Prague Castle

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.

IMG_4193Like 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.

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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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInside, 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.
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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…
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… 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.
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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.

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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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeside 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.

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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.

Perhaps the only colorful parts of the church are the crypts and portions of the choir with the Romanesque frescoes.
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Well, the church is indeed somber and quite empty, so it makes perfect sense that it is a favorite venue for concerts – the acoustics inside must be heavenly.
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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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur 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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe 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.
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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? 😛

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere 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).
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWalking 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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd while munching our trdelník, we marveled at this view:
IMG_4204Pictures 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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI 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?

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Prague: Old Town/Stare Mesto

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.

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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.

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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.

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The church, at night, radiates mystery even as it is illuminated by the moon and the various street lamps around it.

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Off to the far right side of the Tyn Church is a group of old buildings – past this is the upscale shopping district where you can find luxury brands.

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.

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The Old Town Hall

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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.

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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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’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.

Prague: Charles Bridge and the Infant Jesus of Prague

If I have to sum up my entire visit to Prague in one word, it would be romantic. It is so beautiful and so firmly entrenched in the past that you cannot but view it with none other than rose-colored glasses. And one cannot deny that it seems shrouded in mystery, like most of its sister countries in the Carpathians.

Or maybe it’s just me – I tend to associate this region with my never-ending fascination with vampiric lore (way before Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries made it cool), given that Dracula lives in the mountains of the Carpathians and I will forever think of it in terms of magic and everything unreal.

Anyway, the historical/tourist area of Prague is quite small – you can reach all on foot or for the walking-averse set, take a short tram ride. I recommend the former as the experience is just all the more worthwhile and you get to see the lovely sidestreets and locals going about their daily routine. And as I mentioned, it is very compact.

The city is divided into two main parts, each sitting on one bank of the river Vlatava – the Lesser Town or Mala Strana, where Prague Castle is located, and the Old Town or Stare Mesto, where the town square with the famous astronomical clock is. Linking the two sides of Prague is one of the most famous bridges in the world – Charles Bridge or Karluv Most. There are many other bridges linking the two, of course, but none of them quite reached the importance of the Charles Bridge, which was, until 1841, the only means of crossing the Vlatava. Sidenote: Most actually means bridge in the local language and I finally figured this out after looking at our map and seeing this label on all the bridges.

Commisioned by King Charles IV to replace the old Judith Bridge which collapsed during the flood in 1342, construction on the Charles Bridge began in 1357, with the king’s favourite architect Peter Parler overseeing the work. According to legend, egg yolks were used in the construction of the bridge and that King Charles himself laid the first stone at a specific time because of his strong belief in numerology and that this would render the bridge with more strength. Considering that the bridge is now 700 years old and has survived countless wars, revolts, and yes, floods, there might be some credence to those beliefs after all.

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The bridge is more than half a kilometer long and entrance to it is marked by three towers – two on the Mala Strana side and one on the Stare Mesto side. The Old Town bridge, completed in 1380 and which serves as the entrance to the Stare Mesto, is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture with sculptures by Peter Parler adorning its facade. Climbing the 138 steps to the gallery allows you to have unobstructed views of the bridge from the top, as well as the Prague Castle on the other side of the Vlatava. Too bad though, that when we were there, we either get there too early or too late for the opening of the gate so I wasn’t able to climb up.

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The Lesser Town Bridge, on the hand, serves as the entrance to the quieter side of Prague – the Mala Strana. It was built later than the Old Town Bridge, in the first half of the 15th century during King George’s rule. Visitors can likewise climb up the tower, this time for views of the Old Town from across the Vlatava.

If you look at the tower closely, you will notice that there is actually a smaller tower connected to it by a walkway – the Judith Tower, which is the only surviving part of the old Prague bridge.

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Initially just a simple bridge with just a crucifix in the middle, baroque statues were placed during the 17th century, when such themes became prevalent. The 75 statues on the bridge are now all replicas – the original ones are now so badly damaged that they’ve been taken down and kept on display at the Lapidarium.

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Both sides of the bridge are fascinating but the Mala Strana, an old marketplace which began its life in the 8th century (!), is less crowded and in my opinion less commercialized – there are various cafes and shops showcasing works by local artists as well as jewelry stores with oh-so-lovely pieces in silver and lovely blood-red garnet, which is the official national gem. And pretty cheap too! When I checked in some of our jewelry stores here in Manila, they were all ridiculously priced that I now wish I’d hoarded garnet jewelry during my trip.

Oh well, there is always a next time.

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And I can’t get over how clean the entire city was. Usually, old towns such as this would reek of horse urine and the like but I was surprised to see water tanks regularly drizzling the cobblestoned streets with clean water.

We visited the Mala Strana quite a number of times – first was to go to the Prague Castle (more on that later), and several to visit the Church of Our Lady Victorious and the miraculous image of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

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The Church of Our Lady Victorious, while seemingly austere on the outside, is the first Baroque church in Prague, built in 1613. It was originally called the Church of the Holy Trinity and was supposed to be used by the German Lutherans. It was given to the Carmelites in 1620 as a sign of gratitute for their victory in the Battle of the White Mountain, and the church was rebuilt and its orientation changed tot he form we see today.

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The exact history of the statue is not known but its first appearance was in 1556, when the statue was brought from Spain to the Kingdom of Bohemia (of which the Czech Republic used to be part of) by Spanish princess Maria Manriquez de Lara y Mendoza upon her marriage to the Czech nobleman Vratislav. It is said that the statue was a gift from St. Terese of Avila to her mother; she later gave it to her own daughter Princess Polyxena, who in turn donated it to the Carmelite Friars in 1628.

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The 19-inch statue is made of wax-coated wood with it lower part encased in silver; it is similar to other sculptures of the Infant Jesus brought by Spanish missionaries to their conquered lands – it resembles the Sto. Nino de Cebu, itself a venerated statue in the Philippines.

Various miracles have been attributed to the statue – most notably for saving the entire city from plague and invasions, when entire armies would inexplicably withdraw their armies after the city prayed in front of the alter of the infant Jesus.

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There are many devotees to the Infant Jesus and there is a room off to the side of the alter where various presents from its devotees are showcased. Perhaps the most famous of this is the garment sewn by the Empress Maria Theresa.

I spied a number of presents from fellow Filipinos in the glass cabinets – indeed, I felt immense pride upon learning that the choir (we attended the Sunday mass at the church during our trip) is mostly composed of Pinoys. And there were many Pinoys attending the Holy Mass with us.

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I am not really fond of religious statues (except for the rosary and the crucifix) but I bought a small Sto. Nino for our little home. I felt so blessed visiting this Church and quite touched that the Mass was well  attended.

Last Days of Summer

The weather in Prague was a lot hotter than I expected. It was cool when the sun sets, but during daytime? The sun showed no mercy. No wonder I got burnt!

Nevertheless, Prague is very beautiful. Cobblestones, and hard to pronounce, much less remember street names, contribute to its old world charm.

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Charles Bridge at 7AM.

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Dress, belt, Mango; sandals, CMG; bag, Longchamp; necklace, Parfois; sunglasses, Michael Kors; watch, Kate Spade; charm bracelet, Pandora; pink crystals rosary, bought from the Duomo in Milan.

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We had to wake extra early for this, otherwise, the bridge gets so crowded.