Saint and Martyr, John of Nepomuk

The Charles Bridge has 30 statues that line the balustrades on each of its sides. The statue pictured here is that of Saint John of Nepomuk; it was installed in 1683 and is the oldest statue on the bridge.

John was born in a small town in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) in the 14th century. He studied canon law in Prague and Padua in Italy, and eventually became the head vicar of a large cathedral in Prague. At this point, John ran afoul of Wenceslaus IV, the king of Bohemia, over the appointment of an abbot to a powerful abbey in Bohemia. To add some spice to the stew of religious nonsense that John got caught up in, there were two popes at the time, one in Rome and one Avignon, France. Naturally, the two popes were antagonists quarreling over the kind of stuff that religious types always seem to be fighting about; you know, god, beliefs, doctrine, all of which generally boil down to money and power. In the case of the abbot’s appointment, the king’s man was favored by the pope in France, while the choice of the Archbishop of Prague, John’s boss, was supported by the pope in Rome. In the event, John appointed the archbishop’s nominee. The king threw a hissy fit and, on 20 March 1393, had the hapless head vicar tortured and thrown off the Charles Bridge to drown in the Vtlava River. John was canonized some 300 years later; there was only one pope in Rome at the time.

Old Town Gate, the Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge spans the Vtlava River, connecting Prague’s Old Town on the east bank of the river with Lesser Town and Prague Castle on the west bank. Construction of the bridge began in 1357 and was completed in 1402; the Charles replaced an older span that had been damaged by flooding. Wikipedia’s Charles Bridge entry is a relatively short, interesting piece about the the history of this Prague landmark.

My visit to the bridge began with an early morning walk along the banks of the Vltava River. The comfy budget hotel where I stayed on the Old Town side of the river was located on a street that nobody would label picturesque, but I was only about 150m from the Vltava. It was an overcast morning, and the weather forecast called for rain, gusty winds and falling temperatures beginning later in the morning. My plan was to walk along the river until the weather became threatening, at which point I would return to the hotel or seek shelter in a café.

Sure enough, a bit more than an hour into my walk, the wind began huffing and puffing, and I turned away from the river and headed into the Old Town where I could find someplace to sit if it started to rain. As I checked the map to get my bearings, I realized that my walk had brought fairly close to the entrance of the Charles Bridge. No more than 10 minutes from the bridge, I decided to take a chance with the weather and walk over. As I approached the Gothic Old Town Gate of the bridge (pictured here), the solid gray overcast gave way rather suddenly to puffy white clouds with rays of sunshine peeking through. Instead of blowing in a rainy day, the wind had carried the rain clouds away. Delighted with this happy turn of the wheel, I realized it was time to walk across the Charles Bridge, and that is exactly what I set out to do. (To be continued with more photos at a later date.)

The Oldest Pub in Town, Prague

The round sign in the window claims the Tavern U Krále Brabantského was established in 1375 and is the oldest pub in Prague. The tavern’s website equivocates, informing us that the place is “one of the oldest” pubs in Prague. When I walked by at 8:30 on a Sunday morning trudging up the hill to Prague Castle, the place was closed and I was unable to go inside and look around. In any case, it was a little early for a pint, though I did try the beer mentioned on the sign, Pilsner Urquell, elsewhere during my stay in Prague. Excellent. In fact, I did not have a glass of anything but world-class beer during my stay in Prague. The Czechs know how to make – and drink – their beer.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle

St. Vitus Cathedral is the centerpiece of Prague Castle; perched on a hilltop, the cathedral’s towers are readily visible from throughout Prague. Construction of the Gothic cathedral, the third church to be built on this site, began in 1344, and proceeded for several hundred years, interrupted by war, fire, lack of funds, and changes in designers. Work on the church was not completed until the latter half of the 19th century. The cathedral was finally consecrated in 1929. Just short of 600 years – this must be a record of some kind.

The massive cathedral stands in a courtyard that is small relative to the size of the building. I used an ultra-wide 20mm lens to capture the entire building in a single frame. The price one pays for the wide view this lens gives in tight places is perspective distortion. It is possible to correct for this distortion in Photoshop, but bringing the towers to a position perpendicular to the ground flattens the image. The towers looked squashed, for lack of a better word.

