The Bohemia Break – I

Nuns hobbled down the winding road below the monastery as the sun set over the frosted fields of Petřín Hill. We stood in the silence of the icy park, taking in the spired vista that spread out below us, beyond the gnarled barks and bare branches of trees that looked extremely cold and coated with frost. The December dusk was brightened up by the red roofs of Prague, interspersed with the occasional turquoise domes of churches. It was a serene moment that. Away from the madding crowds of Charles Bridge, the iconic baroque structure that spans the river Vltava and marks the historic capital of Bohemia.

We paused. Such moments of solitude in life require you to pause for as long as you can.

Then, as I was trying to take a few shots, such as the one you see above, I felt a nudge on my legs. I chose to ignore it. Another insistent nudge. I looked down. Next to my feet lay a bright red ball, and a black hound possibly 6 months old, staring at the ball with the kind of love I reserve for a cupcake on a peckish day. His name was Ralph. And yes, please could I toss the ball for him? His old master said, “That ball is covered in mud, so you don’t have to.”

Mud be darned, I gave in to the nudger. Off went Ralph, streaking down the slope like a bullet, whizzing all over its frosted surface, once the ball was in the air.

We were in hysterics. The ball lay in clear sight, a beaming red. Yet there went Ralph running around in circles. After a good 10 minutes of us four rooting for Ralph, our attention riveted by a red ball and dog, success was had.

Ralph would have you remember, with droopy eyes and a solemn look, that he is a hound.

His romping grounds were in the part of Prague that is slightly elevated above the rest of the city. Petřín Hill is a steep-ish climb from Prague Castle — a walk that took us to the oldest Premonstratensian Monastery in Bohemia. Premonster what, did you say? Well then, hold on. It is a Roman Catholic religious order started by a German saint called Norbert in the early 12th century, basically to get the monks off their passive behinds and do more than just contemplate about the vagaries of life. He wanted them to take part in community service.

Cut to Strahov Monastery. A large complex of buildings built by a Bohemian king in the 12th century that became home to one of the oldest surviving monasteries of Premonstratensian Order in the world. The monastery’s claim to fame is a beautiful library that houses about 200,000 books, and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and religious texts.

Near the monastery, is a token of envy and inspiration. In the late 1880s, the world exhibition in Paris had members from the Czech Tourist Club as visitors. These members were left quite in awe of the Eiffel Tower. They raised money and a society to put up a tower in Prague that would be five times shorter than the Eiffel but have a similar effect upon the horizon of the city as Gustave Eiffel’s tower does in Paris. So, you have the Petřín Lookout Tower which at night is lit up as incandescently as the original it hoped to replicate. Prague’s Eiffel does not do a bad job.

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Adi adjacent the tennis courts in the Strahov compounds. These are tennis playing monks, you think?
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The Petřín Lookout Tower
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Steps that lead to Petřín Park from the tower
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Grounds of Strahov

Of Golden Lanes, Mystic Prophesies and Glorious Castles

We were in the land of Boii, which given its pronunciation, would be sexist and belong to only boys. But do not bother getting your hackles up. The Boii was a Celtic tribe which is said to have inhabited the region and given it its name, Bohemia. Many tribes occupied the land next with migrations as a common theme in those days. I took to the legend of Libuše who as the princess of a Czech tribe married a humble ploughman and used to have visions of the future in her castle in central Bohemia. In one of her visions she saw what Prague would go on to be – “a vast city, whose glory will touch the stars!” She also saw ‘a place in the middle of a forest where a steep cliff rises above the Vltava River. There is a man, who is chiselling the prah (threshold) for the house.”. She prophesied: “A castle named Praha will be built there. Just as the princes and the dukes stoop in front of a threshold, they will bow to the castle and to the city around it.”

In the Middle Ages, her vision came true. A Czech Prince built Prague Castle in the late 9th century. It was the seat of the Czech rulers always but in modern times it holds the offices of the Czech president.

The first time we beheld the castle was as we were making our way to the hotel from the airport. It was incredibly misty. Out of the mists of time, it seemed, loomed out the spires of the castle high above us. First impressions last.

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The castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a complex of palaces and ecclesiastical buildings that are a blend of various architectural styles, from Romanesque to Gothic. Here you can see it from across the River Vltava.
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Prague Castle, turrets and spires caught in one frame.
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St. Vitus Cathedral makes you feel like a dwarf. I had a similar feeling when I laid my eyes on the cathedral in the town of Lincoln in England.
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Stained art inside the cathedral
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The tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors lie inside the cathedral
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Christmas stalls with St. Vitus Cathedral as the stunning backdrop
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That is the famous Golden Lane, a 15th century quarter with a row of tiny historic houses built into the fortifications of the castle. It is supposed to gave got its name from alchemists who apparently lived there. But according to the walking tour guide, Terry, with whom we explored the area around the castle, it was named after the soldiers who peed there regularly after lots of beer. It did house the military barracks for some time. The famous resident of the Golden Lane was Franz Kafka. He worked in House no. 22 for a year.
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Gothic magnificence of the cathedral dedicated to St. Vitus.
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View from Castle Square at night
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One of the best lookout points in the city is from the castle square. What’s best is that it is free 🙂

 

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Sunset at Castle Square
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The king and his jester with the Asian

The old man with the Hurdy Gurdy on the way to Lesser Town took me to another time and age with his crooning.

