Things to see and do - Prague
Prague, a bridge between East and West :
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Prague, a bridge between East and West
Prague, a bridge between East and WestPedestrian, 15 km, 2 days
Like its legendary stone bridge built 700 years ago, Prague connects the two halves of Europe ... The fascinating charm of a human-sized city.Customise this route and add it to My travel book
Between the Old City Bridge Tower - whose cellars were used as a prison and with a tower giving a wonderful view over the eastern city - and the Mala Strana Bridge Towers - whose lower tower dates back to the 12C and whose high tower dates back to 1464 - this slightly curved bridge offers views of the distant edges of the city and is an open-air museum. There are around 30 statues on the bridge's struts, most of which were erected in the 18C, making it a real guard of honour for those crossing. The most famous statue is without a doubt that of Saint John Nepomucene, which was set here around 1683, at the centre of the bridge. In the evening, Charles Bridge is lit up, giving the effect of a garland of light in the heart of Prague, and indeed, on foggy nights, it looks as if the statues are speaking to each other.
Between the bend in the Vltava and the Castle, bordered by the green Petrin hill to the south, the «little side» of Mala Strana is strewn with palaces and churches. Anarchically built during the high Middle Ages, the Mala Strana was only organised because of Ottokar II (13C) and IV, the builder king, who decided to counterbalance the economic power of Stare Mesto, on the other side of the river, by organising a «Little City of Prague (Menzi mesto prazske) at the foot of the Castle. Mala Strana flourished, but this dynamic area was ravaged by the Hussites in the late 14C, then, after reconstruction, by a great fire in 1541. The Renaissance style replaced the Gothic, largely due to the influx of Italian architects. But it was after the White Mountain disaster in 1620 that the area began to resemble what it is today. Buildings were destroyed to erect immense palaces such as the Wallenstein, and Baroque became the defining style, with stone vaults attesting to Catholic triumph. When the centre of power moved to Vienna, the social makeup of the area changed too. Regular citizens took over the streets and houses while the palaces fell into disues or became government buildings. And so as the architectural development was halted in the 18C, Mala Strana still has an air of the Enlightenment about it.
The façade of the Church of St. Nicholas, giving onto Old Town Square, is a splendid Baroque construction (1732-1737), the work of Prague architect Kiliá Ignác Dientzenhofer. While the exterior is not very different from most of Prague's churches, with twin towers and a central dome, the interior is far more intricate, particularly in the stucco work by Bernard Spinetti. The frescoes on the inside of the dome illustrate the life of St. Nicholas.
The monumental Baroque gate was built in 1742 and carries a statue of St Norbert, who founded this order. Through it, one enters the St Roch Chapel, which, despite its Renaissance feel, has several Gothic touches. The Abbey itself is made up of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, an old Romanesque basilica which was rebuilt in the Gothic style and reworked with a sumptuous Baroque flavour in the 18th Century. The convent buildings hold two great libraries. The Theology Room, built in the 17th Century, has a wide, low vault with medallions depicting themes of wisdom. The Philosophy Room was built to hold the treasure of the Moravian Abbey in Louka in the 18C. It is tall and narrow, with wood sculptures and a ceiling showing the history of Philosophy through religious themes and rationalist figures from the Enlightenment (Voltaire and Diderot can be seen condemned to the eternal flames). The libraries, which can only be seen from the entrances to each room, hold 130,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 icunabula and some precious treasures, including a 9C Ottonian evangelistary rimmed with precious gems. At the cloister level, there is an art gallery with a collection of 14-18C Century Bohemian art, including the Virgin of Strahov.
