PRAGUE — From my window, I watched crowds of young Italian and Czech schoolboys scamper across the Charles Bridge, stopping to gaze at the sandstone sculptures, black with age, that adorn both sides of the pedestrian bridge joining Prague’s Old Town (Stare Mesto) with the Little or Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana).
It was from the bridge that St. John Nepomuk was thrown to his watery death in the 14th century by order of King Wenceslas IV for refusing to divulge what the queen had told him in confession. The legend claims that as John drowned, five stars appeared on the water; the five stars have become the symbol of the town’s patron saint. Another version of the saint’s death holds that he had displeased the king over the election of an abbot.
The bridge was commissioned by and named for Charles IV, the Holy Roman emperor who became the Czechs’ most famous king. Among many other institutions and buildings, Charles established the Carolinum, the first university in Central Europe, with reformer Jan Hus as its first Czech rector.
Four carriages could ride abreast across the bridge, but today, it is for pedestrians only — and for street musicians and hawkers of art, jewelry and souvenirs.
The world is crisscrossed with beautiful bridges, but surely two hotels with catbird-seat views of grand bridges are the Four Seasons in Budapest and Prague with their stunning views of the Chain Bridge over the Danube and the Charles Bridge over the Vltava (the Germans call it the Moldau) as it winds it way through the “city of a hundred spires.”
Prague is an exquisite jewel, barely damaged by World War II. First settled by Celtic tribes in 500 B.C., it is made up of five towns: the Old Town; the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov; the Little Quarter; the New Town; and Hradcany, the village around Prague Castle on the hill above the Little Quarter.
Four hundred years of Austrian Habsburg rule left Prague with breathtaking classical and art-nouveau buildings and an unsurpassed tradition of music. Mozart lived in the Little Quarter, virtually unchanged since the 18th century, and wrote numerous works for performances in the churches of Prague, where they are still performed.
There’s so much music in Prague that pamphlets daily inform pedestrians who is performing what, where and when. There are concerts at 3, 5, 7 and at 8:30 p.m. Some, such as the concerts in the royal palace, have become daily occurrences; others vary in time and place, but there are always plenty of choices. Most afternoon concerts last an hour.
I attended a lovely performance in the Spanish Synagogue, a glorious golden hall built in pseudo-Moorish style and embellished with stained glass. It was a wonderful backdrop for a concert of operatic and other favorites.
The Spanish Synagogue is one of five synagogues in Prague’s Jewish quarter in the Old Town. When the Nazis invaded and took over then-Czechoslovakia in 1938, the ghetto was preserved because Hitler intended to turn it into a museum dedicated to an extinct people. Today, the five synagogues and the old cemetery are visited as though they are indeed museums, but not as Hitler anticipated them.
The Jewish cemetery was founded in the late 15th century; for 300 years, it was the only burial ground permitted to Jews. There are about 12,000 gravestones, but it is estimated that about 100,000 people have been buried there — on top of one another up to 12 layers deep. The oldest tomb is that of Rabbi Avigdor Kara, dated 1439; the last burial took place in 1787.
My view of the bridge, the river with tour boats gliding by, the Little Quarter across the river and Prague Castle on the hill was mesmerizing.
Had it not been for the seductive attraction of Prague’s streets, monuments, churches and synagogues, I would have stayed happily in my room watching the sun play on the water.
The town is irresistible. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Four Seasons to Charles Bridge.
I crossed the river, and a tram carried me up Castle Hill. From there, it was just a short walk to the 12th-century Strahov Monastery with its fabulous Gothic library. During the communist era, all religious orders were banned, but the monastery has been given back to the monks and is a working monastery and museum.View Entire Story
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