Prague – Steeples, Statues and Stranger Things

Prague is one of the weirdest cities I’ve been to. I say this because I’ve never been to another place with a statue of men peeing on a map of said place. This isn’t the only weird statue in Prague, however… There’s also statues of giant babies without faces, and one of King Wenceslas riding a dead horse, upside down. Like I said, Prague’s one of the weirdest cities I’ve been to.

Even stranger than bizarre statues is a 400 year old withered arm hanging from a hook in a church. Legend has it that a thief went into the Basilica of Saint James one night, and was caught by the statue of Saint Mary. He was found the next morning, and in order to get him down, they had to amputate his arm. As soon as he was free, the statue went back to her regular position, and the arm was hung from a meat hook as a warning not to try to steal from the church.

Fast forward 400 and some-odd years, and here we are, staring at a disgusting old limb in an otherwise absolutely gorgeous church.

withered arm

Prague, like many (most) cities in Europe, is full of spectacular churches. St. Vitus Cathedral and the Church of Our Lady Upon Tyne, just to name a couple. When I lived in Canada, I really didn’t care too much about going into churches. But the ones over here are some of the most gorgeous buildings I’ve ever seen. I really never cared to spend much time in church, but I actually look forward to going into them now, just to marvel at the architecture. If only that much effort was put into structures these days…

St. Vitus Cathedral, inside Prague Castle, has some incredible architecture. It’s the largest and most important temple in Prague, where coronations of Czech kings and queens took place. When you look up at Prague Castle from below, this massive monument is what you see dominating the skyline.

cathedral 3cathedral 5cathedral 7cathedral 6I mean… just look at the amount of detail in this painted exterior.

cathedral 4

And then you walk inside to this gorgeousness…

 cathedral

The castle in Prague (Prazsky Hrad), founded sometime around the year 880, is massiveAccording to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague Castle is the largest coherent castle complex in the world, with an area of almost 70,000 m². The Crown Jewels are kept here, along with the relics of Bohemian kings, Christian relics, art treasures and historical documents.

castle entrance.jpg

castle from charles bridge
Viewing the castle on the hill from Charles Bridge

We didn’t actually go into any of the buildings inside the castle other than St. Vitus Cathedral; just strolled through the grounds to the other side, and even that took a bit of time. We entered from the upper side, and exited to a little food/drink stand where we got some hot apple cider to warm us up while enjoying the view over the city.

cider at castleview from castleview from castle 2

Immediately to the left and the right of the main entrance to the Prague Castle Complex are palaces belonging to the National Gallery (Schwarzenberg, Salmovsky and Šternberk). The gallery spreads across multiple locations, and manages the largest collection of art in the Czech Republic.

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Schwarzenberg Palace
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Salmovsky Palace
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Sternberk Palace

Close to the castle, just a short walk away, is the Loreta Praha (Loreto Sanctuary) and the Cerninsky Palac (Cernin Palace). The Cernin Palace is the longest Baroque building in Prague at 150m long at the front. It was built in 1675 and is the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Directly across from Cernin Palace, the Loreta Praha is a Marian pilgrimage site with the Baroque Church of the Nativity and a replica of the Holy House. It houses the Loreto treasure and the Loreto Baroque Carillon, one of the last surviving Baroque musical instruments of its kind. It’s also just another big, beautiful building to look at.

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Prague is split into districts, which makes it a bit easier to plan your trip by checking which things to see are in which districts. So we started with the Hradcany district, where the Castle Complex, Loreta Praha and Cernin Palace are, as well as the Strahov Monastery Complex. This complex consists of three main attractions: the Strahov Library, the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, and the Strahov Brewery.

The brewery is popular for its Saint Norbert beer, and has a fantastic area to sit and drink/eat outside (in the summer). The view of the city from here is pretty great too.

view from bella

After our wander through the Hradcany district, we headed down the hill to the area of Mala Strana, on the way to the Old Town.

