Greetings from Prague (Praha), Czech Republic, the first stop on our European adventure! We have had a phenomenal time here and want to share some of the highlights. Since this was Tony’s first European city, I asked him to rank his top five favorites in Prague. Turns out his top two have a lot of photos, so I think I’ll have to make this a two-part series!
Number One: Prague Castle
The largest castle in world (by square feet, verified by Guinness Book of World Records), the Prague castle is stunning to behold. Since we’re staying in the Jewish Quarter of the city, we started our trek to the castle by crossing the Charles Bridge, named for Holy Roman Emperor King Charles IV who ruled in the 1300s. Charles was a much-loved king and was responsible for many developments in Prague, including chartering the University, commissioning this bridge and the castle cathedral, and bringing in architects to improve the town’s architecture.
The bridge was beautiful at 8:30am, with very few tourists on it, so we were able to stop and look at the statues that are spaced every 20 yards or so. Many of the statues have stories and superstitions associated with them, and this was Tony’s favorite: There was one King who didn’t trust his wife, so he asked her Confessor to share her secrets with him. The Confessor refused to tell the King anything, so the King had him thrown off the bridge and killed! The story goes that if you rub the plaque that commemorates him, you’ll return to Prague one day. That’s why it’s so shiny!
I’m not going to lie, the trek up to the castle was a tough half-hour walk on old cobblestone streets and sidewalks, but the views from the top were worth the sore legs! Our first stop was the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the now-black looking Gothic style building that towers over the entire city.
The grandeur of the cathedral was contrasted by the simple beauty of the Basilica and Convent of St. George just behind it. With its crooked arches and simple wooden ceiling, it’s clear that this church is considerably older than the cathedral! (Though I’m pretty sure the outside has had a facelift or two over the years!)
From there we saw the Old Royal Palace, which had an incredible view of “The City of 100 Spires,” as Prague is known. Unfortunately, the only royal jewels we saw were replicas with the originals locked up behind 7 different locks – the keys for which are each held by a different person!
We had time to see the Golden Lane as well, a cute little street that once housed servants and perhaps goldsmiths for the castle. Now it’s a museum of sorts, with the tiny cottages dressed up as they would have been during different period of the castle’s history and a display of armour, weapons, and torture devices!
Before we left the castle behind, we also got to see the changing of the guard which included the military band playing from the castle windows and considerable amounts of marching and pomp and circumstance (as well as really cute young Czech men!)
Number Two: The Jewish Quarter
We’ve been staying in a studio apartment that was ideally located just minutes from the Old Town Square and steps from the Jewish Heritage sites. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take photos in a lot of the sites, so I’ve included internet photos when possible. Our time spent here was both fascinating and sobering. We were both interested to find that the Jewish people in Prague were discriminated against by having to wear yellow hats whenever they went outside the Jewish Ghetto as early as 1215! In addition, they were only allowed to bury their dead in a single cemetary, the result of which is this uniquely beautiful site.
In this view you can just see the cemetery again, above and behind this street of stalls. (Look right in the center of the photo.) The stalls are at the Jewish Quarter’s present day street level, but until the 1800s the street level was actually about 2 meters lower! In the mid-1800s the Jewish Quarter was incorporated into Prague Proper, the slums were razed, and the area was rebuilt with modern sewer/plumbing systems in the neoclassical style of the 19th century. Imagine the street level being 4 meters lower than those headstones, which further shows how much the Jewish community had to build up their cemetery due to inadequate space. This building up accounts for a lot of the leaning of the stones as well, as the ground settled. Some estimate the bodies in this cemetery are buried 10-14 deep! Others say there are just 12,000 buried here. Either way, it makes for an amazing site.
Another of the many take-your-breath-away sites in the Jewish Quarter was a synagogue that has been converted into a memorial to those who died in World War II. On every wall of the building, written by hand, are the names of Prague citizens who died or disappeared as a result of Hitler’s Holocaust. As you walk through, a recording reads the names aloud, alternating with psalms. These names were written for the second time in the 1990s. The original writings were erased when the Communists took control of Czechslovakia post WWII.
There are two other synagogues we were able to see. The Old-New Synagogue is by far the oldest, and you have to walk down stairs to get into it, as it’s at the old street level. From its construction in 1270 it was known as the New Synagogue, but as other places of worship were built, this became confusing. So, people began to refer to it as the Old-New Synagogue. The building itself was constructed by Christians who were building the near-by St. Agnes Convent, as Jewish people were not allowed to build in Prague at the time.
The last religious site of the Jewish Quarter is quite unique as well: the Spanish Synagogue. Built in the Moorish style, every inch of the interior of this building is ornately decorated with tile in countless designs of the Star of David.
Touring these sites and learning more about Jewish persecution was incredibly sad and interesting, but perhaps the most interesting, if disturbing, piece of information was why these sights are so well preserved. During WWII, the Nazis confiscated all the belongings of the Jews they sent to concentration and death camps, as well any religious items. In many places across Europe those items were kept, destroyed, or melted down. Many synagogues were destroyed as well, but Prague has 4 still standing today. Seems strange, right? In Prague the Fuhur kept many of the confiscated relics and belongings in these synagogues, using them as storage buildings. Why? He planned to use them all in his “Museum of an Extinct Race.” There really aren’t words to describe what a tragedy it would be if he’d succeeded!
I’m going to have to stop there for now, but I’ll leave you with another view of that striking castle – this one at night!