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Bratislava Castle and Old Town architecture

Bratislava


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My only destination today ended up being the castle. I left the hostel with more energy I'd felt since arriving in Basel on the 26th, but this turned out to be premature, because the energy drained out of me on my walk up Castle Hill and has not yet returned.

On my way to Castle Hill I passed St Martin's Cathedral and unexpectedly came across a plaque to Imrich Lichtenfeld, the founder of the martial art Krav Maga and a defender of his Jewish neighbourhood against Fascist gangs in the late 1930s.

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There were some fantastic views of the city and the Danube as I went up Castle Hill.

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However, it was sobering to see the controversial Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising (more commonly known as the UFO Bridge due to its flying saucer-shaped observation deck/ restaurant). It's controversial because when it was built in 1972, nearly all of the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town was demolished to create the roadway leading to it.

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The castle was a rather odd experience, mainly because over five public floors about 70-80% of rooms available to walk through were empty, and some others were no entry at all. At times it felt a bit like I was trespassing, although I'd had my ticket checked on entry and after that nobody said anything to me. There were very few other people apart from me inside.

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The ground floor had only the cloakroom and some information about the reconstruction/ refurbishment of the castle. The first floor had the redone music room/ chapel and two rooms which were completely empty except for an antique painted wooden cabinet in one and two large oil paintings and an antique grandfather clock (without the pendulum) in the other. No information given about any of them.

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The second floor had an interesting one-room exhibition of historic prints, watercolours and woodblock prints of the city of Bratislava (known apparently as Pressburg in the 18th and 19th centuries) from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.

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The third floor had an exhibition on the part students, artists, musicians and other activists had to play in the Slovak equivalent of the Czech Velvet Revolution, which together caused the downfall of Communism in then-Czechoslovakia in November 1989. It felt a bit strange to think that this momentous historical occasion happened in my lifetime, albeit when I was too young to hear about or remember it.

The third floor also had the entrance to the steps up the original tower, so I went up. Nice panoramic views from the windows, though they were quite small.

I finished up with a look round the basement, as it promised me an exhibition about the Celts in Bratislava and other places in Western Slovakia. Although a bit amateurishly presented, and small, it did have some interesting exhibits, such as gold and silver coin hoards, bone dice, skeletal remains (both human and of the animals they ate), an engraving/scratching of a pig, a tiny metal figure of a dog, and glass, metal, amber and bone jewellery and other personal objects.

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After leaving the main building I re-admired the views over the Danube and the rest of the city. The sun had come out, though it was still very chilly, with biting winds.

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I made the decision then not to go on a day trip the next day, as I felt so sapped of energy, but rather give the City Museum within the Old Town Hall another chance to have their tower open, and to go to the Jewish Museum as well.

Pleased at having made the decision, I decided to go back to the hostel a different way to the one I'd come. The architecture and cobbled streets of the historic centre are a sight to behold, even in chilly February. Similar to Graz, though smaller.

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On an impulse, after seeing someone leave and thus realising it was open, I popped into the 17th century Protestant-turned-Jesuit church next to the Old Town Hall. Lots of marble, and a large oil painting above the altar.

Posted by 3Traveller 11:26 Archived in Slovakia Tagged bridges churches bratislava museum slovakia fortifications river_danube Comments (0)

St Martin's Cathedral and the Blue Church

Bratislava


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I had a quiet first day in Bratislava today. After quite a long lie-in, I went round the corner to St Michael's Gate. It was chilly and overcast outside, though not wet.

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My aim was to visit the tiny Arms Museum within the Gate, then the equally small Pharmacy Museum a couple of doors down. I'd forgotten that museums are nearly always closed on Mondays, however - so I decided to go tomorrow morning instead.

From there I slowly made my way to St Martin's Cathedral. As I have done all day, I felt very drained and lacking in energy. I still have my cough, too. On my way to the cathedral I passed lots of lovely architecture and two intriguing sculptures; one of a man coming out of the pavement, manhole cover pushed to one side, and another of a melancholy-looking Hans Christian Andersen with a giant snail at his feet.

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I'd got up so late it was now lunchtime, so I had some potato and cheese dumplings with chopped fresh chives on top from a street stall. My appetite wasn't as big as I thought it was, though, so although I liked the dumplings I wasn't able to finish them.

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St Martin's Cathedral was definitely worth visiting, despite being smaller than most. It's three-nave, Gothic, and dates from the 15th century. It was the seat of coronation for the Hungarian kings from then up until the 19th century. I lit a candle when I first came in, then wandered around for a while. Amongst other things, I admired the Baroque Chapel of St John the Almsgiver (John the Merciful) and a famous equestrian statue of St Martin in typical Hungarian hussar dress, dividing his cloak to give to a beggar.

