Friday, January 04, 2008

Prague Castle, Hradcany

Tour of Prague
With the exception of those walking dogs, most others seemed to be in tour groups, struggling to hear their guide or follow the umbrella/silly pole held up by the leader. Our guide pointed out that much of the city was flooded 5 years ago. Most of the administrative buildings were built just after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Prague Castle
Our tour started up by the Castle. This was quite fitting, since origins of Prague started on this hill in the 9th century. The original walls (part of which remained) enclosed a palace, three churches, and a monastery. The castle has been rebuilt many times, with its Renaissance style achieved in 1541. At the castle entrance, two guards stood in uniform. Shortly thereafter, a small parade of guards marched out and performed the hourly Changing of the Guard. In the first courtyard were some large wooden flagpoles, gently tapered to a point higher than the Late Baroque buildings. Walking through the second larger courtyard, our first destination was the St. Vitus Cathedral.

St. Vitus Cathedral
Within the castle walls is St. Vitas Cathedral, a Gothic structure towering over the city as one of its most distinctive landmarks. Construction began in 1344, but the finishing touches were made almost 600 years later – in 1929. Although the main part of the church actually was fairly wide, the soaring height of the walls gave it the illusion of being narrow. Facing to the front, three stained-glass windows curved gently at the top to echo the intricate webbed Gothic tracery on the ceiling. On the opposite end is a Rose Window designed from 1925-7, depicting the Creation. Due to the large numbers of people and trying to stay with our tour group, it was difficult to dwell at any place for very long.
To the left of the main entrance were some beautiful stained glass windows, including some by Czech Secessionist painter, Alfons Mucha. Lining the periphery of the church were small chapels containing relics, centuries of paintings, and statues. Some of the tombs were extremely elaborate, including the tomb of St. John Nepomuk, which was made of solid silver. Located on the site of the former St. Wenceslas Rotunda, the St. Wenceslas Chapel walls are filled with Gothic frescoes of scenes from the Bible and life of Wenceslas. In once corner was a tall, elaborate golden structure that held Communal wafers and wine. An altar is decorated with semi-precious stones. Another chapel held a Nativity scene, something found in every church.

The outside of the cathedral is a feast for the eye as well. Gargoyles of both human and beast forms are scattered throughout, each one unique. The main tower near the original entrance was finished with a Baroque green-colored bell tower. Although the West half was completed in the 20th century, it incorporates Neo-Gothic elements and designs, making it blend in with the rest of the cathedral. Delicate flying buttresses surround the exterior of the nave and chancel (East end). The Golden Portal, originally the entrance, has a 14th century mosaic of the Last Judgment above the three doors.

Other Parts of Prague Castle and Hradčany
Moving onward, we went past St. George’s Basilica, the best-preserved Romanesque church in Prague. Its bright red façade – a Baroque addition – was attractive to me, but I didn’t know at the time it was a church. Closeby is the picturesque Golden Lane, a short narrow 17th century street. A recent change, admission is now charged to walk through. Once out of the Castle area, we stopped to take a look at the view below of the Little Quarter and distant Old Town. Unfortunately, fog/haze prevented us from seeing much.

The area right outside the Castle is known as Hradčany, a town founded in about 1320. One of its notable buildings is the Strahov Monastery. Rebuilt after a fire in 1258, its famous attraction is its 800-yr old library. Although there were books in several rooms, the most impressive one was Philosophical Hall, which had books neatly shelved in warm wooden bookcases up to the ceiling along each wall, and a baroque spacious ceiling fresco. Sadly visitors are no longer able enter this hall – just view it from behind the plexiglass-blocked entrance. Strahov, once again a functioning monastery after the fall of the Socialist regime, also has a brewery.

The Loreto has been a place of pilgrimage ever since it was opened in 1626. The decorative white Baroque façade and its large bell tower must look stunning against a blue sky – which never happened while we were there. After paying the entrance fee,
we walked past a few chapels some of which were closed to view and others gated. In the courtyard was the Santa Casa, a copy of the house believed to be the Virgin Mary’s. Its outer surface is filled with reliefs of the life of Mary and some Biblical prophets. While outside, the 30 small bells (dating back to 1694) tolled – a sweet sound. Inside of the Church of the Nativity, the supposedly gruesome fully-clothed skeletons with death masks were less than impressive. Finally at the treasure room, we had the chance to see the valuable liturgical items of the Loreto. Many of the items were so encrusted with semi-precious gems or fancy shapes that I found them rather hideous looking. Not being Catholics, it took us a bit to figure out what a “monstrance” is – for displaying the host. The only one I liked was a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted monstrance that had rays radiating from the place where the wafer would be displayed. A bit of a disappointment (particularly after visiting St. Agnes Convent’s excellent collection), we moved onward. Too bad we didn’t visit the Sternberg Palace instead, with its collection including an El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and other Old World Masters.

While walking down towards the Little Quarter, we passed by the Schwartzenberg Palace. Built in 1576, the sgrafitto patterned surface caught my attention. The interior sounds equally decorative.


Anonymous said...

Schwartzenberg Palace is the site of the First Performance of Haydn's The Seasons (on april 24, 1801).

Kelly said...

Prague Castles is the best place in Prague in my opinion. You will not find one single castle on the hill, but a series of buildings, a few churches and hundreds of years of history. Before walking through the castle entrance, walk to your right for a nice view overlooking Prague. You can also find Prague hotels with view of Castles from your window. Records indicate that Prague Castle is the largest castle area in the world. Its three courtyards and a number of magnificent buildings cover over 7 hectares (18 acres), so be prepared to see a lot and do some walking. Depending on the time you have and your interests, you can decide which interiors to visit.