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Gates of Prague Castle
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The kind of view I could get used to

Gold-Tipped Towers and Spires

For a view of the famous 100 spires of Prague, you have gotta climb. A Bohemian mathematician had made a count of 103 spires in the 19th century, and after, Prague came to be referred proudly to as the city of a hundred spires. The incentive of climbing these lookout towers (besides walking off all the gingerbread men, pastries and hot chocolate) is the sheer range of architectural styles your eyes shall be treated with. Spired Romanesque rotundas, Gothic cathedrals and Baroque places of worship give way to the 20th century Art Nouveau and Cubist schools of thought.

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The Old Town Bridge Tower, now blackened and weathered with the years since it was built in the 1300s to protect Old Town from marauders from the north, has views across the Vltava. The Gothic tower has just about 138 stairs. Not much? 😉
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From atop the 210-ft tall Old Town Bridge Tower
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The many spires, rotundas and domes that emerge out of Prague Old Town
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For a bird’s eye-view of of Prague’s Old Town, you enter the Klementinum and climb its Astronomical Tower. The large complex, above 2 hectares in area, was the handiwork of Jesuits who arrived in Bohemia in 1556. Again, like the rest of the city, it has an array of architectural styles to offer because the reconstruction of the former Dominican monastery, in which the Jesuits lived, took roughly 170 years. Don’t be too put off by the brusque air of the old lady who stands at the till and treats you like a slow child if you ask one too many questions. And, reach by 10am so that you can grab the first tour.
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The Mirror Chapel inside the Klementinum. One of the rooms that is bound to make your jaw drop. Till, of course, you make your way up and enter the portals of the famed library which you have probably seen lit up in all its baroque gorgeousness. Muted gold seems to leap out at you apart from the thousands and thousands of tomes – there about 20,000 – is this fantastic library that was started by the Jesuits in the 1700s as part of the Jesuit University they had set up. But the thing is that it is extremely well preserved, so the library is almost dark and you have got to peer in to get all that gorgeousness. I do not have a photo to share with you all because photographs are strictly off the charts.
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This was like a sneak peek into what lay ahead once we got to the top of the Astronomical Tower of the Klementinum.
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Then you climb up the 172-odd stairs of the Astronomical Tower and get this view of Old Town. This was always a viewing platform since the 18th century when it was built but Jesuit scholars and their students carried out their astronomical and climate measurements in the tower.
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Take a turn around the tower and you get a view of the castle in the distance and the white towers of Strahov too.

 

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The spires of Strahov Monastery

Bridges of Bohemia

Starting the new year in fairy-tale mode means that you’ve got to battle the hordes on Charles Bridge. This Gothic marvel of a bridge gets its name from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, who had its construction started in the late 14th century.

“How is the bridge even standing?” observed my (very) irate husband. But stand it does – that bridge that has seen much more than tourists, caricature artists, buskers and sellers of miscellaneous stuff. It has witnessed terrible floods and execution too post a famous battle when leaders of an anti-Habsburg revolt were executed and their severed heads displayed upon the Old Town bridge tower. It was 1621 and it was a measure taken to make the Czechs think twice before revolting against the Holy Roman Emperor.

 

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Charles Bridge leads the way to the castle quarter and Lesser Town from atop the Old Town Bridge Tower.
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Adi took a break from jostling with the crowds with a fake smile
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But what cannot stop you from gaping at Charles Bridge are the rows of 30 saints flanking you. They make you think that you are being watched and that there is a somebody watching over you. In this case, 30 somebodies. Towering above me here are the saints Norbert of Xanten (the one who started the Premonstratensian Order), Wenceslas (Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century till he was assassinated) and Sigismund (King of Burgundy).
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That is John of Nepomuk. This unfortunate man was deemed a martyr because he was confessor of the Queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge the confessionals. On the orders of Wenceslas IV, King of the Romans & King of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk was drowned in the Vltava in 1393. Since then he has been declared to be a protector from floods and drowning. Though why, you would think. He could not protect himself from the waters.
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What could their sins have been?
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Charles Bridge
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You see why the other bridges pale in comparison.
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Svatopluk Čech Bridge, an Art Nouveau style bridge, from the window of our room at the InterContinental Prague.
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Below Charles Bridge from where some boats take off on their cruises.

