Art / European Trip 2010 / Food / Garden

900 Years of Architectural Legacy: Why Prague is a Royal Empress

Some art work on building facades. New Town, Prague 2010. Photo by J. Chong

I had heard of Prague’s splendid old World charm.  But I was unprepared for the city’s dizzying variety and historical compression of architectural centuries at each street corner and with each turn of my head.  Good thing we could explore its astonishing richness of Romanesque, medieval, baroque, renaissance, gothic and art nouveau building wonders, by bike and on foot.   Of course, we could not miss out on some of its stunning cathedrals and museum collections.

During Peak Tourist Season and IFA Soccer Craze
We were there last year for 4 days with an interlude of another 2 days at the UNESCO Heritage site, the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov.  Not only were we in Prague during peak tourist season in June, but also in the midst of IFA soccer fan crowds glued to  jumbo tv screens mounted in old public square, to watch championship playoffs.

St. Wenceslas Square with some manicured gardens in its central boulevard. Prague, 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Though we stayed in staid sounding Best Western Pave, the hotel was also plunked in a historic neighbourhood. Just next door was a pub with gold filigreed sign, where we heard at night, the raucous cheering and conversation. There must have been also an IFA tv screen tucked somewhere at the bar.  Clean and modern with a curving iron wrought and wood rail and pseudo-marble steps, this chain hotel suggested a previous independent hotel of some vintage.

Panoramic view of Old Town Prague, from Prague Castle 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Lost in Wonder –Literally
It’s amusing to see Prague’s official tourism web site which emblazons one of its information sections:  “How Not to Get Lost”.  Obviously we weren’t the only ones.  Normally, Jack has good wayfinding  geo-spatial sense in strange cities and places where we’ve travelled far and wide.  However in parts of Prague’s Old Town and New Town, we did get slightly lost since neither of us could even guess at Czech letter script to  memorize old street names properly.  But getting occasionally lost for fifteen minutes or so nearly daily, was negligible time lost for seeing along our cobblestoned way, fantastic decorated building facia, gargoyles, stained glass, mounted sculptures, murals –it’s an architect’s, art lover’s and historian’s dream.  If not that,

Abbey section of St. George’s Basilica. Old Town, Prague 2010. Photo by J. Chong. Romanesque paintings. Rare to see paintings depicting abbesses, nuns or any female church order in many well-known European churches that I visited during my trip. However a greater likelihood sometimes in very early medieval liturgical art.

Prague is a beguiling teacher on over 900 years of European architectural history, just by wandering around slack –jawed in area of less than 10  square kilometers.

How could any ex-Prague citizen find any of our North American cities as artfully intriguing?  There was the Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square Tower where upon the strike of clock tower bell, the painted and gold figurines of 12 apostles moved.  The Tower dates back to 1338.  We would pass by it  several times, to walk from one pedestrianized street,  old square to another.  Cycling in an enjoyable way, was abit useless among these crowds. Besides, you would miss out on seeing the city’s building splendor up  close.

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When we had one of our first dinners outside in a public square, St. Nicholas Cathedral  loomed above us, less than 10 feet away. Unfortunately it was closed and somehow I forgot to revisit the place when it was open since I got distracted by the magnificence of St. Vitus’s Cathedral (which I described earlier in another blog post with photos of  its  dazzling stained glass art).  Or another nearby  church-convent, St. George’s Basilica where to the one side was St. George’s abbey dating from 972 with preserved Romanesque mural paintings of several abbesses, a rare thing to see a female church order painted on a large scale inside churches.

Cubistic contemporary building complex amongst heritage buildings. New Town, Prague 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Another time, as we strolled yet another narrow, clean street, we passed by suddenly some Cubistic-like buildings.  Prague was like that:  frequent, unexpected delight of structures from different eras intermixed along the same street, as well as sculptures, carvings and fanciful metalwork adorning building entrances, windows or roof eaves.

I wondered how on earth the city secured the funds to restore its national heritage buildings. It must be an ongoing process of grant applications and lobbying funding bodies and philanthropists.

Silver liturgical art work. St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Evening with Baroque Music
To lure tourists with its cultural arts, nearly every day there were a few classical music concerts. How could we as baroque music fans, resist?  So we treated ourselves with tickets, to a live chamber concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Pachabel’s Canon at Municipal Hall.  The Hall was a stodgy shaped building but was wonderfully embellished with art nouveau art pieces both inside and outside its walls. That evening  less than 100 people attended the concert in a cavernous musical hall that could seat well over 800 people.  But no matter, the soaring music lifted us along with also distractions of the building’s interior.

