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Monday, December 22, 2014

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The glorious architecture of Prague

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Jazz players on Charles Bridge

Even the chill and the unexpected rain that continued all day couldn’t dampen or dull the glorious architecture of Prague, now included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites as the largest urban monument in the world.

Relentlessly, the wind seemed to cut through the layers of warm clothing I was wearing, and my umbrella was too small to keep the drops from soaking me.

I was undaunted and determined, since time in this historic destination was short, and I wanted to see and learn more about a city that was once known as the Paris of central Europe and was considered the most beautiful in Europe. (I’ve often wondered why everything beautiful is compared to Paris, since so many destinations have their own beautiful character and personality!)

The architecture of Prague is a crossroads where the great Gothic and Baroque architectural periods meet with the Cubist, Art Nouveau and Art Deco art movements. Prague is most fortunate since it wasn’t destroyed during the two world wars. But during the Communist era, the ancient architectural wonders of the historic centre were interspersed with grey concrete buildings. The Communists can take credit for these outrageously ugly edifices.

However, on the flip side, one must give kudos to Prague, whose heritage stems from the Holy Roman Emperor and king, Charles IV, who is still remembered for creating the Golden Age of the history of this central European country.

Charles IV was born in 1316 and named Wenceslaus, but he changed it to Charles at his confirmation. Not only was he a brilliant emperor and diplomat but he was also a scholar. 

It’s difficult not to be impressed by the buildings and monuments that bear his name in homage to him. In 1348, the New Town was founded, as was the oldest university in central Europe, Charles University.

Charles Bridge, built in 1357, is without doubt one of the most visited sites in the city. These days there’s always a crush of locals and tourists there, since it is probably the best place to see interaction between people of all ages and nationalities. The premature cold weather didn’t dissuade the masses from gathering on this pedestrian walkway over the Vltava River. The 516-metre-long bridge is the perfect place to get a close-up view of the roofs and domes of the city’s skyline. Along the walk, the most important sites are 30 statues, most of them baroque-style and most with a story.

The day I crossed the bridge, I saw organ grinders, portraitists and jazz bands. Trendy young women wearing micro-mini skirts with their hair coloured in shades from purples to hot pink, often smooching with their equally elaborately dressed beaus, stunned me.

But nothing could distract from two statues, one a 20th-century bronze of St. John of Nepomuk that, when rubbed, is supposed to bring luck. The other is a bronze gilded crucifix that was bought for the bridge in 1657. A gilded inscription, in Hebrew, was added to the crucifix in 1696, placed there, supposedly, at the expense of a Prague Jew, as punishment for debasing the cross. The text, from the words of the prophet Isaiah, reads, in English, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.” However, this story isn’t true. A board with an explanation in Czech, English and Hebrew was placed there in 2000.

While in that area visit the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Europe. It was built in about 1270, in early Gothic style, and belongs among the oldest preserved Gothic monuments in Prague. Nearby is the Jewish cemetery.  One tombstone is from 1439, and since the Jewish community ran out of space, the burials are layered and the tombstones closely placed. It’s here that the renowned Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the chief rabbi of Prague, was buried in 1609.

Golden Lane was once the heart of the Jewish ghetto. Dating from the 15th century, this small street is lined with historic houses. It’s difficult to know how these tiny, now colourfully painted and renovated houses could accommodate more than two or three people. Today, they are smart boutiques or venues that show how the Jewish people lived in the past.

Nearby, in the Old Town, is the famed Prague Square, located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge, and the site of a huge astronomical clock. When it strikes the hour, a series of rotating religious figures circle the opening.  Our Lady of Tyn Church, a Gothic building from 1315, has magnificent steeples and a Rococo altar.

Completed under Charles IV’s patronage, St. Vitus Cathedral has stained-glass windows, exquisite vaulted ceiling and silver icons. Coronations and burials of Czech kings took place there.

Equally grand is the medieval Castle Prague, simply known as “the castle.” Built originally as a Renaissance palace in the 14th century, again by Charles IV, it has had several architectural personae – Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic. Charles IV rebuilt it to become one of the great Gothic beauties.  The Czech crown jewels are kept there, but they are not on view for the public.  

During the Nazi occupation, this castle became Nazi headquarters. Shortly after the citizens suffered that regime, in came the Communist Czechoslovak government, which also housed its offices there.  After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Alexander Dubcek, who attempted to reform the Communist regime during the Prague Spring in the late 1960s, was asked to have a “seat,” as president, in Prague Castle. He refused, but the castle became the seat of the head of state.

Originally, holy relics and royal treasures were kept at Castle Karlstejn, an hour’s drive from Prague. It was founded in 1348 and built by Charles IV from 1348 to 1368.

Our guide announced that the first floor of Castle Karlstejn represented Hell.  Climbing 25 steep, narrow steps took us to a solemn “Purgatory” room. Another 25 steps in semi-darkness took us to a door, and when the locked door was opened, this was Heaven. The golden domed ceiling of this room includes a golden moon and stars. With only 250 people allowed entrance each day, it’s best to make a reservation for a visit to this castle.

 

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