Majestically soaring over the city, the fairy-tale Prague Castle rises as the ultimate highlight of the Czech capital. Together with the other famous landmarks such as Charles Bridge and the Astronomical Clock, it is some of the top sights that really are must-sees when you visit Prague. And don’t forget to enter the Golden Lane inside the Prague Castle grounds, a picture-postcard tiny street with a fascinating past.
What is the history behind and why have these sights gained so much fame and worldwide attention?
These landmarks each add to the special Prague ambience and each have their own particular story to tell.
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Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) is an institution with a lot of symbolic meaning in the Czech Republic and is currently the official office of the President of the Czech Republic. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the castle has significant historic importance and even today the Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept behind the castle walls. It has a unique location above the city of Prague, both overlooking the city, the Vltava River and picturesque hillside vineyards.
The buildings date back to the 9th century where the first structures were erected by Prince Bořivoj (around 880) – and have since then been the seat of power of kings, emperors, presidents, and other regents in the country.
Holding the record of being the largest castle complex in the world (with a total area of 70,000 square metres), Prague Castle fortress includes the Old Royal Palace featuring the impressive Vladislav Hall with spectacular Renaissance windows and a Gothic ceiling (today, this is also the location of the elections of the president of the Czech Republic), St Vitus Cathedral, the red Romanesque Basilica of Saint George, the aristocratic Lobkowicz Palace with a 17th-century baroque concert hall, the charming Golden Lane, a monastery, defence towers, as well as fine art galleries and beautiful gardens.
Moreover, several museums and galleries such as the picture gallery of Prague Castle are housed inside the gigantic castle complex.
The palaces and ecclesiastical buildings feature a wonderful mix of architectural styles, including medieval, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and baroque styles – thanks to the various renovations and reconstructions taking place over the years. One of the last alterations was carried out by Empress Maria Theresa towards the end of the 18th century. Most recently, after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Prague Castle has again undergone comprehensive renovations.
St Vitus Cathedral, which was initiated in the 14th century, has a unique status in Prague as a former coronation location. This cathedral, originally dedicated to Saint Vitus, is the Czech Republic’s largest and most important church. It is today also the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. The huge Gothic construction is famous for its magnificent stained glass windows – and notably features the tomb of St. Wenceslas, the son of Bohemia’s Duke Vratislaus I, from the first half of the 10th century. Likewise, the Cathedral holds the tombs of a number of Bohemian mighty kings and Holy Roman Emperors.
The quaint, cobbled alley, often referred to as the Golden Lane (sometimes the Street of the Alchemists), was established back in the 16th century between the Bílá Tower and the Daliborka Tower as an area built into the city’s fortifications with tiny houses for the servants, gatekeepers and guards working at Prague Castle. Appearing as a colourful, fairy-tale street within the castle walls, it has been left nearly untouched throughout the last centuries. It is today also a historical piece of authentic castle culture, a bit shrouded in mystery, that draws thousands of visitors to the castle grounds.
In the 20th century, the cottages in the Golden Lane turned popular among artists and writers living in or coming to Prague. Cottage number 22 was for instance in 1916 and 1917 home to Franz Kafka who rented the place from his sister. The last tenant of the alley didn’t leave until 1952. Right up to this date, the Golden Lane remained a dynamic and vibrant neighbourhood in Prague.
The cottages represented all the small businesses needed in the daily life. Number 16 used to be a lively tavern – one out of many taverns in the street at the time when the Golden Lane teemed with a mix of musicians, jugglers, fortune tellers, card trick practitioners and swindlers.
Goldsmiths were also present in large numbers in the alley, hence the name Golden Lane. There was a goldsmith boom in Prague towards the end of the 15th century, and the less successful in this business might end up here in the Golden Lane. They worked with smaller orders than the rich goldsmiths in central Prague and experimented with chemicals and other products in the hope that they could create precious gold.
