I visited Prague Castle on my first trip to Prague in 2005. With my imperfect knowledge of the metro, I got off at a stop halfway up the hill and hiked the rest of the way. I saw most of the Castle grounds, including the changing of the guard (uniforms designed by the same
guy who did the costumes for the 1984 film, Amadeus). I had to skip St Vitus Cathedral but resolved to see it next time (I always assume I’ll return). I did return this past December and paid a proper visit to St Vitus.
My hotel was on Mala Stepanska, a tram stop was just around the corner and a small shop opposite sold tram tickets. The number 22 tram stopped here which goes up to the Castle within the ticket’s 30 minute limit. The tram trundled along, making several stops, crossed the Vltava river below Charles Bridge and chugged up the hill west of the river to Prague Castle.
The triple switchback road shows just how steep the walk can be. Most of the people still on the tram got off at the castle stop, Prazsky hrad. The crosswalk leads to the back entrance, where we were met by a couple of (kinda cute) police types who politely told us that the Castle was off-limits for the day but they assured us the Castle would be open again the following day.
Boy, if I had hiked all that way instead of taking the tram only to find the place closed, I would have been really cranky. Turned out that President Medvedev of Russia was at the Castle. Humpfh! The next two days were already filled with activities, so I couldn’t go back to the castle until my last day in Prague. It was a Sunday and,
having misplaced my unused tram tickets, I fished out some coins to buy a couple more but the shop was closed. Rats. Well, today would be my last hike, so I set off for the Castle. It was a gorgeous day, after all. Just as I reached the bridge where the 22 tram crosses the river, I found my tram tickets and a 22 tram pulled into the stop just as I reached the queue. Yahoo. Thankfully, the Castle was open and teeming with people, locals and foreigners alike, taking advantage of the weekend and the crisp, calm winter weather.
Much of the castle grounds and the church can be visited for free, but the ‘short’ audio tour is worth the price, providing an in-depth picture of the Castle complex. The accompanying ticket allows admission to all except the art galleries. I left the galleries and some of the outer grounds such as the orangery and the stables for next time. I wanted to squeeze in another visit to Charles Bridge and the main Christmas markets at Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square before I left.
There are palace guards at all the entrances to the complex; this is government property, after all (e.g., Medvedev). The guards looked warm in their long winter coats and fur hats. The guards are relieved every hour, which probably ensures these guys won’t look like Napoleon’s
army leaving Russia. They don’t waste any time, either. One group of soldiers almost trampled me as they marched off to one of the gates. They came up behind me while I was gaping at the cathedral, moving so quickly they almost outpaced the sounds of their footsteps. The lead soldier said something that was probably Czech for ‘Hot soup! Coming through!’
The sweeping panoramas from the castle esplanades are worth the hike even if you skip everything else. The main vista is in front of the main entrance, called the Giant’s Gate. The other outlook point is at the opposite end of the complex, with a better view of the river and Charles Bridge.
It’s hard to get a complete photo of St Vitus Cathedral with a basic point-and-shoot because the building is almost cheek-by-jowl with walls and other buildings on three sides. The spires at the main entrance and above the Wenceslas Chapel scrape the sky. The best photo can be taken by leaning against the south wall of the Third Courtyard. St Vitus took almost 600 years to complete, beginning in the 14th century. All of the exterior looks uniformly ancient, but it’s probably just uniformly grubby.
Tenth century King (St) Wenceslas (of ”Good King Wenceslas” fame) is buried here, in a modest chapel with fresco-covered walls. St Vitus and St Adalbert and others are also here. The most elaborate tomb of all belongs to St John Nepomuk, confessor to the queen of Bohemia (14th century). He’s decomposing in a freakin’ huge tomb, a gaudy silver conglomeration of silver putti, angels, candlesticks and other objects. Two tons of silver designed in the 18th century. The truth about the occupant is uncertain, not least because there may have been two guys with the same name whose legends
merged into one. John was thrown to his death from Charles Bridge and the spot is marked with a bronze plaque (you’ll have to lean over the bridge wall to see it). A city tour guide pointed out that statues of Nepomuk always wearing a five-starred hula hoop of a halo, are all over Prague but she is unconvinced that John deserves all the attention.
The cathedral’s stained glass windows are beautiful, especially the newer ones. The most notable of the new windows, designed by Alfons Mucha, was installed in the 1920s. Begun in 1344, St Vitus wasn’t completed until 1929. As far as I know, only Cologne Cathedral took longer (1248-1880). Amazing.
The Czech Crown Jewels are secured in a safe with seven locks, inside a room locked with seven locks, each requiring a different key. Sounds like something from Harry Potter, doesn’t it? The keys are held by a seven political and religious leaders. These treasures are put on display roughly every eight years, the last time in 2008. So maybe my next trip to Prague should be 2016.
Outside once again, Christmas decorations dot the grounds and a bed of dark blue pansies bloom bravely in a shady flower bed. I wonder if these pansies are different from the ones we grow in the U.S. Mine usually collapse long before Christmas.
Golden Lane is a faithfully restored medieval street dating originally from the 16th century. Its narrow strip of houses snakes behind the convent and basilica of St George, a castle feature farthest from the cathedral and close to a second esplanade overlooking Prague and the river. The fourteen houses on the lane are truly tiny.
If you’ve ever been to Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, the scale is similar, if less primitive. These houses were originally built for the ‘sniper’ guards who patrolled the ramparts. Over time, the guards no longer needed, tradesmen and artisans moved in and these are some of the inhabitants hinted at by the current interiors, installed during a renovation completed only in June of 2011. Golden Lane’s name may refer to the alchemists who lived there at the beginning or the goldsmiths or by the color of the first houses. Old and tiny as these houses are,
people occupied them well into the 20th century, including a fortune teller named Madame de Thebes who predicted Hitler’s death (bringing about her own) and Franz Kafka.
Leaving Golden Lane, a short walk downhill brings you out another guarded gate to an esplanade with the best panoramas of Prague, even better than the view outside the Giant’s Gate.
A quick stop at the gift shop (some habits die hard), tram ride down the hill and a short walk to Charles Bridge to buy some earrings (see previous blog post). Now that I know my way around the city better, it feels a comfortable place to be and, as happens with everywhere I’ve been in Europe, I’m sorry to leave.