My last desination in Central Europe was the city of Prague (Praha), the historic capital of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, and the Czech Republic. (Since the time of my visit, the country's official name has changed again to Czechia.) Prague has been another historic melting pot between eastern and western Europe over the centuries, a place where Czechs and Germans have rubbed shoulders with Slovaks, Poles, Turks, Jews, and a dozen other ethnicities. This was another location that I had wanted to visit for many years, ever since my brother had spent a weekend in Prague in the midst of a winter snowstorm during his study abroad semester. I had another extremely busy burst of sightseeing ahead of me, as I tried to visit as much as possible over the course of the next two days.
I started out this Monday morning by catching the usual train from Bratislava to Prague. This was another one of those communal train car designs that I had been seeing ever since heading east of Vienna, and it was fairly crowded given that this was the beginning of the work week. The trip lasted about four hours and proved to be uneventful. I don't have any recollection of seeing something noteworthy, nor do I have any pictures snapped while traveling. When the train arrived I found myself in the Prague central station (Praha hlavní nádraží), the largest and busiest station in Czechia. This particular location was built in the late 19th century and was originally named after Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, then later renamed after American president Woodrow Wilson for a brief period in the 1940s. I found this station to be somewhere in the middle of the range compared to the ones I had seen thus far, not as elegant and spacious as the ones in Germany and the Netherlands, but noticeably nicer than the ones I had just visited in Hungary and Slovakia. I was getting to be a bit of a connoisseur of European train station architecture by this point.
My first destination was the nearby Jerusalem Synagogue (Jeruzalémská synagoga), the more common name for the structure officially known as the Jubilee Synagogue. This synagogue was built in 1906 in honor of the Silver Jubliee for Emperor Franz Josef (with Prague being part of the Habsburg domains at the time), but it became known as the Jerusalem Synagogue due to its location on Jerusalem Street. Well, that and there wasn't much interest in commemorating the deceased ruler of another country once Czechoslovakia became independent following World War I. Regardless of the name, this is a strikingly beautiful building, constructed mostly in the Moorish Revival style but with elements of art nouveau incorporated as well. There are so many bright colors in the building's architecture, both inside and outside, that they practically leap off the walls. It's rare to see a location that has so many reds and blues mixed together with greens and golds. Using so many bright colors could come off as gaudy if done carelessly, however I just thought that the building looked amazing. This was unlike anything else I had visited on my trip, with the Grand Synagogue in Budapest being the closest.
Here are some additional pictures of the Jerusalem Synagogue. This building also had a second level that was open to the public, reached after exiting from the front and then reentering via a side door followed by climbing a staircase. The morning sunlight was coming in through the stained glass windows and illuminating the western half of the structure; I particularly liked the interaction of light and shadow on the seats immediately underneath the pipe organ. There were a number of informational displays up on the second floor about the history of the synagogue and the Jewish community of Prague. This was the largest and newest major synagogue in Prague, which made it a target when the Nazis occupied the city in 1939. They used the building to house confiscated Jewish assets, which likely saved the synagogue from demolition. After the war it was returned to the Jewish community and became a house of worship again, although the synagogue had to maintain a low profile during the communist years. Fortunately Soviet rule was normally not as harsh in Czechoslovakia as it was in Hungary, and the Jerusalem Synagogue fared better than the Grand Synagogue in Budapest. Today it has been restored to its original dazzling state and has become a major tourist attraction in Prague.
I also picked up my favorite souvenir from the whole trip here at the Jerusalem Synagogue. The staff request that men cover their heads inside the synagogue, and give out these kippahs/yarmulkes to visitors. I tried to return this to the staff when I was leaving, and they insisted that I keep it. This little keepsake has joined my small collection of travel souvenirs that I've acquired over the years, each one with a story to tell about where I found them.
Street scenes in Prague. I was walking towards the historic center of the city, the Old Town (Staré Mesto) region. This was the original core of Prague founded along the Vltava River sometime around the early 9th century. It was a walled town during most of the medieval period before expansion eventually spilled out in all directions. The walls are long since gone today, and unlike in Bratislava, it's difficult to tell where they were ever located. The Old Town district of Prague is mostly a pedestrian area today (with its maze of narrow medieval streets poorly suited for cars), a walkable area full of shops and cafes and sights to see. This is also the most heavily crowded area in terms of tourists, and the most expensive area to stay in hotels. Everyone is here for a reason though, and spending a few hours walking through the Old Town is one of the highlights of any visit to the city.