Today the Golden Lane houses contain various art exhibitions, as well as visitor shops, and they are numbered such that you can identify the original purpose. Number 14 belonged to a renowned tarot-card reader and fortune teller Madame de Thebes, and number 15 used to be a goldsmith’s workshop. Further down the street you will find the herbalist’s house in number 27 – the predecessor of the apothecary. This person had to treat wounds and cure diseases through the use of herbs and botanical substances. In bottles and jugs all kinds of extracts and powders were kept – from plant nectars, to crushed snail shells and pig teeth – not to mention dried frogs and snakeskin.
Charles Bridge (in Czech: Karlův most) is an impressive medieval stone arch bridge crossing the Vltava River between two Gothic bridge towers. In the past, 200 years ago, a bridge toll was collected here. Charles Bridge is a popular photo spot and an iconic landmark in Prague with its 30 baroque statues flanking the pedestrian bridge area, turning the bridge into a classy avenue. Most of the sculptures date back to the period between 1683 and 1714.
Being the oldest bridge in Prague, Charles Bridge was built by the German-Czech architect Peter Parler in 1357, at that time replacing the Judith Bridge which had been destroyed by flooding in 1342. Until 1841 it remained the only bridge over the Vltava River in Prague. The name Charles Bridge is of more recent date. In the past the bridge was known merely as ‘Prague’ or ‘Stone’.
Along the sides beautiful statues and elegant lampposts adorn the broad bridge, each statue having its own story to tell. One of the most well-known statues is the glorious Statue of the Czech saint St John of Nepomuk. John of Nepomuk was tortured to death since he didn’t want to reveal the Queen’s confession. To touch the statue is now said to bring luck!
Another remarkable statue is the Statue of Saints Vincent Ferrer and Procopius, created by the sculptor Ferdinand Brokoff in 1712. Behind the statue there is a sculpture of a mythical Bohemian knight, Bruncvik, with a lion at his feet. According to the legend he helped a lion fight a huge dragon.
A third famous sculpture group is St Lutgarde, created by Matthias Braun in 1710, depicting the blind Flemish nun Lutgarde as she sees the crucified Jesus in a vision.
Maybe surprisingly, the status are all replicas today. The originals were in 1965 replaced by the current sculptures – and instead taken to the Lapidarium of the National Museum in Prague.
If you want the world-famous bridge a bit to yourself for a photo session – or simply to enjoy the quietness and the views of Charles Bridge and the castle hillside, it is preferable to come early in the morning. The later in the day you arrive, the more crowded will the historic Charles Bridge be – with some likelihood of culminating with hordes of people in the evening on a warm summer day!
Another absolute top attraction in Prague is the outstanding Astronomical Clock, also known as The Orloj, which was probably built by Mikuláš of Kadaň. The Astronomical Clock was placed at the front of the tower back in 1410 and consists of different parts – a calendar, an astronomical face and the mechanism of the twelve Apostles placed inside the Old Town Hall Tower.
Every hour visitors can watch the procession of the Twelve Apostles, a popular parade during daytime hours. During the parade, various other figures set in motion as well. A skeleton rotates an hourglass to tell the Turk that his life has come to an end. The Turk responds by shaking his head.
Beyond the procession performance, the beautiful Prague Astronomical Clock can tell the time, the date, and display both astronomical and zodiacal information. The zodiac signs are depicted in anticlockwise order. Additionally, the astronomical dial can show the position of the sun and the moon, as well as various other astronomical details. The face has both glyphs and Roman numerals, the glyphs go all the way back to ancient Czech time. Also, astronomical events such as sunrise, daybreak, daytime, and nighttime are represented, as well as the location of equator and the tropics. As a curiosity also several virtues and evils are shown – an example of the latter is ‘Death’.
With its more than 600 years of age, the magnificent Prague Astronomical Clock is one of the oldest operating astronomical clocks in the world! However, some of the statues were added much later, and the Apostle statues as late as towards the end of the 18th century. There is a saying that if the Prag Astronomical Clock were ever to fall into disrepair, then the city would suffer. There have actually been a few times when repairs have been desperately needed. One of these times was after the Second World War during which the machinery had been very much damaged.
‘Visit Prague Castle, Golden Lane, Charles Bridge & Prague Astronomical Clock’
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Visit Prague Castle, Golden Lane, Charles Bridge & Prague Astronomical Clock:
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