After sloughing off the jetlag with a 12-hour sleep and lethal amounts of coffee, we managed to clamber out of bed and up the nearby hill towards Prague Castle and Palace complex. Founded in 880 AD, Prague Castle has grown over the centuries to be the largest castle complex in the world.
After seeing the intricate and beautiful architecture of Prague’s Old Town (Stare Mesto) the day before, we hoped the castle and palace complex would live up to our expectations. Fortunately, Prague castle complex did not disappoint; it was every bit as grandiose and stunning as the rest of the city.
Take the Vladislav Hall, for example. Back in its day the Hall was the largest vaulted hall in the world, and housed coronations, banquets, even tournaments between knights for the Bohemian monarchy. Today Vladislav Hall is credited with being one of the most complex structural and architectural feats of the Late Middle Ages – the stone vaulted ceiling is entirely supported by the pillars against the side of the walls, making it an ideal example of the harmony between design and aesthetics.
The King’s Room, where the royalty carried out their daily duties, also featured a similarly stunning stone vaulted ceiling, as well as housing reproductions of the Bohemian Crown Jewels. Renowned for their unusual design and purportedly containing a thorn from Jesus’s crown, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are locked away from the public eye, and only unveiled for special occasions. Like all famous royal jewels, the legend goes that a curse is laid on the Crown Jewels that any usurper whose head touches the crown will die within a year. Sceptics may scoff, but believers will point to the rumour that Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the puppet state Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia secretly wore them, and was assassinated less than a year later by the Czech resistance.
Like the outside of its buildings, it seemed that Prague equally enjoys decorating every inch of its interiors too. What I initially mistook as an intricate storage box turned out to be a heater; makes English radiators look a little pitiful, doesn’t it?
The same goes for their doors.
As well as their bookcases and record books.
As we toured around the various rooms, we noticed the ceilings and walls were covered in family crests and coats of arms in the New Land Rolls Room, the administrative heart of the Old Bohemian empire back in the day. The crests of all the noble families were painted on the walls, where all administrative records on land ownership, disputes between tenants, etc. were kept for reference.
Just outside the Old Palace is St George’s Basilica, founded in 920 AD by Prince Vratislav and the best-preserved Romanesque church in Prague. It is the site of burial for several of the city’s saints and royal family members, as well as a convent. Entrance is included in the castle ticket price, but it is also possible to visit by attending one of their regularly classical music concerts in the evening.
Below the altar of St George’s Basilica is a crypt, which contained an eerie yet slightly captivating statue of its inhabitants….
A short walk nearby took us to my favourite part of the Prague castle complex: Golden Lane. The street started life as a shantytown in the 15th century for the various workers of the castle, skilled in their various trades but lacking financially. Over the centuries though people kept adding extensions to their houses, including below ground, and things got a little out of hand. The original dwellings were demolished and the quaint cottages you see today constructed, but the street’s already lively history and prime real estate attracted some of Prague’s most colourful characters, including Franz Kafka and the clairvoyant Madame de Thebes, who was so renowned for her ability to see into the future that the Gestapo arrested and eventually murdered her after predicting the Third Reich would fall.
Golden Lane is connected to Dalibor Tower, which is where the medieval monarchy would house and torture prisoners. A modern-day collective of blacksmiths have taken up residence in one of the cottages in Golden Lane and have created many of the weaponry and armoury used in medieval Prague, including the bird suit below. Luckily they don’t recreate any of the more nefarious activities that used to go on in the tower!
If you are looking for a prime souvenir to take back home, you can by Kafka’s The Doctor from the cottage in which he wrote the story.
Perhaps most interesting out of all the cottages on Golden Lane is number 12, the residence of film historian and collector Josef Kazda. During the Second World War, Kazda was responsible for saving many numbers of Eastern European films ordered by the Nazis to be destroyed. He also organised the Art Society, a secret group that met at his for film screenings, lectures and discussions at his house. Today the cottage has been renovated and transformed into a mini cinema, where visitors can watch vintage reels of film and have a look at the old-fashioned film posters that once covered the walls of his residence.
The afternoon bells chimed from nearby St Vitus’s Cathedral, which meant it was time for the Changing of the Guard. Living in London, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is something you see at least once (or multiple times if you have friends and relatives visit), and we were intrigued to see how different the Prague’s version was to our own. After much elbow nudging and jumping on tiptoes to see over the heads, the most we could surmise is their ceremony was much more functional than ours. And that all the guards were sporting the ‘Blue Steel’ look.
Exhausted by all the wandering, we quickly settled for a bite to eat at Lobkowicz Palace, a Baroque palace of one of Czech’s noblemen, Jaroslav of Pernstejn. Today it houses many important artefacts, such as Beethoven’s compositions, and its scenic balcony views make it an ideal spot to stop and refuel.
Afterwards the church bells were calling, and we hurried over to the Gothic behemoth that is St Vitus Cathedral.
The cathedral’s stained glass windows were unlike any we had seen in Europe (and trust me, as a former archaeologist we have visited quite a few churches on our travels) and its gothic decor was as equally unique and detailed. I found myself taking pictures of every part of the church; simply trying to appreciate all the detail in design during our stay would have required me to spend at least the entire day in the cathedral!
Throughout our time in Prague, flashy vintage convertibles, painted in bright hues and loaded with smug passengers and thick blankets, whizzed past us. After staring wistfully after them one too many times, we decided to book a tour ourselves.
Does it look touristy? Yes. Does it look like the kind of car an Eastern European dictator would drive? Yes. Was it fun? THE BEST.
Our driver, Jan, drove us around all of Prague’s historic and quirky sites, and was full of recommendations and knowledge about the city.
Such as the Lennon wall.
The smallest street in Prague.
And the city’s inimitable artworks that dotted the capital, such as the Kafka spinning head below.
As well as many sites of historical importance to Prague’s Communist era.
If you are short on time, the vintage car tours are an excellent way to see the city and root out the best places to visit to make the most of your trip. For us, we took mental notes to visit the Prague Beer Museum and Golden Tiger pubs on our last day in the capital.