The streets all congregate around the Old Town Square (Staromestské námestí), which is the ancient heart of Prague. This has been the location where medieval markets and fairs took place, where public pronoucements from kings were issued, and - more darkly - where public executions once were conducted. The square was packed with tourists when I arrived, here to the see the many sights surrounding the square. There's a memorial to Jan Hus in the middle of the square, and the Old Town Hall, site of Prague's famous Astronomical Clock, sits at the western edge of the square. There are also two large churches flanking the square, with the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn rising up above the eastern side and the more modest St. Nicholas Church off to the north. Each of these spots deserved further attention, and I would visit them one at a time while I was here in the central square.
First things first: the Old Town Hall (Staromestská radnice). The original core of this structure was purchased in the 14th century for the purposes of administering the city of Prague, before being expanded and reconstructed repeatedly over the following centuries. Very little of the original building still remains today. This is an unusual building since it is made up of a series of smaller buildings rather than being one structure raised specifically for the purpose of city governance. The tower is probably the most notable element of the Old Town Hall, and it dates back to 1364. This is a really neat historic structure, although when I visited most of the interior was closed off to the public.
More famously, the Old Town Hall also houses Prague's Astronomical Clock (the Horologe: Pražský orloj) on the southern wall of the building. The origin of the clock dates all the way back to 1410, and although it has been repaired many times, it has been in continuous use ever since. The astronomical part of the clock comes from the fact that it is also an astrolabe, including the signs of the Zodiac and the position of the sun and the moon in the sky. I found an image on Wikipedia that explains how this all works, although I won't pretend that I understand it myself. Every hour, the clock rings its chimes and a series of little figures move about on top of the clock. Since the astronomical clock dates from the medieval period, these figures include the Twelve Apostoles and people representing the Seven Deadly Sins that lead to a little skeleton repesenting death. This is apparently done through a very complicated mechanical apparatus hidden inside the clock itself. Huge crowds gather every hour to watch the chiming of the astronomical clock, which is part of the whole appeal of the place. I arrived at the Old Town hall shortly before the sounding of an hour and was able to watch the sequence without having to wait. This was much better than the similar experience at Munich's New Town Hall since I wasn't getting drenched with rain this time!
One part of the Old Town Hall that was open to visitors was the central tower, which could be climbed to see views of the surrounding square. The main walk to the top of the tower took place inside the tower itself, with a gradual staircase that slowly climbed around the inside wall of the structure. There was also a futuristic-looking elevator in the center that led up to the observation level, but that was so crowded with visitors that I was happy to take the more gradual walking path. The walls along this path had more information about the history of the building, with the most notable entry being a series of photographs showing the damage that the Old Town Hall took at the end of World War II. The top of the tower was knocked off, and the building at ground level was little more than a shattered ruin. Fortunately everything has long since been restored back to the way it looked prior to the fighting.
Up at the observation level, I was treated to a beautiful spectacle looking out over the city of Prague. Although not quite so high as some of the other tower climbs that I had done on this trip, the view from the Old Town Hall nonetheless allowed me to see far off into the distance, gazing over the red-tiled roofs of the historic part of the city. It helped that this was a beautiful summer day and the viewing conditions were nearly perfect. From this spot I could look off to the west and spot St. Vitus cathedral standing on top of the castle hill. The twin stone pillars of the Church of Our Lady before Týn seemed almost close enough to touch in the opposite direction. Down below, the central square was full of people walking here and there, snapping pictures, eating lunch, and so on. The one and only downside to being up here was the crowds, as there was a substantial line to get into the tower and another packed madhouse at the top. The little balcony at the top of the tower wasn't designed to house modern tourists either, and it was a tight squeeze inching past the other visitors along the narrow walkwalks. This would be an amazing place to visit in the early morning when the sun is first rising, assuming that it's open to the public at that time.
I took a picture of the Jan Hus Monument (Pomník mistra Jana Husa) from the Old Town Hall's tower, and then again from closer to the monument. Jan Hus was an early 15th century reformer of the Catholic church who anticipated Martin Luther in many of his critiques of church doctrine. Hus was ultimately condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415, although his movement did not die with him and there were lengthy struggles between "Hussites" and doctrinal Catholics in the following decades. Hus is regarded as a Czech national hero and one of the first individuals to write extensively in Czech as opposed to Latin. This monument was built in 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of his death (which did not take place here, despite what the monument suggests, but instead in Konstanz, Germany). Jan Hus has always been viewed as a symbol of protest, and sitting at the feet of this monument became a symbol of opposition to communist rule in the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution. When seen in person, the monument is surprisingly large and occupies a good chunk of the space in the square. As a historian, I appreciate the shout-out to one of Bohemia's most famous sons.
