Friday, June 29, 2012

PRAGUE, Part 3, Castle Hill

Prague Castle peers down on the city from its perch high up on the hill.  Made up of a network of buildings and courtyards, it is supposedly the largest castle complex in the world and is the most visited tourist site in Prague.  It covers 70,000 square meters, which is just over 17 acres, and was founded in 880 by Prince Borivoj, although none of the current structures date back to that period. It does not resemble the typical fairy tale castles of my imagination as it spreads out rather low to the ground,
 The castle grounds are dominated by the magnificent French-Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral:

The gate we entered was watched over by two Buckingham Palace-style guards
who managed to keep straight faces in spite of all the giggling tourists who had their pictures taken next to them:
 The changing of the guard did not have quite the pomp that we had seen in other places:

The various buildings on the castle grounds were very nice and the courtyards were spacious and lovely,
 
but none of them could compete with this magnificence, the largest church in the Czech Republic:
The first church on this site was dedicated to St. Vitus by King Wenceslas in the 10th century based on the fact that King Wenceslas had acquired a holy relic, the arm of St. Vitus, a Sicilian saint who died as a martyr in 303 A.D.  (I guess that is as good a reason as any to build a church.) Construction of the present St. Vitus Cathedral began during the reign of King Charles IV in 1344. The main structure was completed in about 150 years, but of course there were fires and wars and such that required rebuilding, and additions and embellishments continued to be added through the 20th century.

The two architects of the main facade, which was finished in the late 1800s, made sure they would not be forgotten.  Their faces appear on that facade below the rose window.  Can you see them?
 I thought this was a rather unusual gargoyle.  Maybe it is one of the architects' wives nagging him to come home?
The ceremonial entrance to the cathedral (surprisingly, not the one we went through) is a mosaic of scenes from the Final Judgment:
View of another side:

I'd like blinds like this on my living room window.
Upon entering, I discovered that it definitely has a gasp-worthy interior,

filled with a wide variety of sculptures and carvings that obviously criss-cross centuries of worship:

There are typical and not so typical sculptures in abundance:
Aslan?
Captain Moroni?
I liked the silver-covered tomb of St. John of Nepomuk, but I liked his story even better.  He was thrown into the Vltava River in 1393 by the king for refusing to divulge the secrets confessed to him by the queen. He is now one of the national saints of the Czech Republic. I think a better name for him would be St. John the Wet or St. John the Secret Keeper.

Who gets to polish this?  I didn't see one spot of tarnish.
The cathedral is filled with tombs of many important people:
 
But the most important tomb gets its own chamber. This is where Good King Wenceslas (yes, the same one who "looked out on the feast of Stephen...") is entombed.
Somewhere in this room is a door with seven locks that holds the crown jewels of Bohemia, made in 1347 and last worn for a coronation in 1836. They are displayed about once a decade, the last time in 2008 for the 90th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence.

The Renaissance organ
All of these elements make St. Vitus wonderful, but it is one of my favorite cathedrals in the world for one more important feature: its stained glass windows.  They are indescribably, breathtakingly beautiful.
Note the reflection from the windows on the stone pillars










The most unusual window of all, and my favorite, is this painted glass one by the Czech Art Nouveau pioneer Alfons Mucha:
The window shows King Wenceslas (below) as a child at the knee of his Christian grandmother Ludmilla, who raised him in the faith against the will of his pagan mother:

The rest of the window shows scenes from the lives of 1,000 years of Slavic saints.


 WOW.

And then, at the very bottom, in typically ornamented Mucha style, is the name of the bank that fronted the enormous cost of the window:

Oh well.

After seeing the window, I was very excited to pay a visit to Prague's Mucha Museum.  Bob advised a taxi, but I thought we could walk it.  It wasn't ALL that far back to Wenceslas Square, and then it was another few blocks to the museum:
Bob and Stan.  I think there was probably a faster way down than the empty trail we were on.