Countess Kolowrat comissioned the Loretta Sanctuary, which was built 1626-1631. It was one of the most visited religious sites in all Bohemia. The «pilgrim» is welcomed by a superb façade built in 1721-1724 by Dientzenhofer. It is a true stone retable that precedes a balustrade decorated with putti. Raised by the high belltower, statues of angels and saints form the main alignment, while in the gables can be seen Mary and the Angel Gabriel in a near-Realist Annunciation, with Joseph and John the Baptist opening the sanctuary doors. Once through these doors, you will find the primitive Santa Casa with its rustic brick walls which were decorated in 1664 with scenes showing the life of the Virgin Mary. There is a cloister (1600, restored 1747-51) with an impressive number of chapels dedicated to St Francis, St Anthony of Padua and St Starosta (pious «bearded lady» crucified for having refused the marriage arranged by her father). The Baroque Church of the Nativity (1718-37) has a rich statuary and is decorated with paintings by Prague's best artists of the time (Reiner, Heinsch). The church holds an invaluable treasury which monarchs happily exhasted over the centuries. Among the remaining well-preserved cultural objects is the splendid Prague Sun, a monstrance encrusted with the 6,500 diamonds that decorated the marriage gown of Countess Kolowrat.
The current square used to be almost the entire Hradschin district, which only obtained the same privileges as the other «towns» that made up Prague very late on. The poor medieval houses having been ravaged by fire in 1541, aristocrats and members of the chapter linked to government constructed great Renaissance and Baroque houses here. At the centre of the square stands the Column of the Plague, erected in 1726 to commemorate the end of the 1679 epidemic. Around the square, there are three palaces in different styles. The Archbishop's Palace, the residence of the leader of the Czech church, was redesigned by Frenchman Mathey in the 18C before Wirch added its Rococo facade. Opposite this is the Schwarzenberg Palace, built in the middle of the 16C and adorned with sgraffito. It houses the Army Museum. Finally, closing off the western part is the Tuscan Palace, also designed by Mathey, which freely mixes Italian Renaissance and French Classic styles. Other less important palaces surround the square, such as the Salm Palace (Swiss Embassy) next to the Schwarzenberg or Martinic Palace which have sgraffito relating the stories of the Old Testament.
However, the masterpiece is without a doubt the Stanislas Room (1592-1602), built by Benedikt Ried who perfectly matched late Gothic style with the new spirit of the Renaissance. It was a larger secular room in its time (62 metres long, 16 metres wide and 13 metres high), and was used as a ceremonial room, for exceptional Diet meetings or even tournaments - the Knights' Staircase -covered by Ried with a curvilinear archway - was built for the knights to enter the room directly on horseback! The Room, which does not have any centra pillar, has a vault structured like an assembly of five flattened cupolas which decorate an interlacing of slender ribs. In the centre of a number of corridors and stairs, the room leads to the Allsaints Chapel to the east, the Louis Wing to the south-west (1502) which used to house the Chancellery of Bohemia and where et where the Prague Defenestration took place in 1618 which sparked the Thirty Years War. To the north is the Diet Room (renovated in the 19th au Nord, à la Salle de la Diète (remeublée au 19è s. en situation de délibération) où se débattaient les affaires du pays et dont les procès étaient consignés dans des registres enfermés dans les armoires de la Salle des Registres des Etats attenante (il subsiste une armoire de 1562 montrant des registres somptueux aux dos armoriés).
This square has been the centre of activity for the people of Prague since 1938. The Jean Hus Memorial, erected 1903-15 by Ladislav Saloun, today stands in the centre of the Square, having cohabited with a Marian column from 1650 that was brought down by a nationalist crowd after Austria was defeated in 1918. The Astronomical Clock on the City Hall is another curiosity. The face dates back to 1410 and represents the movement of the planets around the Earth (as viewed by scientists of the time). Underneath, a second clock face shows the rotation of the months and the signs of the zodiac. Above, there are two windows which, when the hour strikes, and with Death waving his scythe and shaking his sand timer at the various automata, Christ appears with his disciples while, perched above, a cockerel flaps its wings. There are several imposing bourgeois buildings to the south, the Golden Unicorn, the Stone Lamb or the Stork House. To the east, less remarkable houses serve the haughty church of Our Lady of Tyn, with its twin towers straight out of a fairy tale. Then there is the Rococo facade of the Goltz-Kinsky Palace and, on the other side of the square, the white Baroque Saint Nicholas's Church. All make this a magical and timeless place, despite the skeleton in the clock who constantly reminds all who pass in front that we are only passengers in this town and on this earth.