Mala Strana, meaning Lesser Town, sits just underneath the area of Prague Castle. This is a very quiet area of Prague, housing buildings just as old as those of the Old Town, and extends right down to the riverside. Close to Manes Bridge, right along the riverside, you can get great views of Charles Bridge and even feed the swans there. There’s lots of them here.

swans

riverside 2

If you carry on walking up the riverside, you’ll eventually find the Piss Sculpture, the John Lennon Wall, and the Giant Babies sculpture in Kampa Park.

David Cerny’s controversial design, named Proudy, is made up of two bronze men wiggling their metal junk around, peeing on a map of Czech. They’re programmed to spell out Czech literary quotes with their streams, just like they were writing their name in the snow. But these quotes can be interrupted by anyone in the world… All you have to do is text your message to a number on a plaque near the statue (+420 724 370 770), and they’ll spell out the words sent to them. Weird. 

piss sculpture

The only place in the city where graffiti is legal, the John Lennon Wall is part of the wall of the compound of the Knights of Malta. After 1948, this wall was used largely for people protesting the communist takeover. In the 1960’s, it became known as the ‘Crying Wall’ and was still used for messages of protest, although the authorities regularly painted it over.

In 1980, after the murder of John Lennon, there was an outpouring of grief and protest against his death, and the wall has been known as the Lennon Wall ever since. It represents not only a memorial to John Lennon and his ideas for peace, but is also a monument to free speech and the non-violent rebellion of the Czech people against the communist regime.

lennon wall 2

Just around the corner from the Lennon Wall is the Water Sprite – not just another weird statue, but a folk legend too. He’s described as a friendly ghost with a kind heart, living in the stream near Charles Bridge. He can be found coming up from the water to beg for a mug of beer from passersby.  He rewards those who show him kindness with fresh fish. Surprisingly not sculpted by David Cerny, but Josef Nalepa, can be found on the dock next to the mill wheel at Grand Priory Mill.

locks bridge

In Kampa Park, just down from Charles Bridge, you can find more uh… interesting art by David Cerny… Giant crawling babies. It would be weird enough to have giant bronze sculptures of babies crawling around randomly in a park, but he made these even weirder by not giving them faces. Instead, he opted for some sort of strange barcode imprint thing…

giant baby 2giant baby

Naturally, Cerny got a lot of negativity towards his art, but despite that, he now has a museum dedicated to his unique style, which is located in Kampa Park. These babies can be found just outside of it. However, you can also find nine others climbing up the side of the Zizkov Television Tower (in Prague 3), which just happens to be the tallest tower in the country. At night, the tower lights up with the colours of the Czech flag.

Back to more normal attractions in Prague; you can also find Saint Nicholas Church in Mala Strana. The most famous Baroque church in Prague just happens to be one of the most valuable Baroque buildings north of the Alps. The dome has a diameter of 20m and the interior height to the top of the lantern is over 49 m, making it the highest interior in Prague. Construction took over 100 years, with three generations of Baroque architects working on it.

I never did get a great picture of it; this is the best I’ve got with it in the background.

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Also in Mala Strana, which we didn’t get to, is the Wallenstein Palace along with Wallenstein Gardens. It’s supposed to be beautiful in the summertime, with many concerts and theatrical performances held there.

Image result for wallenstein gardens prague
prague.eu

If you continue along the waterfront, you’ll eventually find Cafe Savoy. We had brunch here one day which was amazing – scrambled eggs in a croissant with roasted veggies and sausage, plus french toast with shredded apple on top. Seriously, the food in Prague is unreal.

breaky

After taking some pictures of Charles Bridge from Mala Strana, we crossed the Manes Bridge, heading toward the Old Town. The first thing you see after crossing the bridge is the Rudolfinum, a Neo-Renaissance building opened in 1885. It was originally designed as an art gallery and is now home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra along with the art gallery.

opera house 2

We carried on walking past the Rudolfinum to the Jewish Quarter, nestled between the bank of the Vltava River and the Old Town Square, which contains the remains of Prague’s former Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish Museum is actually a complex of buildings, which has one of the most extensive collections of Jewish art, textiles, and silver in the world. The ticket you get from the museum covers the Ceremonial Hall, Old Jewish Cemetery, and the Old-New, Pinkas, Klausen, Spanish, and Meisel Synagogues.

