Ten Essentials To Exploring Prague
Old Town Square
At the heart of Prague's medieval Old Town is the expansive Old Town Square. Originally the site of an eleventh century city market, today it is best known as being the location of some of Prague's most iconic attractions. Within the perimeter of the square's cobblestone floor is the gothic skyscraper of Town Hall, the baroque aquamarine domes of St. Nicholas and the twin towers of Tyn Church, along with a cluster of cafes and shops.
Although Old Town Hall is actually a sprawling complex of buildings, what most people notice is its legendary clock tower. The tower was erected in 1410, but it stood without a tic or a tock until 1572, when the astronomical clock was finally installed. The clock itself is a testament to medieval scientific and technological achievement. Not only does it tell the time, it also measures the movement of the planets as they spin in their celestial orbits. The clock's face is a mirage of geometric shapes, colors and symbols, all safely guarded by a deep, dark frame of stone. On the hour, a mischievous looking skeleton rings its little chime, calling forth the wooden apostles, each of who appear through the clock's miniature windows before quickly spinning back into the tower's cavernous confides. Another must do is to take the out-of-place modern elevator up to the tower's viewing gallery, where one is treated to a panoramic view of Prague.
While in Old Town Square, visitors should check to see if the Church of St. Nicholas is hosting a choir or organ concert, which are a regular occurrence. For a romantic evening, hire one of several horse and carriages patiently waiting along the pedestrian path running between Old Town Hall and St. Nicholas Church.
Old Town Hall is open every day except Mondays, April - October: 10am to 6pm; November - March: 11am to 5pm.
The Jewish Quarter
Little remains of Prague's once vibrant, if not humbling, Jewish Quarter. Yet within these cramped and shaded blocks one can discover the enduring history of Prague's once prominent Jewish population.
One of the main attractions is the Alt-Neu (Old-New) Synagogue. Recognized by its jagged, pyramid roof that looks to be sawing its way towards the heavens, it was once the center of Prague's Jewish life. This seven hundred year old Synagogue, which the city's Orthodox Jewish population still uses for services, is the oldest in Europe and is reportedly constructed of stone brought from Jerusalem. The entire building is enshrouded with an air of eerie history. Legend has it that within the mystery that permeates the musty air of the Synagogue, stashed away in the chain-bolted attic, are the remains of the Jewish Frankenstein known as The Golem.
From the synagogue, it is just several blocks along a craft-shop lined promenade to the black iron gate of the Old Jewish Cemetery. As city rules once forbade Jews from being buried outside the strangling confines of the ghetto's boundaries, the cemetery is overfilled with 12,000 bodies, sometimes buried twelve deep, which cause the earth to swell like the tide of a dead sea. The slim stone tombstones lean and tilt, stretching for the filtered beams of sunlight that occasionally make their way through the canopy of trees hanging above. Within these sacred grounds lay some of Prague's most revered Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Loew, Mordecai Maisel and David Gans.
For more information on the Old Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery is open Sunday through Friday 9am to 6pm from April through October and 9am to 4:30pm from November through March. The grounds are closed during Jewish Holidays.
Prague Castle is a truly majestic site that witnesses all that occurs within the city. Perched atop a hill on the far side of the Vltav River, its plethora of palaces, towers and spires can be seen from almost any open vantage point in the city. The castle grounds are free and open to the public, but admission is charged for entrance into its many museums and buildings. However, the spectacular twelfth century St. Vitus's Cathedral, with its robust, kaleidoscope stained glass windows and towering vaulted ceilings, can be seen for free. The best way to reach the castle is via a steep climb up the New Castle Steps, located just off Nerudova, one of the district's main thoroughfares.
At least an entire day is needed to see everything the castle has to offer. However, if one is short on time and is looking for an abbreviated tour, be sure to put the Old Royal Palace, White Tower, Golden Lane and The Story of Prague Castle on your agenda.
Old Royal Palace is impressive in its bare simplicity. Its main hall is an open and rather dull stone and wood affair brightened by coats of arms, jeweled chandeliers and an intricately woven web of trim that races across its vaulted ceiling. Be sure to step outside onto the hall's balcony for royal views over the castle's gardens and stretching well past Old Town.
Golden Lane, running between the Royal Palace and the White Tower, is filled with colorfully painted houses tucked into the castle's wall. Originally they were home to goldsmiths looking to avoid having to pay the dues required for those living in town. Today these homes sell an assortment of crafts, foods and souvenirs.
The White Tower and its adjacent halls, which run along the back of Golden Lane, were the castle's source of protection and served at its jail. Within the halls, where archers once guarded the premises from invaders, are replicas of medieval weapons, suits of armor and even an opportunity to test your aim at the crossbow. The dusty, stale-air filled tower itself, where many prisoners met their untimely deaths, contains replicas of the era's creatively grotesque torture machines.
The Story of Prague Castle is a fascinating museum that chronicles the history of the complex from B.C. to modern times. Although the castle complex is still home to the Czech Republic's president, nobility and leaders have occupied it since 3200 BC. Today the castle is the accumulated result of a building spree that transported it through Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and modern times. Here history is heaped on top of history, burying the ghosts of its collective past with the treasures and bones just now being unearthed from the castle's most inner vaults. Within this collection of artifacts unearthed through the castle's ongoing archeological excavations are the crown jewels of St. King Wenceslas, the skeletal remains of royalty, art works expanding the breadth of art history, and an encyclopedia-worth of information on the cultural evolution of Prague. Also worth the trip is the chance to see exposed sections of the former castles, long buried under the current structures.
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