One of my wanderings in Central and Eastern Europe was through Prague—or Praha in Czech—the economic, political, and cultural centre of Central Europe for most of its 1,100 years of existence. Generally acclaimed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it is after London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome, the fifth most visited European city.
An overnight train from Budapest in a dark, panelled, velvet-clad train compartment took me to the “City of a Hundred Spires” [based on the count of a 19th Century mathematician]; a statistic which has now increased to 500 spires piercing its ethereal skyline. Praha was left largely untouched by the second World War unlike other European cities since Hitler made it a Nazi Germany protectorate in 1939. The result is a precinct pulled straight from the pages of a mythical past: Those that are romanticized and reminiscenced about, and are a treasure trove of art and architectural styles.
Through these pages the reign of King Charles IV (1346-1378) looms larger than the rest. Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV transformed Prague into the 3rd largest city in Europe, building the New Town, Charles Bridge, Charles University and St. Vitus Cathedral.
Its more recent history has seen its rise as the capital of the Czech Republic, post the Velvet Revolution in 1989. From 1948, end of World War II, to 1989, Czechoslovakia as it was then known was ruled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and belonged to the Eastern Bloc.
On one side of the Vltava River, which runs through the heart of the city, is the Old Town with its Old Town Square flanked by the Old Town Hall, Baroque St. Nicholas Church, fairytale Tyn Church and Astronomical Clock; the New Town with Wenceslas Square; and the Jewish Quarter. On the other side of the river is the Lesser Town and the Castle District with Praha Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world, dating back to 870 AD. This entire historical centre was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Prague kept making me rub my eyes and pinch myself to make sure it was all real. Let me explain. Prague is a pretty compact city. One can walk from one end of it to another in a mere 25 minutes [starting at the Castle District, downhill through the Lesser Town, across Charles Bridge and through the Old Town on to the adjacent New Town]. Which means all its sights and attractions can easily be explored on foot. What it also means is that every inch has some historical significance, or is decorated with astounding art and architecture. Somewhere between it all, 1,100 years of history and their stories vie for your attention simultaneously. Now you know what I mean. 🙂
My photo essay on the city: Taken when I was not rubbing my eyes. I was, unfortunately, not able to document all its spires. 😛 But herewith, what made me go starry-eyed.
[Note: Top image: Red-roofed Lesser Town with the dome of St. Nicholas Church.]
The Church of Our Lady before Týn stands tall in the Old Town Square, and has been the main church of the Old Town since the 14th Century. Sorry, photography is strictly prohibited inside. The Astronomical Clock, meanwhile, has for 600 years, without fail, displayed a procession of the Apostles every hour to hundreds of thousands of camera clicks.
Beautiful Prague—often times just like a painting. The Charles Bridge, christened Stone Bridge spans the Vltava River with its 16 arches and 30 Baroque statues of religious figures. It was commissioned by King Charles IV in 1357. To have it to yourself, visit it at night or very early in the morning.
Quirky Prague—Left: A bridge over the Certovka [Devil’s Channel] in Little Prague Venice, Lesser Town. Love locks are often found tied to the railing of this bridge. Right: The narrowest street in Prague is so narrow traffic lights had to be installed so people would not collide inside its 19.6 inches width.
Spiritual centre of the Czech Republic, the Cathedral of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert (1344), is the seat of the Archbishop of Prague, the resting place of Prague’s patron saint Wenceslas, and houses the royal tombs and state jewels. Left: Front facade with rose window; Right: Ribbed vaulting and sculptured pillars, hallmarks of Late-Gothic design developed by 23-year-old architect Peter Parléř.
The Golden Portal was the original ceremonial entrance to the Cathedral. Above the entrance is the 14th Century triptych mosaic of The Last Judgement made of approximately one million glass pieces and covering 84 sq. metres. It was made in 1371 at the request of King Charles IV.
Left: 19 chapels connect the Cathedral’s side aisles; Right: Chapel of St. Wenceslas contains the remains of the prince and patron saint of the Czech lands. The most sacred part of the Cathedral, it is decorated with semi-precious stones depicting scenes of the suffering of Christ by an unknown painter and was consecrated in 1372.
Prague Castle is said to be the largest ancient castle complex in the world, covering an area of 70,000 sq. metres and dating back to the 9th Century. Construction started in 870 AD and was completed in 1929. It was the seat of power for the kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. The President of the Czech Republic currently lives here.
Left: Changing of the guard ceremony at Prague Castle; Right: Renaissance palaces line the streets in the Castle District. The Schwarzenberg Palace (1567) stands out with sgraffito decoration on its walls.
A rare compilation of books by Prague’s son, Franz Kafka, in a little bookshop in the historic Golden Lane. Kafka was a leading 20th Century fiction writer born to a middle-class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague. He lived and wrote in the Golden Lane, House No. 22 for two years (1916 to 1917).
Golden Lane comprises miniature colourful houses glued to the walls of the Castle and has an interesting legend associated with it: Apparently 16th Century alchemists tried to transform metal into gold here. Hence the name.
The lovely St. George’s Basilica is the oldest surviving church building within the Prague Castle District, built in 920 AD and rebuilt in 1142. The Baroque facade is late-17th Century. It is no longer a functioning church and accommodates the Bohemian Art Collection of the National Gallery and holds concerts. Pretty, isn’t it?
There are two St. Nicholas churches in Prague, and I was told it was mandatory to visit both. 🙂 The top one (1732 – 37) is in the Old Town Square and was inspired by the chapel of St. Louis-des-invalides in Paris. Look out for the chandelier inside and the twin steeples. The below one is in the Lesser Town, built by the same architect, and [I felt was] a tad more beautiful.
A Baroque Roman Catholic parish church in Prague’s Lesser Town, the Church of St. Nicholas (1704 – 55) is opulence personified with its magnificent frescoes and sculptures. Mozart first performed his masterpiece “Mass in C” on its organ comprising 4,000 pipes and up to six metres in length, here in 1787. Concerts are held regularly inside its premises even today.
So do I have you rubbing your eyes as well? 🙂 If you’ve been to Praha, do share your travel experiences. I would love to read them.
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Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Central and Eastern Europe in 2012 covering six countries.