice guards. It is protected by three bridge towers, two of them on the Lesser Quarter side and the third one on the Old Town side. The bridge is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues, originally erected around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas. One of these statues is of St. John of Nepomuk who, in 1393 was thrown from the bridge into the river where he drowned. In modern times it has become traditional to touch the bridge here; this is held to bring good fortune and to ensure that the visitor will return to the city of Prague.  There are lots of vendors selling their wares on the bridge, as well as a jazz band.

Czech legend has it that construction began on Charles Bridge at 5:31am on 9 July 1357 with the first stone being laid by Charles IV himself. This exact time was very important to the Holy Roman Emperor because he was a strong believer of numerology and this specific time, which formed a numerical bridge (1357 9, 7 5:31), would imbue Charles' Bridge with additional strength. Given the bridge's long life perhaps the Emperor's belief holds some weight. Also, according to legend, Charles IV ordered egg yolks to be addedto make the bridge more hard. Recently, scientists deeply scanned the calcic mortar from 14th century, found out there are egg proteins.


Charles Bridge Tower   Charles Bridge   statue of St. John of Nepomuk, at Charles Bridge

The next morning, we had a nice wholesome breakfast right at the hostel, then made our way out the door to find the Astronomical Clock Tower, where we were looking for the FREE Prague walking tour. Our previous night's wanderings did us no good at all, we got totally lost in the myriad of lanes and alleys – and we had a map! We kept asking people where the Clock Tower was and they would point down a lane, which ended up branching off into 3 other lanes. We looped around and around for nearly an hour until finally we found the clock tower, a mere 50 meters from where we had wandered the night before! And about a 3 minute walk from our hostel. Too Funny!

We found the yellow umbrella of the Free Walking Tour Guide and settled in to wait for the tour to begin. Ashely – an Aussie guy, not a girl – was fun, informative and entertaining. Because the tour starts at 11:00 next to the Astronomical Clock Tower, that was our first event.

 

The Astronomical Clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working. It is mounted on the southern wall of Old Town City Hall in the Old Town Square. The clock mechanism itself is composed of three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the sun and moo in the sky and displaying various astronomical details such as the zodiacal ring. "The Walk of the Apostles", every hour the 12 Apostles “walk” through the doorways above the clock with other moving sculptures—notably a figure of Death striking the time; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months.

The stars of the show are the four figures flanking the clock that are set in motion at the hour, they represent four things that were despised at the time of the clock's making. From left to right, the first is Vanity, represented by a figure admiring himself in a mirror. Next, the miser holding a bag of gold represents greed. Across the clock stands Death (represented by a skeleton) that strikes the time upon the hour. Finally, the Turk tells pleasure and entertainment. On the hour, the skeleton rings the bell and immediately all other figures shake their heads, side to side, signifying their unreadiness "to go", while Death nods his head up and down, signifying “come,come”.

Astonomical Clock Tower

From there we wandered a few meters over into the Old Town Square. The Jan Hus Memorial sits in the middle of the square. The people of Bohemia and other regions around Prague were constantly under oppressive regimes. Jan Hus became a symbol of dissidence and a symbol of strength against oppressive regimes. Born in 1370, Hus became an influential religious thinker, philosopher, and reformer in Prague. Hus believed that Catholic mass should be given in the local language, rather than in Latin as well as many teachings of John Wycliffe. This did not go over well with the Vatican in Rome and Hus was ultimately condemned by the Council of Constance and burned at the stake in 1415.

His opposition to church control by the Vatican gave strength to those who opposed control of Czech lands by the Habsburgs in the 19th century, and Hus soon became a symbol of anti-Habsburg rule.  The huge monument depicts victorious Hussite warriors and Protestants who were forced into exile 200 years after Hus, and a young mother who symbolizes national rebirth. He is said to stand arrogantly in the square in defiance of the cathedral (Church of Our Lady Before Tyn) before him.

 Jan Hus Memorial

Church of Our Lady Before Tyn has been the main church of this part of the city since the 14th century. The church's 80 m high towers topped by four small spires have a dominating presence over the Square.

