8 November 2009 – prague would be better if it didn’t have so many cobbles

Tančící dům, the Dancing House

Tančící dům, the Dancing House

The plan for this morning was the river, the famous bridge and, maybe, the castle. We set off into the cold and cobbles again but this time walking in the opposite direction towards the water. The nearer we got to the river the colder it seemed to get and I pulled my hat down and my scarf up so all you could see of me was a pair of eyes peering out and puffs of white breath.

We passed Charles Square, a pretty park running either side of the busy road, and noted it as somewhere to explore later if we had time. A big glass fronted building may have been a metro station but it was hard to tell not understanding the signs. Next came an old stone church set above the road with steps leading up to it. Soon after we could see the river and a very odd looking building on the corner.

After Barcelona I ought to be used to odd buildings but this was on a par with anything we’d seen there, very incongruous beside all the traditional baroque, gothic and art nouveau Czech buildings with their pastel colours. This looked like a hall of mirrors building, the centrepiece was an hour glass shaped structure of blueish glass that reminded me of a woman in a corset. From the bottom of the skirt a mass of concrete pillars stretched to the ground, curved in different directions just like suspender straps. We walked between them and crossed the road to the path beside the river bank.

As we moved further from the building we had a better view and I found myself almost walking backwards to stare at it. On either side of the corset, the main body of the building looked warped, the windows all at odd angles. This was Tančící dům, the Dancing House, designed by a collaboration of architects, Vlado Milunić a Croatian-Czech and Frank Gehry a Canadian-American. It is supposed to represent a pair of dancers, the corseted lady and the oddly angled male. Ironically, it stands on the ruins of a house destroyed by United States bombing in 1945.

Right in front of us was the bridge we’d driven over when we arrived. After a quick check of the map we set off along the river bank with Tančící dům behind us. We passed a pretty barge that had been turned into a restaurant and marked it down as somewhere we might investigate later. Two bridges later we were at the bridge with the scaffolding covered statues we saw yesterday when we turned back from the river. Now every few yards there we small trees set in rings of cobble stones right in the middle of the path, making us change course and walk a wavy route around them and the curved concrete benches that appeared every so often.

Then things started to get more congested, both with people and with buildings. We’d reached Charles Bridge. As the bridge came into view the pavement disappeared, a huge building stretching right out onto the river like a little pier seemed to be blocking our way. This is Karlovy lázně, or Charles Spa, reputedly the largest disco club in Europe. Most certainly not our thing! Thankfully there was a tiny sliver of pavement between it and the busy road. We squeezed through.

The buildings crowd in on the road here, with the narrowest of paths on either side. Then, just when you think it couldn’t get any narrower or more crowded, there is actually a building right across the road with two tunnels for the traffic to pass through. We struggled through, half carried by the crowds and burst out the other side into the light.

Right in front of us was the entrance to Charles Bridge, or Karlův most. This elaborate bridge started in 1357 took about fifty years to build and replaced the flood damaged twelfth century Judith Bridge. Originally called Kamenný most, Stone Bridge, or Pražský most, Prague Bridge, it was the only means of crossing the river Vltava until 1841.

The bridge tower in front of us is astonishing in its gothic beauty, dark stone, a central arch leading onto the bridge and so many shields, statues and ornate decorations it’s hard to take them all in. The heads of the executed leaders of the anti-Habsburg revolt of 1621 were once displayed here to serve as a warning to other would be Czech rebels.

On through the arch and on to the ten meter wide bridge we were in the midst of quite a crowd, even though it’s Sunday. There were some repairs going on so part of one side was cordoned off which made the throng seem even worse and prevented us from seeing some of the thirty statues lining the parapets. There have been many repairs over the years, mostly down to damage caused by floods. Since the repairs between 1965 and 1978 crossing has been restricted to pedestrians and the trams and busses have stopped.

We strolled across, stopping from time to time to gawp at the statues and take the odd photo. Our lack of Czech meant we didn’t really know what most of the statues were which was a shame, but most of them seem to be religious, saints and such. They were erected during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but the originals have all been taken to the lapidarium of the National Museum and replaced by replicas. Not that you’d realise by looking at them.

On some statues the blackened patina of the brass was bright and shining in certain places and we watched, slightly puzzled as people queued to rub at the shining figures. Obviously there must be some symbolism to this but we didn’t really know what. Still we queued and rubbed just like everyone else and made a little wish, figuring that was what we were supposed to do. If I tell you what my wish was it won’t come true though so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Along with the statues and the crowds of tourists the bridge is lined with buskers, magicians, mimes, a Pierrot, artists, caricaturists and goodness knows what else. You can hardly move for someone trying to sell you something and the nearer we got to the far side the more the whole thing resembled a market place.

By now we could see our next objective, the castle, in the distance. As we crossed the last few arches of the bridge we could look over the side at the terracotta coloured roofs of little houses below. It must be strange to live right in the shadow of the bridge with hoards of tourists looking down on you all day every day. There would be a distinct lack of privacy I should think.

We came off the bridge, through an arch where a man dressed as a medieval knight stood guarding the entrance to the tourist information centre. We probably should have gone inside and found out exactly how to get to the castle because we found ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and the castle we had been able to see so easily from the bridge was hidden from view by the tall buildings. Then, as if by some miracle, we saw a Starbucks. My hands were freezing and I couldn’t think of anything nicer than holding a cup of coffee to thaw them at that moment so we went inside. Once we’d got over the astronomical price we quite enjoyed it.

