Even the chill and the unexpected rain that continued all day, couldn’t dampen or dull the glorious architecture of Prague, now included on the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage as the largest urban monument in the world. Relentlessly, the wind seemed to snap through the layers of warm clothing and my umbrella was too small to keep the drops from soaking clothing from the waist down to very wet feet.
Undaunted and determined, since time in this historic destination was short, this outdoor laundry didn’t hinder my wish to see and learn more about a city and country that was once known as the Paris of central Europe and was considered the most beautiful in Europe. (I’ve often wondered why everything beautiful is identified with Paris since so many destinations have their very own beautiful character and personality!)
Each time I go to the Czech Republic I realize it’s a country of contrasts. The architecture of Prague is a crossroads of the great Gothic, Baroque periods to Cubist, Art Nouveau, Art Deco. Prague is a most fortunate city since it’s a city that wasn’t destroyed during the two world wars. But during the Communist regime, the ancient architectural wonders of the historic centre are sadly interspersed with slabs of grey concrete buildings. The Communists can take credit for these outrageously ugly edifices.
However,on the flip side one must give kudos to Prague whose heritage stems from of the Holy Roman Emperor and King, Charles IV, who is still remembered as creating the Golden Age of the history of this central European country
Charles IV was born and named Wenceslaus but changed it to Charles at his confirmation. Fluent in 5 languages, he received a French education. Not only was he brilliant as emperor,as a diplomat but also as a scholar. The city flourished during his reign
It’s difficult not to be impressed by the buildings and monuments which bear his name as a homage. In 1348, the New Town was founded as was the oldest university in central Europe, Charles University, Without doubt Charles Bridge, one of the most visited sites. was built during his reign in 1357. These days there’s always a crush of both locals and tourists since it is probably the best place to see interaction between all ages and nationality. The premature cold weather didn’t dissuade the masses on this pedestrian walkway over the Vltava River. The bridge spans 516 metres in length is perfect for getting a close up view of the incredible roofs and domes of the city’s skyline. Along the walk the most important sites are the 30 Baroque statues, most with a story and they are a big attraction.
The day I crossed there were organ grinders, portraitists, jazz bands so many other diversions as unexpected as the young women so westernized in their outfits in what I had obviously mistaken was an ultra, religious conservative city. Here were very trendy young women in micro mini skirts and colourful hues of hair shades from purples to hot pink often smooching openly with their equally elaborately dressed beaus. But nevertheless, it didn’t distract from two statues, one relatively new 20th century bronze which, when rubbed is supposed to bring luck while another at the top has Hebrew lettering on a totally Catholic statue, added it was told to me, to discredit and humiliate the Jewish community who were ghettoized and lived in difficult circumstances in an area behind Charles Square.
While in that area, it’s worth a side trip to visit the Orthodox, Gothic Old-New Synagogue, one of the few that still exists with religious services on the High Holidays. It is also important to know that it’s the oldest surviving example of medieval twin naves type of synagogues. Still retained is the tradition of separating the men and the women. Nearby is the Jewish cemetery. The oldest tombstone here stems from1439 and since the Jewish community ran out of space the burials are layered and the tombstones closely placed. It’s though that the there are about 12,000 tombstones but perhaps over 100,000 burials. And it’s here that the renowned,Rabbi Low (Loew) was buried in 1609.
Not far is Golden Lane which would be a shame to miss. Once the heart of the ghetto,it’s no wider than a small lane, the houses, now painted in bright colors and the interiors renovated, are so tiny that only a two or three people could enter at one time. These are now either smart boutiques or venues to see how the Jewish people of that era lived.
Just minutes away, in the old town is famed Prague Square located between Wencesles Square and the Charles Bridges and the site of a huge astronomical clock. When it strikes the hour, a series of rotating religious figures circle the opening. Our Lady of Tyn Church, a Gothic building from 1315, has magnificent steeples and a Rococo altar equally dominates the square.
Completed under Charles IV’s patronage, one of the great cathedrals in the world is St. Vitus Cathedral where the stained glass windows are unparalleled, the vaulted ceiling exquisite and silver icons making this one of the most majestic in the world. No matter how often I’ve visited, my jaw drops. Maybe too many adjectives but less wouldn’t do this magnificent architectural justice. It’s here that the coronations and burials of Czech kings were held.
Another national monument that is equally grand is the medieval Castle Prague, simply known as ‘the castle’. Built originally as a Renaissance palace in the 14th century, again by Charles IV, it has had several architectural personae. Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic to name some. Charles IV rebuilt it to become one of the great Gothic beauties. One of the facts that I found interesting is that the Czech Crown jewels are kept here but not open for public viewing. During the Nazi occupation, this castle became the headquarters of Nazi officials. Then shortly after the citizens having suffered that regime, in came the communist Czechoslovak government which also housed their offices in the castle. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Alexander Dubcek , the leader, was asked to have a ‘seat’ as president in Prague Castle.
The castle became the seat of the head of state.
Originally the holy relics and the royal treasures were kept at Castle Karlstejn, about an hour and a half drive from Prague. Founded in 1348, Charles IV built it as a place for the Royal collections of jewels. A young man showed us around as he indicated that the first floor represented Hell. Climbing 25 steep, narrow steps, took us to a solemn Purgatory room. Another 25 steps in semi darkness, when the locked door was opened this was Heaven. This compelling room has a golden domed ceiling interspersed with a golden moon and stars. Paintings,mostly in soft colors were of religious persons. With only 250 people allowed entrance each day to keep these rooms in perfect humidity, it’s best to have a reservation.
More than 240 years after the death of King Charles IV, Rudolf II was born in Vienna then moved to Prague. He is most controversial with some historians suggesting he was ineffectual and whose mistakes led to the Thirty Years’ War. However, there was another side to the aloof monarch. He didn’t take part in the daily affairs of state, preferring to learn more about the occult such as alchemy and astrology. He was a patron of the arts and today would be considered very eccentric. Astrology was only one of the hobbies. It was Rudolf II who was most tolerant of Protestants and Jews. As a Catholic, he withdrew to the point of refusing the last rites. In a large estate with one of the most the impressive exteriors of carved and etched ecru,brown and beige on white stucco, was where he allowed and supported astronomers Danish nobleman, Tycho de Brahe and Johannes Kepler to work with their scientific instruments on their ideas and discoveries. There is still a very complicated ‘sun dial’ from that time which stands in the middle of the largest room. Off, in a smaller room, behind closed doors, are many artworks that are part of the collection. Although Rudolf II was intrigued by their development, he never lived in this mansion although visits were constant. Musical instruments, astrolabes, telescopes, scientific instruments, a collection of art including Durer and Brueghel as well as the then contemporary artists, were more his passion than the state of the country.
Both Kings left fine legacies which to this day are revered and where ever you look in Prague, there are monuments to and by them and extraordinary buildings for which they were responsible as Prague continues to be one of the architectural wonders to this day.