Monday, December 24, 2012

Back to the Hrad

So the other day I made a trip back to the Prague castle, or Pražský hrad in Czech. Hrad means castle, I think you can figure out the other part.
I really like the castle. It's a little difficult to explain my appreciation for the place. I'm not particularly awestruck when I visit, but the more I learn about it the more impressed I am by it. It's just a really nice place to walk to and wander around aimlessly watching people and just "seeing" as Mark Holm would say. I think as I get more comfortable going there I will shoot more. Right now I just like going and "seeing" to fill my mind, not my CF card. That isn't to say I don't always crack a shutter when I go.
For this trip I walked from home. It takes about 15 minutes and I went a different way than I usually do this time. I'm not too sure I can reproduce it on a map as the streets here are still confusing me a bit, but I'll give it a try. That's the one trouble with cities that are over 1000 years old, the planning departments didn't really have much vision.  

As near as I can tell this is basically the route I took. Google says it's a little over a mile. I walked across the Charles Bridge and as I neared the castle I started going up some stairs next to the south castle wall. It was really a very nice walk in the snow and this route isn't quite as populated as the main route so I felt a little old world and more special since there were not tourists all over the place. 

As you can see I had it pretty much to myself by this point. At the top of this hill before you go into the castle complex there is a great view of some of the U.S. Embassy grounds, they are truly impressive.
I was lucky as well, I made it to the top of the hill about 15 minutes before the once a day, bells and whistles, full fanfare changing of the castle guard. They do it once a day at High Noon. The whole ordeal takes about 15 minutes and I have decided I need to do a blog post on nothing but guard changes at the castle. They change the posted guards every hour, but it's nowhere as special as the once-a-day party. Sure it's no First Cavalry Division change of command, at least I didn't see any one with a basket of carrots, but it's pretty good. I debated not staying for it, but I'm glad I did.
After the changing of the guard I went and bought a ticket that lets me get into some of the other restricted areas of the castle. The ticket was 350kc and let me in to a bunch of other places. I could have forked over another 350kc for a self-guided audio tour thingy, but I just did what I usually do and did my own thing.
The castle area has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was officially founded in 880 by some price or some such. I absorbed a lot of information and don't want to get it mixed up so I suggest reading this if you're really interested. It is worth the read.
I think one of the things that stirs me about this place, and many other places I see here, is when I think about all the amazing historic sites I visited in the southwest and realize that people over here were building impressive fortifications that are still being used today at the same time Native Americans were building stuff out of mud and rocks that really, in my opinion are not nearly as impressive compared to this stuff. Sorry folks, I'll change my mind when I see a grand kiva with flying buttresses.
I checked out the permanent exhibit called "The Story of Prague Castle." They don't allow photography in the exhibit, so no dice and I didn't want to risk upsetting the nice old Czech ladies in every room to enforce the rules. I don't know if you've ever been cursed out by a Czech woman, it's not pleasant. There are all manner of artifacts and such in the exhibit and perhaps some of the most interesting things were the graves which had been moved to the exhibit.
When I say graves, I mean actual graves. They didn't just take a plaster cast of the skeletons and recreate them, no. They dug all around the grave and figured out some way to support the bottom and moved the whole kit and caboodle into this exhibition. There were several such graves in there. One of the recurring themes was that the bodies where thrown in the graves with their hands tied behind their backs. This was typical of a certain time period and the literature informed me it was most likely to stop the people coming back from the dead. It was interesting to know that people were worried about the zombie apocalypse a thousand years ago even.
Before I went into "The Story of Prague Castle" exhibit I noticed a really cool wall covered with vines. I'm sure I'll be back to this. I think it was a grape vine. I'll find out in a few months.

To me though the best part of this trip to the castle was going up in the bell tower at St. Vitus Cathedral. The tower reaches a height of 317 feet and offers some really impressive views of the city as well as the castle complex and cathedral itself.

