A Walk Across Prague’s Charles Bridge, Three Towers and Thirty Statues

 

It took us three tries to make it all the way across the Charles Bridge but, like they say, “The third time’s the charm.”  Following a leisurely river boat tour that introduced us to the city of Prague on both sides of the river Vltava, we joined the throngs of tourists and passed through the Old Town Bridge Tower to walk a short distance onto the bridge. The Sunday crowds only seemed to grow bigger with each step so we decided to save our crossing for another day and turned back.  A few afternoons later, on a chill and gray day, we reasoned that the cold might keep people away from this popular tourist destination and decided to try again.  Bundled up in our light down coats and new cashmere scarves we’d bought at a street market, we made our second attempt and walked about halfway across before deciding we should have bought mittens too!  However, as the early days of May passed by and Prague warmed up degree by degree, we picked a day in the middle of the week and set off for our third visit.  Success!

 

 

Tourist map of Prague and Charles Bridge – (source)

There are seventeen bridges that cross the Vltava River as it makes its way through Prague but the iconic Charles Bridge (called Karlův Most by the Czechs) is the oldest, with an intriguing backstory and more than a few legends, too.  Replacing the Judith Bridge, the first stone bridge built over the river around 1170 and destroyed by floods in 1342, the Charles Bridge formed the only link between both banks of the Vltava: the Old Town on the west bank and the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) where Prague Castle is located on the east. Known as Stone or Prague Bridge for several centuries, it was the only “solid-land” connection over the river until 1841, making Prague an important trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

 

 

Czech king, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor (how’s that for a job title?) Charles IV commissioned the Charles Bridge and laid the cornerstone on a date decided by his royal astrologers, the 9th of July, 1357, at 5:31 AM. (When written in a year, day, month and time format, it makes a scale, going upwards and then downwards: 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1.) The King’s favorite architect, Petr Parléř, oversaw the majority of the construction and divided his time between the bridge and his masterpiece, St. Vitus Cathedral, at the Prague Castle.  Finished after Parléř’s death in 1402, the bridge is built of sandstone blocks supported by sixteen arches of varying spans and shielded by ice guards. For centuries, folklore said that eggs were mixed with the mortar to give it extra strength but recent investigations have debunked this urban legend. Nevertheless, the Charles Bridge, one of the mightiest bridges in its time, has survived for 665 years despite countless floods that have damaged or demolished various pillars and arches, invasions, occupations and wars. Horse-drawn trams crossed the bridge beginning in 1883 until they were replaced by an electric tram line in 1905. Shortly thereafter in 1908, the trams were traded for buses which served as public transport until World War II. Cars were allowed to cross the bridge until 1965 and then the bridge was closed to all but pedestrian traffic.

 

Old Town Bridge Tower

Flanked on either end by fortified towers which were built to guard access to the bridge, the Old Town Bridge Tower, a blackened, Gothic structure, is truly impressive.  Built at the same time as the Charles Bridge and completed in 1380, it was part of the royal road and a symbolic archway through which Bohemian kings marched on their way to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’s Cathedral for their coronations. One of the most interesting stories we read (gruesome in other words) was the tale of the Protestant Bohemian uprising in 1621 against the area’s ruling power, the Catholic Hapsburg dynasty.  After the revolt was quashed, twenty-seven of the leaders were decapitated in a formal execution on Prague’s Old Town Square and their severed heads were displayed at the Old Town Bridge Tower in a grisly warning against future resistance or uprisings by the Bohemians.

 

Lesser Town Bridge Towers

At the opposite end of the Charles Bridge stand two more fortified towers, connected by a walkway, which protected the gate to the Lesser Town and serve as the main pedestrian entrance to the Malá Strana quarter of Prague.  The smaller structure dates from the 12th century and is named Judith’s Tower. Originally part of Judith’s Bridge, it’s the only remaining part of the original stone bridge. The larger building, Lesser Town Bridge Tower, was built in the second half of the 15th century and is modeled on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Inside the tower are exhibitions of the bridge’s history and, for a modest fee you can climb the spiral stairs which seem to only get narrower and become steeper (as you huff and puff your way up to the top) for spectacular views of the historical city on both sides of the bridge and the river Vltava, winding its way through the historic city.