Tyn Church   Tyn Church

Flanking the east side of the square, on the edge of a park, were street vendors selling sausages, mulled wine and obwarzanki (a pretzel like thing). There was a an old man who played the saxophone near the vendors. Apparently he had been there for years. He could play any tune you wanted and could sing in multiple languages. It added a nice feel to the square.

Further to the north-east part of the Old Town Square was St. Nicholas Cathedral – not to be confused with St. Nicholas Cathedral in Lesser Town. This Romanesque church was built at this site around the turn of the 13th century. The church served as the parish church of Prague's Old Town until the completion of the nearby  Tyn Church. The defeat of the Bohemian army at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 ended the religious freedom in the city and the St. Nicholas church was handed over to the Benedictine order.

 St. Nicholas Cathedral

Heading west on Kaprova street, we came to the Rudolfinum, a music auditorium situated on on the bank of the river Vltava. Opening in 1885, it has been the home of the  Czech Philharmonic Orchestra since since 1946. During the WWII occupation in 1940s, it served as the administrative offices of the occupying Nazis and was restored for the German Philharmonic Orchestra. Reinhard Heydrich, The SS Butcher of Prague, ordered that a statue of composer Mendelssohn-Bartholdy has to be removed from Rudolfinum, because of his non-Aryan origin. The workers accidentally began to remove a statue of Richard Wagner, Hitler´s favorite composer. Fortunately, the mistake was recognized soon enough.

Rudolfinum 

Ironically, across the street began the Jewish Quarter. Jews are believed to have settled in Prague as early as the 10th century. The first pogrom was in 1096 and eventually they were concentrated within a walled ghetto. Towards the end of the 16th century when a very wealthy Jewish Mayor became the Minister of Finance, his money helped develop the ghetto into a prosperous area. Around this time the Maharal was supposed to create the Golem. (more on the Golem later)

 star of david - Jude

In 1850 the quarter was renamed "Josefstadt" (Joseph's City) after Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperorwho emancipated Jews in 1781. Two years earlier, the Jews were allowed to settle outside of the city, so the share of the Jewish population in Josefov decreased, while only orthodox and poor Jews remained living there. Most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to model the city on Paris. Only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall were left standing. To combat the annual flooding that took place, up to 3 meters of soil was brought in to reshape the landscape. Some of the synagogues nearer the river were actually 2 story buildings which now have the second floor at street level and the main floor appearing to be the basement. With so little left of Josefov, the Nazi German occupation could have been expected to complete the demolition of the old ghetto. However the area was preserved in order to provide a site for a planned "exotic museum of an extinct race". This meant that the Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from all over central Europe for display in Josefov, which now has the largest collection of Jewish artifacts outside of Israel.

Pinkas Synagogue 

The Pinkas Synagogue is dedicated to the 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia; their names are inscribed on the walls of the main nave and adjoining areas.

Pinkas Synagogue  

The Old-New Synagogue was originally called the New or Great Synagogue and later, when newer synagogues were built in the 16th century, it became known as the Old-New Synagogue. It is said that the body of Golem lies in the attic.

A late 16th century rabbi reportedly created a Golem to defend the Prague ghetto from  antisemitic attacks and pogrims. To protect the Jewish community, the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations. The Golem was called Josef and was known as Yossele. It was said that he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead. The only care required of the Golem was that he can't be alive on the day of Sabbath (Saturday). Rabbi Loew deactivated the Golem on Friday evenings by removing the Shem (Using a combination of letters from one of the names of God to form a name, this is written on a piece of paper and inserted either in the mouth or in the forehead of the Golem, thus bringing it into life and action.) before the Sabbath began, so as to let it rest on Sabbath. One Friday evening Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the Shem, and feared that the Golem would desecrate the Sabbath. The rabbi then managed to pull the Shem from his mouth and immobilize him in front of the synagogue, whereupon the Golem fell in pieces. The Golem's body was stored in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, where it would be restored to life again if needed. A recent legend tells of a Nazi agent ascending to the synagogue attic during World War II and trying to stab the Golem, but he died instead. The attic is not open to the general public.

