Located in the Stare Mesto or Old Town, the Staromestske Namesti/Old Town Square of Prague is one of the oldest and most beautiful in all of Europe –it almost feels unreal, like you’ve stepped into a dream or a fairy tale set many centuries ago. Tracing its roots all the way back to the 12th century as the main marketplace of Prague, it boasts of a collection of architectural styles: Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic structures stand side by side in harmony. It used to be separated from the rest of the city by a moat connected to the Vltava river and a wall; the moat has since been covered up and turned into streets when Charles IV expanded the city with the addition of the Nove Mesto or New Town.
Coming from the Vltava side, the first thing you would notice is the gothic Church of Our Lady Before Tyn which dominates one side of the square with its twin spires. Commissioned by the rich merchants who lived in the Old Town in the latter part of the 14th century, it got its name from the Tyn Courtyard right next to it, so the name is to be taken quite literally.
It has a colorful history, reflective of the many religious and political upheavals in Prague during the middle ages. At one point in the 15th century, it became a Hussite place of worship and the center of the Reformed Church, and the cross was replaced by the symbol of the Hussite Church – a huge golden chalice, and a statue of the only Hussite King, George of Podedrad. When the church was taken over by the Jesuits, this chalice was melted and replaced by a statue of Mary.
Finding the entrance to the church is quite hard – you have to pass through several establishments as the church is located behind smaller buildings. The interior is predominantly baroque in style and I must confess, the sheer number and size of religious statues, paintings and other ornate structures made out of gold and precious metals and stones left me mesmerized. It has perhaps the most concentrated number of priceless artifacts in any of the places I’ve been to, and that made me understand why picture taking was prohibited.
Legend has it that this church inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. I guess it’s a toss up between this and Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, which has a more wholesome image; while I find the Tyn Church magical, especially when set against the dark sky, there’s also some sort of mystery or foreboding about it that doesn’t quite fit in with anything Disney.
Historic and beautiful churches aside, perhaps the most fascinating structure in the square is the Old Town Hall Tower with its Astronomical clock. The Tower was built in 1338, and in 1364, was joined to the private house beside it. This private house in turn, was joined to the next and so on, until the entire complex became known as the Old Town Hall.
The Astronomical Clock, or Orloj, was added to one side of the Old Town Hall Tower in 1410, and is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world, and the oldest one still working. The inner blue circle of the astronomical dial has golden Roman numerals around it, indicating the local time in Prague. The golden curves dividing the circle into twelve parts reflect variations for when days become longer or shorter, depending on the time of the year. The calendar plate at the bottom shows which zodiac sign currently reigns.
There are four figures flanking the astronomical dial, two on each side: Vanity (a man looking at himself in the mirror), Miser (with a bag of gold representing greed), Death (a skeleton), and the Turk (a man telling stories of pleasure). Every hour a small trapdoor opens and Christ marches ahead of his Apostles, while the skeleton tolls the bell. A golden rooster crowing followed by the ringing of the bell atop the tower signals the end of this spectacle.
The baroque church of St. Nicholas can also be found in the square, perpendicular to the location of the Tyn Church and the Town Hall. We actually almost missed it since it is rather unassuming, and it was closed during our visit (it was actually boarded up and the heat made us turn back rather than inquire about its business hours). Quite new compared with the other buildings in the area (completed in 1735), it also hosts various concerts, even during winter. We actually would have gone to one, but we all fell asleep early (blame it on our cumulative tiredness – Prague was our fourth as a group, and my fifth).
On our way back to our hotel (which was right smack in the Old Town), we decided to look for this unique attraction in Prague: the man hanging out sculpture. Made of bronze-colored fiberglass by artist David Cerny in 1996, it depicts Sigmund Freud pondering whether to hold on or let go, symbolic of his life-long fear of death.
To be honest, if you are not familiar with this sculpture, you would probably cry out in alarm upon seeing a man in an apparent suicide attempt (or a very strange accident). The fact that it is located in a quiet neighborhood of the Stare Mesto makes it all the more unexpected.
I’ve always heard of how beautiful the Old Town Square is, and Prague in general, so I had high expectations. As it turned out, my expectations weren’t high enough. It was just too beautiful it felt almost magical. I felt like I should have worn a form-fitting dress with a balloon skirt and petticoats and twirled round and round in the middle of the plaza. But of course, all I had on was a summer dress and it was rather too hot to be doing any twirling.