Holiday in Prague: Part I
I’ve had a couple hiccups since the beginning of the year, including my laptop crashing (with my photos), so there has been a little delay in getting out our latest adventures. And as always, they are beginning to pile up! So here I am backtracking into the last part of 2021. December rolled out new restrictions and testings for COVID due to the Omicron variant- lots of extra testing and lots of paperwork- even with our triple jabs; yet, I am happy to say that we still managed to make it to Eastern Europe for the holiday break! Our first stop: Christmas in Prague!
I set out with 3 main things on my mind:
- The Klementinum Library (Strahov Library)- said to be the most beautiful library in the world!
- Aimlessly wander through Old Town, taking in the cobbled stone streets & architecture, without missing the 14th century astrological clock tower of course!
- Drink as much Czech beer and mulled wine as possible! And indulge in all the Czech cuisine (food pics to come)!
We also ended up exploring the grounds of Prague Castle, hung out on bridges, crossed under towers, and dabbled a little in their history of alchemy. My favorite part (besides the library)… it SNOWED on Christmas Day, turning the city into a literal medieval fairytale!!
PIECES OF PRAGUE
The complex of Klementinum is one of the largest building complex’s in Europe. In order to enter you need to join a small tour, but boy is it worth it! Three of the main sightseeing areas here include the Astronomical Tower, Meridian Hall, and the Baroque Library Hall.
On the second floor of the tower is a unique room, previously used for determining noon. The whole room turned into into a camera obscura, due to ray of sunlight coming through a small hole up in the wall. The light falling on a string stretched on the floor determined high noon. During the summer solstice beams of light fall on its southern end, while during the winter solstice it falls on the northern end.
The Vyšehrad Codex is a Latin coronation Gospel Book, considered the most important and most valuable manuscript kept in Bohemia. It was probably made to honor the coronation of the Czech King Vratislav II in 1805. The book is also known as Coronation Gospels.
The Baroque Library Hall was completed in 1722. Its appearance and arrangement, e.g., the inscriptions on the library shelves, remain untouched, demonstrating the original arrangements of a Baroque library. The books in this hall comprise a set of the foreign-language theological literature that has been deposited in the Klementinum from the year 1600 until recently. Books with whitened spines and a red mark were here at the time of the Jesuits. The ceiling decoration, symbolizing classical education as the foundation leading to the Biblical prophets and Christian teaching, is the work of Jan Hiebl. Most of the many geographical and astronomical globes on display in the hall stand as testimony to the work of the Klementinum Jesuits. The youngest inscription, placed on the gallery at the head of the hall by K R Ungar in 1782, which reads “BIBLIOTHECA NATIONALIS,” de facto documents the establishment of a national library. This room was absolutely stunning and I could have stayed here for days just staring if they’d let me! You are allowed to take photos, obviously, but they stress very harshly the importance of not using flash. If someone’s flash were to have gone off, it would have set off the alarms and the police and fire trucks would arrive. I must have checked my flash 15 times between each shot, just to make sure! I was terrified (even though it was off) that it would still somehow turn back on!
The astronomical tower was completed in 1722 at the wish of Charles University’s rector, Frantisek Retz, its top adorned with a sculpture of Atlas holding the Celestial orb on his shoulders. The tower is characteristic for the Baroque Klementinum grounds, which it dominates with its height. At first, it served as a look out; then, from the mid-18th century, due to an initiative of an excellent Jesuit mathematician and physicist Josef Stepling, it was gradually equipped with astronomical devices constructed to the drawings of a professor of mechanics, Jan Klein, and Jesuits scholars used the tower for astronomical observations attended by students. Antonin Strnad, one of Stepling’s many successful students, continued in his teachers meteorological measurements and established (in 1775) the unique Klementinum tradition- regular measurements, which have continued to this day uninterrupted. Complex and precise instruments that are also pleasing to the eye were made according to the calculations and drawings of Jan Klein. They were among the leading instruments of their time. Jesuit astronomers also established the Prague meridian, and by using a sophisticated instrument in the tower they were able to determine high noon, which was announced to Praguers with the waving of a flag from the tower’s balcony, from 1842 until the 1920’s. The tower was used for astronomical observations until the 1930’s.
The visit to the historical Klementinum chambers is crowned by a magnificent view of Prague from the tower’s gallery! And it looks even more breathtaking with the city’s fresh dusting of morning snow!
PRAGUE ASTRONOMICAL CLOCK
The Prague Astronomical Clock is a unique medieval monument. It was built during the last breaths of the cultural boom in the Bohemian lands that began under the reign of Charles IV, Bohemian king and Holy Roman Emperor, who transformed Prague into a European center of learning, culture and power. The Old Town Astronomical Clock was built as one of the last medieval archaic astronomical clocks. These served a different purpose and were of a different character than the modern astronomical clocks that emerged in Europe with the onset of the Renaissance. Unlike most astronomical clocks of the time, which were made particularly for the interior of the churches, this clock was built in between the buttresses of the Old Town Hall Tower with great sensitivity. It faced the outer area of the square in order to become a part of life in the center of Prague.
