Surely by now, you all know how much I love my palaces and castles. I can never get enough of them. And when you’re thisclose to the biggest ancient castle complex in the world, well, you need not waste the opportunity, right?
Prague Castle actually holds that distinction according to the Guinness Book of Records. It’s practically a mini-city unto itself, with its own church(es), palace, village, mansions and gardens all within its walls. It’s even perched on an elevated parcel of land overlooking the city of Prague with its thousand spires and the Vlatava river nearby.
Like with everything in Prague, the first word that came to mind when I saw the spires jutting out against the sky was this: mysterious. Whereas Paris reminded me of the glamour and glitz of royalty, Prague brought to mind the mystery of the olden times, like secret societies, and pagan rituals, and medieval wars.
It’s the stuff you only see in epic movies, except that it’s for real.
Prior to our visit, I must confess that I knew nothing about the castle, except that it ranks high in our to do list. So I was expecting the building so familiar in all Prague postcards and towering above the complex to be the royal residence (or, in modern times, the presidential residence). But lo and behold, it was actually the Cathedral of Saint Vitus.
The St. Vitus Cathedral (or more properly, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Vitus, Wenceslau and Adalbert since its rededication in 1997) is the biggest church in the country, although since it is a part of the Prague castle complex, it is owned by the government, instead of the Roman Catholic Church. The church itself was founded in 930, but the current structure of the cathedral was built starting 1344. Quite luckily, its patrons included Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor; he wanted the new cathedral not just to be the resting place of St. Wenceslau (a former duke of Bohemia and patron saint of the state), but also to serve as a coronation place and family crypt. The original architect, Matthias of Arras, drew its initial plans and layout but upon his death, Peter Parler and his sons took over the construction.
It is quite interesting to note that Peter Parler practically designed the Prague that we now know today since he was also commissioned to construct the Charles Bridge, among many other projects.
The cathedral is extremely beautiful and grand, and if Charles IV’s goal was to build something fit for royalty, then he succeeded. I was in awe of the exterior, with its many turrets and ironworks dotted with gold. Its design, particularly the facade and rooftop, reminded me of the St. Stephen in Vienna, and upon doing a bit of research, I found out that members of Parler’s family and group took part in its construction as well.
Inside, you can’t help but feel insignificant amidst all the grandeur. What sets apart St. Vitus Cathedral from others I’ve seen in Europe is that there were so many well-maintained sculptures, not just occupying obvious places of honor, but adorning just about every pillar or corner of the cathedral. Parler was a sculptor and his unique background as such influenced the overall feel of the cathedral. The big, stained glass windows, which followed a lighter color scheme than most churches I’ve seen, also made the place decidedly more cheerful and airy than its somber counterparts in other cities.
I mentioned earlier that I associate Prague with mystery and the Cathedral is no exception. What probably even reinforced the thought in my mind is that while the structure is primarily a church, there are so many items inside that seems to me a display of a morbid fascination with death. Occupying the eastern end, for example, is a white marble effigy of Ferdinand I, his wife Anna, and their son Maximilian II, which stands guard to the Royal Mausoleum – where a crypt of kings lies underneath…
… And of course, you cannot miss the silver tomb of Saint John of Nepomuk. Created in the early 18th century by J. Wurth, it is said to be the single biggest silver object in the whole world. At 20 tonnes, I imagine that claim must be true.
There are so many artworks inside that were it not for an eerie sense of morbidity, it would have felt like walking around a museum. The pulpit, with its gold trimmings, paintings, and sculpted cherubs, is one of the prettiest I have seen, even though it is much smaller compared with others.
There are 24 chapels inside the Cathedral, but perhaps the most beautiful and significant is the St. Wenceslau Chapel, with its lower walls inlaid with semi-precious stones, and paintings dating from the early 16th century. The chapel leads to a small room where the Czech crown jewels are kept, although of course, it is not open to the public. There are seven locks to open this room, with each of the seven keys given to different high-ranking officials including the president. All seven would need to be present to open the hihly protected room. No wonder, as the Czech crown jewels – which includes St. Wenceslaus’s crown (a roughly 2.5 kg gold crown with sapphires, spinels, and pearls), scepter, and sword – are the fourth oldest in Europe, and while it has outlived its function as coronation jewels, they still serve as symbols of the independence and grandeur of the Bohemian kingdom.
