Prague Castle: A Walk Through Czech History
It was a rainy start to our first day in Prague, but it was the best place. It brought an intimacy to our travels.
A taste of winter. A cold wind from the Baltic Sea. A chance to experience the romance of this city – its history, its culture.
The first rain of the tour, a cold wind from the North Sea.
Of all the cities and towns we have visited on the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir’s three-week concert tour through Central Europe this would be the place where the overcast weather added so much to the atmosphere.
The cobblestone streets, the arches of bridges, the spectacle of more than 100 spires.
Yet in reality it is more than 400, I’m told.
Prague is regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So here was the chance to get to know it in person. And walking is the best way to discover its secrets and its treasures.
More hilly than I expected and road tunnels have been used to good effect for traffic. The river is wider than you think it will be.
The traffic is busy at peak times. Don’t even think of driving in the old part of the city. The streets are so narrow and filled with people walking, looking, searching.
The public transport is efficient and inexpensive.
Prague has been a political, cultural, and economic hub of central Europe with waxing and waning fortunes during its 1100-year existence.
And that is why we are lining up in the soft rain outside the gates of Prague Castle.
Colourful umbrellas break up the grey of the day as we queue to enter through the gates.
Even in the rain it reflects its history.
Prague is as changeable a city as its weather – romantic and successful, ancient and modern.
Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava River, it is also the historical capital of Bohemia.
Founded during the Romanesque and flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, Prague was not only the capital of the Czech state, but also the seat of two Holy Roman Emperors and thus also the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
Prague Castle is where Czech history is accumulated. This is the most significant Czech monument and one of the most important cultural institutions in the Czech Republic.
Most likely founded in around 880 by Prince Bořivoj, today it is the largest castle complex in the world.
St. Vitus Cathedral is the largest and the most important temple in Prague. Apart from religious services, coronations of Czech kings and queens also took place here.
The tower at Hradčany was the site of the Defenestration of Prague.
In 1617 Roman Catholic officials in Bohemia closed Protestant chapels, violating the guarantees of religious liberty laid down by Emperor Rudolf II.
In other words you had to be a Catholic or leave the country.
In response, the defensors of Protestant rights tried and found guilty those responsible and with their secretary, Fabricius, threw them from the windows of the council room of the castle. Fortunately for them, they landed in a pile of rubbish.
But that act was a signal for the beginning of a Bohemian revolt against the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, which marked one of the opening phases of the Thirty Years’ War.
Today, the Catholic religion is not the choice of the Czech people. Most are agnostic, I am told.
Prague Castle was home for the head of state for 1100 years.
However, the Hapsburgs were based in Prague and Vienna so after the defenestration no-one lived there for 300 years. That was until the Nazis and then the Soviets commanded the buildings as their headquarters.
St. George’s Basilica, founded by Vratislaus I of Bohemia in 920, is the oldest surviving church building within the castle.
In the courtyard is the Obelisk, a granite monolith that rises 16 metres high and weighs 110 tons. Where it came from no-one knows yet it serves as a memorial to the victims of World War I.
It is said to be the “clever stone’’ as it broke exactly into two thirds and one third while being brought into position.
At the Obelisk we are reminded of the Munich Treaty that was a prelude to World War II and regarded by Czechs as the Munich Betrayal.
The settlement allowed Nazi Germany to annexe Sudetenland, the south west part of Czechoslovakia, due to the German-speaking inhabitants.
The agreement was between Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy. Neither France or Britain were prepared to defend Czechoslovakia and were anxious to avoid a military confrontation with Germany at almost any cost.
In the courtyard of the palace the implications of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s famous statement are repeated: “I brought you peace in our time.’’
“No,’’ we are told, “He brought a piece of paper only.’’
Prague managed to escape much of the devastation that ravaged every other city of its size in Central Europe until the last few months of the war. But while most of the architecture remained intact, the population suffered terrible human tragedy.
It’s a sobering moment, one that stays with me through the Changing of the Guard, which takes place in the first courtyard at 12:00 daily.
This is the formal handover carried out with a fanfare and banner exchange.
The sentries at the gates of the medieval castle are changed every hour from 07:00.
It is a fitting end to our tour of this striking collection of buildings that reflect the tumultuous history of the Czech people.
For more about Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir’s performances in Prague on their 2016 Central Europe Concert Tour go to: