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Friday, 01 September 2017

Prague: The Bearable Lightness of Being in Czech Republic

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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Prague, Czech Republic. The City of a Thousand Spires. For years I have wanted to explore this eastern European treasure, this alluring gem buried behind more westernized European destinations like Paris and London, Berlin and Barcelona. I’ve heard others yearn out loud for a visit to Prague and have listened to others praise it as one of their favorite stomping grounds. I’ve watched the Czech films, read Czech literature, studied Czech guide books and history. But it’s never quite the same until you’ve been there and sensed it yourself. For nearly a decade now I’ve been looking for the right time to make the pilgrimage to Prague. The time is now.

 

Watching Time

 

The time has come, quite literally, in fact. We are staring at a clock, watching it’s shimmering face in the late afternoon sun, waiting for the minute hand to make one more movement and for the show to begin. Funny, after all this time waiting to get here, we arrive and the first thing we dart off to do is to watch a clock keeping time.

 

Here comes the moment we’ve been waiting for,” Nataliya says. She and I have already seen it on someone’s home video, so we kind of know what to expect. But we also know that nothing is ever quite what it looks like on video, when you see it in person.

 

We are standing in the south west corner of Town Hall Square facing Old Town Hall. This towering building was established in 1338 when King John of Luxembourg agreed to a town council. Old Town Hall Tower stands high above us, topped off with one of the many spires this city is famous for. The viewing gallery above offers great panoramas of the city from each side. And a clock is located high above where we stand now, just beneath the balcony of the viewing gallery. But that’s not the clock we’re looking at. If it were that high, we’d barely be able to watch the show.

 

The Astronomical Clock with its two faces, eight sculptures at the side of the faces, and two windows through which the carved apostles greet us, is only about a story or two above us, so we have a clear view. The clock strikes five and the crowd closes in. We hang back far enough that we can see up to the clock. It’s not like we need to ask the lady in front of us to remove her hat or worry about a tall man obstructing our view. This show is higher than a movie screen.

 

The Town Hall Astronomical Clock was first installed in the late 1400s. It has been repaired and maintained through the centuries, but the clock we now see is the one perfected by Jan Taborsky in the mid to late 16th century.

 

The hourly show begins when death—the statue of a skeleton—pulls the string and turns his hourglass, reminding us of the sands of time that will one day bring us to the end of that string. The procession of the 12 apostles (or 11 apostles and St. Paul) happens every hour, and the painted wood carvings wave to spectators through the windows like a bird peeping out of a larger-than-life cuckoo clock. Other animated figures include a Turk, shaking his head, Vanity, looking at himself in a mirror, and Greed in the mold of a moneylender. A golden rooster crows and jerks above the procession windows.

 

The two faces of the clock are rather complicated. The purpose of the astronomical clock is not to give precise time, but to show the current orbits of the sun and moon around the earth; this product of the 1400's places Earth at the center of the universe. The hand adorned with a sun (the hour hand) shows the time in three different kinds of time at once: medieval Aribic, Old Bohemian, and Babylonian time, dividing daylight into 12 hours and resulting in different sized hours as seasons (and daylight) changes. Also on display are the movements of the moon and sun through the 12 zodiac signs. The two clock faces also show daylight hours, sunrise and sunset, and nighttime hours, and is also a calendar.

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We came across the world, took a metro from airport to hotel, checked in, took another metro into Old Town, and raced here to Old Town Hall in time to wait half an hour for the show. After just a few minutes, the show has come and gone. Much like a brief trip to a land you’ve wanted to see for a long time, or a vacation, or a child’s growing up, or life itself. It goes by too quickly. We will see the clock again during our week here in Prague. The best thing to do—with the clock, a vacation, life itself—is to enjoy it while it lasts.

 

 

Old Town Square

 

The famous Astrological Clock is perhaps the icon of Prague, one of it’s most unique and recognizable sights. But there is a lot to see, and right now, in Old Town Square, we’re right in the middle of it. Old Town Hall itself, the 14th century tower which holds the clock and the viewing gallery, also boasts the Oriel Chapel with stone carvings, and large stained glass windows. The recently restored chapel ceiling is a beauty of blue and gold with frescoes at the center, and well worth the trip inside. Just beneath the clock, to the left, is a handsome gothic set of arched double doors carved from wood; this used to be the main entrance, but is now closed.

 

Despite how tall and unique the stone building is, Old Town Hall is pressed right up against other buildings, as though it’s just another Baltimore rowhouse. None of these gems of buildings are “just” rowhouses, even if they are pressed together. They are more like mansions.

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In the center of Old Town Square is a monument to Jan Hus, dedicated to the religious reformer and Czech hero who was burnt at the stake, preferring to give up his life rather than his beliefs. From this central location you can take in the grandeur of Old Town Square. Dominating the square is the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, a Gothic church that started construction in 1365 and was finished in 1620. This was the main Hussite church in Prague.

 

Off to the other side of the square, at the corner across from the Town Hall and Astrological Clock, is the Church of St. Nicholas. (Another church named for St. Nicholas stands in Prague’s Little Quarter.) This is a more recent baroque style church from 1735, although there has been a church in this location since the 1300s. This church is a great place to enjoy a concert during a summer evening. A statue St. Benedict is at the front of the church, along with one of St. Nicholas. He looks nothing like the Santa Claus known to visit children in the western world.

 

Like many European cities, Prague took some hits during World War II. But where most cities rebuilt everything, the people of Prague decided to let some of the effects remain on display as a reminder and a testament to the damage done. A striking sight in Old Town Square is the operational building that is only half there; it has been repaired to the point of making it usable, but you can see where the building has been damaged by bombs.

 

To stand at the center of the square, you get a panoramic view. But much of the beauty lies in the details that you only appreciate up close. The House of the Stone Bell; the golden Madonna and Child looking down from the Red Fox; the statue of St. Anthony At The Ox, the stone carving of a maiden and her ram At the Stone Ram, the painting of St. Wenchelas on horseback at the Storch House. Franz Kafka used to visit a literary salon, At the Golden Unicorn, often.

 

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Last modified on Saturday, 02 September 2017

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