“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.” Mary Oliver
The Mysterious Charles Bridge
The Prague guidebooks describe every statue mounted on the Charles bridge with vivid detail. The descriptions were compelling. I wanted very much to stroll the stately expanse of this enigmatic 14th century bridge. St. John Nepomuk1, a patron saint of the Czech Republic, was martyred by being flung into the Vitlava river from the balustrade of the bridge. He drowned. He was murdered by King Wenceslas IV during the bitter conflict of church and state that plagued Bohemia at the end of the 14th century. There are two stories as to why John and the King disagreed. In the simpler story, John Nepomuk, a Jesuit priest, was confessor to the king’s wife. King Wenceslas IV tortured and drowned the principled priest because he refused to reveal the name of his wife’s suspected lover. The protection of the sacred seal of confession is a good Catholic story but it is said to be fiction.
The other martyrdom story is rather political and highlights the conflict between Church and State. In that time, King Wenceslas IV needed the resources of a wealthy and powerful abbot. He supported this abbot as an appointee to head a rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey. Contrary to the wishes of the King, John Nepomuk confirmed the choice of his own direct boss, the archbishop of Prague. By so doing, he dissed the King’s nominee. For not going with the King’s choice, John Nepomuk was martyred by torture and drowning. This time in history was marked by grave political and religious dissention. There was a pope in Avignon and a pope in Rome and people were making bets as to who was the true Pope. King Wenceslas IV and the Archbishop of Prague (and hence John Nepomuk) were on opposite sides. As in politics today, St. John is not rewarded for either loyalty or discretion. His name, however, lives on in the annals of Czech history and in the resplendent emblazoned sliver chapel erected in his honor in St. Vitus cathedral. He is regarded as a Christian hero, a protector against floods and deluges, and so you can find his statue erected on many different bridges in some of the most important cities of Central Europe. St. John’s aura may still be captive on the Charles Bridge.
In the early evening, we arrived at the relatively quiet and lovely Malostranské square via the number 22 tram. From there it was an easy stroll to the imposing entry of the bridge which is marked by a massive brooding tower. The clamor of a typical tourist’s day had subdued into a calm evening and the diminishing light was moody on the Vltava River.
The Charles bridge is crowned with 30 large, religious and historic statues posed every few meters above the balustrades. The statues are curious, fierce and inspiring. They produce a distinct impression of both movement and vigilance. The original statues date back to 1700 but those standing on the bridge today are all replicas. Over six centuries, numerous floods wreaked devastation on the ponderous effigies and their bridge. There was restoration and repair after each flood. Finally, the remaining originals were moved and are now housed in the National museum.
One of the statues on the bridge is of St. John Nepomuk. It has a rubbed shiny gold spot on the bottom. Touching the statue is a Prague ritual. It is supposed to bring good luck and to ensure ones return to Prague2. A few steps from the statue, on the parapet of the bridge, is a cross with five stars. This is the exact point where St. John was thrown in the water in the year 1383. Legend has it that stars appeared when he touched the water. One is supposed to touch the cross and the stars with your left hand and make a wish.
There is a mysterious inlet called the Devil’s Channel where a fetching old mill still moves water through it’s wheel as the trees hang over it in picturesque composition. A boat tour through this channel is interesting as the gondolier tells tales of the history of the bridge and its people. I could not find the stories he told in any of the guidebooks or on the internet. They are part of his tour and worth the price of a ticket on a boat through Devil’s Channel.
Even with the many renovations, the Charles Bridge has endured in its imposing Gothic form. The wide pedestrian walkway is peppered with artists and craftsmen selling their wares from small stalls. Musicians played and actors cavorted. Wide stone stairs wind down from the sides of the bridge to the banks of the river underneath. The Kampa Island below hosts a neighborhood of old chestnut trees, wide sidewalks and charming little restaurants which tuck a bright life along the banks of the Vitlava.
A CAPRICIOUS CLOCK IN THE OLD TOWN SQUARE
To keep a date with a special clock, we headed for the recommended tram number 22*, a picturesque and convenient route that runs regularly through many touristy points of interest. To get to the Old Town Square, the number 22 stops at the Malá Strana subway station. This particular subway stop has a very long, sharply-pitched escalator taking you deep into the underbelly of Prague. As a veteran of many years in New York and a frequenter of the Paris subways, I found this particular subway escalator surprisingly deep. My ears actually popped on the way down. I felt a little sea-sick at the austere angle and stared at my shoes the entire way down; it helped with the nausea.
Emerging back into daylight, we maneuvered the very busy streets to find and enter the historic square in the Old Town. This old square is so sweet and so perfect that it’s almost as if it were a movie set. I kept looking behind the facades for the empty spaces behind them and for the beams that should have been holding the building-fronts in place. But they were all real, antique restored structures, in clean pastels and baroque trim with gothic highlights. Just a block or two beyond the square are the large modern stores with the commercial beat and traffic milling along its daily concourse. It is like every other large city with locals going to and from work, lunch or errands, but with the anomalous layer of a Disney-like world set into historic surroundings.
The oldest, working mechanical clock was erected 600 years ago. It is located at the outside of the old town hall tower in the Old Town Square. In the Middle Ages, it was considered one of the Wonders of the World. In order to see the clock in action, we were going to be smart in dealing with the hubbub of tourist crowding. We arrived an hour before the ringing of the hour and found a viewing seat in an outdoor restaurant which was a very close neighbor to the tower and the clock. At 45 minutes before the hour struck, we had a great vantage point. The clock is not set particularly high on the tower and it was just across from us. But when the hour drew near, the area between the clock and the outdoor restaurant filled up with people and selfie-sticks. When the hour struck, the procession of colorful apostles appeared spinning at their doors along with the figure of death shaking his skulls and scythe. We had to stand up to catch a view above the heads of the gathered spectators posing for selfies. The clock was an artistic, astronomical, colorful, gregarious, and whimsical entertainment. If I could, I would return every day for a repeat show.