One of the two churches that adjoins the Old Town Square is St. Nicholas Church (Chrám svatého Mikuláše) on the northern edge of the open space. This is not one of the more famous churches in Prague, but its prime location in terms of real estate ensures that it will always see plenty of visitors. The architecture of the building was created in Baroque style, which is a dead giveaway that it was built during the 18th century (in the 1730s). The interior of the building was mostly made from white marble, although the ceilings were painted with religious illustrations and there was a good bit of gilding everywhere. This was all in line with the many Baroque cathedrals that I had been visiting through the Habsburg domains in Vienna and Budapest over the last few days, and St. Nicholas Church could have been dropped into either of those cities without anyone batting an eyelash. There was a youth chorus performance open to the public taking place when I visited, or more accurately I should say it was a chorus rehearsal, as the group in question stopped several times to go back and redo parts of their performance in an effort to get it correct. They were pretty good and it was nice to stop and listen to the group for a few minutes while viewing the church.
The other imposing church rising above the Old Town Square is the Church of Our Lady before Týn (Chrám Matky Boží pred Týnem). This is an older church built in the Gothic style starting in the 14th century, best known for its two tall towers that rise up about 260 feet (80 meters) from the surrounding square. This church was surprisingly difficult to access, as it was surrounded by restaurants and other stores on all sides that occupied the same block of buildings. I had to walk completely around the building twice before I was able to find a door that led inside. The reason for that difficulty immediately became clear once I was inside: Our Lady before Týn was in the middle of a renovation and the whole interior was closed off to visitors. The one picture that I did take to get a glimpse of the interior was done in the face of "no photography" signs everywhere. From what I could see, the building's architecture was standard Gothic style but with heavily gilded paintings dotting the interior similar to what I had seen at St. Stephen's Basilica in Vienna. Unfortunately there wasn't much to see here, and I moved on.
My next destination was the historic Jewish Quarter located to the north of the Old Town Square. This was the location of the Old-New Synagogue (Staronová Synagoga), the oldest synagogue not only in Prague, but the oldest active synagogue anywhere in Europe. This modest-looking building dates all the way back to 1270 and was also done in the Gothic style prevalent in the High Middle Ages, although on a much smaller scale than many of the cathedrals constructed at the same time. The synagogue proved to be a very small and somewhat rough structure, with the entryway bringing visitors into a stone hallway that felt like a tunnel. The main room of the structure is located off to the side of this entryway, and this is the one place where the Gothic vaulted ceiling can be seen. But even this room is quite small, however, and could only accomodate a hundred or so individuals at a time. (According to Orthodox traditions, men sit inside the main room for services while women sit in the outside hallway.) More than anything else, the Old-New Synagogue feels OLD, and I mean that in a historic sense, not a decorative one. This is a place where visitors can intuitively feel that the structure is roughly 750 years old. While the Jerusalem Synagogue is a larger and prettier building, it only dates from the early 20th century. The Old-New Synagogue is the real deal from a historical perspective, predating every other synagogue across Europe, and making up for its modest appearance with the weight of tradition. This is a must-see destination for anyone with a background in history.
There's one other interesting tidbit about the Old-New Synagogue. This is supposed to be the location where the Golem was brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the 15th century. According to legend, the rabbi shaped the golem out of clay and brought it to life to defend the Jewish community of Prague from attacks by outsiders. The golem was supposed to have been laid to rest in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, and there's a belief that the building may have been saved from destruction during the Nazi occupation out of superstitious fear that the golem was still lurking. While that's a bit unlikely, it's a fun story regardless and fortunately this synagogue survived a period where many others did not.
These are some additional pictures from the Jewish Quarter of Prague. The Klaus Synagogue (Klausová synagoga) is another historic house of worship dating to the 17th century; it's the white building on the left in these pictures, not the stone structure in the foreground. These streets are located next to the Old Jewish Cemetary (Starý židovský hrbitov), a burial ground with more than twelve thousand tombstones dating back to the 15th century. Burials were carried out here for roughly 300 years, and due to a lack of space, they were done in a series of layers over the centuries. In some places, there are burials as many as a dozen layers deep. This is a treasure trove for archaeologists who are researching the history of the medieval Jewish community of Prague, but I'm sure that the Jewish community at the time would have preferred simply having more space available. In any case, the tombstones are packed together to a somewhat ridiculous degree in this cemetary, and it makes for quite a sight.