The long, horrible history of the former Jewish Ghetto in Prague began in the 13th century, when Jewish people were ordered to vacate their homes and settle in this one area. Jews were banned from ever living anywhere else in Prague, which made this area become more and more crowded over the years.  By the 18th century, the Czech capital was home to more Jews than anywhere else on the planet.

The buildings in this area actually form the best preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe, due to Hitler’s decision to preserve the area as a “Museum of an Extinct Race”. The Nazis even gathered Jewish artifacts from other occupied countries, transporting them to Prague to form part of the museum.

Sadly, we visited the Jewish Quarter late in the afternoon, when the attractions were all close to closing. But it’s worth it just to walk around the area and see all of the preserved buildings and impressive synagogues.

jewish cemeteryjewish quarter 2old new synagogue

Sitting directly in front of the Spanish Synagogue, the Franz Kafka Monument is another one of Prague’s interesting statues.  It was erected to commemorate the famous writer who was born and grew up in Prague, showing him sitting on the shoulders of a headless figure. The design was inspired by his short story, Description of a Struggle.

headless statue

The Old Jewish Cemetery has more than 12 000 gravestones where more than 100 000 are buried, crammed into one small area. It is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, used between the 15th and 18th centuries. According to Jewish beliefs, the remains of a person should not be moved, and with the laws restraining them from living anywhere else in Prague, instead of relocating out of their landlocked area – they were forced to go vertically, and bury them on top of each other.

jewish cemetary

After roaming the Jewish Quarter, we came upon the Old Town Square. The square is surrounded by more incredible architecture, including the Old Town Hall with the famous Astronomical Clock, Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Church of St. Nicholas, and Kinsky Palace (part of the National Gallery).

This area is part of the city centre, known as Prague 1 or the Old Town. This is also the smallest geographical area of the city; you can actually walk from one end of this area to the other in less than ten minutes. Within a 5 minute walk to the square are such attractions as Charles Bridge, the Jewish Quarter, Klementinum, Saint Agnes Convent (part of the National Gallery), the Powder Gate, and the Cubism Museum, along with many other smaller attractions.

But anyway, back to the Square.

church in squareold town sqold town square 2

The Church of Our Lady looms over the Old Town Square, with its impressive Gothic double towers dominating the square.

old town square

The astronomical clock may be the world’s oldest functioning clock, constructed in 1410, with the mechanisms of the clock from over 600 years ago still functional today. But it’s got to be the most over-hyped attraction I’ve ever seen. Everywhere I’d read, it’d said, be sure to visit the clock on the hour, so you don’t miss seeing the wooden figures in action! Well, it’s extremely anticlimactic. Despite that, the clock is absolutely beautiful to see any other time, with its exquisite detail and artistry.

We also went to check out the Klementinum, which was a bit underwhelming for me at first. The tour started by showing a couple of instruments used by astronomers, but they made up for it with one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. While the library was actually the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen, we weren’t allowed to take pictures so I can only show you this really poor snap I managed to sneak…

library

After climbing some steep, narrow staircases some 68m up to the top of the Astronomical Tower (not to be confused with the Astronomical Clock tower), you get to the rooftop for 360 degree views of the city. The terracotta roofs from up there are beautiful.

tower view 3tower view 2tower view

Even in February, Charles Bridge was one of the busiest tourist attractions I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine going there in the high season, considering how many people were on it taking selfies in the middle of winter. But nonetheless, it’s quite the bridge. It’s a bit funny actually, one of the biggest attractions in Prague is just something you use to get from the Old Town to the Lesser Town.

charles bridge 4

charles bridge 3

Constructed in 1357 with 30 statues, for more than 500 years it served as the only option for a horse and carriage to cross the river. There are several legends associated with Charles Bridge, which are almost as quirky as some of the many sculptures Prague has to offer. But, the most common one is that supposedly, John Nepomuk (the Queen’s confessor) was thrown from the bridge into the water underneath… Halfway over the bridge you’ll find a statue of him – a man with five stars over his head, standing on a plinth that has two bronze plaques. It’s supposed to bring good luck to anyone that touches one or both of the plaques.