 

 

The Charles Bridge itself forms a wide avenue set between its three watchful towers and serves as a kind of open air gallery for thirty impressive, mostly Baroque statues and sculptures made over the years by a variety of artists. It’s hard to believe now as the sculptures have come to be synonymous with the bridge itself, but for several centuries the only decoration on the Charles Bridge was a simple crucifix placed in the 14th century.  A more elaborate crucifix was erected in 1657 followed by the first statue, a tribute by the Jesuits to St. John of Nepomuk in 1683.  Other Catholic orders installed their own venerated statues of favorite saints and patron saints (the majority were erected between 1683 and 1714) and, as the years passed, new ones were added to replace those damaged or lost to floods.  Most of the sculptures were made of sandstone and, beginning in 1965, have been systematically replaced by quality replicas.  The originals can be found in the National Museum’s Lapidary (closed for renovation during our visit) or Vysehrad National Cultural Monument.

 

We’re not quite sure what’s attached to their heads but they looks like pinwheels!

 

By far the most popular statue on the Charles Bridge is St. John of Nepomuk, which can be located about halfway towards the middle of the bridge.  He’s also the first person hurled to his cold and watery grave from the Charles Bridge in 1393. The story goes that he was the confessor to the queen and that her husband, a jealous King Wenceslas IV, son of King Charles IV, demanded that the priest reveal her confession which the good priest refused to do. (The more probable reason may have been a bitter conflict between church and state.)  Wenceslas had poor St. John’s tongue cut out, then weighed him down with armor and heaved him off the bridge. Perhaps the story was a bit too macabre so it was given a pretty little twist and concludes with the stars in his halo following his body down the river.

 

St. John of Nepomuk

Now a patron saint in the Czech Republic, he’s also a protector from floods and drowning.  We noticed a small group around the statue and learned that the real reason for St. John of Nepomuk’s popularity seems to be the tradition that says if you rub the bronze plaques (notice how shiny they are?) you’ll have good luck and return to Prague one day.

 

 

Charles Bridge has provided a backdrop for numerous films and the combination of the Gothic bridge towers on either end, the hulking sculptures that line the parapets and the wide expanse of the Vltava River below makes a visit to this historic bridge a must do for any serious sightseer.  The guidebooks recommend visiting the bridge at dawn (seriously?) when the mist is lifting from the river or in the evening for a romantic stroll.  Weekdays seemed to be less crowded and it’s a great place to people watch, listen to the talented street musicians spaced along the wide thoroughfare, eye the offerings of the souvenir vendors who line both sides of the bridge, and watch the local artists at work drawing landscapes, portraits or caricatures.

 

 

And, to make sure that we would return to what was fast becoming one of our favorite cities, we made sure to give both of St. John of Nepomuk’s plaques a little rub!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

58 comments

  • Beautiful bridge, fit for a “King of Bohemia”…love that 🙂 I can’t wait to visit Prague, it has been on my radar for ages, but for one reason or another, it keeps being postponed to another time. I will probably visit out of season…if there is such a thing for Prague? Since it sounds like an incredibly popular destination? Great for your guys to be able to stay for a while and take your time to see it properly. I love the Gothic Architecture, it will be a dream come true for me 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Prague is such an amazing city but it’s definitely on the tourist radar. We’d agree that planning a visit during the off and shoulder seasons (September to May excepting Christmas and Easter) might be a good plan. We saw all sorts of huge tourist groups (at least 30 or more people) following their guides and making the rounds around the historic city. The beginning of May was quiet compared to the end of May as the weather warmed and during the week days the crowds were noticeably smaller. For sure Gilda, keep this on your bucket list!

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  • I lived in Prague for almost two years and it is definitely my favourite place in Europe.

