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September 13, 2018

Prague

By Rosemary West


Taking a selfie next to the Vltava River.

Prague is a beautiful city. Its Old Town and other historical neighborhoods are intact and in good condition because, unlike other Central European capitals, it was not a bombing target during World War II.

The Czech Republic's longest river, the Vltava, flows through the city. It is lined with historic buildings and waterfront restaurants. Both humans and water birds enjoy leisurely summer afternoons here.


Ducks seem to float in the clouds reflected on the water's surface.


One of the city's most popular landmarks is the Charles Bridge, lined with impressive statues of 30 saints and historical figures. It was completed around 1400, and was the only bridge here until 1841. The statues were added in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The ones we see today are replicas; the originals have been moved to museums.


The bridge is usually crowded with photo-snapping tourists and locals just trying to get across.


St. Philip Benizi


Madonna and St. Bernard


St. Anna

The oldest statue (1683) is St. John of Nepomuk. As the queen's confessor, he refused to reveal her secrets to the king, and was subsequently martyred by being thrown into the river.


He saw stars.

The bridge is named for Charles IV, who was born in Prague in 1316. Over time, he became the ruler of several kingdoms and was eventually crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355. He made Prague his capital, and under his rule it became the cultural center of Europe.


Across the river, atop the hill, is Prague Castle, the seat of power for over a thousand years. It is a large complex that includes museums, gardens, and churches.


The guard changes every hour.

The most popular attraction here is the enormous St. Vitus Cathedral, a gothic and neo-gothic church whose construction started in 1344. Wars, fires, vandalism, and financial problems delayed the work, and the building stood half-finished for centuries. It was renovated and completed between 1861 and 1929.


The Art Nouveau stained glass window, by Alfons Mucha, was added in 1931.


Many of the church's decorations are typically gothic.


This silver Baroque tomb is topped with a statue of St. John of Nepomuk.


Outside, the prized golden mosaic depicts the Last Judgment.

Not far from the cathedral is the old royal palace, now a museum of Czech history. The windows of the upstairs office were sometimes used for defenestration (the act of throwing someone out a window), under an old law that allowed bad politicians to be ousted this way.



Whatever you do, don't open the window.

The castle complex includes the "Golden Lane," a small street that was once the residential area for servants and artisans. These tiny houses were occupied until World War II. Franz Kafka lived here for a short time. Today, many of the houses are furnished as they might have been in medieval times.


There weren't this many tourists 500 years ago.


It reminds me of our last Airbnb.


Some of the weapons once used to defend the castle.

Prague has been here for more than a thousand years. Like most of the cities we have visited, keeping those old buildings usable requires a lot of maintenance, and, as in most of them, we were sometimes frustrated when the landmark we were looking for was closed or under construction. For example, this monument to František Palacký was a bit hard to see.


Prague is considered a pedestrian-friendly city, although the cobblestones here tend to be much coarser and less well maintained than in some other cities we've visited. Many of the sidewalks are made of small mosaic-style stones. They are usually uneven, and get very slick in the rain. The good news is that there are many areas of the city where the key attractions are all within walking distance of each other. The city has a good public transportation system (trams and buses) that makes it easy to get from one section of town to another.



The Havelská Market is 700 years old, but the fruit is fresh.

Prague has had a Jewish community nearly as long as the city has existed. Most of the neighborhood was torn down and rebuilt in the late 1800s, but there are synagogues that have been here for centuries.

According to legend, Rabbi Loew, a real person who lived here around 1600, used clay from the Vltava River to build a golem, a magically animated creature, to guard the ghetto. At some point, the golem went on a violent rampage, so the rabbi deactivated it and hid the body in the attic of the synagogue. The golem wasn't found when the building was renovated in 1883; the ladder rungs on the outside wall suggest a possible escape route.


It's called the Old-New Synagogue because it was new in 1270, but it's old now.

The nearby statue of Moses (by František Bílek, 1905) looks exhausted. The original statue was melted down by the Nazis. In 1946 it was re-cast from the original mold and restored to its location.


There are around 12,000 tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery, which was in use from 1439 to 1787, but there may be as many as 100,000 people buried here. Because the space was limited, graves were stacked, sometimes covering the old stones, sometimes with the old stones elevated to represent someone buried several layers below. The surface of the cemetery is now much higher than the streets; it is held in place with retaining walls.


The Pinkas Synagogue was built in 1535. Today, it is best known for its walls, which have been hand-painted with the names of 77,297 Czech Jews who were murdered in concentration camps. The project was unveiled in 1960, but after the Communist takeover in 1968, the regime closed the synagogue and erased nearly all the names. After the collapse of the Communist government in 1989, the building was restored and the names rewritten.


They are organized by hometown, with family names in red and individuals' details in black.


A few blocks away, the Spanish synagogue, built in the late 1800s, is beautifully decorated in the fashion of its time.




Although Prague is notable for its many historic buildings and monuments, it is also a modern city. One example is the "Dancing House," a glass and concrete office building designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunič; its nickname comes from its supposed resemblance to a pair of dancers. It was constructed on a lot that had been vacant since 1945. Even though Prague was not targeted for bombing in World War II, during the attack on Dresden, a navigation error sent American bombers to Prague, resulting in the deaths of 701 people and destruction or damage to hundreds of buildings.

Some people think this building is not a good fit for the area, where there are many outstanding Art Nouveau buildings. Like it or hate it, it has become a popular tourist attraction.


The "Head of Franz Kafka" is a kinetic metal sculpture by David Černý, 11 meters (36 feet) tall.


Jaroslav Róna's "Statue of Franz Kafka" stands on the edge of the Jewish Quarter.


The "Memorial to Victims of Communism" is a group of bronze figures descending a set of stairs at the base of Petřín Hill.


We enjoyed walking around town, looking at buildings and monuments, both old and new.

The gothic Týn Church was originally Catholic, but was taken over by the Hussites in the 15th century. When the Catholics took the church back 200 years later, they melted the famous gold chalice (a symbol of the Hussite cause) to make an image of Mary. Today, a replica of the chalice stands in the once-empty niche.



Nearby, in Old Town Square, is the memorial to Jan Hus, a 14th-century priest who was executed for defying the Catholic church and the Habsburg empire. He inspired the Hussite movement and became a symbol of Czech nationalism.


Just a few blocks away is another church, St. James. It was closed, but we were able to peek through the door to see its grand interior.


The Powder Tower was once the gate to the city. It got its name from the gunpowder that was stored here.


Art and architecture are on display everywhere in Prague. No matter where we went, we were rewarded for remembering to look up, look down, look inside.








After a week in Prague, we hopped a plane for Warsaw.


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