Prague Stories and Tips

Hradcany Castle - heart and soul of Prague

The facade of St Vitus Cathedral Photo, Prague, Czech Republic

The heights of Hradcany and its glorious castle stand aloof from the city of Prague. This is the administrative heart and religious soul of the Czech Republic. Where Czech history has been made for a thousand years and where every tourist makes his way eventually. But the hordes that spill off the Charles Bridge and wind their way up to the castle do not detract from its sense of majesty. This building was the weathervane of Czech politics, bending with the shifts of Prague's fortunes from Dubceks's Prague spring to Gottwalds communist terror. When the Velvet revolution happened in 1989 - the cry was "Havel to the Hrad!" - to take up the reins of democratic goverment.

Architecturally, it is one of the best looking buildings in Middle Europe. But it was not built by the Czechs but by the Hapsburg Austrians when they moved the capital of their empire away from Vienna in the 16th Century. It was the Emperor Rudolf II (after whom a good steak was named) who led Prague into its golden age from the castle. It was he who built the great white/grey roccoco walls that scale the castle and stretch 500ft along the crest of the hill. He was the one who populated Prague with astrologers, mystics and alchemists and took to walking around the grounds with his pet lion, Ottokar. But after his death the centre was moved back to Vienna, and Prague became yet another capital swallowed up by the Hapsburg Empire.

The best advice I can give is get there before 10 o'clock, before the crowds and tour buses start to gather as it is immensely popular. The nearest metro was Malestranka and it is a ten minute walk uphill to the gates of the castle. The actual walk is a pleasure as it is via steep stone alleys which give nice views of Mala Strana as you ascend. The gates of the Hrad are guarded by sinewy giants posed in twisted combat but once you are past the first courtyard you are in the Hrad properly. To pass into the second courtyard takes some effort as there will be a gridlock of tourists in front of you. This is because as you pass into the second courtyard you will be struck by the gothic facade of St Vitus Cathedral and the tourists there will be too busy angling their cameras to let you pass. The front of St. Vitus is magnificent and you will find yourself craning your neck to view the two towering spires. Inside is very crowded, with high gothic columns, and a stained-glass ceiling letting in blue and red light into the sandstone interior.

If you have had enough of the crush in St. Vitus then explore the huge courtyard that surrounds it (see picture), the offices of Vaclev Havel, the Czech President, are on the southern side. But in the courtyard is the roccoco Royal Palace. This was the residence of the kings of Bohemia and in places goes back to 900 A.D. and is far less touristed then St. Vitus. Inside you enter through a horse-ramp and the ceiling of the Vladislav hall is vaulted and carved with a number of frescoes showing the coats of arms of many noble families. But the highlight for me was the viewing platform looking south from the Hrad over Mala Strana to the river. The brilliant green of the terraced gardens were just below us followed by the rolling roof-tops of the medieval houses all the way down to the Charles Bridge - gorgeous!

The sky above me at this point was like a medieval vision of hell, all black clouds rolling and boiling. I sought sanctuary in the Basilica of Sv Jiri which was coloured in striking scarlet sandstone. Numerous statues and saicophagai were housed in the basilica including one of Sv Ludmilla who was memorably strangled by her own daughter (I wonder what brought that on?). And behind the basilica is Zlata Ulicka (Golden Lane), a row of dolly-mixture coloured cottages tucked up against the north wall of the Hrad (see photo). They looked exceptionally twee in this narrow lane although it was hard to get a really good look due to the crowds. The rain came down again turning the lane into a sea of waterproof's and squeals, so I stood by an arrow slit and waited for the deluge to subside.

When the rain subsided, the gardens surrounding the Hrad smelt fresh and green. The view from them was incredible and I would take a bit of time to relax after the Hrad and take in what must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world...

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