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Although the tower was closed, by paying to see the tiny Treasury I got to go up to platform at the back where the organ is and the choir sit, so I got a good view internally at least.

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There were some more beautiful street scenes on my way to my next stop (Tesco). A couple of interesting wall paintings on one of the buildings caught my eye.

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I went to Tesco to see how it differs to the British version and to get something to have for dinner later. I thought some extra vitamin C would be a good idea, so I got two tins of mandarins in juice in addition to a filled wrap and a pot of rice pudding.

My last stop was St Elizabeth's Church, more commonly known as the Blue Church. This Art Nouveau wonder is definitely well worth the accolades! It certainly lives up to its name, although it isn't 100% blue, especially on the inside.

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As I entered and sat down to rest, a voice started chanting something over a sound system, and four or five old ladies in other pews replied. This chanting and responding continued the whole time I was there - never a physical sign of the person chanting or of any other person working for the church. I thought it discreet to go to the back before taking photos - luckily I wasn't the only tourist there, so I didn't stand out too much.

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It was dark by the time I left. I admired the Old Town Hall all lit up on my way back to my hostel for dinner and an early night.

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Posted by 3Traveller 19:12 Archived in Slovakia Tagged churches art bratislava cathedral slovakia slovakian_cuisine Comments (1)

First time in Switzerland!

London Luton Airport, EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, Basel and Tuttlingen


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Saturday 31st August

I'm teaching in southern Germany for the coming week, but decided to arrive a day early in order to spend a night in Switzerland first. I hadn't been to Switzerland before, so I was keen to make the most of my situation! A full afternoon, evening and night in Basel awaited me.

I arrived at EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg after a flight which went smoothly, though I had a middle seat so I didn't get the best view. The airport is in France, right next to the border; in arrivals you turn left for France and right for Switzerland. I turned right and took the bus to the city centre - free for me with my hostel reservation, though nobody checked tickets anyway.

My hostel, Hyve Basel, was a quick and easy walk from the main station. It was a nice and sunny 25 °C outside and I enjoyed the short walk down leafy residential streets.

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I was too early to check in, so I left my bag in the luggage room and headed back out again straight away. I started off with a walk to the main branch of the Basel Historical Museum, via a park where I had a late lunch of coronation chicken rolls and Chinese sesame flour sweet things I had brought with me from the UK.

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I also passed the Neo-Gothic Open Church of Elizabeth and stopped at an intriguing fountain which after a few minutes I realised must have been designed by one of Basel's most famous artists, Jean Tinguely - a kinetic artist, famous for his moving mechanical sculptures. They reminded me a bit of pictures by Heath Robinson.

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The museum is in a converted church and although a bit on the pricey side (15 Swiss francs), it was definitely worth it.

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One of the highlights was a very interesting 'History of Basel in 50 Objects' exhibition. The highlights of this highlight took me from the Celtic settlement which was the first incarnation of Basel (represented here by a painted jar) all the way up to the Carnival procession of 1995 (a mask of a drum major).

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In medieval times Basel was a city of knights, and was famous for its jousting tournaments, which were usually held during the periods of Carnival and Whitsun and were accompanied by processions, dancing and heavy drinking; pictured are a 'pot helmet' and a 'little tournament crown' (put onto the spear tip to blunt it).

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There were several huge fires in Basel during the medieval period, and after an especially bad one in 1417, which destroyed around 250 houses, the town council decreed that all shingle roofs had to be replaced by tiled roofs. The cost of the tiles for the house owners were subsidised by the council. Pictured is a roof tile from around 1510, with the image of a woman engraved on it.

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Up until the late 19th century, Basel was enclosed by city walls. Prior to that century (when the rules were relaxed), the entry of people and goods was tightly controlled at the city gates. The gates were closed at nightfall and if you wanted to get in after that, you had to pay a fee. In addition to that, fines were issued if you weren't back in time for the evening sermon on Sundays and public holidays! Fees and fines were collected using a tall gate collection tin (one dating from 1615 is pictured).

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Fire was not the only thing which ravaged the city of Basel; the plague also made a regular appearance - every 14 years on average. During one particularly terrible outbreak, in 1610-11, 30% of the population of Basel died. The last known outbreak was between 1667-68. The plague remained (understandably) so feared that in the period after this last outbreak, the town's physician had himself painted as a plague doctor, complete with black protective clothing and beaked mask.

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Next up were the cabinet of Basel's executioner (with the tools he kept in it), which was in use between the 15th and 18th centuries, and a wooden Janus face mask from the River Abo in Cameroon - an object collected by missionaries from the Basel Mission (set up in 1815).

