|Prague Castle extends the full width of this photo- all you see "above the upper trees"|
|The Castle Gate, crowned by fighting giants, and flanked by guards|
Founded in the 9th century, at that time the buildings enclosed by the castle wall included only a palace, three churches and a monastery. It has grown and seen many changes since then, due to fires and changes in power, among other things. The entire area is referred to as the "castle" and today includes the
towering St. Vitus Cathedral, seven palaces, several royal gardens, several other churches, and just above the castle area, a monastery. Some of the palaces are open to the public, others are not.
Some are galleries containing valuable art collections, others are in use as residences (the Archbishop, for example) or offices (the Czech President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.) Like many castles there is a Changing of the Guard each hour at every gate, with special fanfare and a parade at noon at the top gate.
I won't bore you with a lot of the historical details, but I will share a few of the interesting tidbits I learned while touring the Castle area... The Old Royal Palace, for example, was the seat of the Bohemian princes, starting in the 12th century. Its Great Hall was designed as a multipurpose hall and is large enough for jousts- the staircase by which we exited is sloped to allow knights on horseback to gallop in.... Now that's planning! It was filled with market stalls, allowing the nobility the chance to shop without having to go "into town".
|Plague Column in Castle Square|
Castle Square contains a plague column, commonly found in many Czech towns. They were erected after the plague as a token of gratitude to the saints who saved the population from the epidemic. Castle Square was the focal point of medieval power - the King, the Archbishop and powerful noblemen lived here. Currently the Archbishop still does, and the Czech President has his offices close by but lives a mile or so away.
Of all the buildings I toured, I thought St.Vitus Cathedral was the most impressive. (I kept thinking of Ken Follett's book Pillars of the Earth.) Started in 1344, but stalled by wars, plagues, and changes in power, it was a very long "work in progress" as it wasn't finished until 1929! It houses the Crown Jewels and contains the tombs of many important kings and local saints (including St. Wenceslas and St. Vitus).
The shiny tomb of St. John of Nepomuk supposedly contains
more than a ton of solid silver. John was a 14th century priest to whom the Queen confessed all her sins. According to legend, the King wanted to know his wife's secrets, but Father John dutifully refused to reveal them. He was tortured and killed by being thrown off the Charles Bridge.
The sheer size of the interior, the soaring height of the chancel vault and the ribbing which supports the arches are all so amazing - I had a hard time keeping my jaw from dropping. I have been in many European cathedrals but this was definitely among the most impressive I have seen.
I was amazed by the beauty of the stained glass windows, considered superb examples of 20th century Czech stained glass. Although they all were incredible, my favourite was the Mucha window (by Alfons Mucha). I wished I could have seen more of his work...
Stained glass windows are not easy to photograph. This photo is not too bad, but it doesn't come close to the actual beauty. The color, the detail, the sheer size... the windows in St. Vitus were SO amazing. (Perhaps they deserve an entire post of their own...?)
The exterior is equally impressive, with its twin Gothic spires, the gargoyles, the flying buttresses at the back (which support the vaulted interior), and the Golden Portal which was originally the main entrance. It is almost hard to comprehend how they could complete work like this hundreds of years ago, without any of the tools and equipment we have available today. I guess those were truly the days of fine craftsmanship - it seems buildings today rarely last even 50 years.... I think I could have spent an entire day just in the Cathedral. (I visited it 3 times over my 11 days in Prague.)
This church is so large, it is difficult to get a good photo of the exterior. You cannot get back far enough from it to get a good overall photo. Because it is surrounded by other buildings, and because I don't have a super-wide wide angle lens... well, you'll just have to believe me, and be satisfied with these "bits and pieces" photos...
The other area of the Castle Quarter which I really liked (and visited twice) was the Strahov Monastery. It sits higher on the hill than the Cathedral and is easily recognized by its twin spires with Baroque domes. A medieval monastery was a mix of industry, agriculture and education, as well as worship and theology. Today it is once again a working monastery with an active vineyard, brewery and beer hall.
Walking downhill, you next come to the Loreto, an important place of pilgrimage. The peaceful Loreta Church cloisters enclose the Santa Casa (Holy House), considered by some to be part of the house of the Virgin Mary from Nazareth. Generations of believers have considered this to be the most holy spot in the country. Upstairs in the Loreta Church you can view the Loreta Treasury and gaze upon many jewelled worship aids, including a monstrance (Communion wafer holder) from 1699, set with more than 6,000 diamonds. As I continued downhill I enjoyed the hourly carillon concert from the bell tower.
Having visited Prague Castle three times during our stay (first with Laura, then with Ivan, then more thoroughly on my own) I think I managed to hit all the highlights. The last stop was Golden Lane, a short narrow street named for the goldsmiths who lived there in the 1600's; it's an interesting stroll - its tiny buildings (you have to stoop to enter) nestle along the back castle wall, and were once occupied by castle servants as well as goldsmiths. Today the dwellings are a mix of souvenir shops, crafts shops and several which house re-creations/displays of medieval life on the lane.
Life's a climb, but the view is great.