The city of Prague conjures up many thoughts – the City of a Hundred Spires, The Golden City and the Mother of Cities. Despite these lovely illustrations of this Czech capital, the first thing I noticed was the sidewalks. Very romantic and picturesque, the cobblestone sidewalks in laid out in geometric designs, were not easy to roll my suitcase over one bit. After about 10 minutes of my clickity-clacking my suitcase, my friend, Theresa and I arrived at our hostel, right off the main square of in the Staré Město (Old Part) of town.
The Main Square
The main square boasts two cathedrals – one baroque and one gothic which in the first week of January, towered over the traditional Christmas market. Red-roofed stalls dotted the plaza selling Christmas ornaments, babuskas, jewelry and Trdlo (a sugar-covered deep-fried dough that is a holiday Czech treat). Providing a perimeter to the Christmas market, pastel-colored buildings stand adorned with statues and brushed gold.
If you can tear your eyes away from the stunning architecture, you see the most popular building in the square, the astronomical clock that rings in the hour with much more fanfare than you would expect. In 1388 when it was made, there were no computers, no cell phones, no google maps, so this clock was the hit of the town! The contraption consists of two ‘clocks’. The lower one has the coat of arms of Prague in the center. The next ring around are the zodiac signs, and next the farming months of the year. This constantly-turning clock not only shows you what time it is, but also what zodiac stage and what farming season you should be in. I couldn’t see close enough, but I wonder if you tell March apart from maybe June by how ripe the berries are? The clock above it is even more complicated. The outer circle is of numbers 1-24 using an old numbering style. Directly next are the same numbers but in Roman numerals. Inside of that is a circle that moves in time with the zodiac signs and has two hands for time that track where the sun and the moon are in the sky! On the hour the clock strikes and two little doors above the clocks open and the 12 wooden apostles float by. Once the apostles make their appearances you hear a weak bird crow and then to the cheering of the crowd that has gathered in the square, a jester-dressed man plays the trumpet from the top of the tower. If only every hour of my life were so exciting!
The Land of a Hundred Spires
Listed as the city with the highest number of churches per square kilometer, we found that each church had a story to share.
In St. James Church, legend has it that one dark night, a nasty thief came to steal the gold necklace that hung around the statue of the Madonna. As he put his hand up to grab the necklace, the statue moved and grasped his arm! After considerable yelping, the priest came and the robber begged him break the Madonna’s hand. The priest, smartly, said ‘if you tried to steal her necklace and she grabbed your arm, what do you think she will do to me if I try and cut off her hand?!’ Eventually, after trying every trick in the book, the priest had to cut off the arm…but not Mary’s arm, the thief’s arm! The thief vowed never to steal again, and his arm now hangs by the door in the church to warn everyone against theft!
Another house of worship that has a more romantic tale is that of the Loretto Church. This church serves as a pilgrimage spot because of its 27 Loretto bells that chime every hour. Home of the only remaining carillon (multiple bells hung and played from a tower) in Prague, this instrument was made in the 17th century by a Dutch bell maker. The bells have played every hour, on the hour since August 15th, 1691. First the chime signals that the hour then the Loretto bells play We Greet You a Thousand Times. As the bells ring, you can’t help be reminded that you are in the Land of a Hundred Spires.
The Jewish Quarter – Josefov
The most well-known building in Josefov is the Pinkas Synagogue, although it is no longer active. Instead, its walls now show the names of 80,000 names of Czech Jews lost in the Holocaust. Alongside the names are drawings by many Czech children that were in the çcamps. In the camps, the Nazis would record videos of children playing or learning to demonstrate that the work camps were not bad at all. Of course, during these filmings, life was horrible for them, and one Jewish art graduate decided to do something about it. She asked the children to draw what they were feeling, as a form of art therapy. When she was sent to the gas chambers, she hid two suitcases of drawings under the floor boards. Today, these drawings hang on the wall, and for some of the children, are the only thing that acknowledges that they ever existed. The saddest part of the drawings is that some of these poor children, locked up and awaiting death, actually drew happy scenes.
Another aspect of the Jewish Quarter is that during WWII it was walled off from the rest of the city. Of course, as time passed people died, and in the Jewish Quarter they ran out of space for corpses in the cemetery. Pleading for more space for another cemetery, the Jews were told that the only space they would be given was inside those walls. Consequently, the Jewish cemeteries in this neighborhood are higher than the street because in some places, there are more than 12 levels of dead bodies buried one on top of the other.
Obviously times weren’t just tough for the Jews in WWII, but in the 16th century in Prague, Jews were also being ostracized. One rabbi decided to help his people out. The folklore goes that he, with mud and a spell, created a superman that had the strength of 10 men named Golem, which means rock in Hebrew. Golem watched over the Jewish people during the week, helping and protecting in whatever way he could. However, the Golem because increasingly brutal, and awhile after he was created, he became violent and the Emperor begged the rabbi to deactivate this creature. Pleading and even offering to stop the persecution of Jews, the rabbi gave in. On the Golem’s forehead was written a word – Emet, which in Hebrew means truth and reality. The rabbi rubbed off the first letter of the word, leaving met, which means death in Hebrew. After he was deactivated, Golem was placed in the attic of the synagogue and that if needed he will reactivate and protect his Jews. Supposedly a Nazi went up to the attic to stab this Golem and never returned…spooky! Either way, the attic is not open to the public.
The Castle District
This area of town, across the Vltava River boasts a huge hill that is home to the President’s home, the Old Royal Palace, the most visited street in Prague and the most impressive structure, St. Vitus Cathedral.
Built in 1344, the cathedral houses two organs – one from both the 16th and 19th centuries. The front part of the cathedral was built the 14th century and only later was the back part where we entered added in the 19th and 20th century. The stained glass windows that decorate the windows in the newest part of the cathedral were done Alfons Mucha – one of Prague’s most famous artists. His art nouveau style turned into what is now called Mucha Style and is unlike any stained glass windows I had ever seen.
The grandest statue in the building is that of Saint John of Nepomuk. He was a priest working in Prague when a husband of one of his parishioners asked if his wife had admitted to committing adultery. Refusing to share the secrets of confessional, the angry husband finally threw him off the Charles Bridge and he drowned. Later, he was dredged up and they found his tongue still intact! This was seen as a miracle and proof of his promise to the confessional and he was made a Saint and entombed in the cathedral. Current research shows that his ‘tongue’ was probably just remnants of his brain that slid down into his mouth, but I don’t think they are going to be moving his ornate silver tomb out of the church anytime soon.
The next most popular place in the castle is the most visited street in all of Prague, Golden Lane. This multicolored street was once a fortification for the castle, and in the 16th century, houses were built in the space between the towers. Originally goldsmiths rented the houses (hence the name Golden) for their work. After that, the street became more open to other workers and eventually Franz Kafka (probably the most famous Czech authors) worked in number 22, a stout blue cottage.
After a whirl-wind few days in Prague, I sadly had to leave the gorgeous Czech capital, and did so to the same tune that I heard with my first cobblestone steps, the clickity-clack of my suitcase.