    Liked by 2 people

  • So happy you love Prague! We was where we started our full-time travels 3 years ago. We stayed 3 months in the suburbs, a bus and metro ride from the center. Still only took 30 min to go downtown through, the transport is excellent in Prague. We have such good memories of our time there and always have a weak spot for the city (although the people not the friendliest and there definitely are too many tourists). But many other things make up for that.

    We’ve been back a few times since, including a month last winter (Prague’s also beautiful in winter) and we’re due for a trip again soon (Prague is where we get our dental/medical stuff done).

    One of the things I loved about Prague were the towers. With 1 ticket you can actually see 5 of the main towers in the city, all with fantastic views. I wrote a post at the time just about Prague’s towers. I don’t think any city has a better selection of towers.

    Anyway, so glad you enjoyed it!
    Frank (bbqboy)

    Liked by 3 people

    • To say we loved Prague and the Czech Republic might be an understatement Frank! It was interesting how quickly we felt right at home in the city and we were genuinely sad to leave at the end of the month. If it weren’t so darn cold in the winter, I’d be recommending and even considering it as a fabulous home base and I can see why you and Lissette keep returning. I hadn’t thought of Prague as a hot spot for medical tourism but we were amazed at how cheap everything was in the Czech Republic. If it’s prices for dental and medical care are in line with all the other cost of living indexes, then getting medical/dental procedures done there would be a real bargain!

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  • I was in Prague this past winter and Charles Bridge wasn’t crowded at all. It was rainy and cold, yet Prague still managed to be pretty stunningly beautiful! I never went to the museum about the bridge, so thanks for all the background info!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds like you have a warm spot in your heart Rachel, for Prague even in the cold and rain. And lucky you, sounds like your timing was perfect even if the weather wasn’t! Although we’d done quite a bit of reading and research about Prague before our trip, we were really unprepared for what a beautiful city it is. It wouldn’t be hard to talk us into a return trip!

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  • I’ve not yet been to Prague, but I know I would love to meander across the Charles Bridge. Thx for the great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Prague is an amazing travel destination! This was an excellent post!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Thanks for great insights about the history of the Charles Bridge. It is absolutely fascinating — the history, the statues, the setting! The crowds… not so much. 🙂 But it’s always worth a stroll there with or without the crowds.. I’ve been there twice, both times with big Christmastime tourists. Would be nice to see that gorgeous city in other seasons, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So glad you enjoyed this post, Catherine. How terrific to see Prague during Christmas time as I imagine it must be beautiful. I agree that it would be nice to see the city in other seasons too as I’ve seen some lovely pictures of the streets in the winter with a blanket of snow on them. But … maybe not since we avoid cold weather like the plague!

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  • Another great report from another of your great adventures! Enjoyed the history lesson. Just fascinating!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Always have wanted to visit Prague and your posts are pushing it up the ‘must visit’ list!!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Carolina Colborn

    What a complete description of the history and architecture of Charles Bridge. Now I know why it is so famous and a must-see! Thanks, Anita and Richard.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Finding out a little about the history of a place helps provide some much needed context for those “must-sees” and greatly adds to our enjoyment too. The bridge itself is beautiful with the views of the water and statues that line it and the two neighborhoods that it connects, The Old Town and Mala Strana, are architectural delights too. If we lived in Prague, I have a feeling that crossing the bridge could become a habit!

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  • What a great description! I definitely look forward to crossing the Charles Bridge when I finally make it to Prague.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Carole! The Charles Bridge was listed in every online travel guide we read as well as in the top 5 or 10 “things to do” in Prague so our decision to see it was inevitable. And, when you visit the city, you’ll find that it’s location makes it central to many of the other places that will be on your list too. It’s a beautiful bridge and the street musicians and people watching make it a fun place to hang out for a few hours. It’s probably good that there are no benches as people would never leave! 🙂

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  • Seeing your pictures reminded me of why Annie and I love Prague so much. I hope you get a chance to visit Cesky Krumlov if you haven’t already. It’s absolutely one of the most romantic towns we’ve ever visited and a wonderful change of pace from Prague.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Seems like there’s a whole fan club out there of Prague and Czech Republic lovers and we too fell under its spell! And yes, yes, yes! We rented a car for a week (just like the Skoda we have back in Portugal) and had a great time driving around the country. We’ll be writing about Cesky Krumlov in an upcoming post but we have to agree – it’s the very definition of romantic and a place where it would be easy to believe in fairy tales too!

