Only five days remained on the entire trip, the last two of which were travel-only days. Of the remaining three, two full days would be spent in Prague and one in Helsinki. Prague, or Praha, is Europe’s fifth most visited city and receives well over six million visitors each year, but we were there in April, and with the global fear of a word I will not use so as not to perpetuate its effects, crowds were not that bad. There was really no wait time to see or do anything, and there was no fighting crowds to walk through the streets. Now, this is only my opinion, but Prague has a little different, and slightly cooler history than the other cities we visited, and it is worth delving into a bit. This background will also touch on the bits of history of the morning’s trip to Castle Hill.
According to 16th century historian David Gans, a resident of Prague, the city was founded circa 1300 BCE by a king named Boyya (Boiia). His name was bestowed upon Prague as “Boiinhaem.” The area of western Czech Republic where Prague lies eventually became Bohemia, which stemmed from Boiia, as did the neighboring German state of Bavaria (Bayern). For most of its early history, nearly 2,000 years in fact, it was inhabited primarily by Germanic tribes, until the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, at which point many of those peoples moved west, and Slavic peoples from the east moved in to occupy the area. The city’s modern name of Praha would come several hundred years later in the 9th century.
An early fortification was constructed by 800 CE, occupying some of the area of Castle Hill, and the first masonry on the grounds can be traced back to the late 9th century. The city would become an integral trade city over the centuries that followed, also seeing itself appointed a bishopric and archbishopric, and serving as the seat of Bohemian dukes and kings.
Probably the most famous of royalty in this city’s long history is Charles IV, who reigned as both King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor for about 30 years through the mid-14th century and transformed the city into the seat of the empire and the third largest in Europe after Rome and Constantinople. He founded Charles University, one of Europe’s oldest, in 1347, and saw the addition of a mint in the city, which brought in additional trades, mercantilism, and banking.
When Charles died in 1378, his son Wenceslaus IV succeeded him, an appointment which did not sit well in the empire. Under Wenceslaus’ rule numerous conflicts broke out as a result of the displeasure of other nobles in Bohemia. At times there were full on rebellions, and Wenceslaus was even captured and imprisoned by these nobles on a few occasions. At one point the king was deposed while imprisoned, but he never recognized it and therefore retained kingship until 1419 when he died of a heart attack.
It was at this time that the Hussite Wars broke out. Jan Hus called out the Catholic Church on their corruption, and as the Church did when someone rocked the boat, they labelled his camp as heretics and waged one of their many infamous crusades. These conflicts would play out over the subsequent 15 years, resulting in a Hussite victory in the form of emancipation from the Church. However, Jan Hus had been burned at the stake in 1415 for alleged heresy, another of the Church’s favorite acts to carry out on dissenters, well before the Hussite Wars even began.
In the 1500s the Habsburgs moved in as rulers of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), and Rudolf II brought in the sciences and the arts, further enhancing Prague’s status as a pinnacle of European culture and trade. The 17th and early 18th centuries were a dark time for the city, bearing witness to the Thirty Years’ War among other battles, the decrease of the city’s population by approximately two-thirds, a devastating fire, and a huge bout of the plague. The city recovered by the end of the 18th century, and its economic influence was increased, as many of the new inhabitants were wealthy merchants and nobles. In the 1800s Prague first climbed above 100,000 residents, which grew even more with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Further revolutions occurred, and Germanic influence slowly declined into the early 1900s, as Czech nationalism saw a huge increase, particularly in Prague. By the interwar years between WWI and WWII, the city claimed a population of nearly 1 million.
Hitler ordered the occupation of the Sudetenland (parts of ethnic German speakers throughout northern, southern, and western Czech) in March 1939, which brought the Nazis into Prague and later saw a population decrease as a result of the deportation of the city’s Jews. SS Chief and co-architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, was assassinated here during Operation Anthropoid in 1942, but for the small victory it was to the Czechs, it only resulted in bloody massacres at Hitler’s behest. Although some bombing did occur here, compared to other cities we visited on this trip, Prague did not suffer nearly as extensively in damage to infrastructure or human casualties (save for the Holocaust victims, of course).
After the city was liberated by the Red Army, it fell under Soviet rule. The late ‘60s saw the Prague Spring, whose aim was political liberalization, but this brought in Warsaw Pact countries, who invaded Czechoslovakia and put an end to any advancement of the movement. The Velvet Revolution snuck its way into the end of the ‘80s and brought with it a swell of support for Czech independence. Prague became the capital of the new Czech Republic in 1993. We were told during our visit that the country had announced that it will change its name to Czechia in the near future, not as a result of any new government or anything, but more so an attempt to streamline. It’s just easier to say.
On this morning we had a guided tour, and for the life of me, I cannot remember our guide’s name. She talked probably 75% of the time – super knowledgeable about Prague and Czech history. She met us at our hotel and we drove first to Castle Hill, which sits on the opposite side (west) of the Charles Bridge as we had visited the previous night. We were one of the first three groups to arrive that morning, so we could take our time and really enjoy the tour.