This is a view of the castle complex and you can see town in it too. It was snowing so things were a little hazy. I think it adds some charm. The bridge on the far right of the frame in the Charles Bridge which I walked across to get here. You can also see the Church of Our Lady before Týn pretty well in this photo. It's right at the Old Town Square and about 150 feet from where I live. So you really can see my house from here.
Of course the view from the tower also afforded an amazing look at the cathedral itself. There is an extra charge to go up in the tower of 150kc but they give you a commemorative coin, whoopee. The other catch is that you have to have the fortitude to climb a 200+ foot tiny spiral staircase.

I actually had to stop a few times while climbing this because I was getting dizzy. There are many really great things about this tower. This staircase is one of them because many people don't want to bother with it, fine by me.
The staircase of course goes right by the bells in the tower. The bells are difficult to see and the one really awesome frame I wanted to make while I was in the tower was completely obscured by a wire-mesh door.
When I got to the door and looked inside there were a few ropes for pulling bells a small desk up against a wall and off in the corner, behind the ropes, was a little Christmas tree about four feet tall modestly decorated with a few ornaments. The light was excellent, the ancient wooden floor was rustic it was a great frame. I tried for several minutes to figure out a way around the mesh door, but it was just to tight. I even tried to see if my iphone lens was small enough to not be obscured, no dice.

This really was about the best I could manage for a photo of anything that says bell tower. I had to shoot this through a window which has not been cleaned in 50 years or so. You can see the effects of the window pretty clearly in the photo. Notice the reflection at the top left and the blooming just over the window. It's like I used my Hipstamatic only for reals.
Of course I was rewarded by fantastic views of the cathedral itself when I got to the top too.

These are the spires at the front of the cathedral. I really like the way the snow is clinging to the roof next to the spire.

This spire is in the middle of the cathedral. I have no idea what it is for, but there is a ladder in it so I'm sure somebody gets to go up in it every once in a while. And it's copper, which is awesome.

I was really impressed by the roof of the cathedral. Like I said Native Americans were building mud huts when people here were making copper cocks and intricate roofs like this 200 feet up. It really is impressive to me.
The 350kc pass also lets you in to areas of the cathedral you aren't allowed in for free, I assume worship is another story I'll find that out tonight at midnight mass. It's really a pretty typical cathedral inside with altars all around it and ornate stained-glass windows. The thing I liked the most about it was probably the coolest nativity scene I've viewed in a long time.

As a post-publication note: The Bishop's processional out of the cathedral at the end of midnight Mass stopped at this nativity to sing a hymn.
I have to say, for a country with the reputation for being the most atheist in Europe these folks do love their Christmas. There are trees practically everywhere. There were several in the cathedral at certain places and then about 10 or so right around this nativity. Heck, you can buy Christmas trees at Ikea in this country, awesome.
Another place I was able to see with my ticket was Vladislav Hall. Evidently it was quite the engineering feat of its day. The fact that it doesn't have any internal supports holding it up is quite amazing. I read that it was built to be large enough for nights to have combat contests in it and there is a stairway large enough to accommodate horses.

The floor alone was stunning. I doubt horses or dudes in iron shoes did particularly well on it. I suppose they put something down to keep slipping to a minimum. Just off the hall in the same building was basically the land registry office. It is where all the disputes between nobels were registered and books were kept with who had what.

The spines of the books were painted to make it easier to pick them out from the huge cabinets that housed them all.
After all this it was time to check out the Golden Lane. It's basically a bunch of little houses and shops built into the outer castle wall. You can go up into the wall battlements and there are suits of armor on display in the wall. There were rotating arrow slits in the wall. I'm a sucker for arrow slits. I really do think they are awesome.

The wooden center part rotates. Ingenious. At this point I had spent over five hours wandering around the castle and it was getting dark and I was getting hungry, but what castle tour would be complete without a medieval torture device display?

Yup, pretty standard torture stuff. The large piece on the left is of course a rack.

A better view of the rack and you can see some of the other crazy stuff. There are some masks with horns on them which I can only assume were for forcing people to drink until they popped. At least I think that is what they were for. So after I checked this out I made my way back down the hill using the main steps this time.

It is impossible to traverse these stairs without encountering at least half a dozen beggars, street musicians or the occasional living statue dude. I suppose living statues are street "performers." This guy was playing some pretty awesome flamenco tunes and he of course had picked out an awesome spot next to a altar for guitar players. You can't not make this frame and it is my favorite from the day.

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