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Prague Castle - Locality Description

LOCATION 2: HRADČANY SQUARE AND PRAGUE CASTLE

HRADČANY SQUARE

The Hradčany Square directly next to the Prague Castle was formed as a marketplace on the old road from the royal settlement to north-western Bohemia. In the 12th and 13th centuries the area was filled with houses and many metalworking shops; around 1320 it became the centre of the newly established serf town of Hradčany. Mainly people serving at the Castle settled around the square, people, who were called Hradčané, the Castle Folk. The name used today is documented as early as in the 14th century. In the difficult year of 1541 during the large fire in the Lesser Town and Hradčany the buildings around the square also turned to ashes and gradually aristocratic palaces started to grow on the burnt out locations. The aristocracy wanted to live in the closest vicinity to the royal seat. The prestige of the location further increased when emperor Rudolph II chose the Castle as his permanent seat (in 1583) and when Hradčany was elevated by the same monarch to hold the status of a royal town (in 1598). In 1742 during the French occupation of Prague Hradčany was again afflicted by fire. The deep protective moats, which separated the square from the Castle, were not filled up until 1757 during the Theresian reconstruction of the royal seat; since then the square and the Castle are organically connected and the open space of the square adds to the Castle’s monumentality and pomp. On the south-eastern side the square opens into the Prague Castle ramp, from where you can see one of the most beautiful views of the Lesser Town, Old Town and the New Town on the other side of the river and other parts of Prague.

Today the Hradčany Square is a picturesque area with many interesting Renaissance and Baroque houses and palaces. The little park with the Baroque Plague Pillar of Virgin Mary is divided into two sections, the northern and the southern. The calmer northern side is lined mainly by smaller Baroque aristocratic palaces and canonical houses (they are decorated with a coat of arms of the St. Vitus chapter – a golden belt in a black field) with Gothic or Renaissance cores. The southern part of the square is circumscribed by opulent palace buildings. It was through here, past the representative family seats, that the Royal Route passed. Among the most interesting buildings are the Schwarzenberg Palace, and the Convent of the Mendicant Carmelites Order with the St. Benedict Church on the southern side, the Tuscany Palace on the western side and the Martinic Palace with the Archbishop’s Palace on the northern side. The public lighting lamp- post from the 1860s is also remarkable. The newest addition to the square is the T. G. Masaryk memorial erected on the corner in front of the Salma Palace in 2000. The eastern side of the square is delimited by the First Courtyard of the Prague Castle.

PRAGUE CASTLE

One of the largest castle complexes in the world, for more than a millennium it has been the traditional and only seat of Czech kings and state representatives as well as the religious and spiritual centre of the country. The coronation treasures as well as the remains of Czech kings, precious religious relics, artistic treasures and historical documents are kept here. The changing needs, demands and taste of centuries are reflected in the architecture of the secular as well as the religious buildings of the Castle. Today, the Prague Castle is the symbol of the Czech state and the seat of the head of state, the materialised connection of the present with the past as well as a primary cultural and historical monument admired by visitors from all over the world.

History of the Prague Castle Area

The narrow trapezoid promontory above the left bank of the Vltava River, protected from the north by a deep ravine of the Stag Moat and falling to the south in a less steep slope, was, according to archaeological findings populated since the Neolith. A Slavonic fortified settlement probably existed here as early as in the first half of the 9th century. In the eighties of the 9th century the Prince Bořivoj I moved the central seat of the Přemyslids from Levý Hradec, some 10 kilometres away. The large settlement with wooden houses was protected by an earthen ramparts and a wooden palisade and even then it was probably separated from the area of today’s Hradčany Square by a deep moat. The settlement was accessible by gates from the west, south and east; while the southern entry disappeared in the 14th or the 15th century, throngs of tourists enter through the western and eastern gates today.

On a hill of a strange name Žiži (in place of today’s Third Castle Courtyard) sometime between 882 and 884 still during the reign of Bořivoj I, the second stone Christian church in Bohemia consecrated to Virgin Mary was built. In the first half of the 10th century other sacral buildings were added: the church of St. George (under Vratislav I) and the Rotunda of St. Vitus (under Prince Wenceslas). In 973, during the reign of Boleslav II the Pious, the Castle became the seat of the Prague archbishop, the greatest representative of the church in the country. Probably in the same year, the first convent in Bohemia inhabited by Benedictines was founded at the church of St. George. At the same time the church of St. George was rebuilt into a three-nave basilica, the first in Bohemia. In 1060 Spytihněv II replaced the Rotunda of St. Vitus with a more spacious basilica. While the religious buildings were built from stone, the prince’s palace and accommodation for servants were still wooden at this time.

Between 1070 and 1135 Czech princes resided mostly in the nearby Vyšehrad and after 1135, during the reign of Soběslav I the Castle underwent extensive reconstructions and an expansion and it became the royal seat again. The former earthen ramparts were replaced by a stone wall with defence towers. Basically this change represented a transformation of an early medieval settlement into a real castle. Further boom of the Castle followed in the second half of the 13th century during the reign of Přemyslid Otakar II. In the confusion after the murder of the last Přemyslid king Wenceslas III the Castle fell into decline and the prince Charles, later emperor Charles IV, on his return from abroad found it so dilapidated that he had to accommodate himself in the Old Town at first. He commenced the reconstruction of the residence in 1344 by founding the St. Vitus Cathedral and gradually he rebuilt the whole area to a magnificent residence, a dignified seat for the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The construction work continued until the Hussite Wars, even though the following rulers found the castle uncomfortable and in 1383 – 1483 they resided in the comfort of the King’s Yard in the Old Town. It wasn’t until Vladislav II Jagiello that the king returned to the security of the castle walls. He commissioned the architect B. Ried to rebuild the seat in the late Gothic style.