A concert of folk music was being held on a stage in the center of the square. And we did not have to shoulder anyone to stand and listen. I’m guessing that local culture performed in costume might not be worthy of a selfie moment. Afterall it is not listed in the guidebook. However, the massive, dramatic sculpture of Jan Hus which stands nearby is in the guidebooks. The sculpture shows Hus with the triumphant Hussite and Protestant warriors. Jan Hus, who was a predecessor of Martin Luther, was the long-ago pioneer of the Protestant Reformation. He was burned at the stake for heresy. In the Old Town Square, there is a memorial to several other martyrs who were beheaded here. Twenty seven crosses mark the pavement in their honor. Even with the grim, interesting history and impressive piece of sculpture, pedestrian traffic was relatively light. We listened, wandered slowly and enjoyed being travelers again.
Later that day, walking on the banks of the Vltava River while selecting a different bridge to wander across, we came upon music wafting from several cafes. During our walks, I heard a lot of Beatles songs in the taverns and thought it very retro of Prague to indulge in live music by the Beatles. There were also some modern musical mash-ups streaming up from an island cafe under one of the bridges. It was a first-rate musical stream performed by a talented, unknown chanteuse. People were stopped to stand, look over the balustrade and listen. This was early evening, the sky was changing every 10 minutes, and the brown river was quickly moving its course through the city. From where we stood, the Charles bridge was on the horizon with it’s curious profile of dark figurines which, even at this distance, seemed to be cavorting and twirling with their peculiar dance.
Back to The Royal Palace: Oh Yes, We Did.
In spite of our rather disappointing experience earlier in the week, we returned to the castle complex on the day we checked out of our hotel. We had several hours to kill before our train was to race us back to Kraków so we purchased another multiple entry ticket just to see the Royal Palace. Just like on our first visit, the complex was swarming. We squeezed into the ancient stone rooms of the royal residence. We were awed by the gothic ceiling as we elbowed our way through the crowds and listened to our audio guides. We did not try to climb to one of the 2nd floor sites which had to be reached via a narrow circular stone stairway overflowing with people. The ascent and descent is by the same stairs so there was traffic going up and down at the same time.
The audio guides were directing us to a chapel on the first floor right at the bottom of a wooden staircase. Searching and walking back over the terrain, we thought we had missed the chapel entry because of the crowds. Finally we found a lone, meandering security person neatly decked out in a crested blazer and asked the location of the chapel. She advised, rather curtly, that the chapel was closed today. But it’s on the audio guide we pointed out. “No, it’s closed today. Did you see the 2nd floor?” We replied that we couldn’t push our way up the stairs. Then she pointed: “Look over there where the floor slopes down to the door. That is the passage where the horses were walked into the main room. And that is the palace exit.” We got the hint to move on and we left. Just another day at the Prague Castle complex. Twice was not a charm.
In the Chancellery room, we learned a new vocabulary word: defenestration4. This word originated from two incidents which occurred in Prague (1419 and 1618) and literally means “an act of throwing someone or something out of the window”. People were, in fact, thrown out-of-windows during broiling revolts in Bohemia. At the heart of two defenestrations was the battle between the Catholic Church and the Protestants over the spiritual sovereignty of the Czech Lands . Differences in religion once again precursors to violence in history rather than peace. Multiple people were thrown out a window of the chancellery of the Prague castle. The victims survived because they landed in a pile of horse manure at the bottom of the tower. However, defenestrations continued to contribute to long conflicts: the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years War. We stood in the stone room of the defenestrations. There was no aura or mystery about the high windows with their deep casings. The windows were here solidly bearing witness to a historical fact.
The serene views from the windows of our hotel, the Questenberk, reminded us that Prague is as beautiful as the tour books describe. This city can plunge the traveler into reveries. It captivates with its stunning architecture and lovely parks. It appeals to the literary, the artistic, the spiritual and the avant-garde personalities. History gob-smacks you at every vista, church, palace and square that pepper the city.
The Charles Bridge is haunting me. I am being goaded to return to Prague; to give Prague a chance as a worthwhile traveler’s destination. Maybe a return in the serenity of the winter season when the tourists have left and the travelers can stroll the thoroughfares in calm contemplation? We older, cantankerous travelers want a chance to observe without being hobbled and shoved at every turn. We like opportunities to just walk without dodging the constant vignettes of selfie-portraiture. Prague: we think we love you and we will be back to confirm that sentiment.
1 St. John Nepomuk: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Nepomuk
2 Making a wish on the statue: https://www.pragueexperience.com/places.asp?PlaceID=803
3 Jan Hus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hus
4 More on “Defenstrations”: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Defenestrations_of_Prague
For more beautiful photographs from our ex-pat life, make sure you click the links to enjoy Greg’s photos at http://bit.ly/1mtVVTW and http://bit.ly/1RsaN1M (Assignment 2015 and Assignment 2016)
* Riding the tram in Prague: Buy a ticket before boarding any tram or subway. Tickets can be purchased at any outdoor magazine/cigarette kiosk, at a nearby convenience store or inside the subway station stops. You can buy a 30 minute ticket for 24 koruna (about a $1). If you plan multiple trips for the day buy a 24-hour ticket for 110 koruna (about $4.50). Once on the tram, stamp your ticket in one of the yellow boxes onboard. If an inspector comes on board and you don’t have a valid ticket, you will be fined and must pay cash on the spot (the fee is about 950 koruna or $41 and they will escort you to the nearest cash machine to retrieve it).