While it’s a delight to get lost in the dark streets of the city, no matter where you turn it’s hard to escape the watchful eye of Prague’s castle, nestled on a hill above the city. Built in the 1300s, Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) is a complex of churches, administrative buildings, towers, small streets, gardens, and today, museums. Because the layout covers so much space, it’s known as the biggest castle complex in the world.
Inside the Castle is an exhausting array of buildings and tours. The first version of the castle was built a long, long time ago, in the 9th century. Since then it’s been added to, built on, torn down, and generally fiddled with, resulting in a lot of buildings. In the center of it all is St. Vitus Cathedral.
A Gothic powerhouse, the biggest Catholic church in the Czech Republic, and the burial site of numerous kings, St Vitus is a big deal. The two large spires are what you see from anywhere in the city, and they give the castle a regal feel. The Gothic part of the cathedral was built in 1344 under Charles the IV, then left unfinished for centuries. Styles change, of course, so when it was finally finished, it was designed in Baroque, which is why the third (green) spire stands out so much. (Check the first picture!)
My favorite part of the castle involves a legend that varies with the telling, as all good legends do. Behind St Vitus and around a few corners there lies a tiny cobbled street with tiny colorful houses. A certain King of Bohemia, Rudolf II, was a devotee of the occult sciences, and spared no expense to bring scientists and magicians from all across Europe to Prague. Legend says that the best alchemists stayed on this little street, which is now known as Golden Lane, and that the chimneys were kept smoking in the quest to discover the Philosopher’s Stone. Legend is silent on whether they ever discovered anything, though Rudolf kept searching all his life.
It’s also known that Franz Kafka worked and wrote in #22, the blue one, for a short time. Some even claim that the overbearing building in his book The Castle is Prague castle’s itself. Today you can go inside some of the buildings (watch your head!), and peek out along the castle walls. There’s not much except tchotchkes and various Kafka editions in five or six major languages, so I prefer looking at the outside.
One of my regrets is that I never went to the castle at night, either when I lived in Prague or on this trip. You can wander around the streets without going inside, and on a warm summer’s night it must be beautiful. Up high on a hill, overlooking the Prague lights and the boats on the Vltava. Maybe they light up the cathedral, and the bright beam shoots shadows over the already-eerie gargoyles. Maybe the streets are left dark except for the occasional pockets of light under the lampposts. Maybe the darkness brings the myths of Prague to life, the alchemists and golems hidden behind old doors.
Maybe, but I don’t know. I guess there’s always next time.