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  • Prague is on my list. Thank you for the history lesson. History is so much more interesting listening to someone who has experienced the place and actually visiting than sitting in a High School classroom daydreaming. I hope to visit Prague one day when there are fewer visitors. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’re so glad you enjoyed this post Carol and it’s always fun to share what we learn about a place’s history with another traveler who appreciates it. We both remember exactly the kind of classroom lessons you’re referring to – memorizing dates and battles and looking at people wearing outlandish hairstyles and strange costumes. It’s hard to relate to history when it’s presented like that and we have to admit that travel makes a place come alive and the lessons history teaches much more relevant!

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  • I loved reading the story about the Charles Bridge. Fascinating history. Prague looks beautiful – I’d love to visit it someday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We’d definitely recommend putting Prague on your “Must See” list Donna and spending several days if you can because there’s so much to see. We loved having the advantage of several weeks to take our time exploring the city and slowly absorbing the sights. Such a nice way to make the city “ours” and learn about the culture and history at our own pace!

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  • There definitely is something familiar in the architecture and the grand bridge over the wide river. Perhaps it is my Parisian upbringing that resonates with the Prague that you describe. We also resonate with the concept of turning around when faced with excessive crowds. Nothing more off putting when the hordes of tourists detract from the beauty of the architecture.

    Thanks for adding a map along with the photographs, as it definitely helps to get a good orientation. My only problem with your post is that now I am obsessed with what these little helicopter wings could be over the sculpture heads?? Ha ha…

    Ben

    Liked by 2 people

    • Huge crowds are no fun Ben and that’s where slow travel can have such an advantage as you can always return another time or day! So glad you found the map helpful. There’s nothing like a paper map (or online if there’s no other choice!) to help you get some idea of where a place is and what’s nearby. And, like you, we’re still trying to figure out the spinners too! Maybe a way for the saints to wing themselves to the heavens? 🙂

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  • So beautiful.. and the rooftop pictures are so vivid.. Thanks for sharing and please rub the plaques for us too (the ones who didn’t visit Prague yet), so we can go one day also 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  • You are making me think that I need to go to Prague again. For some reason that I cannot explain I was disappointed there and have always preferred Budapest.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Oh this one is definitely on the list! It was interesting to read all about the history of the bridge, and poor St. John of Nepomuk. I get disturbed by the cruelty. At least there are no heads on spikes anymore, at least not in the “west” anyway. I do like the idea of seeing the bridge at dawn, but then I always like to see places without the crowds.
    Alison

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    • We can do without the crowds too, Alison but, despite our best intentions, just couldn’t mange to motivate our bodies out of bed at dawn! I think we’ll be doing more and more of our travels during the shoulder and off-off season months in the future because it’s nice not to fight our way through a mass of people or have some selfie-stick wielding tourist in all our photos. (Kind of like the “pot calling the kettle black” but you know what I mean. 🙂) And yes, it’s really gruesome to think of being greeted on the bridge with a display of severed heads. Guess that’s one way to get the message across to any people who might want to revolt …

      Liked by 1 person

  • Looks like an incredible city to explore – sad that I had to miss it on my own romp through that part of the globe last fall. Tough choices, but hopefully I’ll make it back to Eastern Europe and can pick up some of the countries I missed. That first pic (with all the “love locks”) reminds me of the plethora of locks on the Makartsteg bridge in Salzburg – where I added one of my own!

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    • Aw Dyanne, you would love Prague and the Czech Republic. Make sure you put it on your future “must do” list and maybe the next time you’re on this continent our paths will cross. We couldn’t believe how affordable the country was and to say we ate like kings sums up the restaurant scene too! We loved the locks on the fences (a good photo op too) but recently read that a lot of cities are fining people now and cutting them off because their combined weight is detrimental to some of the very old iron fences. Still, I love the romantic sentiments behind them!

