the most “castle”-like section of the Prague Castle that I visited was the Old Royal Palace, which occupies a chunk of the southern wing of the structure. the most striking feature of the wing is Vladislav Hall, which, Lonely Planet tells me, is famous for its beautiful, late-Gothic vaulted roof, rough wooden floors and vast, rustic spaces. of course for some reason photography was prohibited in the entirety of the Old Royal Palace, so you will have to imagine this impressive, high-vaulted space that was used for royal purposes like coronation festivities beginning in the 16th century. three original halls were combined into one space that became the “biggest vaulted interior space in Europe without inner supports”. despite the impressive ceiling and impressive spaciousness, the Hall still felt rather Medieval. stand at one end and you can see all the way into the chapel at the other end. to be honest, I’ve seen dining halls in stately homes more impressive. of course, those don’t have the weight of history. in the late 1990s, the Bohemian tradition of electing kings in the Hall was resurrected when members of parliament crowded into the space to elect the Czechoslovak/Czech president (the ceremony has since moved to a larger, more stately room in the palace).
the most unique aspect of Vladislav Hall, however, I have not seen replicated elsewhere. during rainy weather among many, many other things the Hall was used for jousting. I don’t know quite how mounted riders could get up to speed with such a relatively short start but that doesn’t seem to have mattered. the entrance to the Hall from the courtyard is sufficiently tall and wide to let a mounted soldier gallop up the stairs and into the space. I wager they cleared out the market stalls that occupied the space at other times (so that nobles needn’t mingle with the filth that roamed the streets of the city down the hill or across the river). although sealed up somewhat against the elements now, the Riders’ Staircase is wider and more stately than the castle entrance gate facing towards the city.
two castles have defended the city of Prague from the hills of the Vltava River. the more famous of the two overlooks the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) and Stare Mesto (Old Town). it’s been a long time since I’ve been inside a legitimate castle (the closest I’ve come since Windsor in the fall of 2004 was the appointed Castle In the Clouds in New Hampshire where my friends got married in 2008) and I’m not sure what I expected. by some measurements, it’s the largest in the world — the Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the largest coherent castle complex in the world and, put in those terms, it certainly does seem like that. there are three grand courtyards, the most spectacular church in Prague (and maybe the country), and a quaint artist lane tucked into a corner of the castle grounds.
the complex grew and morphed over 1200 years and expand into the extensive structure that exists today. really, it was rather difficult for me to comprehend it as a “castle” at all, since all of the such-named sights that I have visited have afforded one with a contained single, heavily-toured unit. none of these vast sections that are closed to the public, or areas that are still used as artist quarters, or going in and out of buildings throughout the complex and having your ticket stamped or torn at each stop. (thinking back more closely on my potential castle visits…) Trim Castle that I visited last year was a well-preserved relic of a castle. nothing so substantial as an original (or even authentically restored) roof or period-appropriate furnishings. perhaps it is a byproduct of the expectations of tourists for each site — the castle in Trim is beyond Bru na Boinne, well beyond Dublin and not necessarily on the radar or day-trip plan of traditional tourists. Prague Castle, on the other hand, is a primary destination for those who choose to visit Prague. how could it not be, dominating the city skyline as it does?
the weight of history of the place is not insignificant. the first walled building on the site was a castle and the Church of Our Lady in the 9th century, followed shortly thereafter by two basilicas and the first convent in Bohemia. there were periods of Romanesque inspiration, of Gothic inspiration, of modern inspiration, and of no inspiration at all, where the castle stood empty for periods. with the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic the castle became the seat of presidential elections and other formal state functions, though the building suffered acute ill-treatment under both Nazi and Communist rule. it’s now been restored spectacularly (no surprise), and I’ll have more on the various sites on my tour ticket as we move forward.
(and, hopefully, I won’t go quite as long between posts as I have of late …)