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Then I arrived at 1817, where I was met by a two-penny bread roll from that year. Like much of Europe, Basel suffered from a catastrophic harvest that year, caused by the massive eruption of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia; there was widespread hunger, and the price of corn quadrupled.

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In the time before supermarkets, bread used to be delivered to middle-class households every day. Throughout most of the year these deliveries were made from the bakeries via small wagons, handcarts or bicycles, but in snowy winters, 'bread sleds' were used. The one pictured here dates from 1890.

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Aside from the Carnival mask mentioned before, amongst the 20th century items were a Jewish star (representing the fact that Basel was a safe haven for some Jewish refugees during the 2nd World War) and a ballot box from the Basel-Stadt canton (in 1966, Basel-Stadt became the first German-speaking canton in Switzerland to introduce voting rights for women).

Elsewhere in the museum there was an interesting Enlightenment Cabinet of Curiosities and collection of globes, a fine collection of medieval tapestries, a stunning medieval or Renaissance carved wooden altarpiece, a 13th-century wooden relief of the Virgin & Child from South Tyrol or Graubünden, which was based on a famous Byzantine icon type called the 'Hodegetria' ('She who points the way'), and the remaining fragments of the medieval Danse Macabre murals which Basel was famous for until 1805, when the townspeople decided to knock down the wall it was painted onto and then nearly straight away regretted it. This regret resulted in a number of reproductions of what these murals had looked like - one dating from 1806 was on display. It arranges the Danse Macabre in five rows instead of one long one.

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The tapestry collection is a result of the flowering of this art form within the Late Gothic era in the cities of the Upper Rhine - Basel, Strasbourg and Freiburg. Some have religious themes, but in Basel more tapestries with secular themes remain than do religious ones; they display courtly ideals such as noble knights and elegant lovers, the latter shown in 'Gardens of Love' settings - depictions of earthly paradise. Others show wild men, monsters and other fantastical creatures.

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Included within the tapestry section were displays of two sets of 16th-century playing cards and a set of wonderful medieval stove tiles with reliefs of mythical creatures, a knight on horseback, fighting men, and groups of men and women playing dice.

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I had just headed out of the museum when I realised that I had accidentally missed out the basement, which contains an excellent archaeology section with prehistoric, Celtic, Roman and Alemannic finds. Luckily they let me go back inside and look round it without having to pay again!

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Before leaving I also caught an interesting yet sobering temporary display about the Penan people of Sarawak in Borneo, who have faced massive deforestation of their land since the 1960s.

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I was greeted by bright sunshine when I stepped outside the second time and wandered along picturesque streets to the Spalentor, the main surviving city gate, and then the wonderful Town Hall with its magnificent clock.

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From there I carried on to one of the main bridges across the Rhine. To my surprise, I saw lots of people floating/swimming down the river, carried quite strongly by the current. Most of them had an inflatable tied to them. I thought maybe it was a special event - it's as wide if not a bit wider than the Thames in central London, and surely normally as busy...? Anyway, I was very hot and sweaty by now so I was jealous - the water looked so tempting! It looked a lot cleaner than the Thames.

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After crossing the bridge I walked along the riverside, which was lovely. Lots of leafy trees, bicycles leaning against railings, picturesque buildings and people relaxing in the sunshine.

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After nabbing a cold drink and a 25% off slice of quiche from a small supermarket, I crossed back over via a different bridge.

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I was on a special mission I'd decided on as soon as I'd noticed it on Google Maps a few days before; a walk down the road to the St Alban Tor, another of the old city gates. It didn't look like visitors could go inside it, let alone up it, but I got a picture or two of it anyway. My hometown is St Albans, England, so it was a novelty to see references to St Alban - the protomartyr of Britain - abroad.

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It was past 7pm by now and my feet and back were protesting, so after buying my ticket to Tuttlingen for the next day from the train station, I headed back to the hostel. I had my quiche for dinner (I would have liked a proper meal, but Switzerland does seem as expensive as people say!) in the courtyard, retrieved my rucksack from the luggage room, picked up my key and retired to bed early in my dorm.

Sunday 1st September

I arrived at the hotel in Tuttlingen OK today after a 6-minute train ride from the Swiss Basel station to the German one, another train for an hour and a quarter to a small German city called Singen, and lastly an hour on a rail replacement bus from there to Tuttlingen. Lots of lovely scenery; we ran alongside the Rhine for a decent proportion of the longer train journey, and when not next to the Rhine I saw rolling farmland with heavily forested hills behind.