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At night, the crowds melted away on Charles Bridge. The mist rolled in and I could imagine it as the perfect setting for a thriller.
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A taciturn John Le Carre-esque spy walking by with his shoulder hunched, a single stream of blue smoke released from the cigarette in his hands…

Lesser Town

In Czech, the baroque quarter adjacent to the castle is Malá Strana. It may be deemed Lesser Town but nothing about it is lesser than the other parts of town. It is dominated by St. Nicholas Church, which when you enter it cows you down with its baroque splendour, and around the quarter you have these old, old burgher houses and quaint, cobbled lanes that branch off quietly while tempting you to go down them to escape the crowds.

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Spires of St. Nicholas Church show up from every part of Lesser Town. The town existed even before the Baroque period. But fires razed it down and it was rebuilt in a Baroque style.
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St. Nicholas Church. If you have one church you would like to pay an entrance for, it is this one. It was built in the 18th century by a father-son duo of the famous Dientzenhofer family of Bavarian architects.
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The frescoes inside take the breath away. It is all about art that makes you feel the exalted power of a place of worship.
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During the Communist Era, the State Security used the bell-tower of the church to keep an eye on things in town. But it is worth its while to spend time inside this church and soak in all the elements that make the Baroque style what it is. The interiors are ridden with Baroque drama, exuberance and grandeur.

 

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More Baroque presence on the streets of Lesser Town
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Church of St. Joseph at Republic Square. A Renaissance Capuchin church with an adjacent monastery. It grabs the attention with its simplicity and yet you can spot the two Baroque sandstone sculptures of St. Jude Thaddeus flanked by two angels.
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Poetic touches
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Lesser Town was the brain child of King Ottokar II of Bohemia in the 13th century. As a royal town, its residents had to be chosen by the king who decided to throw out the original residents and invited German merchants and craftspersons in.
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In the latter half of the 14th century, Charles IV extended Lesser Town and built the Hunger Wall. As terrible as it sounds – the mind immediately leaps to think it was an evil thought process at work – its original name gives you an idea about why it was named thus. It was called Chlebová or ‘built for bread’. Even though it was built as a medieval defensive wall, it is said to have been a strategic ploy of the Holy Roman Emperor to feed the poor by giving them employment. The Hunger Wall was built at a time when there was a famine in the city.
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Lesser Town Bridge Tower, just as you get off Charles Bridge.

 

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The Church of St. Thomas is part of an Augustinian monastery. The 18th century church was built upon the foundations of an older Romanesque church, it is supposed.
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All roads lead to St. Nicholas in Lesser Town.

Hunting Out Green Fairies

The bohemian drink in Bohemia. Could not get more apt, right? The art lies in sipping and not downing the favourite tipple of poets and writers to get drunk merely, connoisseurs will have you know.

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Bohemian Marionettes

Because the Czech are known for their hand-carved puppets since the Middle Ages. I am fascinated by this art form because it takes your imagination places with an just inanimate, wooden object.

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‘Stop Stop Little Gingerbread Man’

Remember the gingerbread man from the fairy tales? Well, I met them aplenty in Prague.

Christmas means that the air in Prague will be redolent with the fragrance of gingerbread. In the Middle Ages, there were gingerbread baking guilds in the Czech Republic. Gingerbread travelled all the way from ancient Greece and Egypt to Europe with crusaders who in the 11th century introduced spices into the kitchens of the European wealthy.

In the Lesser Town quarter of Prague is a Gingerbread Museum. While it is not actually a museum, you will lay your eyes on a massive variety of gingerbread girls, shoes, bags, warriors, kings apart from the customary gingerbread man who receives careful attention from a woman with a piping bag at the till. I wanted to buy one of each. But the overpriced tags pricked my conscience and that soothed the alarmed look away from my husband’s face.

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In the old days, European recipes called for ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, molasses and ginger. I wonder if the recipe is still the same for these smiling men in the picture. The English are supposed to have tweaked the recipe for a lighter version in the 16th century. And guess what, the first gingerbread man came from Queen Elizabeth I. She had got them baked for visiting dignitaries.
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At the Gingerbread Museum, where you can dip them in a chocolate fountain and bite off their cute little heads.
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Reproductions of wooden molds that were used in medieval times to tell the story of the day. As you can see in this shot, they would depict kings, queens and religious figures.
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Gingerbread houses and trees and all things merry
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Gingerbread stalls and pop-up shops are a feature you will not want to miss during Christmas.
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In the old days, lovers are supposed to have gifted their loved ones gingerbread men tied up with ribbons.

The wonderful sweet and spicy aromas will drive you into the arms of the gingerbread man of Prague. There is nothing more moreish than a cute little gingerbread man to tuck into on a December evening along with a cup of coffee. And on that sweet, spicy note, I shall leave you with the promise of a follow-up post on Prague’s charm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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