One walk through the square will uncover an open-air architectural museum, and all sorts of Czech art from the turn of the century. The Koruna Palace(1914) shows the movement from Secession art to Art Déco, and stands opposite the resolutely functional Bata building (1913), with the Adam Pharmacy, decorated with cubist detail, and Peterka building(1899), an early example of Secessionist architecture, next door. Then there are the hotels: the Ambassador, Golden Goose, and the Alfa Palace, with all its Belle Epoque Pragueness on display. Next to this, the Wiehl building has a neo-Renaissance approach with its gables, oriel windows and turrets. Then there is the monster that is the Bank of Moravia (1918) with a passage leading to the Lucerna Palace. This is less of a palace today but shows contemporary arrangements of living quarters and business and leisure centres. On the Vaclavske on the other pavement, there are three grand hotels: the Art Nouveau Europa and Meran and the Socialist Realist Jalta. Walk past Wenceslas on his horse and you'll come to the National Museum where you can get a full view of this square-cum-avenue where the history of the last two centuries has made its mark in the paving stones and with the blood and voices of men and women...
The Jewish quarter in Prague goes back to the city's very beginnings, and, although abandoned in the late 19C, the ghetto is now part of an important renovation plan. The reconstruction produced the elegant Paris Boulevard, a large rectangular road joining the Old City Square with the Cech Bridge which led onto Letna, bordered by pretty neo-Renaissance or Secession buildings with highly decorated facades, gables and oriel windows. Heading towards the cemetery, you come across the Maisel Synagogue, a neo-Gothic reconstruction built in 1905 of the orginal synagogue that burned down. It contains several cultural objects. The Jewish Town Hall is an 18C Rococo building erected on the site of a 16C building, with a clock tower (unusually authorised on a non-Christian building by Ferdinand III), under which there is a Hebrew clock face with the hands going «anti-clockwise» as remarked by Apollinaire. The Great Synagogue stands nearby. On the other side of the Paris Boulevard, the Spanish Synagogue, built in 1868 in a neo-Moorish style, has a palette of warm colours inside, from rich gold to dark red.
For some, it was built with stones brought from the Temple of Jerusalem. Others claim that it appeared, entirely built on a plot of land that was being levelled out. Others say that its Hebrew name - which means «Provisional», signifies that it will return to Jerusalem when the Messiah comes. The facts are that building started on a Gothic construction in 1270 beneath the current path, probably at the original level of the Old City, until it was raised to protect it from flooding (unless it as voluntarily lowered to prevent it standing higher than any Christian building). A vault leads to the entrance with a vine with twelve symbolic roots and with four stocks showing the rivers of Creation. A high room with two naves supported by five-ribbed pillars welcomes the faithful as Old-New is the only synagogue in Josefov which is still in use. On one of the walls is the standard that Ferdinand III gave to the Community in 1648 in recognition of its part in the defence of Charles Bridge against the Swedes.
12,000 tombs, but probably nearly 80,000 people are buried here..The Jewish rite forbidding disinterment means coffins have been buried on a dozen different levels. The oldest tomb of all, that of Rabbi Karo, who escaped the 1389 pogrom, is dated 1439. The most recent is dated 1787, when an imperial decree stopped burials in the urban area (since when the Jewish people have buried their dead in Olsany). The old burial places are generally simple stones whereas from the 16C, there are tombs bearing votive inscriptions from the Torah and engravings or drawings showing the family names (the Fuchs are represented by a fox, the Maisels by a mouse, and so on). Within the cemetery walls, two synagogue museums have been set up. The 17C Klausen houses around 15 paintings relating the activities of the Sepulture Corporation and giving precise details on the rites surrounding death and inhumation of Jewish people in the mid 18C. The Pinkas (built in 1535 on a formerly consecrated site) was transformed into a Holocaust memorial. 77,297 names of Bohemian Jews exterminated by the Nazis mark the synagogue walls. The names were wiped off by the Communists who claimed there was humidity in the walls, but they have all now been painstakingly reinstated in remembrance of those men and women, crossing the years, regimes and troubles.