Fierce protectors guarding at Prague Castle’s gates. 2010. Photo by J. Chong

In tune with the spirit of cultural arts, we winded through the Museum of Musical Instruments, Prague’s City Museum, National Museum and a building near St. Wenceslas Square which I cannot remember its name, that featured soaring ceiling and wall art nouveau murals in expansive public meeting rooms.

We did the slow typical stroll across Charles Bridge, first built in the 14th century with over 12 statutes which are now replaced with copies. After drinking in the panoramic sight of terra cotta roofed buildings and winding narrow cobblestone streets, we spent time at the Prague Castle, Sternberg Palace and the cathedrals mentioned earlier.

Stroll along in Prague 2010. Photo by J.Chong

Stroll along in Prague 2010. Photo by J.Chong. Notice on halfway on right, a deer sculpture ready to leap out of a window.

Cuisine More Heartiness than Gastronomic
No doubt we were in heavy tourist areas which most likely obscured whatever better Czech cuisine we could have had beyond dumplings, meat, strudel and  heavier cakes than what we had in southern Germany.  Or just mediocre Italian or even Asian cuisine. Only pure pragmatism of cycling with double pannier weight, prevented me from buying tempting Czech wine since we still had over a week in Copenhagen ahead of us.  After all, Czech wines are not often found in Canada.

Stained glass art. St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Jewel that Survived War and Revolution
It’s even more astounding that Prague’s architectural and artistic magnificence has survived several waves of political revolution. Most  recently after World War II, the Czech Republic was part the Soviet Communist bloc before its final dissolution in the early 1980’s.   Not surprisingly, in 1992 the whole historic city core of over 800 hectares, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Contemporary sun dial art installation in the midst of medieval and Rennaissance era buildiings. Old Town, Prague 2010. Photo by J. Chong

Prague overwhelms you with her magnitude of visual history, time layers of artistic inspiration and craftsmanship, all  jammed side by side, along its narrow cobblestone twisting streets.  Even after 5 days there, we knew we had not seen all of this wonderful empress of European cities.

Further Reading (and Photos):
Becker, Jack. Cycling in Prague.  In Third Wave Cycling Blog, Jun. 26, 2010.

Chong, Jean. Come and Get Your Dumplings: Some West-East Comparisons.  In Cycle Write Blog, Jul. 25, 2010

Chong, Jean.  Stained Glass Art: A European Sampler of Refracted Light and Colour. In Cycle Write Blog, Jul. 17, 2010.  More photos of this artwork in St. Vitus Cathedral and in Municipal Hall.

Official Prague Tourism site.

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31 thoughts on “900 Years of Architectural Legacy: Why Prague is a Royal Empress

  1. The architecture is astonishing, as is the ‘decoration’ (I’ve forgotten the technical term for it!) and what a contrast between the old and new… I love the yellow of the cubist buildings but have never been a great fan of things that are askew – maybe because I so often am!

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    • Somehow given what you have achieved art wise, etc., it’s doubtful that you are askew in this area at all. The more mind-boggling thing it is that we knew we had barely seen much of it offered just on the fringes of the heritage sections. There was still alot more to see!

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  2. Great photos. When I visited Prague our hotel was nowhere near the centre. As you head towards the suburbs there are a lot of graffiti and old communist era tower blocks! Not quite as appealing…

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    • Sounds so typical, great preservation efforts in the historic core and something different moving outward. No doubt some folks just get impatient with “history” and tradition.

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    • You would enjoy it alot and knowing you as a touring cyclist, I’m sure you’ll get to Prague. However in the downtown core it’s not as cycleable as other European core cities. I havae the link in article to another blog post on Cycling in Prague.

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  3. Imagine going back to those yellow silly houses after a night of alcohol consumption, you would surely think you’ve gone insane!

    In other news I’ve been feeding your fish for the best part of 15 minutes due to bordem at work!

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  4. Really nice pictures – a very nice blogentry – never been to Prague, even though it is not that far for me actually

    This blogentry really makes me want to go – maybe I manage it next year :) – thank you for sharing!

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    • Thanks for dropping by. Like everywhere else, many of us like you live not too far from very intriguing places to visit. But we don’t get around to those places for various reasons. You’re probably living in an interesting area yourself.

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  5. Your pictures are beautiful and brought back fond memories. I was there in March 2009. Bone cold with a major ice storm, but it was still a stunning, almost magical city.

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    • No doubt March is not the same as being there around Christmas..which I haven’t but the atmosphere of Christmas in a major European city like Prague, would make up for the cold.

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