The hotel is in the middle of the town centre, which is nice - easy to explore the place once my teaching partner 'M' and I finish school each day. We'll have the earliest finish yet to a school day, at 12:30, so there'll be plenty of time to explore!

Update from 28/05/2022: It turns out that swimming/ wearing inflatables and letting the current take you between certain bridges on the Rhine is a very popular pastime in Basel in summer months - so it wasn't a special occasion at all, but rather an everyday one...

Posted by 3Traveller 14:14 Archived in Switzerland Tagged bridges churches buildings trains airport germany museum buses switzerland basel explorations river_rhine Comments (2)

Highlights of my last two days in Prague

Prague, Prague Airport and London Luton Airport


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I didn't do all that much these last two days - maybe the last six weeks of teaching and travelling had caught up with me rather, and I was in need of a rest. I was happy to relax in the hostel and wander around the Old and Lesser Towns and drop into one or two places I came across, rather than try to fit loads of stuff in.

The Astronomical Clock

Totally stunning, as I expected! Absolutely worth seeing, despite the thronging crowd.

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Bethlehem Chapel

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This medieval religious building, a national cultural monument, is well worth a look inside - though be aware that the main room is one big square hall, not the typical church or chapel interior, so it could seem a bit different to what you might expect. The famous Czech religious reformer, Jan Hus, lived and preached here from 1402 until his excommunication in 1412. He was burned at the stake in 1415, and every year a memorial service is held in this chapel on 5th July, the eve of the anniversary of his death.

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Founded in 1391, it was demolished in the 18th century but then very painstakingly restored in the 1950s using the remnants of the original outer walls. My favourite parts were the wooden features and the wall paintings, especially the musical notation (maybe of plainchant?) Sources seem to conflict about whether the wall paintings are original or not, but either way, they were interesting.

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Adjoining the main hall were some rooms which were originally where the preachers lived, including Jan Hus. They are empty now, save for some displays about the life and times of Jan Hus and one or two cases of artefacts. These artefacts included a 'liber decanorum' annotated by Hus himself, the Prague University foundation charter (1348), and five intriguing 'tiles with Hussite topics'; the ones I took photos of show 'A Hussite commander with a banner-carrier', 'A devil with a woman', 'Adam and Eve in the Paradise' (sic) and 'Three Hussite fighters'.

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Chimney Cake (Trdelník)

I saw a lot of places selling these and they seemed pretty pricey (the equivalent of at least £3.50-£4 for the cheapest version, and I wanted an ice cream-filled one, which cost more) so I um'd and ah'd a bit about getting one, but on actually trying one I realised it was absolutely worth it - bigger and therefore more filling and substantial than I expected, and absolutely delicious! To me it was less like a cake and more like a bun, similar to a Chelsea bun though roughly cone-shaped and with an outer layer of glazed sugar.

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Church of St Nicholas

There are two St Nicholas churches in the centre of Prague and unfortunately I've forgotten which one I went into. In fact, I could actually be wrong about it being one of the St Nicholas churches as the interior decoration doesn't seem to fit either. Maybe if there's someone reading this who is from the area and/or otherwise recognises the church from my pictures below, they could possibly comment to let me know?

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Wandering the streets, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square

This I enjoyed a lot, just taking in the sunshine, the architecture and the ringing of the trams. The giant gorilla and panda were out again in the Old Town Square, this time accompanied by a polar bear and a couple of human statues.

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My Air Bagan flight on the 9th wasn't until 22:35, so I didn't arrive at Luton Airport until 23:40 GMT. A very smooth-running flight with no issues at all. To avoid the steep pick-up charge, I walked out of the airport and Dave picked me up from outside a nearby hotel instead.

Posted by 3Traveller 19:36 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged churches prague airport museum czech_republic explorations astronomical_clock unesco_world_heritage_site czech_cuisine Comments (2)

UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Centre of Prague

Prague

Update from April 2021: It turns out that the statue was of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the co-founder and first President of Czechoslovakia, and 7th March was his birthday. That explains the military ceremony I saw in front of his statue...

Time for a wander through the Old and New Towns to Prague Castle!

It was cloudy to begin with but the sun started to come out as I crossed the Vltava River via the famous 14th-century Charles Bridge.

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I took my time crossing, taking in the views and admiring some of the statues along each side.

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The latter included the 17th-century statue of St John of Nepomuk, who is said to bring good luck to those who touch him. Parts of the metal plinth decoration were shiny from years of people's touches.

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On the New Town end of the bridge I crossed a small canal.

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From there I passed through the archway of the Lesser Town Bridge Tower and made my way gradually up the hill to the castle. The architecture was just as impressive as in the Old Town. It was exhilarating to wander up the cobbled streets in the cold sunshine, trams passing by, colour on all sides.

