Our hotel for our time in Prague was the U Pava hotel which was just around the corner and down the street from the Charles Bridge tower on the Mala Strana side of the river. Apart from being a beautiful old hotel, it was very near two curious tourist attractions of Prague. Across the street from our hotel door, there was a very pleasant small café and as we were coming out of its door after lunch, we noticed that there was a persistent crowd of tourists gathered up the street a little; the tourist crowd didn’t seem to get any smaller as we stood and watched. We discovered that they were fascinated by the narrowest street in Prague, Vinarna Certovka. The gap between buildings was so narrow, they had installed a pedestrian light system to ensure it didn’t jam up with over eager tourists trying to pass each other on the way down to the Vlatava River. It had all the essentials of a health and safety nightmare about to breakout!
The second curious tourist attraction around the corner from the U Pava was to be found in the courtyard in front of the Franz Kafka Museum. The Atlas Obscura website says this about Kafka’s museum… “Divided into two parts, “Existential Space” and “Imaginary Topography,” the museum draws a rope taut through the life of Kafka. Through a cornucopia of letters, journal entries, photographs, eerie soundscapes, and 3D installations, it weaves a tapestry of intellectual, artistic, experiential, and nightmarish displays”. Like the amazed tour groups in the Museum’s courtyard, we didn’t enter the existential space of the Museum but we did stop and wonder at the installation in front of the museum that I presume suggested the flavour of what was going on inside. It was a metal sculpture by David Cerny of two naked males pissing into a water basin in the shape of the Czech Republic. If swaying hips with urinating genitalia isn’t of enough interest for you, there is an inscribed phone number on a plaque (+420 724 370 770) where art lovers can text a message that will be sprayed out in the water for your amusement. Apparently it is meant to remind us of cold country fun where you apparently pee messages in the snow. As a result of my visit to this Kafkaesque Courtyard, my vocabulary has been expanded by one word; ‘micturition’, the action of urinating!
On our third day in Prague we were heading to Prague Castle. This meant a short walk down the street, past the peacock infested Vojanovy Garden, and on to the tram stop where we caught a tram up the winding hill to the top of the escarpment. Entering Prague Castle is treated in the same manner as passing through airport security. There was a significant armed military presence at the entry to x-ray our bags and check us out for terrorist intentions. The reason behind this is probably due to the importance of the site to the locals; as the castle website explains, it is “an ancient symbol of the Czech State, the most significant Czech monument and one of the most important cultural institutions in the Czech Republic”. Being the major tourist site in Prague, it is also a UNESCO World heritage site as well as holding the record for being the largest castle complex in the world.
The general name for the site, ‘Prague Castle’, is a little misleading. It is a Castle complex, in fact there are at least three castles on the site as new ones were built as centuries and fashions changed. The castles of course are built along the escarpment looking over the river city of Prague. The first courtyard you enter once you pass through the top entrance gate belongs to the New Royal Palace, built between 1564 and 1616 for Kings Maximilian II and Rudolf II. This palace is also associated with one of our companions on our journey through Central Europe, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria; she had it unified and modified during her reign in the second half of the 18th century. In the twentieth century it is used by the office of the president of the Czech Republic and its administration.
The second palace along the escarpment is the ‘Old Royal Palace which was the first fortified Palace built here in the 11th century. It too has been rebuilt and added to over the centuries and contains the Vladislav Hall, named after the King of Bohemia (1471-1516) which was the largest, unsupported secular hall in the world in its day.
The third palace along the skyline is the Rozmberk Palace which was constructed in the 16th century by an aristocratic family of the time but which eventually was taken over by the crown.
However the building that dominates the Prague Palace complex is the amazing St Vitus Cathedral. Like so many places in Prague, the crowds attempting to visit the palace are extensive and the queues to enter St Vitus Cathedral are lengthy so choosing the non-busy times are essential to appreciate this 14th century gothic masterpiece. It is the third church built on the site, the first one being started by Wencelaus I (907-935) himself.