The two main structures on Castle Hill are the castle itself (according to Guiness Book of World Records, the largest ancient castle in the world) and St. Vitus Cathedral. We wouldn’t get a chance to peak inside the castle, unfortunately. Shame, because it looks beautiful in pictures, but hopefully there will be a next time. The castle, built up from the 9th century on, saw the Charles-era rulers, followed by an uninhabited period during the Hussite Wars, suffered the fate of the city during the fire, was rebuilt over the centuries with the standard additions and fortifications, and finally saw a major rebuilding under Maria Theresa in the mid-18th century. It was also home to the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, and in March 1939, when the Nazis invaded, the immeasurable jerkface asshole himself, Herr Hitler, stayed there a night to enjoy his “new possession.” The castle was subsequently made home base for Heydrich himself, who reportedly crowned himself with the royal crown. Apparently, legend has it that should a usurper adorn the crown, he will die within a year. Less than a year after he moved in, he was attacked and a week later succumbed to infection, resulting in his highly desired death. After WWII the communist government took up residence, and decades later, during the Prague Spring, the castle played an integral role as a symbol of Czech nationalism.
We did visit St. Vitus, an absolutely beautiful piece of architecture. The stained glass windows are some of the most colorful and gorgeous of their kind, and the craftsmanship throughout is amazing. This is essentially the Notre Dame de Praha, and is the most important church in Czech Republic. It’s funny to see so many churches in a city considered to be generally “atheist.” I use quotes because not declaring any specific religion does not make one an atheist. That is a misnomer. One can be nonreligious – secular if you will – yet believe in some power or existence or whatever you want to call it – some complex indescribable thing greater than oneself. Every church we saw, though, was stunning. I think I heard Rick Steves call Prague “the golden city of 100 spires.” Well, from atop Castle Hill, looking south, spires appear everywhere, and we saw a hand full during our brief stay. I don’t know about “golden,” but regardless, it was beautiful.
St. Vitus is actually dedicated to Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus, and Adelbert, but is more commonly referred to only as St. Vitus, as the latter two were not added until the 1990s. It is actually located within the castle walls. We approached from the north, where Pawel dropped us off only a few short blocks away from the castle entrance. Crossing over the Powder Bridge, we passed through the north entrance into courtyard 2 and immediately turned left to head east into courtyard 3, the largest of the castle courtyards, where St. Vitus sits. As soon as you pass into the courtyard, one of the most impressive Gothic facades dominates every part of your field of vision. At its highest point, the cathedral is over 400 feet tall. But there is a caveat – this western entrance is also the newest part of the cathedral, and was built hundreds of years after the Gothic period ended, in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Nonetheless, the twin towers and gorgeous rose window do not fail to impress.
Two prior churches stood on this site, the original being constructed by Wenceslaus I in the 10th century, which was destroyed not long after. Another was built by Spytihněv II in the 11th century, and yet a third was founded in the mid-14th century by King John of Bohemia. The last was the foundation for the cathedral that still stands today. Construction slowly continued until about the 16th century, when the Hussite Wars put an end to that. The cathedral did sustain damage as a result of those conflicts, and a fire in 1541 further damaged it. The church would remain half completed for the next 300+ years, until the mid-1800s, when repairs began and a union formed to raise funds to complete the work. Several sculptors and architects would work from 1870 until 1920 to complete it.
I am a sucker for rose windows, and I even have a tattoo of the rose window from St. Chapelle in Paris. Whereas the stained glass rose window of St. Chapelle represent the book of Revelation, that of St. Vitus depicts Genesis. Now, I am one of those secular folks I described earlier, but I find these works absolutely fascinating. St. Vitus is renowned for its windows, as no two are alike in design, and the depictions themselves are so stunning and vibrant.
On the southern wall of the church is St. Wenceslaus Chapel, where his relics are kept. This is considered to be the most outstanding part of the interior, but I found outstanding things every place I looked around the interior. Apparently, one of the architects was actually a sculptor, and after initially following his predecessor’s plans, he eventually began to add his own touch to it, working the stone as he would a sculpture. The Czech crown jewels are actually housed in a room off of St. Wenceslaus Chapel, also. This whole chapel, though, is off limits. It can only be viewed from the doorways. Beneath the floor on this end of the chapel is the crypt, which we unfortunately could not enter on that day, where Charles IV and other Bohemian kings are buried.
When standing south of the cathedral in the expansive courtyard 3, to the left is an oddly present obelisk. I noticed it immediately and asked our guide about it. She said it was added in 1928 to commemorate the victims of WWI and the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovakia.
Looking at the cathedral, just to the right of the 400+’ bell tower, but much closer to the ground, is the Golden Gate, or Golden Portal, an enormous mosaic representation of The Last Judgment covering 82 square meters. I believe our guide told us it consists of over one million tiny pieces of glass. And immediately above it is another of the cathedral’s gorgeous vaulted windows.
