Wednesday, May 25, 2005

PRAGUE 4: Prague Castle

From Charles Bridge you look across the Vltava River to the west bank and see the Prague Castle with its massive St. Vitus's Cathedral smack-dab in the middle. The history of Prague actually begins with the Castle, founded in the 9th century, and includes a palace, gardens, 3 churches and a monastery. Since 1918 it has been the seat of the president of the Republic, complete with the Changing of the Guard every hour. But to start with, be advised that this is not a "castle" in the Scottish sense of castles from last posts. Today, after several rebuildings, it's more like an enclosed little Renaissance city/compound than a bulwark, even though some castle trappings still exist when you get up close and personal.

At the west end of Charles Bridge, you enter the Little Quarter through the Bridge Towers where Prague's second Church of St. Nicholas stands on the Square. This was where we took our tour break for lunch before tramming up the hill to the Castle. The Little Quarter was founded in 1257, built on the slopes of the Castle hill with magnificent views back across the river to Old Town. I'm guessing we didn't even scratch the surface of all that can be seen there!

Once at the Castle, our tour guide took us through the gardens and had us enter the courtyard at a side entrance rather than through the main gate. It afforded great views of the environs of the Castle before seeing the majestic St. Vitus's Cathedral. What a cathedral! Work began on it in 1344 by order of John of Luxembourg but wasn't completed until the 19th and 20th centuries. Besides housing the crown jewels, this is also where the tomb of "Good King" Wenceslas resides. As you'll see in my photos, if you take a look, the flying buttresses that surround the exterior of the nave and chancel, supporting the vaulted interior, are spectacularly decorated, just like the rest of the cathedral. The gargoyles, like at all the great cathedrals, protect from evil spirits and function as waterspouts.

What can I say about the interior of the Cathedral! Sometimes you feel like if you've seen one you've seen them all. That's true but it's not true. When I stand inside each one, it's its own story and history. Donica buys the books to help us remember what's distinctive about each one. I think of the amount of time and energy, let alone money, spent on building these edifices, and marvel. How can one comprehend it all, especially at a time when they didn't have the sophisticated technology we have today!

Before leaving the Castle to begin the long descent on the old Castle steps to the metro, as full of artists and vendors as at Charles Bridge, is Golden Lane. These picturesque artisans' cottages were built inside the castle wall in the late 16th century for the Castle's guards and gunners. Franz Kafka, as well as other well-known writers, lived there with his sister, in No. 22 (the blue cottage), for a few months in 1916-17.

And there you have it! Another "from here to there and back again" weekend excursion. Another memory to have and hold forever. Prague: The jewel of Bohemia.

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