Magical Prague

Prague Castle at night

Prague is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  We spent three days in Prague yet I felt we could have spent three months and still not have taken in all the city has to offer.  The detail and beauty of its architecture alone left me reeling.  It seemed that every time I walked by a building, I discovered some new detail I’d missed earlier.  Prone as I am to wax at length on history and architcture, I think this posting will mostly be pictures with  limited commentary, after a brief introduction to the basic historical facts.  (I promise I’ll be brief!)

Prague, or Praha, as the Czechs call it, is the capital of the Czech Republic, formerly of Czechoslovokia. Historians cite remains of paleolithic settlements, but it seems the “modern” history of Prague as a major city and the capital of the Czechs, under whatever titular ruling, began in the late 800’s C.E. Prague Castle with its crown, St. Vitus Cathedral, pictured above at night and below in day, has its origins in the early 10th century.  The castle complex, as you can see, dominates the northern skyline over the Vltava River.  We stayed on the south side, in the “Old Town” in a lovely hotel called the Cloister Inn.  As one can gather from its name, the hotel was once a convent, and what are now spacious hotel rooms were individual cells.  However, there is quite a 20th century twist:  during the Communist era, the Secret Police took over the facility, and converted the religious abodes (pardon the pun) to “holding” cells.  If that is the case, then both nuns and political prisoners had quite rooomy accommodations!

Prague Castle, the Castle District and the "Lesser Town"

The “crown” of the castle is St. Vitus Cathedral, dating to 926 C.E., whose spires dominate an already intimidatingly impressive skyline.  To enter the castle complex, you enter through three courtyard before you find yourself at the doors of the cathedral.

Entry gates to Prague Castle

Third Courtyard, Prague Castle

Third Courtyard, Prague Castle

The castle complex has several other churches, the royal palace, accompanying palaces by noblemen desiring proximity to the king, workmen’s housing, and, of course, the requisit dungeons and torture facility.  Again, I choose to provide photos in place of words, which are insufficient to describe this marvelous world heritage site.

St. George's Basilica at Prague Castle

Sternberg Palace, at Prague Castle complex

Workers' houses on Golden Lane. Franz Kafka, the Czech-born writer, worked during 1916-1917 at # 22

Hanging torture "cage", Daliborka Tower, Prague Castle

Daliborka Tower housed various political prisoners and other malcreants over the years.  The dungeon and torture chambers are quite small but the devices quite horrific.

I believe people were strapped into the device shown above, then left to hang, where gravity took its toll.  Sort of a vertical “rack”.  However, at this point we didn’t have a guide but a less-than-perfect “guide book” , so if anyone cares to comment and/or correct, please feel free.

View from the castle complex.

And now to the south side of the river and “Old Town”.  The heart of Prague, “Old Town” has the  cobbled, twisted streets of  a medieval city and an incredibly rich architectural smorgasbord.  As in most old cities, there is a main plaza, ringed with churches, the town hall, palatial residences and guild halls.

St. Nicholas Church, Main Square, OldTown

Our Lady of Tyn Church, Main Square, OldTown

Beautiful building, now Tourist Info Office

Decorative horses for tourise coaches in main square

Side street off main square shows how narrow a "main" street can be

Kinsky Palace, on main square, now an art museum

Astrological Clock, Old Town Hall, Main Square. Every hour the two upper wooden windows wood open and statuary figures rotated in an allegorical depiction of Death, Vanity and Greed.

Moving allegorical figures on town hall clock tower

Hard to see, but above are some of the moving statues.

Many of the panoramic pictures of Prague are taken from the Charles Bridge.  Michael and I walked this bridge daily, often at twilight, taking in the incredible sights of Prague Castle, the old town’s beauty — and jostling with all the other tourists.  Incredibly, Prague was as crowded as Florence, whether day or night.

This crucifix with Hebrew caption stymied us. Anyone care to translate or explain?