The bridge has towers on either end, but you’re only able to climb the one on the Mala Strana side, for views of Prague and the bridge from above.

Also just 5 minutes from Old Town Square is Wenceslas Square, laying at the heart of the New Town area. It’s really more of a broad boulevard than a square, but this is the main area for shopping and nightlife, despite being originally laid out for the Prague horse market 650 years ago.

At the top of the square is the National Museum, with Prague’s one and only regular statue situated in front of it – a good old, standard statue of a man on a horse. More specifically, King Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech Republic, killed by his own brother.

wenceslas 2

Buuut, just to mock the good old King Wenceslas, another one of David Cerny’s strange art displays is housed in the Art Nouveau Lucerna Palace just off of Wenceslas Square. Or, I suppose I should say, it hangs from the ceiling. This strange sculpture depicts King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse. With the horse’s tongue hanging from its mouth, it leads onlookers to assume that the horse is dead. Why? Who knows. It’s Prague.

wenceslas

If you head toward Petrin from Wenceslas Square, you’ll find just before the Jirasek Bridge, the ‘Dancing House’. AKA, ‘Fred and Ginger’ (after the film duo), AKA the Nationale-Nederlanden building. Constructed in 1996, in stark contrast to the historic buildings it neighbours, it has an interesting story behind it.

On Valentine’s Day, 1945, a bombing raid happened over Prague which was famous for two reasons. One: there were more people killed in Prague during this bombing than any other in WWII. Two: The crews doing the bombing thought they were bombing Dresden. So, Prague was bombed by mistake. The building which originally stood where the Dancing House is now located was destroyed that day.

Long story short, the little boy that lived next door to it grew up to be the last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of Czech, Václav Havel, and he dreamed for that area to be a cultural centre. He supported the construction and contacted renowned architect Vlado Milunić, who cooperated with Frank Gehry, a famous Canadian-born American postmodernist architect, to design the building. However, it ended up being financed by a Dutch insurance giant, and thus, has been a modern office building ever since it opened.

fred and ginger 2

I’d read a lot of blogs and reviews about Prague which warned of the not-so-friendly culture there, such as restaurant waiters not giving the best service and whatnot. But honestly, all of the people we met in Prague were unbelievably friendly and helpful. So I’m not sure where all of the so-called rudeness came from, but we didn’t experience any of it.

The closest we came to any sort of rudeness was our taxi from the airport to our Airbnb. At first, we thought the driver was quite grumpy and a bit unfriendly, but he caught us off guard about halfway to the city by suddenly saying, “You’re lovers, right?” in a very gruff tone. We shyly said yes, and he began explaining that there’s a legend about the Petrin Tower.

More specifically, he said, “OK. You go to Petrin Hill, up observation deck. There’s legend – if lovers go up the tower and kiss on the observation deck, you’ll be together forever. You must go.” He didn’t stop chatting after this, giving us lots of tips on where to go and what to see, and then asking if weed is super popular in Canada. Thank you, Trudeau for making us famous for weed legalization over here.

So we went up to the tower, just because I love heights and getting the best views of the places I go… much to the dismay of my petrified-of-heights boyfriend. And we didn’t share a kiss at the top because he was too busy literally shaking in his boots, so if we ever break up we’ll have to blame it on his fear of heights. Nevertheless, the climb was well worth it. For me, at least.

petrin towerpetrin tower 2

On the way up Petrin Hill, you get a nice view of the city too. The path up the hill is really pleasant, winding through trees and giving you sweeping views of the city. It’s a nice break from the busyness of the city, to come to the city’s biggest park. There’s also a funicular if you’re not up for the climb. We visited in February, when there was ice and snow despite it being sunny and not too cold, so be careful walking on the cobblestone streets. Be even more careful making your way up this path…

petrin hill

You’ll also find at the very bottom of the hill, just before entering Petrin Park, the Memorial to Victims of Communism. This was the only statue in Prague (other than King Wenceslas) that I didn’t find strange, just eerily solemn and humbling.

Initially, you’d glance at it and think, yep, another one of Prague’s weird statues… But on closer inspection, you’ll see that it depicts frail, broken men walking down a set of stairs, with those at the top of the stairs enduring the most pain and suffering from a life under communist control; the most broken. The closer you get to the bottom, the closer you get to freedom, the more in tact you are.

communism

Speaking of which, we also checked out the Museum of Communism in Prague, which was quite an eye opener for me. It’s a lot of reading, but extremely informative. For someone like me, who didn’t learn a whole heck of a lot about communism in school, it’s unbelievably humbling and insightful. It’s a harsh reminder of how lucky and fortunate I am, compared to so, so many.

On a lighter note, one fun spot I’ve got to mention… After the museum, we made a quick stop at Vytopna, where we were entertained by little mini trains delivering our beers to our table. We almost skipped it, since we weren’t hungry, but when we were walking by and spotted these guys choo-chooing along with their beer cargo, we just couldn’t resist.

Now, I don’t tend to get too sucked in to tourist traps when I’m traveling – we didn’t even do a gondola tour when in Venice, simply because I didn’t want to spend 80 euros on a half hour trip – but I stumbled upon beer spas as ‘things to do in Prague’… And I couldn’t help myself.

While there were only two of us, you can go in groups of up to 10 people. It’s SO worth the money though (in my humble opinion). We went to Lazne Pramen, which is actually both a beer and a wine spa, so you can choose between the two. It’s a bit outside of the city centre, just behind the castle essentially, but easily accessible by tram or metro.

So we walked in, the lady at reception greeted us and took us downstairs into our own private room with wooden tub, sauna, straw bed and shower, said we had an hour and she’d ring the bell when we had just ten minutes left, and let us be.

bed at spa

Well, the wooden tub is a jacuzzi full of beer with an unlimited beer tap with your choice of light or dark beer right next to the tub. So, you soak in beer and drink as much as you please! What more could a gal want on her birthday? They even gave us a little gift bag at the end with some bath salts and more beer. Just what we needed after a never-ending supply of beer for an hour beforehand!

We spent the rest of the night wandering around the city, which is just beautiful at night.

prague at nightpres building

astro clock night

And then got burgers at Sad Man’s Tongue Bar & Bistro. It was on my list of best places to eat in Prague, and it did not disappoint. If you’re a burger lover like me, don’t miss it when you’re in Prague.

All of the food we had in Prague was fantastic. The first place we went was to a waffle house – Waffle Point U Kajetana – which was near to our Airbnb. It was surprisingly cheap, and we got so much food. We also had chicken and waffles for breakfast one other morning, which is a pretty unexpected menu item in Prague, but also amazing.

One traditional food you should try: Trdelnik. I like to think of them as the Czech’s version of churros… spiraled dough, grilled and topped with sugar, and filled with whatever your heart desires. Also known as chimney cakes, they can be found just about everywhere in Prague.

trdelnik

Also an important tip for traveling in Prague: Take the tram, bus, or the subway. We bought a three day unlimited travel card and it was just… so worth it. It’s not only cheap, but convenient too. You can walk Prague easily, but for efficiency, the tram is convenient and it’s a great way to see the city too – the number 22 is the most scenic route in Prague, with a route from the National Theatre right up to Prague Castle.

There’s an unbelievable amount of history in Prague, mixed in with some strange new things like the Dancing House and bizarre statues and such, which just make the city even more interesting. It’s nicknamed ‘The City of a Hundred Spires’ for good reason – there’s more churches here than anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s the most architecturally stunning city I’ve been in yet. Pastel coloured buildings, cobblestone streets, and church steeples galore… It’s a bit of a fairy tale kinda place.

There’s SO much to see and do in Prague, it’s a bit overwhelming trying to plan a trip there for just a few days. Although we managed to cram in a lot of sights in just three days, I still have things to check off my list… So, Prague… I’ll be back!

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