Prague Day 4: Prague Castle and Other Wanderings

This is the day I planned to spend exploring Prague Castle so of course I began the day by walking in the opposite direction of the castle because...well...that's kind of how I do things. It just seemed the thing to do. 

View of Vltava and Charles Bridge from Strelecky Island. This is actually a nice place to relax. If you look just to the right of the white building on the left you will see a yellow line of somethings. Those are penguins. Sure, why not? Yellow glowy penguins. They are made from recycled plastic bottles.

I headed south onto Kampa Island. In truth I was in search of birds to photograph. Instead I ran into David Cerny's giant babies.

Facing David Cerny's Babies for a long time would probably induce serious existential angst or perhaps nightmares and seizures but, it was before 8 am,so  instead I found lyrics from Pink Floyd's The Wall playing in my head as I walked past. Somewhere in the synapses of my brain there is a connection but don't ask me to explain it.

Walking south down Kampa Island.

Interesting house sign on Kampa. If anyone knows its significance please comment below.

Kampa Island is seperated from the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana) by the Devil's Stream (Čertovka), an artificial waterway created to power water mills. The stream allegedly gets its name from a woman, known for her sharp tongue, who lived in a home nearby called the Seven Devils.

One of the Devil Stream's Water Wheels. At the end of the dock is a statue of a vodnik, a male water spirit who captures men's souls and stores them underneath the water.

A closer look at the vodnik.

I continued south and then headed east over Legii Bridge (Legion Bridge). In the middle you can take an elevator down to Strelecky Island. During the 14th century, during the reign of Emperor Charles IV, long bow and cross bow training took place here.

Now I'm on Strelecky Island and this little aquarium, which I love, is the leftovers from an installation put in for a film shoot for a trailer for the animated short "Little from the Fish Show", which you can watch on Vimeo.

Gratuitous Mallard shot. I saw European Jays, Jackdaws, various members of the Tit family (an unfortunate name for a bird, really...), seagulls, cormorants, swans, and pigeons as I walked along.

Tufted ducks, females I think.

I wandered back over to Kampa Island and then found the Lennon Wall (below). The graffiti on this wall began in the 1980s. It stands as a symbol of peace and love. The Knights of Malta actually own the wall but let the graffiti continue.

Lennon Wall

Knights of Malta Church, Mala Strana

Nearing Malstranska to hop on the #22 tram to take me to Prague Castle.

Finally, I ended up on the #22 Tram and headed up the hill to the Hradcany (Castle District) and Prague Castle. Prague Castle isn't what many people would envision as a "castle". It's more of a fortified series of palaces, cathedrals, churches, halls, towers, houses, and gardens. If you've been to Buda Castle in Budapest, this is very similar but so much larger! Prague Castle is listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as largest ancient castle in the world. The castle is almost 70,000 square meters in area.

The history of Prague as a seat of Czech and European power begins with the Castle, where the first walled building was construction in the 9th century by Prince Borivoj. It became the center of the lands ruled by the Premyslid dynasty. The Castle has been rebuilt many times over the years. Charles IV and Vladislav Jagiello were instrumental the construction of many of the still extant buildings seen here, as was the Empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century.

The Castle had its cultural heydey with Emperor Rudolph II, patron of alchemists, scientists, astronomers, and artists, who made Prague Castle his main residence and housed his extensive art collections in the northern wing/Spanish Hall, which he had constructed for that purpose.

It is also famous as the site of the Second Prague Defenestration. You can read more about that here. But I will say, throwing people out windows is a rather interesting way to deal with your enemies. 

Today the Caslte is the seat of the Czech President.

My first stop was St. Vitus Cathedral. It's full name is the The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus, and Adalbert. Many tombs of Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors can be found here. While other churches occupied this site before the 14th century, it was under Charles IV command that the present-day cathedral was begun. It wasn't finished until the 20th century. You can actually see on the outside the different stages of building. Of particular note are Peter Parler's net vaults in the interior. He was the second architect to work on the Cathedral. His, and his family's work, can be seen all over Prague and Central Europe.

St. Vitus Cathedral is covered with gargoyles. I love gargoyles. I love Gothic architecture. I think I probably spent two hours wandering around the inside and outside of the Cathedral. I chose to do the audio tour. It's expensive but I quite enjoyed it.

Entrance facade of St. Vitus Cathedral.

The Third Courtyard. St. Vitus Cathedral looms over the rest of the Castle.

The south facade.

The "Golden Portal" constructed by Peter Parler, and the Bell Tower. The Bell Tower holds Prague's biggest bell "Sigismund". It weighs 18 tons. It was made by Tomas Jaros in 1549 and has hung here since then. The tower is also unique for a "gothic" cathedral considering its topped by a "baroque" cupola. I climbed this tower. There around 250 steps. It's a hell of a climb but the view from the top can't be beat.

The Golden Portal portrays the The Last Judgement. It is constructed from around a million pieces of glass and semi-precious stones in more than 30 colors.

One of the oldest parts of the Cathedral. You can tell by the black stone. And gargoyles!