Golem

Nearby is the Jewish Cemetery. It is not clear when exactly the cemetery was founded. The oldest preserved tombstone dates back to 1439. According to halakha, Jews must not destroy Jewish graves and in particular it is not allowed to remove the tombstone. This meant that when the cemetery ran out of space and purchasing extra land was impossible, more layers of soil were placed on the existing graves, the old tombstones taken out and placed upon the new layer of soil. This explains why the tombstones in the cemetery are placed so closely to each other. The numbers of grave stones and numbers of people buried there are uncertain, because there are 12 layers of tombs. However, it has been estimated that there are approximately 12,000 tombstones presently visible, and there may be as many as 100,000 burials in all.

 

Jewish Cemetery

Jewish headstones tell more than the person's name, birth and death date. They also have the name of the deceased's father, as well as - but not always - mother of, sister of or uncle of, etc allowing one to go back generations. As well, there are pictures etched into the tombstones that tell more information. For example, two hands, with four fingers each divided into two sets of two fingers, is the symbol of a priestly blessing — this signifies a descendant of the biblical high priest Aaron. A pitcher signifies a member of the tribe of Levi were responsible for cleaning the hands of the Temple priest in ancient days. A candle or candelabra often is used on the tombstone of a woman; and the six-pointed Star of David on that of a man. A broken branch or tree stump motif on a tombstone often signifies someone who died young, whose life was cut short. A pair of scissors depicts a tailor, a fish depicts a merchant.

Jewish Cemetery

Heading eastward along Siroka, erected in a tiny park between the Spanish Synagogue and the Church of the Holy Spirit, on the border of Prague’s Jewish district, in a place that symbolizes the city’s religious and cultural diversity, stands the unusual Franz Kafka sculpture of a mini-Franz sitting piggyback on his own headless body.  Kafka lived in this area. The sculpture was inspired by Kafka’s work, especially the story “Description of a Struggle.” The statue stands on the outline of a cockroach, inspired by one of his masterpieces “The Metamorphosis”. Critical of his own work, Kafka requested that his manuscripts be destroyed after his death. A friend, instead published them, making Kafka the city’s most renowned literary symbol and one of the most influential writers of the last century.

 Franz Kafka Memorial

Finding our way to Mala Stupartska, we then came to the Church of St. James the Greater. This beautifully decorated Baroque church has two rather grim bits of history connected to it. In 1712, Count Vratislav of Mitrovice dropped dead. A massive baroque monument was commissioned for the church and carried out by aViennese architect. The only problem was, when Count Vratislav arrived back in Prague, he wasn’t quite dead. After his funeral, horrible noises came from the tomb for days. The parishioners, thinking that the count’s soul couldn’t find rest, blessed the tomb, sprinkled it with holy water and prayed for him until the noises suddenly stopped. Today when we hear buried alive legends we usually comfort ourselves with thoughts like “perhaps it was just the corpse decomposing and releasing gas.” But that doesn’t explain what workers found in a subsequent renovation of the church. Somehow, the count had gotten out of his coffin but was trapped by the massive stone monument.

Church of St James -  tomb of Count Jan Václav Vratislav of Mitrovice

There is also a mummified forearm to the right of the tomb entrance, dating back over 400 years. The arm is the arm of a jewel thief who tried to steal from the high altar, which has a statue of the Virgin Mary. It is believed that when the thief tired to steal the jewels, Mary grabbed his arm and would not let go, therefore his arm was cut off by monks. It was hung up to deter other theives. It kind of looks like a piece of beef jerky hanging there.

the arm

Heading southeast onto Templova then Celetna streets we came to the Gothic Powder Tower. It is one of the original city gates, dating back to the 11th century. The tower was intended on being an attractive entrance into the city, instead of a defensive tower. The gate was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century, hence the name Powder Tower or Powder Gate.

Powder Tower    

Right next door to the Powder Tower is the Municipal House. The Royal Court palace used to be located on this site. From 1383 until 1485 the King of Bohemia lived on the property. After 1485, it was abandoned. It was demolished in the early 20th century. Construction of the current Art Nouveau architecture style building started in 1905. It opened in 1912. The building is used as concert hall, ballroom, civic building, and as the location of cafes and restaurants. There is a huge mosaic over the entrance and sculptures on either side. It is topped with a glass dome. I found it quite amazing that all of the huge windows were beveled glass.