The other building photographed above is the Spanish Synagogue (Španelská Synagoga), built in the late 19th century atop an even older synagogue (the "Old Synagogue" that predated the Old-New Synagogue was located here originally). This building was constructed in Moorish Revival style, and after being closed for much of the communist period, it has been restored and now is open to the public once again. I decided not to visit inside due to a lack of time on this trip, but the interior appears to be a slightly more subdued version of the decorations from the Jerusalem Synagogue.
After leaving the Jewish Quarter, I circled around to the west until I reached the banks of the Vltava River. Prague is laid out in a similar fashion to Budapest, with the historic castle located on the west bank of the river and many of the biggest religious buildings located on the east bank. Unlike Budapest, which was originally two separate cities that grew together over time, Prague has always been one settlement, and its oldest districts are on the eastern side of the river. The Vltava is a much smaller river than the Danube, which historically made crossing between the two sides of Prague an easier feat. I planned to stick on the eastern bank on this particular day, and explore the sights of the western side on the following day.
With that in mind, I turned away from the riverside and hiked back towards the east, this time passing further to the south of the Old Town Square. My first destination was another church, this one with the extravagent name the Church of Our Lady of the Snows (Kostel Panny Marie Snežné). The building was slightly difficult to find at first, and I eventually realized that I needed to enter through this ancient-looking stone gate with the beer garden sign. (Unfortunately that was an advertisement from a restaurant nearby - the church was not promoting its own beer garden.) The church itself proved to be located in a small courtyard that stood apart from the surrounding shops. I had heard from the tourist brochures that this was a memorable church, and that proved to be true.
The interior of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows was... ummm... I'm struggling to think of a more polite way of saying "hideously gaudy" and failing to find it. The building started out with a standard Gothic design with very high vaulted ceilings, which also incorporated some elements of Italian Renassiance architecture. Then at some point the interior of the structure turned into a nightmare of Baroque extravagence taken way, way too far. The designers of this church obviously didn't know when to stop themselves; I think the gilding in this church has gilt on it. Definitely not to my taste in design, although others are welcome to disagree. Anyway, I will say that the very high ceiling (about 115 feet / 35 meters) makes Our Lady of the Snows stand out from many of the others that I visited. For that matter, this church was never fully completed either. The original intention was to take up all the space currently occupied by the courtyard in front of the building, and what currently exists was intended to be only the presbytery of the structure. Construction never finished due to a lack of funds and fighting during the Hussite wars of the 15th century; apparently the church originally had an even higher ceiling which was destroyed during that conflict. Today the church is run by Franciscan monks, and they do a fine job of keeping this religious space separate from the bustling streets nearby. Overall though, it's a close competition between this church and the Peterskirche in Vienna for the ugliest church that I came across in my travels, with the Peterskirche just barely edging this one out in terms of crassness.
Our Lady of the Snows is just around the corner from one of the top highlights in Prague, the commercial space known as Wenceslas Square (Václavské námestí). This is a seriously misnamed location, as the "square" is a long and narrow promenade that stretches for about half a mile and has some of the fanciest hotels and most upscale stores lining its sides. I suppose the best comparison would be to Times Square in New York, which isn't much of a square either, and the Champs-Elysees in Paris also feels very similar. Wenceslas Square has a long history dating back to the medieval period, when this open area was used as a market by the townspeople. The place is most famous for its recent history, however, as Wenceslas Square was the center for massive public protests against the communist regime, both during the Prague Spring in 1968 and then again during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. There are some amazing photographs showing hundreds of thousands of people in the square, with the entire space packed from end to end with protesters calling for the end of communist rule. Today this is mostly an area to shop for expensive fashion goods or eat at some of the priciest locations in Prague.
At the head of the square, which slops upwards gently at its southeastern end, stand this statue of Saint Wenceslas (Pomník svatého Václava). Most English-speakers only know Saint Wenceslas from the carolling song that pops up at Christmas each year, but he was a real person and remains a Czech national hero. Wenceslas was a duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, and he ruled for only a dozen years before being assassinated by his younger brother. However, because he was a Christian ruler in an era where many of the leaders of central European states were not, he was canonized as a saint after his death and became famous for being a just ruler; never underestimate the power of several flattering posthumous biographies on the reputation of a medieval ruler!