You can see the transition from the oldest to "newer" parts of the cathedral through the color change in the stone.

St. George and the Dragon in front of the Cathedral. If it seems odd that St. George is here, there is St. George's Basilica on the other side of the courtyard.

Detail of the St. George's dragon. Note the three streams of water. Some would say this represents the three paths in alchemy: the white, the red, and the black.

Inside the Cathedral, showing Peter Parler's net vaults.

Alphonse Mucha's stained glass window, depicting the brothers St Cyril and St. Methodius. This picture doesn't do Mucha's work justice. It's brilliant both in execution and color. I bow before Mucha as my artistic god. Later in the trip I will submerge myself in his work and learn so much about draftsmanship, color, and composition.

The rose window. This is a 20th century creation as are most of the stained glass windows.

Art restoration in action. I could have watched this all day.

The Tomb of St. John Nepomuk. Constructed from solid silver in 1736.

St. Wenceslas Chapel. The bronze ring on the north portal of the chapel is though to be the one St. Wenceslas clutched as he was murdered by his brother Boleslav.

Back side of St. Vitus Cathedral showing typical Gothic flying buttresses.

After the Cathedral I headed into the Old Royal Palace. This building dates to the 1200's though it too, like many buildings in Prague, has been added to over the years. Here you can see the magnificent vaulting of Vladislav Hall, The Rider's Staircase (as staircase built to allow horses and their riders into the Vladislav Hall for competitions), The Diet (the throne room and where the medieval parliament met), and the The New Land Rolls, where three Catholics (two governors and their secretary) were thrown out the window in the 2nd Defenestration. They all lived believe it or not. This signaled the beginning of the 30 Years War.

Vladislav Hall

A rather magnificent tapestry with the Habsburg crest on it.

This is where I left the official Castle audio tour and ducked into Lobkowicz Palace. Rick Steves raves about the audio tour here. And he's quite right to. This palace isn't part of the official Castle audio tour. It's privately owned by the Lobkowicz family. Go here. The audio tour is narrated by THE present Lobkowicz. It's a very interesting story, told through the family's art collection, of Prague history, Czech history, the family's history, and the history of classical music. The collection includes manuscripts from Mozart and Beethoven.  Beethoven was supported financially by one of the Lobkowicz's ancestors. Go to the cafe here. It has a wonderful view over the city. The food is good too. I had mushroom soup, goulash with bacon dumplings, and cheesecake. And, if you are lucky, they will be selling chocolate or ice cream in one of the courtyards. That's good too.

Golden Lane

After that I wandered Golden Lane, though there were far too many tourists, and while there are some very important historical aspects to Golden Lane, many of the cute little houses have been turned into touristy shops. These small houses were constructed in the 1500's. They housed soldiers and artisans (goldsmiths among others). Legend has it alchemists also lived and worked here but there's no actual evidence of that. Franz Kafka lived at #22 for two years.

Crystal being hand etched.

My next stop was St. George's Basilica. This is a fine example of Romanesque architecture and design. Founded by Prince Vratislav in the 10th century it pre-dates St. Vitus Cathedral. It is the best preserved Romanesque church in Prague. Here you will find the tomb of St. Ludmila, who was strangled by her daughter-in-law Drahomira, as she prayed. Vratislav is also buried here.

Interior of St. George's Basilica

Interior of St. George's Basilica

And then I decided to climb the bell tower of St. Vitus Cathedral. I'm amazed I made it to the top. It's something like 250 steps. Don't feel bad about panting like a dog after the first 50 steps or so. Everyone you encounter going up or down looks and sounds like they are in the middle of running a full marathon or are about to have a heart attack.

Part of the Cathedral roof

Looking down into the rest of the Prague Castle. St. George's Basilica is in the center, partially obscured by the flying buttresses of St. Vitus.

Mala Strana in the foreground, the Old and New Towns beyond the river.

After the tower climb, I wandered down and down and down some more into the Stag Moat below the Castle. It is a natural ravine carved by the Brusnice Stream. During the reign of Rudolph II it was used for breeding and hunting deer. Bear where kept here as well as part of the Castle defenses. There are legends about Rudolph II hunting deer with lions here. There is also a legend that says that Rudolph II's gamekeeper became so enamored of wolves that roamed the Stag Moat that he became one and now can be seen in the form of a large dog who chases tourists and cyclists.

The Stag Moat is a wonderful green, wooded place to wander. Quiet too. It is a wonderful respite from the throngs of walking tours going through the Castle district.

Stag Moat

The Bear Keeper's Cottage in the Stag Moat

Then somehow I ended up back on Charles Bridge and people watched. I also watched the many boats going up and down the Vltava.

I, of course, had to pay a visit to the Swans guarding the Vltava near my apartment. I was eating a Trdlo here and this is where one of these seemingly beautiful and lovely creatures bit me to get at the pastry.

And here I found another couple getting their wedding pictures taken. I just hope that the fact that the groom is holding his nose isn't a reflection on what he thinks about his newly minted marriage...