Continuing on to the east, you will be confronted with a beautiful red and cream facade, St. George’s Convent, which sits adjacent to St. George’s Basilica. And if you turn around (slowly – it helps the suspense build), your jaw will drop when you see the spectacular flying buttresses of St. Vitus. There is no sense in trying to articulate their beauty. I am no Mark Twain. Just go see them.
At some point on one of the side streets we subsequently walked down, there was a museum built into the old city walls. After ascending a short, steep, narrow staircase, you are standing in a stone hallway once used by archers to rain arrows down on their foes. In the windows are wooden cylinders with slits in the middle, which rotate the width of the window to allow for targeting at least 80’ above their heads. Below this perch was once a large moat. On the back side along the wall, are armored mannequins yielding sharp, pointy swords, spears, and the occasional Bludgeoning Axe of Brutality (+4 strength, +3 dexterity, 100 dps). At the western end of the hallway were a few large rooms, I’m guessing once used as a sort of armory and / or ammo dump, which now house large glass cases full of more armor and weapons. There were certainly some amazing blacksmiths in those days. How cool would it be to be a blacksmith? Thankfully, when we don’t have the physical means, we have video games, which gloriously satisfy our yearning to bend the hardest materials to our wills and become beasts among men.
We all made our way down to a small courtyard area near an old castle tower where we met our guide and began our descent from Castle Hill through Malá Strana, or Little Town, where the nobles lived, back toward the Vltava. We were led directly to the Charles Bridge, where we approached Old Town from the west. As I have already described the Charles Bridge in detail (see Day 10), I will just say that it was very crowded on that day, and our guide probably filled us in on about 5 or 6 of the 30 statues lining it. As we reached the other side, we were led back through the same streets we walked the prior night to Old Town Square. Our guide talked a lot, but with it being daylight, I was just admiring the architecture and peeking in shops for interesting items. Old Town Prague has such a great feel to it. It’s not like walking through Manhattan or Chicago where you’re completely closed in everywhere and only see a slice of daylight if you look directly overhead. That’s what I love about European cities. They’re not concrete jungles like our hideous eyesore metropolitan areas are here in the states. But Prague had a very special and unique feel to it. I suppose they all do, but Prague has something different that I can’t quite place.
After reaching the square, we walked north toward the Vltava, where we were catching a boat for a lunch cruise. It lasted about two hours or so, and we all pigged out and had several servings of booze and ice cream for dessert. I think half of us were about to fall asleep or had fallen asleep by the time we arrived back at the dock. We were splitting with our guide for the day, and the rest of the day was at leisure. Some folks decided to go back to the hotel, and others ventured around Old Town. I was one of the latter, and my bud Debby decided to hang out with me. We had nothing but time, so we decided to find this little beer joint I found in my studious pre-trip research.
Just as I had experienced an excellent bottle bar in Budapest a few days prior, I again found myself in beer lover’s heaven at a cool little hidden spot called Pipa Beer Story. From Old Town Square, it was only a 2 minute walk northeast up Dlouhá, and after making a right on Masná, there’s a neat little shop called Food Story on the first floor, where you can buy all sorts of different foods and hangout in the cafe. Down the stairs is Pipa, and it is so amazing. Debby and I found a table out of the way but near the bar and settled in. The bartender came to visit and take our orders. I just started with a flight of the six or so beers they had on tap, four of which were Czech, one German, and one Belgian. They were all good, and there was even an IPA in there that I liked, which is unusual. One was a fruit beer from Belgium, Brachus Frambozenbier, and that was what Debby ordered, and while it was delicious, it was too light for me on that evening. I found a chocolate quad from the same brewery, Brouwerij van Honsebrouck, which came in at a nice 11% ABV. They even had these awesome little beer glasses from the brewery that had the brewery itself made into the glass stem. I felt special. That quad was so delicious, too. I’d never tried a chocolate quad until then, but I quite enjoyed it. I nursed the hell out of it while Debby looked through her pictures and we bullshitted about this and that. I even had a fun little conversation with one of the bartenders about U.S. politics and what a complete joke they are. That was interesting and hilarious. I had a conversation with the other bartender, the original one, about how he ended up at Pipa. He was actually from Slovakia, and had studied gastronomy in the UK before settling in Prague and working in food and beer. Seemed very happy to be doing it too, and I was happy that he was happy doing it, because it made him that much finer a server.
Since we had no place to be that evening, we decided to stick around and have dinner and another round. I think we ordered some little sausages in some type of sweet, spicy sauce or something, but I can’t be for sure. I had ordered another Belgian dark beer (Pauwel Kwak), which at 8.5% ABV, might have intensified the afternoon buzz I mysteriously caught. We hung out for another hour or so before we started the walk back through Old Town to catch the metro before it got dark. From there it was only a 10 minute (if that) ride back to Andel, our stop, and a 5 minute walk to the hotel, where I was happy to get a shower and hit those big soft pillows in a super relaxed and mellow (possibly slightly inebriated) state, bullshit a bit with Grandpa, and get some rest. The next day, sadly, would be our last day before starting the trek home via Helsinki.