The large building behind the statue is the Národní Museum, the Czech national museum of historic and scientific collections. This is one of the oldest national museums in Europe, dating all the way back to 1818 and boasting an enormous collection of more than 14 million artifacts of historic and cultural interest. I had planned to spend several hours in the Národní Museum and was crushed when I discovered that it was closed for renovations for the whole year of 2016. I actually spent about a half hour trying to find some way into the building, in denial of the obvious fact that it was shut down to the public, before finally accepting the inevitable. This was a major disappointment.
With evening beginning to fall, there was nothing to do now but get some dinner and then head for my hostel for the night. While walking towards that destination near the Old Town Square, I came across this stone tower. I had no idea what it was at the time, but looked it up for this writing and discovered that this is named the Powder Tower (Prašná brána). Although it appears to be located in a completely random place today, this was originally one of the 13 city gates separating the walled Old Town from the New Town that encircled it. It was constructed around 1475 and was intended to be decorative, not designed for military purposes. The Powder Tower gained its name from the gunpowder that the city government stored inside for many years. For something that I came across by accident, it was a nice find.
I spent an uneventful night at my hostel, although after close to three weeks of travel I was getting very tired of spending each night in a communal room with mostly college-aged individuals. I was up early again the next morning, waking to find a sky that was even more beautiful than the previous day. All of the bad weather that had plagued my second day in Budapest seemed to have been blown away, leaving pristine skies of a deep blue. I was headed for the castle district on the west side of the river, and on my way there I was able to capture these lovely views of the Vltava River. Prague was just beginning to wake up, and I caught the morning sunlight as it cast the buildings on the western bank in a soft glow. It looked to be another wonderful day for sightseeing.
The best way to cross over the river is via the Charles Bridge (Karluv most). This pedetrian-only stone bridge dates all the way back to the 14th century, when construction was begun by its namesake King Charles IV in 1357. It was the only bridge across the Vltava for almost 500 years before modern construction began to add additional crossing points. Charles Bridge has had an eventful history, as it was repeatedly damaged by floods and was actually fought over during the Thirty Years War, when a Swedish army occupied the western bank and unsuccessfully tried to cross over to the Old Town by use of the bridge. Charles Bridge is best known today for the series of statues that grace each side of its span. There are about 30 of these statues, which were built in the late 1600s and early 1700s and depict various saints that were venerated at the time. I later found out that these statues are modern replicas, and the originals are now housed in one of Prague's museums due to the wear and tear that they had taken from being exposed to the elements for so long. Any trip to Prague should include a stroll across Charles Bridge; it's an easy walk and the views of the river and the surrounding downtown are a true pleasure.
Now on the western bank of the city, I began heading uphill towards the castle at the top. On my way, I encountered another large church, this one named St. Nicholas Church (Kostel svatého Miku láše). The green dome was an obvious sign that this was another building of Baroque construction, built in the first half of the 18th century in the same period that other churches in this style were going up all over the Habsburg empire. Despite the imposing dome, the actual entrance to St. Nicholas was slightly hard to find, and I eventually came across it next to a nondescript parking lot. I hoped that the interior would be a little bit more interesting.
Fortunately it more than lived up to those expectations. St. Nicholas was almost entirely deserted due to the fact that it had just opened, and I enjoyed the chance to walk around inside without being disturbed. This was another church that definitely pushed the boundaries of good taste as far as the lavish decorations were concerned, but I felt that the designers here had done a better job of restraining themselves. Or perhaps it was simply the presence of the great central dome, which rises to a height of 230 feet (70 meters) and on this morning was bringing in natural light to illuminate the interior. That was softening some of the garishness of all those gilded statues and large paintings into something more palatable. The central altar was a mass of gold and marble that probably cost an ungodly amount of money when it was initially constructed. Definitely not to my tastes. However, I did appreciate the dome itself, especially the view from directly underneath looking upwards at the painted interior surface. This was also comically overdone - sigh - but the dome itself was an impressive feat of engineering. All in all, I have mixed feelings about St. Nicholas Church, but it was a worthwhile stop along the way.
Prague Castle is located up on top of a hill, and that meant climbing a series of staircases to ascend up to the top. Like many castles that had their origins back in the medieval period, the location was chosen for purposes of military defense, and therefore it's no coincidence that so many cities have a "castle hill" of some kind. The climb up to the top yielded some excellent views of the rest of the city, with the picture above looking eastward over the dome of St. Nicholas Church towards the Old Town on the other side of the river. Just as I had seen on the previous day, the historic houses here again seemed to feature red tiled roofs almost without exception. I'm sure there's a reason for that, perhaps due to the local materials available for building purposes or something like that. In any case, it helped to give Prague a distinctive appearance anytime that I was in a position to gaze out across the city.
Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) is not one building, but rather a complex made of a series of different structures located at the top of the castle hill. This location was first occupied in the 9th century due to its defensive location overlooking the river, and then slowly grew over time as the town of Prague developed on the other side of the Vltava. The castle complex has been built and rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries, with sizable additions dating from the 14th, 15th, and 18th centuries. Prague Castle was fought over and damaged in the Hussite wars and the Thirty Years War, with a Swedish army looting it just before the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. Needless to say, it's a fascinating place and the most-visited destination in Czechia for tourists. They were already here in full force despite the early hour, brought in large groups on bus tours from all over the world. I entered through the front gates between the statues of two men clubbing/stabbing people in the back (seriously, what the heck Prague Castle?!) and joined the throng of visitors.
The first place that I wanted to visit in Prague Castle was the cathedral contained within, known as St. Vitus Cathedral (Katedrála Sv. Víta). This is the largest and most important church in the country, and serves as the seat for the Archbishopric of Prague. As the national church of the Czech people, St. Vitus holds the final remains of many of the kings of Bohemia and even some of the Holy Roman Emperors. It's a huge structure that stretches more than 300 feet (95 meters) in height; I had trouble squeezing the upper portions of that tower into my pictures due to a lack of space in the castle courtyard. The architectural style is textbook Gothic design, with everything from the vaulted ceiling to the flying buttresses to the central rose window made of stained glass. St. Vitus Cathedral dates back to the 14th century originally, but this is another one of those medieval cathedrals that struggled to turn up funds for its construction and languished for centuries on end. It wasn't fully completed until the 19th century, in a similar fashion to Cologne Cathedral. This was one of the highlights of visiting Prague, and I was eager to see the interior.
You might think that I would be getting bored of seeing Gothic cathedrals by now but that was not the case. They all have their own unique quirks and St. Vitus was no different. This cathedral stands out due to its stained glass windows, which are set high into the walls and hold an unusually vibrant palette of different colors. I enjoyed walking in a loop around the interior of the cathedral, stopping to see some of the tombs of past rulers of the country and marvelling at the visuals coming in from the windows above.
Here are some pictures of the stained glass artistry that I had in mind. I'm not sure if these designs resulted from an unusually talented glass-making industry in Bohemia back in the medieval period, or if these are modern additions to replace the originals that were destroyed at some point in the past. Regardless of which is the case, I was dazzled by these colorful displays that could be found all around the cathedral. The third picture above, with the light from the stained glass window reflected onto the mosaic on the wall next to it, happens to be one of my favorite images from this entire trip, out of the thousands and thousands that I took. That was a happy coincidence rather than anything I planned, and I loved the way that it turned out. While the overall design of St. Vitus might have been as bog-standard as Gothic cathredrals get, these stained glass works of art helped to set the place apart from the others I'd seen.
St. Vitus is also know for this small side chapel known as the St. Wenceslas Chapel. It was one of the first parts of the cathedral to be completed in the 14th century and supposedly houses several relics of the saint. The Czech crown jewels are also housed in this chapel, but unlike the British crown jewels they are almost never on display for the public. This little chapel had seemingly every inch of its walls painted with religious figures, centered around the small statue of St. Wenceslas above the tiny altar. I liked the intimate feel of this small chapel, although it was a little too heavily ornamented for my tastes. Finally, I included two more pictures of the building's impressive exterior, this time featuring the southern portion of the building known as the Golden Gate (Zlatá brána). This was the original entrance to the cathedral, which is now off limits to the public except on special occasions. There's a detailed mosaic above the entrance that looks to have required an insane amount of time and effort to create. Overall, St. Vitus and the Jerusalem Synagogue were my favorite places that I visited in Prague, and despite all the tourists I highly recommend coming to Prague Castle to see this cathedral.
