Sunday morning dawned cold, and a light rain fell. The weather app on our iPad read, “1.1 celsius,” 34 degrees. We dressed in as many layers as possible; it didn’t matter whether or not anything matched, as long as we dressed warmly. On our way out of the hotel, we grabbed umbrellas at the entrance, then trekked up the hill to see Prague Castle, which is actually a huge complex of museums, churches, palaces, and gardens. The castle complex sits high on a hill above the Charles Bridge and the Vltava River, and is the focal point of Prague. The immense Gothic cathedral of St. Vitus dominates the skyline. You can wander the castle complex at will, as it is free; however, some of the buildings will cost you. The architectural styles range from Romanesque to Gothic. The Old Royal Palace itself was home to Bohemian kings during the ninth century.
Besides St. Vitus Cathedral, I wanted to see Golden Lane, a quaint row of brightly colored houses dating back to the sixteenth century. These historic homes sprang up after the construction of the northern wall of the castle and were inhabited by the castle servants and perhaps goldsmiths. The author Franz Kafka lived in house number twenty-two from 1916 to 1917.
St. Vitus Cathedral is the largest and most important church in Prague, but my reason for wanting to see its interior was the stunning stained glass windows. The overcast day couldn’t detract from their beauty. Nothing could—not even seeing them in the dead of night.
After our ninety-minute self-guided tour of the castle complex, we walked briskly to Prague’s Old Town. But first we bought sweatshirts, hats, and gloves, pleased we had made our purchases before a crowd of twenty or more entered to do the same—and they bought all of the umbrellas.
In the Old Town Square, we gathered before the Astronomical Clock, a six-hundred-year-old clock on front of the old city hall. We waited patiently for it to strike the eleventh hour. Every hour, on the hour, the time is announced with a procession of the twelve apostles passing by the window above the astronomical dial. The timepiece is a popular tourist attraction.
Next, we headed to St. Nicholas Church, a baroque church dating back to 1755. Even in the subtle light of the day, the façade gleamed a lovely white. By now, the tourist crowds had emerged from their hotels, so we stayed inside long enough to admire the beautiful interior, then continued on to Týn Church.
The exterior of the Týn Church is, in my opinion, a truly Gothic structure with ominous-looking and powerful black double spires. The exterior mimics the dark history of the church, which was founded during 1385, a turbulent period when the Hussites were being slaughtered by the ruling Roman Catholics.
Old Town is separated from New Town by the Powder Tower or Powder Gate, which is a Gothic tower and one of the original city gates, dating back to the eleventh century.
From the Powder Gate, we walked to Wenceslas Square, which is really a boulevard. At the top of the square is the National Museum. In front of the museum is a statue of St. Wenceslas on a horse. This is “Good King Wenceslas,” who was murdered a thousand years ago by his brother. Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic.
My goodness, I thought, all this murder and mayhem! But not much has changed since the Middle Ages as far as homicides and violence in society are concerned. Just then the skies cleared, a good omen, but a chill still hung in the air.
At noon, we ducked into the first restaurant we came to, noticed the dining area was crowded with what appeared to be locals (a good sign), and perused the menu. We didn’t see any small portions of anything, so we ordered what would be an early dinner. Dave had a pork shank with mashed potatoes and all the condiments: two kinds of mustard, horseradish, and pickles. I ordered duck. The meal came with sautéed red cabbage, potato pancakes, and fresh applesauce. We politely declined dessert.
The afternoon proceeded at a more leisurely pace. The inclement weather had improved, so a walk fit the agenda. From the restaurant, we headed to Peace Square to see the beautiful stained glass windows inside the Church of St. Ludmila. After the short church visit, we toured the square, then retraced our route to the National Museum. From there, we planned to head down Wenceslas Square and eventually to the National Theatre, where we would walk along the riverfront until we found Dancing House.
We paused near the National Museum to double-check our street map. When we looked up, we saw a woman approaching. She asked if she could help with directions. We told her eventually we wanted to see Dancing House. She advised us to backtrack to Žitná Street and follow it to the riverfront. We were about to inquire why, but she spoke first. “It’s rare, but occasionally we do get political protestors, and today there are about thirty participating in an anti-Syrian government demonstration.” We thanked her, and she went on her way.
We heeded her advice and detoured to Žitná. As we neared New Town, we veered from our original course to see the baroque Jesuit church of St. Ignatius. From the street corner, my attention was captured by a gold aureole surrounding a statue. The statue, as I anticipated, was of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the patron saint and founder of the Jesuit order. I spent a few moments inside the church, then we proceeded toward the Vltava River, now walking along Ressolva Street where Dancing House is located.
Next week: “Europe 2011: The Babies of Prague.”