LOCATION 4: CHARLES BRIDGE AND SURROUNDINGS
One of the most important historical sites of old Prague is undoubtedly the Gothic Charles Bridge and related buildings, mainly the three bridge towers. The stone bridge spans 16 arches and is 516 metres long and over 9 metres wide. It was built after 1357 by a decree of the future king Charles IV in the direct vicinity to the pulled down Romanesque Judith Bridge. Up until 1841 it was the only bridge in Prague. Although this wonder of mediaeval architecture was damaged by floods several times during over six centuries, as if by miracle it was always repaired to its original appearance and today it is one of the best preserved mediaeval bridges in Europe. Apart from its aesthetic effect it is an important proof of the engineering skills of our ancestors.
What makes Charles Bridge a top tourist attraction is the open air sculptural gallery which adorns it. It was created much later than the actual bridge construction, mostly in 1706 -1714 in the expectation of the canonisation of John of Nepomuk. Despite the partial changes the gallery has undergone since its creation, it is still a great reflection of the history of the Czech lands; there are 31 statues and groups of statues in all on the bridge today with approximately 100 figures, among them also prime works of the great men of central European sculpture M. B. Braun and F. M. Brokof. Since 1965 the precious originals of the statues have been gradually replaced by replicas. In extent and quality this bridge gallery has no equal in Europe.
There are also three defence towers which form an integral part of the bridge complex. The oldest, the lower of the twin Lesser Town Bridge Towers, stood already at the time when the Vltava River was bridged by a wooden bridge later replaced by the stone Judith Bridge. The higher of the Lesser Town towers was built after 1464 in place of an older Romanesque tower. The most precious of the three is the Old Town Bridge Tower, though. It was built together with the bridge and it was completed at the end of the 14th century. It is one of the largest and most beautiful Gothic gates in Europe. Moreover, precious Gothic decoration full of allegorical and symbolic meanings has been preserved on its eastern side.
The last part of the Charles Bridge complex is the massive four-piece stairway to the Kampa island built in 1844 in place of older wooden stairs. Beautiful views over the Vltava River and panoramas of both its banks open from the bridge.
SITES YOU CAN SEE FROM THE CHARLES BRIDGE
The Charles Bridge with the magnificent gallery of statues offers not only a unique cultural experience but also a great opportunity to have a look at the Vltava valley in the heart of the capital. As soon as we walk through the Lesser Town Bridge Towers there is the entrance to U lužického semináře Street, named after the seminary for Catholic students from Upper Lusatia which was here in 1705-1922. The street connects the Lesser Town mouth of the bridge with the former settlement Rybáře, today’s Klárov. There used to be fords and ferries all along it; approximately in the location of today’s Mánes Bridge there stood the first known Prague bridge, a wooden one, mentioned for the first time in the Kristian’s Legend dating to 932. The street was not built on until the 16th century, when the Lesser Town below the imperial seat experienced a period of fast development.
Other nice views are available from the Čertovka, a river arm separated from the Vltava stream some 500 metres higher at the entrance of Říční Street and joining it again some 150 metres along its stream. For the unique atmosphere resembling the canals of the Italian jewel of the Adriatic the area around the Čertovka is sometimes - a little ostentatiously for sure - called Prague Venice.
The elongated island separated by the Čertovka from the Lesser Town bank is called Kampa. Originally there was a low sandy islet with gardens, vineyards and mills. Kampa’s area and shape became what it is today only after 1541 when the rubble after the fire of the Lesser Town and Hradčany was brought here. Until 1784 when a wooden stairway was built on the Charles (at the time Stone) Bridge, the island had been connected to the Lesser Town bank only via provisional crossings. The present massive stone stairway was constructed in 1844 to the design of J. Kranner. The island has remained partially undeveloped until today, the local large park is a favourite resting place for the citizens of Prague as well as the visitors to the city. Closer to the Charles Bridge is the main Na Kampě Street with many exemplary houses which can be admired directly from the bridge. The romantic and pleasant environment of Kampa has always attracted prominent figures, especially artists: among others the philologist J. Dobrovský, art historian Z. Wirth, actors J. Werich and E. Kohout, poet V. Holan, painters S. H. Pinkas, A. Kašpar and J. Trnka and writers A. Mrštík, K. M. Čapek-Chod lived here.