It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but we got there with 27 minutes to spare until closing time:

A very crabby lady at the ticket desk, however, was unbending in her conviction that no one should be allowed to enter with less than 30 minutes to view the museum.  NO ONE.

Darn, I'll just have to go back to Prague.


Next: The Jewish Quarter

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

PRAGUE, Part 2: The City

Beyond Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square, there is much more to see in Prague.  First, we went to the Basilica of St. James, built during the reign of Good King Wenceslas in the 10th century.  However, over the years it has been completely destroyed and rebuilt twice.  The version we saw was built in the 18th century and is the second l-o-n-g-e-s-t church in Prague. (Don't ask me which one is longer.) The original floor plan stayed the same, but the last rebuilding changed the style from Gothic to Baroque.
Frieze above the entrance
The first thing any good tourist wants to see in this church is the mummified human arm hanging by the front entrance.  The story is that 600 years ago a thief was stealing a statue of St. Mary, and the statue came to life and grabbed him.  The thief prayed to Mary for mercy and then fell asleep.  In the morning, he was found by a member of the Prague Guild of Butchers, the group that guarded the church.  The butcher cut off the thief's arm and hung it up as a warning to future would-be thieves. I suppose not killing him outright was the act of mercy he had prayed for!
The Arm
The Basilica of St. James has a gorgeous Baroque interior that contrasts sharply with that shriveled up arm hanging from the wall:

Moving on, one of the things we noticed as we walked around the city was the unique halos found on sculptures of the saints. 



SO much nicer than those flat discs I am used to seeing!

Prague straddles the Vltava River, and it is from Prague's bridges that some of the most beautiful views of the city are possible:


The main pedestrian bridge in town is the Charles Bridge, built under the direction of King Charles IV in the 14th century. Over 2,000 feet long and 32 feet wide, it is decorated with 30 statues and filled with street performers and vendors.  I would have loved to have spent more time wandering its length, but we were tourists-on-a-mission with places to go and things to see.
 
On the far side of the Charles Bridge and down a little side street is the Lennon Wall. John Lennon's death in 1980 inspired graffiti artists to memorialize him on what was a blank wall. Communist authorities painted over the wall, but on the second day, it was again filled with images of John Lennon, lyrics from his songs, and slogans from the hippie era.  Every time authorities would paint it over, new Lennon-themed graffiti would reappear in a matter of days. The wall came to be not only a memorial to John Lennon and his advocacy for peace, but also a cry for free speech and a symbol of the young Czech rebellion against the communist regime.  These days, new images and words are still being added, and the original images are long buried under the new ones:






Not far from the wall we saw a fence covered with "love locks." Legend has it that if you find your true love and write your names on a lock, then throw your key in the canal, your love will never die.  Too bad we didn't have a lock with us.
There was a tiny sculpture behind the Love Lock fence.  I wonder if he is the guardian of the keys?

One of my favorite sculptures in Prague is this figure from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni.  It is positioned just outside the Estates Theater where Mozart himself conducted the premier performance of his opera in 1787.
Creepy, isn't it?
In keeping with "faceless images," the beggars in Prague had an interesting style--keeping their faces turned down to the pavement.

Just a gentle reminder NOT to sit on this shop's window sill:

The most beautiful buildings in Europe are often the churches, but the Municipal House is supposedly one of the most photographed buildings in Prague.  Built in the early 20th century, it is Art Nouveau design, something we became more familiar with later in our trip.

The Municipal House is next door to the Gothic "Powder Tower," built in 1475 and the start of the route the kings used to take to go to their coronations.

Just across the square from the Municipal House and the Powder Tower is this ultra-modern national bank, the place where Czech currency is printed.

Statue on top of bank
I loved this square with its eclectic mix of both architecture and purpose.  Prague is a city that succeeds in blending many diverse elements.

Next: Castle Hill and St. Vitus Cathedral
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