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  • Thank you so much for your history and geography lessons. I am not free to travel at this time but with your blog, I am right beside you. Grateful yo have met you in Nicaragua. Enjoyable d keep well

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    • We’re so glad we met you in Granada also (wow, back in 2014!) and love sharing the history we learn with you. We read lots of travel blogs too so that we can virtually travel to a lot of other places. Maybe that’s why our bucket list is so long! Here’s to real and virtual travel and keep well Maida!

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  • Ah… Prague. There is a lot to be said for visiting some cities, in Europe, in the off season. Prague is definitely one of them as you figured out as the days warmed and more tourists seemingly came of nowhere. We visited in March of 2015 and it was a great time to visit the city, although it was cold enough on some days to bundle up in our winter gear. But, it was a small sacrifice for not having to fight the throngs of tourists. We’d love to return to Prague one day, but it will definitely be in the off season again. I bet the city is beautiful during the holidays.

    Charles Bridge is stunning, isn’t it? We captured a few lovely moments on camera with the sun reflecting on the water and the bridge in the distance. I think it’s the rule to take that particular photo shot. 🙂

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    • Sounds like we’re both singing odes to Prague, Patti! Thanks, too, for your great suggestions. We’d love to make a return visit to the city as well as see more of the Czech Republic and continue to learn more of its fascinating history. It’s so amazingly cheap to travel in the country and the people we met there were welcoming and friendly. I can definitely see a return trip there and, if it weren’t so damned cold, I’d say it could give Portugal a run for its money as far as being a lovely place to live!

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  • We had the same problem with throngs of tourists when we visited Venice and Florence. I admire your tenacity and devious plan!

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    • We’re nothing if not stubborn 🙂and luckily, the Charles Bridge is located in an area that we visited several times during the month of May. Slow traveling and having the luxury of “do-overs” go a long way towards making second and third attempts possible. I hope you had an amazing time in Venice and Florence and figured out some ways to beat the tourist throngs too!

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      • No, we never beat the tourist throngs and if I’m honest it’s put me off going on another cruise. 😦

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        • We went on one transatlantic cruise back in 2015(Miami to Barcelona) and during our years of full-time travel stayed in several cities (Cartagena, Colombia; Willemstad, Curacao;Playa del Carmen,Mexico; Barcelona) where the cruise ships docked for the day and the tourist debarked in droves! What was really off-putting was that they mostly seemed to stay in huge groups with a guide or within a couple block radius. We had a day stop in Madeira and arranged for a taxi and took a nice private tour far from the crowds. Really nice and our only complaint was that we didn’t see all that we’d planned!

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  • I’ve heard so much about this beautiful bridge and l so look forward to one day crossing it :-). I do realize that it might even take the 10th try as Prague has become quite the hot destination, but will persevere like you guys did. What an amazing history, love the egg story..haha! I wonder if the Mexican cartel got the idea of displaying severed heads suspended from bridges from here. So barbaric. I think Game of Thrones was filmed here among other places (seems they filmed everywhere!). I would have rubbed St John too as l’m pretty sure l would like to visit and return. Prague looks so lively and pretty. Thanks for sharing the history of this fascinating bridge.

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    • You’re right Kemi, that Prague is a hot spot on the tourist trail! We were really amazed at the crowds in May, especially on the weekends, in some of the very popular areas. We’ve always tried to time our travels during the shoulder seasons but we may be gravitating more towards the “off” part of the year now. 🙂 You would love the city and the countryside (more posts coming) is just as special and spectacular!

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  • Love it guys. Definitely worth keeping on the ‘return’ list.

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    • Our continued appreciation goes out to you and Shelley for inviting us to share this fairy tale place with you. We’d love to explore more of the Czech Republic and definitely plan to make travel to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe a priority. Looking forward to finding more amazing places with you!

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