If we stop approximately in the middle of the bridge we can take a look even at the more distant buildings. Looking against the current (i.e. on the right in the direction of our route) we can see a weir, on its right end a lock chamber and next to it the area of the ancient Sova’s Mills today reconstructed into a gallery of Czech modern art (Museum Kampa), largely consisting of the art collection administered by the Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation. At the backdrop there is the Petřín Hill with the preserved remains of the Lesser Town and Hradčany fortification from the period of the reign of Charles IV, the so-called Hungry Wall. According to the legend the emperor himself had the wall built to provide his subjects with an opportunity to earn some money during a period of famine and high prices.
We can follow the view of the Old Town bank of the Vltava River along the body of the Legions Bridge from 1898-1901. The bridge also spans the Střelecký Island, a place of many popular events, fairs, promenading concerts, dances and balls especially in the 19th century. In 1882 the first gathering of the Czech gymnastic organisation Sokol (Falcon) took place here, in 1890 the first May Day in Bohemia was commemorated here.
It is impossible to miss the significant neo-Renaissance building of the National Theatre right behind the Old Town end of the Legions Bridge. It was built between 1868 and 1883 to the design of J. Zítek as the embodiment of the Czech will to national independence.
We only fleetingly glance along the line of Classicist and neo-Renaissance houses along the Old Town bank of the Vltava River towards the Charles Bridge bridgehead, but we notice the striking group of buildings which protrude into the river current – it is Novotného lávka (Novotný Footbridge), a precious set of buildings that were mills originally (there were ten here as early as in 1396). Today the original mill buildings have been rebuilt and are used for new purposes, but the Vltava River still runs below them. Since 1489 a part of the footbridge has included the Old Town Water Tower, historically the first Prague water tower, which has been housing the Bedřich Smetana Museum since 1936.
Taking a look in the other direction, along the river current, is also worth the extra time. On the left, by the Lesser Town bank, the recently renovated Baroque Hergetova cihelna (Herget’s Brickyard) catches one’s eye. At the moment it is used as a location for exhibitions, shops and restaurants. A little further out the Mánes Bridge spans the river Vltava. It is a remarkable construction in the modernist and Czech cubist style from 1911-1916, with precious art decorations. Behind it is the long slope of the Letná hill where a monumental granite memorial of J. V. Stalin by sculptor O. Švec and architects J. and V. Štursa used to stand in 1955-1962. It was 15.5 metres high and 22 metres long. Since 1991 a large metronome by sculptor V. Novák has been measuring the time of all mortals. On the Jan Palach Square on the Old Town bank it is impossible to miss the extensive neo-Renaissance building of the Rudolfinum by J. Zítek and J. Schulz from 1881; today it is the seat of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Rudolfinum Gallery.
Before we reach the Old Town Bridge Tower through which we will leave the Charles Bridge we can again enjoy one of the most beautiful views of the Prague panorama and recall our route so far – next to the Petřín slope we see the Strahov Monastery, to the right of it the Prague Castle grounds with the St. Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, spires of the basilica of St. George and the Black Tower. Below the Castle we see the sea of Lesser Town rooftops and behind the twin Lesser Town bridge towers we imagine the massive body of the church of St. Nicholas on the Lesser Town Square
One of the smallest Prague squares lies on the Old Town (right) bank of the Vltava River next to the Charles Bridge bridgehead. It is demarcated by excellent monumental buildings, nevertheless the most impressive is the undeveloped western side with a view of the river and the stunning panorama of the Prague Castle and the Lesser Town. The northern side of the square consists of the church of St. Francis of Assissi and the Monastery of the Knights of the Cross, the southern side is made of three burgher houses, and the face of the church of St. Saviour, a part of the Clementinum, forms the eastern part of the square. In the place of today’s square there was a small island originally; today it is mostly covered by buildings. The bridgehead was originally called Bridge Square or Bridge Ring. The current name dates back to 1870. The square acquired its present look in 1848 when the building of the Vineyard Office in front of the Monastery of the Knights of the Cross was pulled down and the river arm between the first arch of the Charles Bridge and the monastery was spanned with a wide terrace. On it a neo-Gothic statue of Charles IV was erected. Another landmark is the vineyard column with the remains of the paving from the ancient Judith Bridge. At present the atmosphere of the Křížovnické Square, one of the most beautiful open spaces in the whole of Prague, is spoiled by very dense car and tram traffic along its eastern side. The touts of the near-by restaurants do not help to protect the peace and quiet of the place either.