I headed out to Prague Castle early on a chilly October Sunday morning, arriving at around 8:30. The ticket I bought gave me entrance to several of the Castle’s attractions including the interior of the St. Vitus. But because it was Sunday morning, the church was closed for services until after 12 noon and I never made it inside.

The Powder Tower, Gate to Prague’s Old Town

On my first day in Prague, as I walked slowly from my hotel to the Old Town square, I passed Prašná brána – the Powder Tower in English – one of several gatehouses that formed part of the defensive wall that surrounded the Old Town. I got my first sight of Prašná brána at 8:30 on a brooding, overcast morning; this formidable example of Gothic architectural design dominated the surrounding area. Built in the 15th century, the tower was used later in its history to store gunpowder, thus the name Powder Tower.

The rain predicted for my first day in Prague never materialized; instead, the clouds gave way to glorious sunshine in the afternoon. When I passed Prašná brána at 4:40 on the way back to my hotel, the sunlit tower was decidedly more welcoming than it had been in the morning.

St. Nicholas Church, Prague

When I began thinking about a trip that would take me to central Europe, Prague was at the top of my list of destinations. What little I knew of the city conjured up romantic visions. Though unfamiliar with all but the broadest outlines, I knew Prague had a long history and had played an important part in regional history and development. I had seen beautiful photos of the city, many of which seemed to be focused on the Vltava River that runs through the heart of old Prague.

I am not a fan of travel guides, I don’t carry a copy of Lonely Planet or Frommer’s in my bag, nor do I spend much time with online travel guides. I am, however, very interested in the history of the places I visit. I read a decent, though definitely not world-class, account of the Hapsburgs, which consisted mostly of a series of portraits and anecdotes of Hapsburg rulers over the years. Rigorous historical analysis of the societies the Hapsburgs ruled and molded, and the influence this pivotal family had over hundreds of years on the drama of European history were largely missing. I started and put down after 50 or so pages a history of Venice. Because the book contained blatant factual errors that a non-expert like me could identify, I assumed that the large parts of the story with which I was not familiar were also riddled with factual errors and misinformation. Seemed pointless to continue reading.

Finding information on the history of Prague proved difficult. There are a number of books tracing the 20th century history of Czechoslovakia, established at the end of WWI after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Freed of Soviet domination with the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, the Czech and Slovak areas of Czechoslovakia agreed on a friendly separation and on the first day of 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia came into existence.

That is all well and good, but there is simply not much written in English about the Czech people and the Czech lands before 1918 when Czechoslovakia was born. For hundreds of years Prague was the social, economic and political center of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Many of the city’s best known historical sites and tourist attractions had their origins during the Bohemian years. Bohemia was a key part of the Holy Roman Empire for much of its 1000 year history. Beginning early in the 1500s, Bohemia became one of the lands ruled by a Hapsburg monarch, and it remained a Hapsburg dominion until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. Complex, convoluted history, the stuff I find fascinating – I will continue looking for reading material that provides more about Prague, Bohemia, and central Europe more generally.

I stayed in a hotel within easy walking distance of Prague’s Old Town, originally a walled enclosure that formed the center of the medieval city, the origins of which date back to the 9th century CE. My walk to the Old Town took me through a part of the New Town, a latecomer to Prague’s development founded in 1348, an area of some paved avenues with considerable traffic, public and private, and quiet cobblestone streets lined with buildings displaying a medley of architectural styles. Walking west past the Old Town brought me to the famous Charles Bridge, and after crossing that I found myself in the Lesser Town, a walk through which takes one to Prague Castle, perched on a hilltop and visible from many parts of the city. Honestly, trying to figure out how the various old districts have been put together into what makes Prague today is material for a world-class headache. Suffice it to say, Prague is a beautiful city. On all of my walks, I was treated to alluring mixes of very old to merely old to relatively modern structures – Baroque churches, art-deco public buildings, medieval gothic towers, and the occasional contemporary low-rise hotel or office building.

The St. Nicholas Church pictured here is one of the landmarks of the Lesser Town. The baroque church and the buildings around it are an example of the stylistic medley that makes up much of Prague.