 Municipal House

 

Further along Na Prikope, we came to Wenceslas square, which is not technically a “square' because it does not have a town hall and a church. It was originally conceived in the 14th century as a horse market. The large square (nearly a half mile long) evolved into Prague's central boulevard with the National Museum at the end. In front of the museum stands an equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas. Wenceslas, 'the good king' of Christmas carol legend, was a Bohemian duke spreading Christianity. Murdered in 929 by his brother he was later declared a saint and eventually became a national Czech symbol.

 St. Wenceslas statue  St. Wenceslas Square

 

Our 2 hour, 3 kilometer tour came to an end, and we were hopelessly lost. Ashley told us to go up a lane and 2 minutes later we were back in the Old Town Square. The streets were like a spider's web, zigzagging this way and that; and there was no sun to even give a hint of where north or south were. 

For future reference: go straight from the square, a quick left on Rytirska then right on Melantrichova will lead you right back to the Clock Tower.  Also for future reference:  When going thtough the market on Havelska Street, turn right on Melantrichova.  We kept turning left... and getting lost.....

We spent the remainder of the day walking along the river, looking for the Dancing House – a very unique office building, located just south of the Bridge of Legions and National Theatre. The house resembles a pair of dancers – sort of wavy with the windows non-aligned and not flat, with illusion of picture frames.

Dancing House 

 

The next day we went across the Charles Bridge to the Lesser Town to check out the Franz Kafka museum. All we wanted to see was the two mechanical statues of men peeing into a pond. We went into the gift shop and bought some really nice pictures of the Charles Bridge. We also saw the narrowest street in Prague, which isn't actually a 'street' but a cut way down to a restaurant. It has a traffic light system to allow people to walk through without getting awkwardly jammed.

Peeing men    

 

We then went to the other St. Nicholas Church. This baroque church was built between 1704-1755. The Baroque organ has over 4,000 pipes up to six meters in length and were played by Mozart in 1787. The white and pink marble with gold trim gave the church a very cheery atmosphere. Some of the statues were whimsical, also. Up in the gallery of the church one could see graffiti etched into the wooden railings. It surprised me to see ages-old graffiti, I guess the sermons could be boring even back then.

St. Nicholas Cathedral St. Nicholas Cathedral  pipe organ in St. Nicholas Cathedral

 

We then went back to the Astronomical Clock Tower to take a second tour. This time to the Prague Castle. On our way to the Castle we stopped at the Strahov Monastery, got a great view of the city from a look out point, walked by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, got a brief history of Edvard Benes, had the Loreta Church pointed out to us, then made our way to Prague Castle, with Battle of the Titans mounted on either side of its gate. If this sounds a bit whirl wind, it was. We heard a lot about our guides political views, but not so much history of the things we were seeing. As fast as all this seemed, we didn't make it to St. Vitus church in time to even peek inside. We did, however, see the changing of the guard. She also pointed out a bronze statue of a naked young man, where it is considered good luck to rub his penis..... OK, then......

  Prague

We went back the next day to explore the Castle area better. I am mentioning this, because this tour was NOT free.  Although we planned to just zip in and check it out, we spent a couple hours looking around and listening to the audio guide. Wikipedia does not to it justice, it really must be seen and experienced.

Loreta Church   Battle of the Titans 

 

Prague Castle is where the Bohemian kings, Holy Roman emperors and Czech presidents have had their offices. The Guinness Book fo Records lists Prague Castle as the largest ancient castle in the world. It occupies an area of almost 70,000 square meters, at about 570 meters in length and an average of about 130 meters wide.

The crowning piece to the castle is St. Vitus Cathedral. The first church was an early Romanesue rotunda founded in 925 by Wenceslas I. The current Gothic structure was founded on 21 November 1344. One can see it towering over the city day and night. Up close, it is even more huge, imposing and impressive. Its spires seem to touch the sky. The gargoyles lunge out at you. Inside, the ceiling has an intricate pattern running the entire length of the church. The massive stained glass windows take your breath away. The circular window over the entrance measures 10 meters across.

