This morning we took an early tour of Prague Castle - which is one of the two largest in the world - the other being Windsor. It consumes the entire hill overlooking the city.
Positioned across the Vltava River, it afforded us terrific views of the river, the bridges and older sections of Prague (although it was very hazy). By starting early, we avoided some of the crowds but it was still busy. The complex is overwhelming, and too big to fit into pictures. (Alternately, the town is almost too crowded to get in a photo.)
The Castle Square was the focal point of Medieval power - the King, powerful noblemen and the archbishop lived here. It has been added on to and renovated over the course of 1,000 years and is a mixture of different styles. The current exterior dates to 18th century. There are 350 rooms, most of which are not open to the public.
Then we toured St. Vitus Cathedral, well worth an interior visit. Started in 1344, construction was stalled by wars and plagues. But spurred by 19th century nationalism, it was finished in 1929 for the 1000th anniversary of the death of St. Wenceslas (10th century king who christianized his people).
It is two different styles of gothic - 14th century around the high alter and the modern neo-gothic nave. For 400 years a temporary wall sealed off the functional, yet unfinished church.
Then we left the complex and took a short van ride to Strahov Monastery. To us, as literary people, this was more impressive than the castle. A local bishop made a pilgrimage to the holy land in 1138 and decided to found a monastery of regular canons in Prague, with the support of both the rulers and the church. Thus a monastery was founded in 1143 and focused on preserving written religious documents while developing the usual business of farming, wine making and beer brewing. Over the years the literary role expanded. Today the monastery has 260,000 volumes (of which half are religious), 3,000 manuscripts and 1500 artifacts. They possess Bibles in 23 different languages and the Lord's Prayer in 70. The oldest manuscript is the Strahov Gospel (bible) dated 860.
Our first room was the Theological Hall. It was impressive with its high ceilings and books tightly packed on shelves rising to the ceiling.
The second room was equally impressive with books from the 18th century.
There were other rooms with exhibits dedicated to the natural sciences. One had small boxes with the preserved attributes of an individual plant stored in each -- leaf, bark, seed etc. - from 200 years or more.
There were other artifacts too numerous to mention, but what we saw was impressive.
Afterwards we drove to the famous Charles Bridge, named after Charles IV who had it built in the 14th century.
We stopped to have lunch at a cafe in the Old Town Square with friends.
This afternoon we opted for the Communist tour. I thought we might get some socio-political insights, but our guide was a simple woman who just wanted to tell us how awful it was living under communism -- poor health care, poor economy, etc. No surprise there. She took us to Wencelas Square (more of a broad boulevard), with the national museum at its end. I guess I was expecting a religious experience, since this is the place where the creation of the Czechoslovak state was celebrated in 1918, where Soviets quelled a rebellion in 1968, and where the citizens converged in 1989 to claim their freedom. Instead, it was lined with cheap souvenir stalls and greasy food and lots and lots of people.
Then we went to the Museum of Communism, again, not what I expected. It seems cobbled together by a haphazard arrangement of artifacts - an empty display case to show the shortage of food, a typical classroom with textbooks using Russia's language and an interrogation room. There was a 20-minute film that needed a lot of editing and narration. Overall, an amateur effort, but I'm sure the locals don't want to relive it. Interestingly, it is right next to a casino, something the communists shunned.
Tonight was the grand finale of our tour and it was fabulous. Tauck arranged for us to have dinner at the Lobkowicz Palace, located on Castle Hill.
The owner of the palace, Prince William, greeted us and told us his story. The palace was built in the 1500s but came into his family's possession in 1604 with the marriage of his ancestor to Polyxena Pernstejn. All went well until WW II. Then the family lost the palace twice, first with the Nazis and then the communists. William's father's family had fled to the US in WW II and started a new life. However, after communism, William, with his father's support, moved to Czechoslovakia (still was then) in 1990 to regain the family's property. With 4 lawyers working full-time, he has regained 4 of the 10 palaces owned by the family. Fortunately much of their original art collection which was stolen by the Nazis was returned by the Monuments Men. Today he has started the Center for European Culture - to make history relevant. His collection includes 20,000 moveable pieces including fine art, furniture, armaments, silver, musical instruments and compositions and thousands of books. We were treated to a very small sample on a tour. Notable was Handel's "Messiah" reorchestrated by Mozart in his own hand, Peter Brueghel the Elder's painting "Haymaking" 1565, and two paintings of the Thames by Canaletto, 1746.
Now it was time for dinner and good-byes.
I am now off to another adventure. Three nights on the move - back to Vienna and then back to the Czech Republic for a 10-day hiking trip. Stay tuned.