Good King Wencelaus dedicated the first church on this site to St Vitus and this saint’s story is one of those curious tales from early Christianity concerning martyrs who were killed off by the Emperor Diocletian. Although little historical information about St Vitus has survived, his ‘arm’ apparently did and it was the main relic that Wenceslaus built his church around. There must be something compelling about St Vitus as over the millennia he has become the patron saint of an unlikely bunch of ‘professions’; actors, comedians, dancers and epileptics. He is perhaps the only saint who has had a disease named after him, ‘St Vitus Dance’, due to the fact that Central Europeans in the Middle Ages thought it was a good idea to dance around his statue on his feast day.
It is also uncommon for Kings to build churches dedicated to holding the relic of a saint and they then go on to be declared a saint themselves. Wenceslaus was buried in his St Vitus Church and when the great builder of Bohemia, Charles IV (1346-78), decided to build a much larger church on this site, he had a special chapel built around the grave of this Patron Saint of the Czech Republic. Today, the key relic of St Vitus Cathedral is, unsurprisingly, the skull of Wenceslaus himself.
Doing justice to everything available to see in the Prague Castle complex would take a dedicated tourist a couple of days of slow perusal. Being our last day in Prague, we still had a lot to cover plus shopping so we were only able to do the slow walk through the centre of the complex. We passed the south tower of St Vitus on the left, past the Old Royal Palace on the right and through the gap into the square in front of St George’s Basilica. This is the second major church on the Prague Castle site and the original church was built around 920ce. From here we headed down the road past the Rozmberk Palace on the right until we reached the gate at the other end of the complex. This wasn’t the end of the treats for our morning. The parapet at the exit to the castle gives a panoramic view over Prague and its river. Our path than led us through the vineyard on the slopes of the Castle hill. If there is time in your schedule you can continue straight on down the hill to St Nicholas Church (the Mala Strana side of the river), a gothic early 18th century church that was considered number 14 of the tourist sights to see in Prague as listed at the end of Part 2 of these blogs.
After lunch, our destination for the afternoon was again the old town on the other side of the river. We decided to investigate the alternate route through Kampa Island which runs along the south side of the Vitava River and over Legion Bridge. Rather then heading up onto the Charles Bridge, we headed under the bridge down ‘Na Kampe’ street where we crossed a narrow canal (see image on right below) emanating from the river with the charming name of Certovka, the ‘Devil’s Canal’. It was built in the 12th century directed by that remnant group from the Crusades, the Knights of Malta and the small island that was created became a site for watermills, some of which have survived to this day. Today it gives the visitor lovely views of the Vlatava River and the beautiful buildings on the bank opposite. Apart from the views there are two tourist spots that can be visited in this area. On the edge of the river is an old mill building which houses a museum of modern art. We were able to stroll through the courtyard of this Gallery and the installations there were the usual challenging, curious artworks. The other attraction that we should have taken the opportunity to visit while in this area was the John Lennon Wall, #18 on our list of sites to visit in Prague.; another destination to write on our ever expanding list of places to go “next time!”
About half of Kampa Island is open parkland surrounding three sides of the Kampa Museum. It also looked like the Museum couldn’t contain the art pieces within its walls as there was plenty of other pieces of amazing public art scattered throughout this lovely green space. We made our way towards the Legion Bridge, our crossover point back to the old town section of Prague. It is from Kampa Island that you can inspect the weirs and the lock system that have managed river traffic in Prague for centuries, even if some of the infrastructure has over 30 yellow penguins marching along it in unison. From the Legion Bridge we could inspect the opening to the lock where small ferries made their way further up-stream and like so many other features of the Prague cityscape, it was a gorgeous sight.
If you want to avoid the tourist crush, the Legion bridge is a great alternative to the Charles Bridge in getting to the old town. Apart from beautiful views down river and up towards Prague castle, you get to cross the river very easily and be greeted by the magnificent National Theatre, the home of Prague opera, ballet and Drama, on the opposite corner from the bridge.