Prague Castle

If not its most famous landmark, Prague Castle is certainly the Czech capital’s most eye-catching. Set on a commanding hilltop overlooking the Vltava River, it dominates the city skyline. The castle’s1100 year history is closely linked to the long and fascinating story of the evolution of the Czech Republic. It is also a monument to a thousand years of magnificent European architecture.

A broad mix of buildings at Prague Castle
A broad mix of buildings at Prague Castle

The original castle complex was commissioned by the Premyslid King Borivoj. Constructed entirely from timber and fortified with earthen ramparts, it included a palace, three churches and monastery. Its area, according to archeologists, was equal to today’s castle complex.

As it passed down through the centuries and through successive dynasties, Prague Castle was reconstructed, re-modelled or renovated in the style of the time and with stamp of the current ruler. In the 13th century King Wenceslas rebuilt it in the Romanesque style. Charles IV, of the Luxembourg Dynasty, transformed it into a Gothic castle in the 14th century. Under King Vladislav Jagiellon, in the 15th century it was Neo Gothic. In 1541 it was almost razed by fire. The Hapsburgh Emperor Rudolph II, brought it to life again as a Renaissance castle, a centre of Science and scholarship and a showcase for the arts. In the late 18th century, under the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, it was re-born as the present Baroque castle.

Since 1918, Prague Castle has been the official residence of the Presidents of the Czech Republic, none of whom have been moved, at least not thus far, to take it through another iteration or to mark it with their stamp.

Prague Today

The window of a Prague Absinth shop
The window of a Prague Absinth shop

It is an early summer evening. The sinking sun lights up the ornate facades of the buildings that stand at the edges of the Old Town Square. Towers and spires rise out of the shadows behind them. Restless tribes of young travellers mill around the Staropramen beer tents. From café terraces their richer, staider and more sober elders look on. A giant screen flashes FIFA hype. On a central platform, a brand new Hyundai sits gleaming like a golden calf.  A boy with a Tintin hairdo buzzes around on a scooter emblazoned with “Darling’s” in hot pink letters. A matching stretch limo with tinted windows hovers in a side street nearby. The Astronomical Clock strikes 9. All heads turn. Tour groups crowd underneath and gaze up at the magical workings of its face. There’s a kind of hush. It is filled with a crescendo of classical music from a nearby church. A languid, six foot blonde goddess strolls by, her golden-brown arms hung with shopping bags – Paul Smith, Prada and Agnes B.

This is Prague today, one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world and one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet.

Since the 1990s, Prague has been back, where, historically as well as geographically, it belongs, at the centre of Europe, at the crossroads of old trade and travel routes. It is part of the European Union. Football fever has taken hold. Global businesses and brands have colonised the commercial sector. H&M, M&S and Benetton fly their flags from grand old shop fronts. Tesco’s lurk in their basements. Gucci, Versace and Chanel occupy corners of art nouveau arcades. Consumerism thrives in this new age. Prague and its people, clearly, love to shop.

They love a good time too and Prague night life is legendary. With some of the best and cheapest beer in Europe as well a rich variety of other intoxicants (including the once outlawed Absinth), with an unbelievable number of bars and clubs which seem to be open all hours and with a laissez faire attitude to “fun” and “entertainment”, the city enjoys a reputation as one of Europe’s premier party places.

Because of its multitude of churches and synagogues, Prague is sometimes called the city of spires. Yet, the Czech Republic is one of the most atheistic countries in the world. Considering the religious dissent which had it tied up for centuries this is not surprising. While some churches still fulfill their religious purpose, others have become the stage for the classical music which has earned Prague fame for centuries.

Architecturally, Prague is breathtaking. Dreamed up by a succession of rich, powerful dynasties, with the artistic genius of the known world at their disposal, it is a wonderland of beautiful, historic buildings. Romanesque, Mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Cubist and Modern Functionalist – every age and every architectural expression, with its own unique Czech twist of course, is here. Every building and every landmark adds another fragment to this great city’s long and rich history.

Whether you’re a culture vulture, a history buff, an architecture afficiando or a party animal, 21st century Prague has everything you could desire.