One does not need to be a fan of Franz Kafka to get the full impact of visiting Prague Castle, but being one does add a dollop of spine-tingling interest to the experience.
I’ve recently reread Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, and am currently listening to The Trial (also unfinished) on Audible, and although he is not an author I would recommend to others (I think, like a taste for olives, you need to discover him on your own), I find Franz Kafka’s work intriguing – and he has inspired many of my other favourite writers, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Haruki Murakami (e.g., see Kafka on the Shore). Throughout our time in Prague I was always aware of the castle on the far side of the river that seemed to loom over the city just as The Castle does over the town in Kafka’s novel.
It would not of course have been a truly Kafkaesque experience if we had not become lost on our way up to visit the castle, but we did. Several times. Our first big mistake was that we somehow got on the wrong bridge across the river (there are way too many bridges) so our first order of business after we’d reached the other side was to locate the west end of the bridge we should have come across (and which we later successfully took back again) – the famous medieval pedestrian-only Charles Bridge (Karlov Most).
From there, we started up the winding cobbled streets toward the castle, but soon our ultimate destination disappeared behind the buildings that were closer to us, which inevitably led to wrong turn after wrong turn. The signs were not too helpful. But the homes and businesses we passed were endlessly interesting. We walked past the Slivovitz Museum (Slivovitz being a European-made plum brandy) and, part way up the hill, a bookstore named “Shakespeare and Sons.” To my mind, being lost is rarely a problem unless you’re pressed for time or your feet are threatening to wear out: you just see more stuff that way. (You can click on the photos for a better look.)
The Castle and The Cathedral
We finally reached the top of the hill where the Prague Castle is located, and when we emerged on the crest, the first thing we saw was a Starbucks! (We resisted the temptation.)
Within the walls of Prague Castle, which is a UNESCO site, stand a palace, a basilica, a cathedral, the cathedral’s Great South Tower, and the Golden Lane. St. Vitus Cathedral, which gives the complex its distinctive silhouette, is the third church to have been built on the same site since Prince Wenceslas founded a Romanesque rotunda there in 925. Following the initial construction of a chancel and chapels in the Gothic style, which occurred in 1344 during the reign of Charles IV – St. Vitus remained a work in progress until a final push, named “the Union for the Completion of the Cathedral,” led to its actual completion in 1929.
The cathedral is a huge, breathtaking complex that measures 124 m × 60 m (407 ft × 197 ft). The main tower is 102.8 m (337 ft) high, and front towers 82 m (269 ft) (Wikipedia). The Royal Mausoleum contained within it accommodates the tombs of Bohemian kings, Roman emperors, and patron saints (including St. Wenceslas), and “[t]he door in the south-western corner of the chapel leads to the Crown Chamber in which the Bohemian Coronation Jewels are kept” (St. Vitus website). St. Vitus just feels like the kind of place where a country would want to keep its kings, emperors, saints and crown jewels.
Part of our tour of the castle included a view out of the first window ever known to have been the location of a defenestration (a punishment much favoured by the Russian government in recent years). Here two royal governors and a scribe were thrown from the window during the Uprising of the Bohemian Estates against the Hapsburgs in 1618. All three survived – unlike most targets of modern defenestration initiatives. Their survival was later deemed to have been a miracle.
The Golden Lane
After we had toured the cathedral, we made our way to the Golden Lane, a fascinating alleyway still within the castle walls with access to dozens of small dwellings. Built in the 16th century, the row-housing-type arrangement is “now the last remainder of the small-scale architecture of Prague Castle. [The homes] were inhabited by defenders of the Castle, servants or for example goldsmiths and the Castle marksmen. The tiny houses were occupied until World War II, but already during the period of the First Republic, care was taken to ensure that the picturesque character of the Lane was not changed in the course of modifications. From 1916 to 1917 house No. 22 was inhabited by the writer Franz Kafka.” (!!)
Several of the dwellings are open to the public, and are either furnished to look the way they might have been when occupied, or serve as locations for relevant displays – from the artifacts of a torture chamber to the collection of amateur film historian, Josef Kazda, who saved thousands of films and documentaries from the Nazis during World War II. .
After walking back down the hill to the river, across Charles Bridge, and back to our hotel, we were almost too tired to go out again. But for reasons I can no longer recall, I had procured tickets to a Baroque concert at the Klementinum Mirror Chapel which was only a few blocks from our hotel. We managed to get there without getting lost!
The “Four Seasons” concert we attended included works by Charpentier, Pachelbel, Verdi, Dvorak, Smetana, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Vivaldi, and it featured members of the Royal Czech Orchestra as well as Marie Fajtová (soprano from the National Theatre), Robert Hugo (titular organist for the St. Salvator Church), and Viktor Mazaček (violin soloist from the Czech Philharmonic). The program and artistic lineup were as magnificent as they sound. And the “high baroque” setting was an extraordinary backdrop.
The Royal Czech Orchestra was established during the reign of Leopold I, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, and was reestablished after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The chapel itself, its website tells us, “was built in 1725 most likely by František Maxmilián Kaňka. The impressive installations of Baroque mirrors on the ceiling make the chapel unparalleled worldwide. Together with gilded stuccos of Bernardo Spinetti, marble panelling and ceiling frescoes by Jan Hiebl, these mirrors create great artistic value of the interior.”
To sit and listen to that magnificent chamber music in that magnificent chamber was an unparalleled experience, and I was beyond grateful for whatever impulse had led me to buy tickets.
The concert began at 6 and was over by 7, which gave us time to enjoy another dinner under the stars on the plaza near our hotel, thereby perfectly closing out our final night in Prague.
I’d be happy to go back anytime.
I will leave you with two very brief samples of the glorious music we were privileged to hear that evening.