europe

In Bohemia

Nuns hobbled down the winding road below the monastery as the sun set over the frosted fields of Petřín Hill. Beyond the gnarled barks and skeletal branches of trees lay the spired vista of Prague, the December dusk brightened up by the city’s red roofs and turquoise church domes. A serene moment away from the madding crowds of Charles Bridge which spans Vltava River in the historic capital of Bohemia. We indulged that pause because how could we let such a moment pass by unnoticed.

Then as I was taking a few photos I felt a nudge at my legs. I ignored it. Another insistent nudge. I looked down. Next to my feet lay a bright red ball and a black hound pup 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 his six-month old lovable self? His old master interjected: “The ball is covered in mud. Don’t feel you have to.” Mud be darned, I gave in to my young nudger, and off went Ralph streaking down the slope like a bullet. The ball beamed at us from where it had rolled down to but Ralph kept running around in circles. It took him more than 10 minutes to detect it. But he would have you know with a thump of his tail that he is a hound, yessir.

A steep climb from Prague Castle, Petřín Hill has the oldest Premonstratensian Monastery in Bohemia which in its baroque library of stucco and frescoed ceilings tucks away hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and religious texts. On this hill, you will also sight a tower which looks like a squat version of the Eiffel Tower. In the late 1880s, the world exhibition in Paris was visited by members of the Czech Tourist Club who decided that they wanted a share of the pie. They raised money and installed their own version of it, so you have 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.

We were in the land of Boii which given its pronunciation could be accused of sexism. But there’s a simple explanation which is that the Boii was a Celtic tribe which is said to have given the region its name. A host of tribes occupied the land. Migration has been an eternal theme through the ages it seems. I took to the legend of Libuše, the princess of a Czech tribe. She married a humble ploughman and used to have visions of the future in her castle in Central Bohemia. Prague, Libuše foretold, would turn out to be ‘a vast city, whose glory will touch the stars’. In the Middle Ages, her vision came true when a Czech Prince built Prague Castle in the late 9th century. Since then it has been the seat of the Czech rulers. In modern times it serves as the office of the Czech president.

The first time we lay eyes upon the castle — as we drove in a cab to the hotel from the airport — it was through a veil of mist. We might have been in an older time, the spires of the castle looming above us with an otherworldly persona. First impressions last.

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Adi at the tennis courts in Strahov. I wonder if monks play tennis, in robes.
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Petřín Lookout Tower
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Steps that lead to Petřín Park from the tower
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Grounds of Strahov
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The castle from across the Vltava
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Prague Castle, turrets and spires all in one frame
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St. Vitus Cathedral dwarfs you just like Lincoln’s cathedral 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 in the castle grounds
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Golden Lane, a 15th century quarter with a row of tiny houses built into the fortifications of the castle, is said to have got its name from alchemists who lived there. But according to Terry, a walking tour guide, the name was arrived from the habit of soldiers peeing in it after long sessions of swigging beer. The lane did house the military barracks for some time. The famous resident of Golden Lane was Franz Kafka who worked in House no. 22 for a year.
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Gothic magnificence of the cathedral
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View from Castle Square at night
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One of the best lookout points in the city — Castle Square
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Sunset at Castle Square
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The king and the jester with an Asian woman who is dressed as ?
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Gates of Prague Castle
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The kind of view one 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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