Warmer and fortified by coffee, plus a long look at our map, we set off into the cold again, wrapping our layers protectively around us. Eventually, after walking up what seemed like miles of cobbled hills, lots of wrong turns and constant stopping to look skywards between the buildings for signs of it, we came to wrought iron gates, painted with bright gold, we’d reached Prague Castle. This is the largest ancient castle in the world and the Bohemian crown jewels are kept somewhere inside, although we didn’t even get a sniff of them.

We paid our money and entered the confusing mass of courtyards and buildings, feeling slightly overwhelmed by it all and unsure where to start. Time, as ever, was not in our favour and it soon became clear we were not going to be able to see everything. Let’s face it, if it took them from the ninth to the fourteenth century to build it all we had no chance of seeing it all in one day. I should probably have done more research first too because we struggled to know quite what we were looking at most of the time.

St Vitus Cathedral stands out as one of the best bits. As we burst through a narrow passage there it was looming over us. This impressive gothic structure was what we’d been seeing in the distance all along, thinking it was actually the castle. We could have spent all afternoon on this alone. Tall dark spikes, a wonderful rose window, astounding frescoes all painted with gold to stand out against the dark, weathered stones.

The stained glass windows alone were worth all that tramping up hill on the painful cobbles. These were created by Mucha, so colourful and beautiful they almost brought a tear to my eye and Commando had to literally drag me away. Although it was dark inside, the only light coming through the coloured glass, everything sparkled with gold leaf and there are so many little side rooms, frescoes and bright shiny things it was hard to know where to look next.

The brightest, shiniest thing was the funerary monument to Saint John of Nepomuk, erected in 1736. A literal starburst of silver and gold with so much ornamentation the beautiful crucifix in the centre, surrounded by gilded sun rays, is almost lost amongst it all. We had to queue to get a look. Macabrely, somewhere amongst all that gold and silver is the saint’s tongue, which was said never to have decayed. Whether this is true or not I couldn’t say because I didn’t manage to spot it, part of me is actually quite pleased about that.

The Crown Jewels are hidden away here and past kings and queens, including Wenceslas, are buried here. All in all it was a massive sensory overload and we emerged, rubbing our eyes into the grey, cold light of day feeling disoriented and drained. We carried on and entered St George’s Basilica and Convent, a terracotta red building with panels of creamy white. This twelfth century building was lighter inside and had a vaulted, church like feel to it, maybe because it is actually a church.

Here, surrounded by a wrought iron fence is a stone sepulchre, the grave of Ludmila, the first Czech Christian Martyr. Her effigy, carved in stone, lays on top of her earthy remains, looking quite peaceful, as if she is sleeping. People were reaching their hands through the railings to touch the stone, maybe this is some kind of good luck thing but I didn’t follow suit, it felt rude somehow, as if I might disturb her sleep.

By this time we were feeling a touch churched out. We doubled back and had a quick look at the Royal Place. This was another place we really should have spent more time at but, by this time we were beginning to flag, we’d seen so much, walked so far, we could hardly take anything else in. We bypassed most of it, just taking a peek at the famed Vladislav Hall, built by Benedict Ried between 1493 and 1502 and purported to be the finest hall of the Middle Ages. It was certainly huge, more than sixteen metres wide and fourteen high with a beautiful vaulted ceiling of pale stone decorated with almost floral ribs of darker stone.

There was probably much, much more to be seen but by now we were tired, hungry and thirsty so we set of to find somewhere to get food and drink. We walked along Golden Lane, winding streets of small, brightly coloured medieval houses and shops. There were places to eat but everything seemed terribly expensive and it soon became obvious that this side of the river was really well out of our price range. My feet were really hurting from hours of walking on cobbles by this time and I’d have given anything just to sit for a while but we carried on, downwards now, through gardens I hardly noticed, back towards the river…

We hobbled back across Charles Bridge in search of food and drink. Actually i was the only one hobbling, Comma do seemed unaffected by the cobbles. We decided to head back towards Wenceslas Square because we’d seen lots of little cafes and restaurants there yesredayand everything along the river had looked a little grand as we approached Charles Bridge this morning.

It isn’t that we’re cheapskates or anything but we’d been ripped off once, caught out by a hidden 30% service charge and didn’t fancy paying a king’s ransom for a mere snack and a hot drink. We settled on Café Liberty on 28 října again but this time we had potato soup with big doorsteps of bread and a small side salad followed by hot chocolate. The only thing that spoiled the meal was my throbbing feet.

Feeling slightly rested after our meal we set off towards Wenceslas Square and the long walk back to our hotel. Despite the aching feet there was just one more thing we’d read about in the guide book that we wanted to see. Close to Wenceslas Square on a street called Vodickova there is a little shopping mall called Lucerna Pasaz. Inside, hanging from the domed ceiling is a quirky statue called Horse. It’s a bit of a political statement for a statue, created by David Cerny, Wenceslas astride his horse, but the horse is hanging, suspended by its hooves, tongue handing out, tail hanging down, dead and Wenceslas is astrid its belly.

Was it worth the extra walk? I think so, I’m a sucker for the quirky after all and the shopping Mall, all Art Nouveau, with lovely arched stained glass windows and marble columns was quite beautiful. Even so Prague would be better if it was warmer and had less cobbles in my humble opinion.

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