Saturday, July 14, 2018

On the Road: Prague, Day 2

St. Vitus's Basilica, Prague 
On my second day in Prague, I took the tram up to Prague Castle, finding myself without the energy to make the trek up the hill on foot following 10 hours or so walking around the Old Town the day before. I was surprised by the tight security. It was much like airport security, but I realized later that some of the buildings in the castle complex are today used as government offices. The nested courtyards of the castle complex were confusing, but I soon found myself in front of the west façade of the Basilica of St. Vitus, which is a bit drab compared with the magnificent south façade with its massive central tower (pictured).

According to Blue Guide: Prague (A&C Black, 2004), the cathedral's origins go back to a "rotunda" founded by St. Wenceslas in 925, while a church was first built there about 50 years later, in 973. That church was replaced by a three-aisled basilica in 1060 that stood until 1344 when construction of the existing gothic building began under the direction of Matthew of Arras, court architect to the papal court at Avignon, called in by Charles IV. "Matthew of Arras laid the foundations of the cathedral and had completed the east end of the structure up to the triforium level before his death in 1352" the book says. (The triforium is a gallery or arcade above the arches of the nave, choir, and transepts of a church.) Construction was passed on to Petr Parléř in 1353 and he remained in charge until his death in 1399 when his sons assumed the work. Construction was halted when the Hussites took over the building in 1421. The partially completed building was then walled up until the end of the 15th century, when fitful construction resumed on parts of the interior, but it wasn't until 1861 that construction began again in earnest. The cathedral was finally completed only in 1929.

The Renaissance Grill
The south façade (photo above) is dominated by the main tower which is interesting for the intricate renaissance grill that protects the main window, among other things. The base of the tower was built by Petr Parléř's sons in the 15th century. Above is a 16th century arcaded gallery and above that a steeple begun in the late 18th century. The façade has a porch with three arches, decorated above with a mosaic that Blue Guide: Prague describes as "heavily restored" made by Venetian artists. It includes depictions of the work's sponsors, Charles IV and his wife on either side of the central arch. The fanned ribbed vaulting of the porch is rather interesting, and above the porch is an openwork staircase (not easy to see in my photograph of the south façade) that is considered architecturally daring.

Arched porch in the south façade of the cathedral
Stained glass window designed by
Alphonse Mucha
The interior has beautiful stained glass windows, mostly relatively modern, including one designed by Alphonse Mucha. The various chapels around the building are each interesting in their own way, but the Wenceslas Chapel and the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk are probably the highlights, the former jutting into the transept and roped off now so that you can see the interior only by peering in from a small distance. The tomb of St. Wenceslas (14th century, although the saint died around 929) is in the chapel—another bit of the cathedral Blue Guide: Prague describes as "much restored." Otherwise notable are the large wooden door from 1370 that incorporates a lion-headed knocker to which Wenceslas is supposed to have "clung as he was murdered by his brother." The lower level of the interior is set with huge semi-precious stones in gold-painted stucco such as amethysts—some the size of a football. There is a series of paintings here that seemed interesting as well, but they were too far away to get much of a look at. The tomb of St. John of Nepomuk is set rather awkwardly, I thought, into the ambulatory so that it half blocks the way. It is an elaborate silver affair with a canopy and draperies and flying angels.

The tomb of St. John of Nepomuk
After visiting the cathedral, I moved on to the Old Royal Palace, which I thought most interesting for Vadislav Hall and the famed windows of the Second Defenestration of Prague (1618), which involved the attempted murder of two Catholic regents during a row with protestants led by one Count Thurn over questions related to the rights of protestant believers in Bohemia. It's quite a drop from the windows. Surprisingly, the two survived. Blue Guide: Prague repeats the story about a heap of excrement breaking their fall, but a sign in the castle refutes that claim, suggesting it was simply the slope below the windows that was responsible for the relatively minor injuries suffered by the regents. This incident helped to precipitate the Thirty Years' War, while the First Defenestration of Prague (1419) helped precipitate the Hussite Wars.

Vladislav Hall, Old Royal Palace, Prague
Vladislav Hall (built 1493-1502), with its simple Renaissance windows, looks like nothing much from the outside and it is approached by a fairly simple passageway, but the interior is rather splendid. First, the room is huge. I overheard a guide say that it was the largest secular interior in Europe at the time of its construction. It's big enough that jousting tournaments were held here—indoors. At one end is a slope with broad, shallow stone steps leading into the space that allowed riders to enter mounted on their horses. This is known as The Riders' Staircase, built around 1500. The vaulting above the Riders' Staircase is a complex mesh of intersecting ribs almost as elaborate as the ribbing in Vladislav Hall itself, which looks like an elegantly espaliered tree has been used to hold up the ceiling.  

There was much more to see in the castle complex, but I had time only to look briefly at the Convent of St. George and then to take a walk down "Golden Lane," so-called because it was once the haunt of goldsmiths. Golden Lane, a row of tiny houses built at the end of the 16th century, also housed castle guards, although in the 18th and 19th centuries, the lane mostly housed the very poor. It wasn't until the 1960s that the little dwellings were painted the bright colors we see today and transformed into souvenir shops, although some are mini-museums of a sort. One shows a goldsmith's shop, for instance, another an alchemist's. One is a mini Kafka museum, as Franz Kafka lived at No. 22 Golden Lane for almost a year in 1916. He is said to have been inspired to write his novel The Castle while living there. Poet Jaroslav Seifert (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1984) is also associated with the street. He wrote two collections of poetry while living in Golden Lane in the late 1920s to early 1930s.

Man on Paris Street, Prague
Most of my last day in Europe was spent on the train from Prague back to Munich, my starting point. It was supposed to have been a straight run, but some foul up caused the train to stop short of its destination and we were forced to make two connections using local trains to get into the city, arriving more than an hour behind schedule with a phone running out of power (meaning maps to my lodgings for the night were about to disappear). I finally made it and, happily, there was a very good Italian restaurant still open nearby where I enjoyed a simple but delicious rucola and parmesan cheese pizza and a selection of Italian wines by the glass. The flight home the next day was long but uneventful—which is how I like flights to be.

From Wenceslas Square looking toward Old Town Square

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