After the Hapsburg ascension to the Czech throne (in 1526) further reconstructions took place, this time in Renaissance style. These amendments peaked at the turn of the 17th century during the reign of the emperor Rudolph II who chose Prague, like Charles IV did, as his residence town and he returned the Castle into the centre of the Empire, attractive for diplomats, artists and scholars from the whole Europe. After the Battle of the White Mountain the Hapsburg kings moved to Vienna and they stayed at the Prague Castle only occasionally. The Castle was transformed into a representative chateau-style seat under the reign of Maria Theresa (project of N. Pacassi in the style of Rococo classicism). At that time the Castle obtained the look we know today – cold and dignified royal seat looking down from its heights at the chaotic world of ordinary people. The completion of the St. Vitus Cathedral was carried out during the second half of the 19th century. After 1918 the grounds were adapted to serve as the seat of the president of the new republic (by J. Plečnik) and this concluded the construction development of the Prague Castle, except for minor details. The Prague Castle has been a national cultural monument since 1962, since 1992 it is on the UNESCO list as a part of the historical centre of the capital of the Czech Republic.

Description of the Castle grounds

It is a unique fact about the Prague Castle that after all the reconstructions during over 1100 years of its existence it has kept in essence the layout of the Přemyslid settlement from the 9th and 10th century. The grounds can be entered from three sides: the main (western) entrance from the Hradčany Square, the side (northern) entrance from U Prašného mostu Street and the eastern entrance from the Old Castle Steps. If we approach from the Hradčany Square we pass through the Entry Gateway with a Rococo grille with group of statues of the Giants; we arrive at the First Courtyard, which was built as the Court d´honneur during the Theresian reconstruction of the Castle. As early as at the turn of the second millennium there was a deep defence moat with a drawbridge. Under Přemyslid Otakar II two more moats were dug up behind it. These were filled during the reign of Rudolph II; the first moat remained until the Theresian period, when the castle grounds were adjoined to the Hradčany Square in the way we know it today.

On the Second Courtyard, surrounded by the wings of the so-called New Palace, we enter the magnificent Matthias Gateway. In front us on the right the Chapel of the Holy Rood protrudes into the courtyard, on our left there is the North Wing with the Spanish Hall, Rudolph Gallery and the Art Gallery of the Prague Castle, which is located in the former imperial stables. Exclusive representative halls and salons are also in the other wings of the New Palace around the courtyard. They are designated for official visits of the President of the Republic and usually they are open to public twice a year. The centre of the courtyard is decorated with the Baroque Kohl’s Fountain, nearby is a well with a Baroque grille.

The central space of the Prague Castle is the Third Courtyard which we enter through a passageway with the remains of the Přemyslid settlement fortifications made of arenaceous marl. The courtyard is dominated by the edifice of the Cathedral of St. Vitus, St. Adalbert and St. Wenceslas. Its monumental main face will amaze the visitor when entering the courtyard. Going round the Old Provost´s Residence we arrive at the actual open space whose monumental size is animated by the Gothic bronze equestrian statue of St. George and a granite monolith commemorating the victims of World War I. On the left side of the courtyard by the cathedral there is a low roof by J. Plečnik which covers the foundations of the Basilica of St. Vitus (founded by Spytihněv II in 1060) and the Chapel of St. Moritz (it was founded in 973 by Boleslav II the Pious and torn down in 1880 during the completion of the cathedral). On the southern side of the courtyard stands the intricate complex of the Old Royal Palace, the oldest and historically the most valuable secular part of the Castle.

Walking between the Cathedral and the Old Royal Palace we arrive at the George Square. Opposite the back of the St. Vitus Cathedral there is the Basilica of St. George, the second oldest church in Prague. Adjacent to the basilica stands the Convent of St. George, the oldest convent in Bohemia. Opposite to the basilica facade there is the round columned portico in front of the main entrance to the Institute of Gentlewomen. On our tour of the Castle grounds we continue for several dozens of metres along Jiřská Street and then turn left to the picturesque Golden Lane by the Daliborka Tower with tiny houses stuck to the Castle walls. Behind the bottom end of the lane stands the Daliborka Tower much emblazoned with legends. We return to the upper end of Golden Lane where there is the entry to another Castle bastion, the New White Tower. Then we walk back to Jiřská Street and go down past the Lobkowicz Palace and the Burgrave’s House to the easternmost point of the Castle grounds where there is the gateway to the Old Castle Stairs. Above the gateway looms the Romanesque Black Tower. From the elevated fenced platform at the top of the Old Castle Steps there is a beautiful view of the bridges over the Vltava River and other Prague quarters.

From here we go back along Jiřská Street to the George Square and right round the back of the St. Vitus Cathedral we enter Vikářská Street. From here it is possible to enter the northern baily from which it is possible to access the Mihulka Powder Tower. Going along Vikářská Street we get back in front of the face of the St. Vitus Cathedral and through the Second and First Courtyards we leave the Castle grounds. We can relax on the Prague Castle Ramp with a unique view of the roofs and towers of the Lesser Town, Charles Bridge as well as the Old Town and other Prague quarters on the right bank of the Vltava River. If we have enough time we can go and see the large Prague Castle gardens.

Our next route will go down the hill from the Castle Ramp (Ke Hradu Street) to the top end of Nerudova Street. But before we set off towards the Lesser Town Square we can have a look at Úvoz Street, which is a continuation of Nerudova Street towards Pohořelec and the Strahov Monastery.

 

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