There were plenty of other buildings still to see in the castle complex, however. Sitting just off to the side of St. Vitus is the entrance to the Old Royal Palace (Starý královský palác), former residence of the kings of Bohemia. The palace was another structure that had been constructed and reconstructed repeatedly over the years, with some portions of the original medieval castle remaining here and there, joined together with more recent construction from the Renaissance era. Out of the portions of the palace open to the public, the most impressive is Vladislav Hall, the long hallway in the first picture above. This hall was built right around 1500 and was used for state occasions of the Bohemian court. Vladislav Hall was also large enough that there were occasional jousting matches inside, and a special staircase was built in the palace to accomodate horses for this express purpose. The third picture above shows a room where the former kings could sit in court and hand out judgment; note the small throne in the back. The other rooms of the palace were somewhat surprisingly unadorned and relatively simple in nature. I think this may be due to the fact that the palace was looted on several occasions in its history and a lot of the most valuable stuff was likely carried off. The palace is officially the presidential residence today for the nation of Czechia, although in practice the Czech president doesn't actually live here. The building is mostly used today for official state functions when it's not open to tourists.
There's one other location of great historical interest in the palace, and it's this window right here. While that might seem pretty strange, this window was the location of the infamous Defenestration of Prague that took place in 1618. As part of the ongoing religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants, and following a contentious meeting at the castle between Catholic officials from elsewhere in the Holy Roman Empire and local protesting Bohemians, four imperial officials were bodily thrown out of this window. The defenstration was intended to be a form of execution, but surprisingly all four of the Catholic officials survived the 70 foot (20 meter) fall. The other picture above is looking out of the infamous window and it's a pretty long drop to the ground below. Needless to say, the other Catholic parts of the Holy Roman Empire didn't take too kindly to this sort of rowdiness, and the result was the terrible bloodletting of the Thirty Years War that lasted from 1618-1648. Yes, one of Europe's most horrendous conflicts started up because several guys were thrown out of a window.
That's an exaggeration of course, as the religious tensions that led up to the Thirty Years War had been building for decades, and there had already been plenty of warfare elsewhere between Catholics and Protestants over the preceding years (with the Dutch Revolt being the most famous example). I still find it amusing to think that the actual spark was something as silly as a defenestration, however. Back when I was in high school, the Defenestration of Prague was a running joke in my Advanced Placement European history class, something that even our teacher kept referring back to as a joke answer on quizzes when we were discussing something completely different like colonialism or women's suffrage. It was a true pleasure to come to Prague Castle and see the actual window where the defenestration took place four centuries earlier.
There's another church of historical interest within the castle complex, the church known as St. George's Basilica (Bazilika svatého Jirí). The exterior of the structure was a relatively recent addition, built in the early 18th century in Baroque style and painted bright red for some unknown reason. At least it makes St. George's Basilica stand out from the crowd. Inside the walls visitors find a totally different situation: the interior reveals the remains of a very old Romanesque church that predates anything else in Prague. This is the oldest building in the entire city, and the original construction dates back to 920 AD, although most of what can be seen today dates from the mid-12th century following a fire. I'm always struck by how different the Romanesque style looks from the Gothic buildings that came afterwards; St. George's Basilica has a narrow design with a low ceiling and thick stone walls. The openness of the giant Gothic cathedrals (like St. Vitus) was completely lacking here. Up above the altar, modern restorations have done their best to preserve the religious figures painted onto the small domed ceilings. This part of the basilica reminded me of the oldest section of Strasbourg Cathedral, which had its own Romanesque altar with a similar design motif. St. George's was a great place to visit on the same day as a trip to St. Vitus, with the short distance between them making it easy to see the evolution of European religious architecture during the medieval period.
One of the other attractions on the castle grounds is the "Golden Lane" (Zlatá ulicka), a street situated towards the back end of the complex that consists of a series of small houses. This was originally where some of the castle guards were housed, but the houses were later opened up as private residences, and the name sprung from a period in the 17th century when a number of goldsmiths took up shop here. These houses have been converted into a tourist attraction today, with some housing souvenir shops while others serve as reconstructions of what the area looked like in earlier periods. One of them shows what the house of a craftsman might have looked like, another one shows the residence of one of the castle guards, and so on. It's a little bit like visiting colonial Williamsburg, Virginia here in the US. All of the houses are tiny and cramped, as well as being much cleaner than they would have been in the actual early modern period in an era that lacked sanitation. One of the houses has been somewhat randomly set up as a torture chamber, and this seems to draw the most attention from the visitors - myself included, since I have a picture of that room above as well. The life of a torturer was more interesting than the life of a cobbler, it seems.