St. Vitus Cathedral

 

stained glass window   10 meter window  ceiling  stained glass window  St. Vitus Cathedral

 

Perhaps the most outstanding place in the cathedral is the Chapel of St. Wenceslas, where the relics of the saint are kept. The lower part of the walls are wonderfully decorated with over 1300 semi-precious stones. In the middle of the wall there is a Gothic statue of St. Wenceslas created in 1373. The Chapel is not open to the public, but it can be viewed from the doorways.
A small door with seven locks (with 7 different heads of state holding one key each) in the south-western corner of the chapel, leads to the Crown Chamber containing the The Bohemian Crown Jewels that are kept within a hidden room inside it, which are displayed to the public only once every eight years.

St. Wenceslas Chapel in St. Vitus

 

Not everything about this great cathedral has a holy and righteous appearance. One of the entrances to St. Vitus has a gate with whimsical miniature sculptures.

on gate at St. Vitus Cathedral

 

St. George's Basilica is the oldest surviving church building within Prague Castle. It sits across a courtyard behind St. Vitus. The basilica was founded in 920. In 925 the remains of Princess Ludmila were buried here. Its ceiling is made of a deep, dark wood, its height accentuated by the fairly narrow width of the church. Decorative windows in the stone walls provide atmospheric lighting. Underneath the nave choir, there is a crypt from the 12 th century. You can see a Late Gothic Statue of Brigita there, representing a dead and decaying girl´s body. It is a symbol of impermanence. A legend says, that it was made by a sculptor, who killed his girlfriend and wanted to create her statue before he was executed. However, he was only able to make it as a dead body, because of his despair. The overall effect is very old world

St. George's Basilica  St. George's Basilica Brigita

 

The old Royal Palace with the magnificent Vladislav Hall is also part of the Prague Castle. It was built in the late 12th century. From the 16th century the Vladislav Hall served particularly Royal State purposes. It was the scene of coronation festivities and banquets, knights' tournaments and markets with artistic and luxurious goods. The Vladislav Hall still used for ceremonial and diplomatic gatherings. One exits the Vladislav Hall by the Riders' Staircase, with a complicated Late Gothic rib vaulted ceiling, built originally to enable knights to enter the hall on horseback in order to take part in the jousting competitions held inside.

Vladislav Hall ceiling     Vladislav Hall  knights entrance

Just inside the Prague Castle is a small street called “Golden Lane”. According to legend, alchemists once plied their trade of trying to produce gold. Another theory for the name is because they used to empty their chamber pots into the street. Today it has colorful little houses that have been converted to shops and museums. It is one street that has been preserved from olden times. There is also a medieval museum of armory, with some very unusual suits of armor.

alchemist shop 

suit of armor helmet  chess set

Other notable things about the Palace: The Palace is where one of the Defenestrations of Prague occurred. The Palace used to house the Municipal files – basically the land titles offices. There are replicas of the Crown Jewels on display. The original massive heaters still sit in the corner of each room.

crown jewels replica  heater


While we were climbing the stairs to the Castle, that morning, we heard the most lovely music coming from an alcove. A man was sitting there playing a hang drum. It is a UFO looking thing with the top side having a large center button and seven or eight indentations hammered around center, looking like windows on the UFO. The bottom is a plain surface that has a rolled hole in the center. It was hauntingly beautiful and we bought a CD from him.

 

One evening we went to a medieval tavern for a night of traditional food and entertainment. We ended up at the wrong restaurant, due to our hostel receptionist giving us wrong directions. But, no matter, we had a great time eating a medieval meal in a dingy, dark, candle-lit dungeon looking place. (Sounds romantic, doesn't it?) We were entertained by a lovely young belly dancing lady, an amazing fire that caused the ceiling to go even blacker as the flames shot out the guy's mouth, and a lively sword fight right in front of our table.

Medieval Entertainment

We found a lot of very unique and interesting art while in Prague. Dima Dmitriev was born in Moscow, Russia but moved to Prague. Gennady Shlykov is Ukrainian. David Černý is native Prague and his sculptures are very controversial. We were very fortunate to see many originals of all these artists.

Dima Dmitriev - Marbles  Gennady Shlykov - Coqueta  David Cerny – Uber Ego

 

 

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