Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic

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Viking offered an “official” pre-trip extension to Prague but when we looked at the price and at what was included, we decided we could do it ourselves a lot cheaper.  Did we miss out on a few things?  Probably.  But we were OK with that.

Our first adventure was getting from our hotel, the Marriott Courtyard Prague, to the Old Town.  We thought we should be able to do that via the tram, so we exchanged money at the currency exchange that’s in the mall across the street from the hotel, then followed the tram tracks to the nearest stop.  I waved some money at the driver and he just waved his hand in what I took to be a “never mind” expression so we hopped on board.  Only later did we realize that we were supposed to have bought tickets elsewhere and validated them in the on-board machine.  Once we became aware of that, we hopped off pretty quickly to avoid any fines.  Fortunately we were just a few blocks from where we thought we needed to be.

prg-municipal-house

Municipal House

prg-republic-square

Republic Square

We found Republic Square and the street we wanted but our map-reading skills had deteriorated in this age of Google Maps and we couldn’t find Old Town.  We popped into a hotel where the concierge set us straight.  All we had to do was walk through the Powder Tower and there it was!

prg-powder-tower

Powder Tower

Soon we were treading cobblestone streets which then opened up into the Old Town Square. We took the free walking tour from Discover Prague.  Our guide, Tate,  spoke English very well which wasn’t surprising since he was from … Idaho.  Yes, he was American, from Idaho named Tate so of course his nickname was Tater. As in “potato”. Because he’s from Idaho.

Old Town Square

As we were in the Old Town Square, our tour began there. Tate pointed out the buildings around the area including the Church of our Lady before Tyn, the Kinsky Palace and the Church of St. Nicholas.

Our Lady Before Tyn

Our Lady Before Tyn

Church of St. Nicholas

Church of St. Nicholas

Kinsky Palace on the right

Kinsky Palace on the right

But the main draw in the area is the astronomical clock that was installed on the wall of the Town Hall in 1410.  It’s the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in use.  It suffered heavy damage in WW II but was repaired in 1948.

The clock features three components:

  • the astronomical dial representing the position of the sun and moon
  • the Walk of the Apostles, which is the hourly parade of moving sculptures
  • a calendar dial

Local legend says the city will suffer if the clock is neglected so it’s always kept in good condition.prg-astronomical-clock

prg-astronomical-clock-closeup

Rudolfinum

The Rudolfinum is the home to the Czech Philharmonic.  It was opened in 1885 and its first-ever concert was conducted by locally-born Antonín Dvořák and his statue stands opposite the entrance.  From 1919 to 1932 this building was home to parliament for Czechoslovakia and the main concert hall was completely remodeled for this purpose.  Since there was no need for a parliament under the reign of the Nazis, it was that party which restored the concert hall and even improved its long-criticized acoustics.  A major reconstruction between 1990 and 1992 brought the building up to modern standards.

Rudolfinium

Rudolfinium

Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvořák

 

Jewish Quarter

Our tour included a stop in the Jewish Quarter.  In the 13th century, Jews were told to leave their homes and relocate to a common area of the city, which was then walled.  One problem with that was that as Jews moved to Prague from other cities, they were forced to live within the walls too.  And of course all the families kept expanding and soon it was a very crowded place!

The town hall has two clocks atop it: one in standard Roman numerals and the other with Hebrew numerals which runs “backwards” from standard clocks.

Dual clocks on the Jewish Town Hall

Dual clocks on the Jewish Town Hall

One of the most interesting sites to me, and one I wish we’d been able to view up close, was the cemetery.  Until 1478 the Jews had a graveyard outside the Quarter but King Wladislav II Jagello ordered it closed due to citizen complaints.  That’s when the cemetery in the Quarter was opened.  But with such a small plot of land it filled up quickly.  With nowhere else to turn, a layer of dirt was spread on top of the graves and the next burials took place there.  The last gravestone dates to 1787 when Emperor Josef II had the cemetery closed for hygienic reasons.  In some places there are twelve layers of coffins resting beneath the earth. The tombstones for each layer were removed and replaced at the new top layer each time, leaving a virtual forest of tombstones.  This is why those tombstones are visible above the awning in the photo – because the land there was built so high from its original surface.

Jewish cemetery - see the headstones just above the building with the awning

Jewish cemetery – see the headstones just above the building with the awning

Estates Theater

The Estates Theater was built in the late 18th century and today hosts all kinds of performances including opera, ballet and drama.  It was here in 1787 that Mozart premiered his opera Don Giovanni and it was the first place that his opera La Clemenza di Tito was staged in public.  This is the only remaining theater where Mozart personally performed.  It was also used in the filming of the 1984 movie Amadeus.

Estate Theater

Estates Theater

Charles IV

Charles IV was a 14th century King of Bohemia who became Holy Roman Emperor.  He was hugely influential in this region and many structures bear reference to his name.

Statue of Charles VI near his namesake bridge

Statue of Charles VI near his namesake bridge

He was a great promoter of education and the arts.  Charles University is part of his lasting legacy.  Founded in 1348, it was the first university in Central Europe and is one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the Europe.

One of the buildings of Charles University

One of the buildings of Charles University

A more photographed structure is the Charles Bridge with its famous Gothic bridge tower on the Old Town side.  The bridge itself has 16 arches and is lined with 30 statues.  During our visit there were day merchants lined up on each side, mostly artists selling their wares.

Tower on the Old Town side of Charles Bridge

Tower on the Old Town side of Charles Bridge

Detail of sculpture on the Charles Bridge Tower

Detail of sculpture on the Charles Bridge Tower

Charles Bridge at twilight

Charles Bridge at twilight

Prague Castle

On the next day we took a paid tour of Prague Castle, once again with Discover Prague.  The ticket included a short walk where we boarded the tram which took us up the hill to the castle.

When looking at the castle from the Old Town side of the river Vltava, the obvious marker is the giant St. Vitus Cathedral rising above it all.  But the entire wall marks the castle complex.  It is, in a word, vast.  In fact, it is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest ancient castle in the world at over 750,000 square feet!  As this is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic, we weren’t allowed inside many of the buildings.  And somewhere, in a secret room, are the Bohemian Crown Jewels.  But we didn’t get to see those either.

Prague Castle with the Church of St. Vitus at center

Prague Castle with the Church of St. Vitus at center

Inside the castle walls are many smaller palaces.  These are being used for various purposes now including government administration, exhibition space, cafes, gift shops, etc.

Schwarzenberg Palace, now home to the National Gallery

Schwarzenberg Palace, now home to the National Gallery

The Archbishop's Palace - done in the Rococco style of the 18th century

The Archbishop’s Palace – done in the Rococco style of the 18th century

During the time of Rudolf II this area was the stables but is now exhibition space

During the time of Rudolf II this area was the stables but is now exhibition space

St. George's Basilica, the oldest surviving church within the palace walls. In Baroque style it dates to the late 17th century.

St. George’s Basilica, the oldest surviving church within the palace walls. In Baroque style it dates to the late 17th century.

St. Vitus Cathedral

This is the largest church in Prague and contains the tombs of many kings and Holy Roman Emperors.  The first stone was laid in 1344 but due to fire, war and other projects deemed more important, it wasn’t completed until several centuries later.prg-st-vitus-top

prg-st-vitus-bottom

prg-st-vitus-arch-detail

prg-st-vitus-interior

prg-st-vitus-stained-glass-window-from-inside

Our tour ended in the gardens which overlook the city.  Truly a delightful city that we enjoyed very much and cannot wait to revisit.

View of Prague from the castle

View of Prague from the castle

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