After leaving the castle hill complex, I headed back towards the river by means of the Royal Gardens (Královská zahrada). This is now a public park just off to the north of Prague Castle, and it serves as an attractive green space where pedestrians can exercise or take a few minutes to relax. The building with the greenish-blue roof above is Queen Anne's Summer Palace (Letohrádek královny Anny), a former habitat for one of the royal residents of the city that now serves as a small museum. I took a different path back down to the bottom of the hill, enjoying the opportunity to spot a few views of St. Vitus poking up above the trees behind me. I'll also throw in one additional random monument that I stumbled across while walking, this one a monument to the soldiers who perished in World War II. I don't know the story behind this public display and everything that I turned up in a brief search was written in Czech, so the reason behind why this was erected will have to remain a mystery for now.
Before crossing the river again, I found myself passing through this walled garden area that happens to be the location of the Czech Senate. The gardens themselves were a lovely series of manicured green spaces interspersed with a series of fountains. For whatever reason, there were very few flowers. I guess the idea was to have a more controlled version of nature here. The gardens were attached to a large early Baroque palace from the 17th century known as the Wallenstein Palace (Valdštejnský palác) where the Czech Senate itself was housed. When I heard that name, I immediately thought "I know who Wallenstein was!" Sure enough, this palace was constructed by Albrecht von Wallenstein in the 1630s, the fantastically wealthy individual who made a name for himself as a military contractor fighting on the Catholic side during the Thirty Years War. Wallenstein had the palace built in Italian Renaissance style, then was only able to enjoy it for less than a year before he was assassinated in 1634. (No kidding - it was a rough time back then, and the Thirty Years War was akin to rolling double zero on the roulette wheel: everybody was a loser.) The palace remained in his family for the next three hundred years before being taken over by the Czechoslovakian government following World War II. As I mentioned, the Czech Senate is housed in the palace today, although unfortunately I wasn't able to find a tour of the legislative chamber itself. I found a picture online of the Senate interior, and it doesn't look anything like most other legislative bodies. The Czech Senate looks like it's taking place in an early modern hunting lodge... because that's pretty much exactly what this building was originally intended to be. Outside of the bizarre Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, this might be the strangest legislative setup that I've ever seen.
I spent a little while longer walking through the streets on the western bank of the Vltava, where there were a series of tracks in the ground and overhead power lines that facilitated the continued use of streetcars. Those were fun to see and I should have stopped to take a picture of one of them. I crossed the river further to the south this time along the Legions Bridge (Most Legií), which gave me an opportunity to spot several of the cute tiny islands in the middle of the river. There were three of them in total, and each one has been converted into more public parkland where visitors can rent paddleboats to head out on the water. These look like fantastic places to have a picnic lunch on a nice summer day. The last picture above looks to the north at Charles Bridge, which was clearly much older than any of the other works of engineering that spanned the river. The sky had clouded up a bit over the course of the day, but I was still able to enjoy some fine views of the city while crossing the water.
At this point it was still only early afternoon. However, I was thoroughly beaten down and exhausted from twenty consecutive days of hard travel, and I decided that it was time to take a break. I had been planning on spending the afternoon at the Národní Museum, and when I discovered that it was closed, I couldn't summon up the energy to walk across the city to another destination that had been outside my planned route from the day. And for that matter, I also had to wake up before 5:00 am the next morning to catch a flight to my next destination. Given all that, returning back to the Old Prague Hostel pictured above didn't seem like such a bad decision. I did my best to eat a good meal, rest for a few hours, and then catch some sleep.
When I woke up very early the next morning, I had a short walk to the designated location where I would be catching a shuttle to the airport. This gave me a real treat: getting to visit the Old Town Square in the predawn hours when it was almost completely deserted. Only a tiny handful of early risers (and some very late drinkers) were awake to join me at this hour. The square had a mystical feel to it, with the old stone buildings rising up out of the darkness like ghosts in a campfire story. I especially like the picture of the Jan Hus Monument above, which is admittedly blurry and a bit too dark but also has this backlighting effect that plunges the faces on the monument into deep shadows. Fun stuff. Wenceslas Square was also empty aside from a handful of sanitation workers doing their best to keep it clean from the previous day's crowds. It was a very different experience to look all the way down that open space and see virtually no one present. This was where I needed to go to catch my shuttle, and fortunately I was able to meet up with the driver without any issues. Václav Havel Airport is located about ten miles to the west of Prague's city center, and I flew out a few hours later.
My next destination was Copenhagen, which would have been a little too far away to reach on a train ride. This would start a new phase of my trip, as my girlfriend was joining me for the final ten days as we headed through Scandinavia together. For the first time on this journey, I would be heading outside the former domains of the Holy Roman Empire or the Habsburg family. It was time to head to northern Europe.