Penguins on the Vltava with Charles Bridge in the background

Prague has a rich Jewish history.  While we never made it into any of the old synagogues that comprised the sprawling Jewish “museum”, we did spend some shoe leather and time walking the old Jewish section, just off the old town plaza.  Some of the buildings were incredibly beautiful.

The old Spanish Synagogue

Jewish Ceremonial Hall, Next to Jewish Cemetary (to the left of the Hall)

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Dresden Impressions

Dresden from the north shore of the Elbe River

Once called “The Florence on the Elbe”, Dresden prior to World War II was notable throughout Europe for its elegant architecture and extensive art collections.  Dresden nearly ceased to exist after the Allies’ devastating bombardment in February, 1945.  But rise again it did, with  massive reconstruction of its old town center of 18th and 19thcentury palaces, grand churches and museums.

We planned a one-night stopover in Dresden en route to Prague from Berlin, and were glad we did.  Arriving too late to take in any museums, we spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening wandering the narrow streets and along the banks of the Elbe, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city.  For us the best part was not just the beautifully reconstructed edifices, but also the many street performances we
happened upon.  Whereas Berlin had its role-playing human statues, historical poseurs and occasional musical buskers, Dresden’s street performances were classical works by some incredibly talented young musicians.  What made their performances unique was the locale – not just the setting of the old city – but by their positioning under old stone archways which amplified and enriched the music.  During the course of the afternoon and evening, we were entertained by cellists, violinists and choral recitals, all, we think, by students from the local academy.
They were all outstanding.

Our favorite performance was that by a trio of two vocalists and a keyboard accompanist.   We joined a crowd of about 90 people standing
in complete awe as this duo sang arias from operas and other well-known
classical pieces.  Entranced, we finally took a table in a cafe on the fringe of the crowd and continued to listen as they continued their performance; in all they sang – and we listened — for about an hour.

Singing under the expansive stone bridge amplified this duo's beautiful voices.

There were, as in every city, a variety of other street performances.  One young woman’s conception of “performing” I found particularly intriguing:  spray painted in silver over every centimeter of her body and encased in a silvery metal gown, she stood utterly motionless on a silver stool in front of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).  When I dropped some coins in her basket, she gave me a regal nod and a graceful blessing with her arms, then returned to her position in the picture below.

Silver Fairy in Neumarkt

To say that Dresden has been reconstructed is an understatement of just how badly the city was destroyed by first a massive bombardment and the raging fires that followed.  Probably the most remarkable reconstruction within Dresden was of the Frauenkirch cathedral
in the Neumarkt (New Market).  Leveled nearly to the ground, the church was left in ruins by the East German government for decades following WWII as a testament to the horrors of war. Reconstruction of the church did not begin until sometime after the reunification of Germany, and reconsecration only took place in 2005. We learned that whenever possible, the city reused original stones and other materials that survived the devastation.  Unfortunately for us, the church was closed for an evening concert and we were unable to see the interior.

At the time of the bombing of Dresden, on February 13-14, 1945 in the last stages of the war, many people believed that in addition to
eliminating a railway hub and factories, Winston Churchill ordered the
bombardment as punitive retaliation for Germany’s destruction of the old
English city of Coventry and the prolonged bombing of London earlier in the war.  Whether or not this is true, what is fact is that the cross on top of the Frauenkirche was presented to the city of Dresden by Britain in 2002 as a symbol of reconciliation.  Rebuilt and reconsecrated the church now
stands again as one of the most important Protestant churches in all of
Germany, as well as a symbol of rebirth and reconstruction of a nation.

Dresden after February, 1945 Allied bombing

Frauenkirche today, with statue of Martin Luther in front

The "New Market" of Dresden caters well to tourists

One of the nicer walks we took was a stroll across the Elbe
to the north shore of the city.  There we found in all his golden splendor the mounted statue of Frederick August II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.  It’s a very impressive statue, but I couldn’t help but note that it wouldn’t last five minutes in a centrally located park in the States.

In all, we found Dresden pleasant, as well as a notably historic city.  We were glad to have  sampled the music and history of this beautifully reconstructed city.