Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Prague Landmarks #9 - Vyšehrad

In many of the posts in this blog, I've tried to focus on the less familiar sights in Prague. While it's understandable that visitors to the city want to visit places that are famous and within easy reach of their hotels there is a tendency to miss some of the really interesting monuments and historical landmarks that may be just a little further out of reach.

One such place is Vyšehrad ("The Upper Castle") located on a steep rock above the right bank of the Vltava. Located in Prague 2, Vyšehrad is about two miles south of the Old Town Square. It can be reached by metro on the red line or by tram to Výtoň or Albertov and then walking up the hill. My personal favourite route is to walk along the river down to Naplavka, then head left under the railway bridge heading up Vnislavova and finally climbing up the steep hill Vratislavova, until you reach the gateway into the fort.

Looking over Libuše's bath and the Vltava
The history of Vyšehrad allegedly begins in the Stone Age and is the stuff of the most ancient legends concerning the founding of Prague. The story goes that Libuše, the youngest and wisest of three daughters of the ancient (and also legendary) Krok, had the gift of prophecy and after she succeeded her father, she foresaw "a great city whose glory will touch the stars" whilst looking out from a rocky point above the river Vltava, now said to be Vyšehrad. She ordered the building of a castle and town that became Prague. With her ploughman husband, Přemysyl, Libuše went on to found the Přemyslid dynasty who ruled Bohemia right through until 1306.

           

Vyšehrad reached its peak as a royal seat in the 11th century but was subsequently abandoned during the 15th century and largely fell to ruins during the Hussite Wars. The current fortress was mainly remodelled during the 17th century as part of the Baroque era in and around Prague, and then again in the late 1800s.

Some parts of the earlier Citadel do still exist, most notably the Špička Gate, the lookout tower known as Libušina lázeň (Libuše's Bath), and the Rotunda of St Martin all date back to the 11th century.

The Rotunda of St Martin
The twin towers of the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul are unmistakable landmarks overlooking the river and Vyšehrad cemetery is the final resting place of such notable Czechs as the composers, Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, the writer Jan Neruda, and Milada Horáková, the only female Czech politician to be executed by the communist regime.

The twin towers of the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul
These days Vyšehrad is a popular park, which even on busy days seems relatively quiet. There are spectacular views down to and across the river, a number of interesting museums and galleries to visit and a few places to sit down and enjoy a beer and something to eat, away from the more popular tourist sites. There's even an open air theatre, originally designed as a mortar position, which hosts occasional performances, especially during Masopust (Carnival).

Panorama of Vyšehrad fortress and Prague
Whether you want an energetic workout or a gentle stroll, there's plenty for everyone here. Back in March 2015, I decided that the best place to watch the solar eclipse would be within the walls of Vyšehrad. Sadly I was wrong and I failed to get any photos of the actual event - but then the only one of my colleagues who stayed near office who did get a shot managed it by accident, only noticing it later in a reflection in a window! But it was a magical place to witness such an event and worth the leg work to get there. I strongly suggest you do the same, sooner rather than later!





Tuesday, 8 August 2017

More Musings from Malá Strana and a Murderous Memento!

In my last post, I shared the briefest of views of Malá Strana - the lesser quarter which lies in the shadows of Prague Castle. I did hint at a promise of more to read, especially around Nerudova. As it turned out, the very next day I found myself with a little bit of time so,  here we are again - a bit earlier than expected!

Nerudova is named for Jan Neruda, the author, who lived on this street over 170 years ago. You can't miss the house, near the top of the hill, with its distinctive nameplate.


Did I mention before that this is a pretty steep hill? This is the view looking down from Neruda's house looking towards the Old Town Square and Our Lady Before Tyn.


A few years ago, I was walking up the hill fairly early one morning and was aware of a commotion in front of me. I could see a number of shop keepers were out in the street shaking their brooms and wagging their fingers, while a small number of tourists were jostling for position to take photographs. It turned out that the cause of the excitement was a young lady wearing nothing more than a smile and a pair of flip flops with a video cameraman trying to film her and act as a bouncer a the same time. My Czech isn't good enough to know what the shop keepers were saying, but I doubt it was to warn her that flip flops are not suitable footwear for this particular road. I was too polite to take photos, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Nerudova is famous for its house names and the beautiful signs that identify them. Here's a small selection.

 

They represent (clockwise from top left): The White Swan, The Green Lobster, The Red Ram, Medusa at No. 14, The Golden Cup and The Three Fiddles. Often the signs were associated with the nature of the businesses carried out at the property. In Czech the names are usually preceded with the letter 'U' which translates to 'At the house of', so 'U zlate cise' translates to 'At the House of the Golden Cup'. This sign at No.16 used to be the home of a goldsmith and his family.

One other oddity worth looking at in Malá Strana are the bollards in Malostranské náměstí at the bottom of the hill. These curious looking things represent the 27 Czech nobles executed on June 21st 1621 in the Old Town Square. The victims were part of a Protestant revolt, and they were executed by the official Prague executioner, Mydlár - who used four swords and took from 5am until 9:30pm to complete his grisly task. 14 of the most influential nobles were beheaded, the rest were hanged but one, Dr Jesenius, had his tongue ripped out before his demise. The heads of the victims were then displayed on the East Tower of the Charles Bridge. The location of the bollards, which were erected in 1993 is significant. They are in front of the Liechenstein Palace - once owned by Karel of Liechenstein who ordered the executions.


  

Yet more ghosts and gruesome tales from this beautiful place with such an extraordinary and chequered past!









Thursday, 3 August 2017

Prague Moments #13 - Musing In Malá Strana

When I wrote about the Memorial to the Victims of Communism a few weeks ago, I confessed that I didn't spend anywhere near as much time exploring the eastern side of the Vltava as perhaps I should.  But I started to rectify that in June and spent a bit of extra effort walking around the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana) looking for interesting places and photo opportunities. And by chance,  just after I started writing this post, I've had to come over to Prague for an unscheduled visit, and I just happen to be staying on Nerudova.

Malá Strana is well documented in literary works about Prague, especially in Prague Tales by Jan Neruda, which is set in the real world of real people living in the area in the 19th century. One of the many wonderful things about Prague is that it only takes a little imagination to transport yourself back to those bygone years, and follow in the footsteps of those characters like the Doctor and Josefina.

Backstreets of Malá Strana in the early morning
So here are a few of my favourite sights in Malá Strana; the well known, and the not so well known. I hope it will give you a taste of what you might discover by stepping away from the main streets and squares, without using up too much shoe leather!

The most famous landmark in this area is almost certainly St Nicholas' Catherdral which dates back to 1702 although the original site was a place of worship as far back as 1283.

St Nicholas' Catherdral
One of my favourite sights is the building that spans Thunovská. Take a short walk up the hill and you'll find the British embassy tucked away on a side street, with a bust of Churchill keeping vigil at the corner of the street.



The real gem of course is Nerudova itself. The steep hill takes you up to Prague Castle and whilst it is heavily populated with touristy tack shops and many of the buildings date back to medieval times. Many of the houses still bear their original name signs - house numbers were not introduced in Prague until 1770. Originally part of the Royal Way, Neruda was renamed in honour of the author Jan Neruda who lived there from 1849 to 1857. In a future visit, I'm going to try and photograph all the different house names and their symbols, and I'll showcase the most interesting in a future post.

Malá Strana is a popular place, but as always in Prague, taking a few steps off the beaten track will provide you with some great rewards.