I found it very amazing that the chapel (like the entire cathedral), was very well-maintained. Indeed, the paintings were still so vivid and I could not detect any missing stones.
Beside the cathedral is the Saint George Basicilica, the oldest church building inside the castle. It was initially founded in 920, but after huge fires and other calamities, it was finally rebuilt in the late 17th century with the Baroque facade we see today.
Whereas the cathedral nearby had an air of opulence about it, the basilica was somber and austere, more functional than ceremonial. It served as the resting place of members of the Premyslid family (Bohemian royal family; through relations wih them, the Habsburgs and House of Luxembourg claimed their respective titles to the crown), until 1055.
Okay, it’s not that I am particularly drawn to crypts, burial places, and other eerie places, but why is it that I often find myself alone and separated from other tourists when visiting such places? Anyway, I was touring the interior of the basilica when I chanced upon the Roman crypt. It was so quiet and serene, but it gave me a seriour case of goosebumps. The soft lighting didn’t help, either.Our Prague Castle ticket actually came with an itinerary of sorts, with the various attractions numbered and labelled in a small map at the back to serve as guide. Of course, it depends on which ticket you get – you can opt to visit just what interests you.
We had allocated the entire day to visit the castle, so we went to our next stop: the Powder Tower and the Golden Lane. We didn’t dwell too much in the Tower but spent time going through each of the small but colorful houses built in the Mannerism style alongside the walls of the castle. These tiny quarters used to house the castle marksmen who guarded the castle, who lived there with their families. The street got its name from the goldsmiths who lived there, although the name may have also been derived from stories of the alchemists hired by the mad King Rudolph to try and turn lead into gold.
The second level of some of the houses had been joined to showcase medieval armoury. I think this is the biggest such display I have come across in Europe, with all those rows of empty full-body armors and weapons.
Some of the houses had been converted into souvenir shops. I found an antique chess set which I wanted to buy but was too scared to do so. Who knows what history that chess set holds? But perhaps the house that brought me the most goosebumps was the house of an old lady who could see the future – she had a son who died in the war but she kept the house exactly how he left it, hoping he would return.
We ended our tour by gazing up the presidential palace. Unlike most of the castles and palaces in Europe which have lost their official functions and have been turned into mere tourist spots, museums, or private hotels, Prague Castle still serves as the residence of the president.
There is a curious bronze statue outside the courtyard of Supreme Burgrave, simply called Youth (Mládí), by Czech artist Miloš Zet. As per tradition, touching a body part of a statue brings good luck (such as Juliet’s breasts in Verona, Italy). Can you guess which body part of this statue is most frequently touched? 😛
There is also a toy museum inside the complex which, I read, is the second largest toy exhibit in the world. We didn’t get to explore this anymore (tbh, I get scared of old toys; it’s like they would come alive anytime).
Walking around the entire complex pretty much took us the entire day and we could barely trudge on so we followed all those other tourists sitting by the wall overloong the city. And to make the experience even more memorable, I got some Trdelník, a local pastry which derived its name from the Trdlo, the stick around which the dough is wrapped and then grilled. It is then coated with sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts for added flavor. I loved it!
It gave me just enough sugar to fuel me for the walk back to our hotel.
And while munching our trdelník, we marveled at this view:
Pictures don’t do justice to Prague. That, or I really need to buy a really nice camera and practice my photography. My mirrorless camera avtually died on me during our second day in Prague: courtesy of me cramming my camera with my water bottle and other stuff.
Oh, and I dorgot to mention that there is a wide expanse of royal gardens surrounding the castle, filled with tall trees and freshly trimmed grass. I loved how quiet and secluded it was.
I would have loved to show you more sights in the complex such as the Vlatislav Hall, where the public events are held but unfortunately, I was being a good tourist and obeyed the sign that said picture taking not allowed – only to find fellow tourists unabashedly taking photos! Also, my camera was quite useless by then.
For those of you who love jewelry, the Czech Republic is known for garnets, its national gem. There is a gift shop inside the main building which sells Czech garnet jewelry, at a fraction of what it costs here. I was eyeing a pendant there but another woman beat me to it. Too bad but makes for a perfect excuse to visit again, no?