The richly sculptured ornamentation and painted pictorial calendar plate enhance the central motif of the astronomical clock which is its top dial- astrolabe. The astrolabe of the medieval clock is a rotating image of the heavens- the heavens showing the movement of the sun, moon, and stars, as well as the heavens that are the seat of the God. Everyone could read the details from its astrolabe- the actual time, day in the year, or how favorable the constellation of the heavens with the stars, sun and moon is in the life of the individual. The astronomical clock also indicated the astrological signs. Astrology and the faith that earthly things were ruled by the heavens were very important and commonplace for life at the time. It was not only used to predict the future or determine the right moments for making binding decisions, but also for correctly timing the performance of medical treatment. The astronomical clock is also equipped with a consisting of statues of the twelve apostles which appear at two small windows at the hour. During the apostles’ parade, other figures on the facade come to life by mechanical movement. They are dominated by the Grim Reaper- rotating the hourglass symbolically as he stops time running, and by ringing the death knell he reminds us that our limited time will inevitably expire one day.
OLD TOWN HALL
The Old Town Hall is one of the most beautiful monuments in Prague’s historical center. It was created from the 14th century onwards by means of the gradual purchasing of individual burgesses’ houses and their integration into a single unit. Nowadays, it consists of a set of five historic houses which bear the characteristics of almost all the ensuing architectural periods.
The Municipal Hall was once the central point of the entire town hall. All of the most important matters concerning the administration of Prague’s old town were discussed there. It was also used as a wedding hall in the past. The original renaissance room was fully destroyed in May 1945 and only two new-gothic portals remain from the older period. A modern tapestry with Prague’s coat of arms constitutes the dominant feature of the hall.
The most valuable historical interior in the Old Town Hall is that of the Old Counsel Hall. It has been preserved in its original form dating from the beginning of the 15th century. The statue of Christ the Suffering dating from the beginning of the 15th century takes place in the hall. It is affixed to a base in the shape of an angel which bears the Latin text “Judge justly, sons of man.” It refers to the period when the counsel hall was also used as a court tribunal. A baroque tiled stove sits in the corner of the room, one of the largest which still exists in Bohemia. It was stoked from a rear room so that the councillors were not interrupted during their meetings. The Old Council Hall is distinguished by its gothic cladding and richly profiled beam ceiling. The ceiling includes cassettes with renaissance paintings from the 16th century held by gilded chains. The tympanums of the entrance portals include the oldest form of the coat of arms of Prague’s Old Town.
The largest hall in the Old Town Hall is the Brozik Assembly Hall. It occupies the entire floor of one house and extends to the height of two floors. The hall’s main decorations consist of two large paintings by the famous painter Vaclav Brozik. The paintings depict important moments from Czech history.
The Chapel of the Virgin Mary was established soon after the construction of the town hall tower and it was consecrated as early as in 1381. Church services were held regularly in the chapel every day before council meetings, as well as for prisoners who were being held in the town hall or for convicts who had been sentenced to death before they made their way from there to the executioner’s block. Masses for the welfare of the sovereign were frequently held there and it was also often a venue for funerals. The interior is dominated by a three-winged altar. The altar was severely damaged by the Nazi attack in May 1945. It was only completely renovated in 2018 when the work was returned to the chapel after more than 73 years. The chapel also enables visitors to view the Prague astronomical clock’s inner workings. The statues of the twelve apostles are an integral part of the mechanism and can be seen rotating on the hour, every hour. Despite the fact that the clock originated in 1410, the wooden figures of the apostles had to be re-carved after 1945, when the clock was partially damaged.
The George Hall was named after George of Podebrady. The man and his election to the position of the King of Bohemia at the Old Town Hall are recalled by a bust at the front of the room. It was sculpted in white Carrara marble in 1873 by sculptor Tomas Seidan. The walls bear fragmented frescos from the 15th century, while gothic crenellations are visible by the windows and the Madonna with child is apparent by the entrance door. The main part of the ceiling dating from the 16th century has been preserved. The best known tenant of this impressive building was the writer Franz Kafka, who lived here from 1889 to 1896.
The gothic tower dating from the 14th century constitutes the dominant feature of the Old Town Hall and indeed the entire square. When it was established, it was the highest structure in all of Prague. A watchman’s dwelling was added to the top of the tower, from where the watchman monitored the town’s environs and warned the townsfolk in case of danger. From the top is a bird’s eye view of the town and city expanding in the distance.
A tour of the Old Town Hall includes the medieval underground, an area located beneath the town hall complex. The complicated system of Romano-gothic underground cellars is older than the town hall itself. The complex of medieval halls, corridors, and tunnels is also the largest of its kind in Prague.
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Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!
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