Joe Hendren

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Travels: Prague

Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral and Flood Damage

Wednesday October 2, 2002

There were no scheduled activities for our second day in Prague, so our tour group made our own way into town in groups of four or five (generally determined by what time people out of bed).

I left the camp around the same time as Kirsty, B.J, Shaz and another couple of the girls, so we caught a tram into town just before 10am. As it often happens when catching public transport in foreign cities, noone was really sure of the closest stop to Prague castle so we had to take a guess.

The Castle dates from the 10th Century where Borivoj, the first prince of the Premyslid dynasty ordered the construction of a wooden fortress and a church. This was completed around 880-890AD. The complex became a bishophric from 973. Until the early 16th century the castle was the home of the monarchy and residence of power within the country. Today the official residence of the President of the Czech republic is situated within the castle.

With our tickets we also bought a 'audio guide' to share between the five of us. This resembled a toy cellphone. IMHO this turned out to be a bit of a waste of money as the audioguide tracks were far too long and included far too much information. If you had wanted to listen to each track diligently, you may have learnt a lot but you might be standing by one object for 15 minutes!

We started our tour of the castle with the Cathedral of St Vitus, a tall imposing neo-gothic building that dominates the courtyard in which it stands. Standing in front of the cathedral you have to stretch your neck a little to see the top of the spires. The Cathedral was begun in 1344 and was not fully completed until 1929, nearly five centuries later.

Inside tall pointed arches line the central part of the cathedral, surrounding the royal mausoleum in the centre. On the cover of the tomb, a symbolic statue of the resurrected Christ is pictured with Ferdinand I, his wife Anna Jegiellon and son Maximillian II. At both ends of the Cathedral some bright and colourful stain glass windows filter the light entering the church. At the end of the nave a 'rose' window features a mosaic of 27,000 pieces of coloured glass.

After looking at some of the little chapels and siderooms of the cathedral we climbed down the stairs to the royal crypt. Unfortunately the signage was only in Czech so I found it difficult to gague the significance of what I was seeing. It seemed like a whole lot of dead kings/queens in stone boxes (it wasn't until I looked at my book that I bought later that I realised that the castle has a very significant collection of old rulers in boxes) 

Next we climbed the tower up a narrow stone staircase. The steps seemed to go on forever. When we asked someone on the way down if we were close to the top he grinned and replied that we were only half way up - urrgghh. Despite the numbness of my legs the view from the tower was spectacular - I took a great picture looking down past a bronze rooster, down to the courtyard and the old city, only to see the same picture on hundreds of postcards later. I also took five more pictures as I walked around the tower, providing 360 degree views of Prague on film. The day we were there the sky was a little hazy, but still well worth taking the pictures.

We then crossed the courtyard from the Cathedral to have a look at the Royal Palace. The most impressive room for me was the Wenselsas Hall. The hall is lit by a row of large windows on either side, casting a reflection on the hardy wooden floor. Above is a rounded ceiling with ribs that fan out from each of the pillars.

Did you know that mounted jousting could be an indoor sport? Well I didn't, until I saw the Wenselsas hall. Those participating in a tournament and their mounts could enter the hall through the knights room, a narrow corridor with wide low steps for the ease of the horses. While I was walking through the hall I attempted to make some galloping noises with my feet, which got a few laughs from those who were with me.

Another highlight of the castle is the Golden Lane, a short narrow way of two-three storied cottages dating from 1540. Apparently a writer called Franz Kafka once lived at number 22, but this did not mean much to a ignoramus like me. My favorite place in the lane was the cottage with the display of weapons and armour. Once I had climbed the tiny circular staircase there was a long corridor lined with medieval costumes, six or so suits of full body armour of differing styles and some nasty looking polearms and axes. At the end of the corridor you could fire a small crossbow for 50 krona. After one wayward shot I found the crossbow easy to fire as you could aim it at the target and pull the trigger without having to allow for any significant 'kickback'. I got four of my five arrows on the target, including a near bullseye. And for those of you thinking bullseye should only have one syllable, or an alternative second syllable, I have the target 'poster' to prove it. And thanks to my friend Kirsty I have a photo of me and my crossbow!

After finding some lunch B.J, Kirsty and myself made our way to the Charles Bridge in order to explore town on the other side of the river. In daylight the most visible signs of the recent floods in Prague are evident as you cross either side of the bridge (the floods occurred about a month before we were there). Buildings on either side carry a watermark at a level just below the top of the second floor. As I cross over the bridge a shopkeeper is still removing the rubble from the floor of his shop. He had recognised the event with a simple black line on the front of his shop, followed with the date of the flood. To the left of his shop a small archway led to a narrow street of what looked to have been once a row of souvenir shops. These shops are now reduced to shells full of displaced brick, collected in piles along the washed out street. I was pleased to see that many of the shops had temporarily relocated to stalls on the bridge. 

During the floods the main Prague hospital and the underground metro system were flooded out. The Jewish Quarter, one of the most cited tourist attractions is so badly damaged it is not worth visiting (or so those on our tour group that paid to enter the synagogues told us). The subway is not expect to open again until next year, so we had to travel around Prague in some often squashy trams.