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Eventually I reached the foot of the castle complex. A violinist serenaded passers-by as I stopped for a little rest and had a look at a little war memorial set into the wall.

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Before reaching the castle entrance at the very top of the hill, there was a terrace with some stunning views over the city.

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A little further up, in the big square in front of the complex, I unexpectedly caught a small military ceremony in front of a statue. I'm not sure what the occasion was... it's not a public holiday today.

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Immediately after that I unexpectedly caught another military ceremony... the Changing of the Guard. I stood near Matthias Gate (the entrance to the courtyard) - I saw soldiers marching in, couldn't see much of what subsequently happened within the courtyard, but did get a good view of when the guards came back out to change positions within their pillboxes by the Gate. (No pictures of the ceremony, unfortunately, as I only took videos and I can't load them here without them already being on YouTube or Vimeo.)

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My first stop within the castle complex was the magnificent Gothic and Neo-Gothic St Vitus Cathedral.

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Work began on the present-day cathedral in 1344, but it wasn't finished and consecrated until 1929! The more modern blends seamlessly into the old; examples of the new include some of the many stained glass windows, such as the Creation Rose Window (Frantisek Kysela: 1925) and those within a series of chapels in the Neo-Gothic part of the cathedral. The New Archbishop Chapel contains one designed by the Art Nouveau decorative artist Alphonse Mucha in 1930, which shows Christianity being introduced to the Slavic peoples via Saints Cyril & Methodius (I remember these two from my time in Bulgaria).

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My other favourite stained glass windows, both old and new, include the following:

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I spent quite a while just wandering around, taking in the beauty and the atmospheric nature of my surroundings.

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Special mention to the stunning St Wenceslas Chapel, focal point and cult centre of the cathedral; I admired the 14th-century wall paintings of the Passion Cycle, amongst other magnificent decoration.

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On my exit from the cathedral I had a good look at the decoration of the chapel's exterior entrance.

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My ticket allowed me entrance to four attractions within Prague Castle. With St Vitus Cathedral being the first, the Old Royal Palace next door took my fancy next. Of special interest to me was the room in which the most famous Defenestration of Prague took place, in 1618 (the spark which ignited the Thirty Years' War). I was interested to find out that the victims actually survived - I'd always assumed that they'd died in the fall. We weren't allowed to take photos here or in the adjoining rooms, but we were in the nearby Vladislav Hall.

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My next stop was St George's Basilica; founded in 920, enlarged in 973 and then rebuilt after a fire in 1147, it's one of the oldest buildings in the castle complex.

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After that I moved on to the Golden Lane, which is a street of small historic houses first built for castle guards in the 16th century. Craftsmen moved into the houses after about half a century - including goldsmiths, who gave the street its name. These craftsmen in turn left, however, and in the 19th century the street became a slum, inhabited by poor workers and artists. The houses were lived in right up to 1939 - the writer Franz Kafka lived in one of them for a couple of years during the First World War. Most of them are souvenir shops now, but there were a couple of museum houses too, set up to look how they did when craftsmen or notable inhabitants were living in them over the last couple of hundred years.

Before I had a look at any of the houses, however, I looked round the medieval armoury museum and a former dungeon, both of which are contained within 14th-century fortifications accessed through Golden Lane.

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In one of the long underground corridors in the fortifications I got to try out a crossbow!

Once back up at ground level I walked down the Golden Lane, peering in at the museum houses.

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Before I left the castle grounds I managed some photos of an amazing view over the castle gardens and the city beyond.

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A cat kept tabs on me from a first floor window as I retraced my steps down the hill to the river and Old Town.

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I was knackered by now, and hungry because I hadn't had any lunch, so although it was only about 4pm I decided to have a very early dinner at a restaurant there and then, with the plan to subsequently get a sandwich or other bakery item from a supermarket to have at the hostel later. I decided on Czech goulash with dumplings and red onion - I was surprised at the dumplings, as they were more like slices of bread than the dumplings I've had elsewhere, but it was all very tasty anyway.

I passed through the Old Town Square on my way back to the hostel. Street performers were there in giant fluffy panda and gorilla suits, playing around with members of the public who wanted photos with them. They were very amusing, but I didn't hang around for long as I was so keen to get back and flop at the hostel. The famous astronomical clock is to one side of the square, but I decided to leave that until the next day.

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Posted by 3Traveller 09:25 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged bridges churches prague museum czech_republic explorations fortifications changing_of_the_guard unesco_world_heritage_site czech_cuisine Comments (2)

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