Great cityscapes are distinguished as much by the might and majesty of their Bridges as by the grandeur of their buildings. What is London without Tower Bridge, Paris without the Pont Neuf, San Francisco without the Golden Gate or Sydney without the Harbour Bridge? And what is Prague with out the Charles Bridge?
In Prague’s early days here had been several attempts to link the little townships that lay on either side of the Vltava River. The first was wooden bridge, which was swept away by floods in the 11th century. In 1172, King Wenceslas I commissioned the first stone bridge which he named after his wife Judith. But the Judith Bridge too succumbed to a Vltava flood and collapsed in 1342. Then, in 1357, Charles IV of the Luxembourg Dynasty, King of Bohemia and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, set about building the bridge which would stand for over six centuries, through flood, fire and numerous wars, as a monument to the magnificence and might of his reign.
Construction began under the engineer Master Otto and continued under architect Peter Parler, designer of the Wenceslas Chapel in St Vitus Cathedral and the Old Town Hall Tower. The foundations were laid at 5.31 a.m. on the 9th of July, 1357, a time, according to legend, of great numerological significance. Legend also has it that the bridge’s mortar was reinforced with egg yolk. While this can’t be proved conclusively, modern tests have established that it does contain organic elements.
The Stone Bridge (Kammeny Most) or Prague Bridge (Prazsky Most) as it was first known, opened in 1402. At 516 metres long and nearly 10metres wide with three fortified bridge towers and sitting on a series of stone arches with ice-guards, it was unsurpassed in contemporary Europe. Kammeny Most proved a vital commercial artery between the two banks of the Vlatava and the townships of Prague prospered. Soon merchants and traders set up on the bridge. On holidays and festivals, it was the scene of grand medieval tournaments.
In the 18th century the Hapsburgh Empress Maria Theresa made her mark on the Stone Bridge, with the addition of 30 magnificent Baroque statues.
In 1870, Kammeny or Prazsky Most changed its name to Karlov Most or Charles Bridge, in memory of the great King who had masterminded it. Too precious to risk at the hands of the millions that reach to touch them these days, the original Baroque statues are now stored in Prague Castle’s Lapidary. Those on the bridge are replicas.
Today the Charles Bridge stands as strong as it did over six hundred years ago. It throngs with life and colour. Artists and artisans ply their trade there. Tourists flock to photograph its beauty. Lovers bask in the romance of the place – the towers, the bridge, the castle above on one bank and the ancient facades of the old town buildings on the other.