Tired of traipsing around castles? The best medicine, says REBECCA GALTON, is yet more castles – and Prague is a good place to start.
There are two things you will definitely have at some point during your travels in Europe and the UK. One is a hangover. The other is known, in some circles, as ABC syndrome. ABC (or ‘another bloody castle’) syndrome is characterised by the following symptoms: fatigue, a glazing over of the eyes, mild depression and a general feeling of discontent, boredom and déjà-vu. It is most commonly felt as the sufferer gazes upon what seems like the 50 millionth castle after 27 exhausting weeks of backpacking. An associated illness called ABS syndrome is similar in onset and symptoms but is triggered by statues rather than castles.
Fortunately, there is a cure and surprisingly it is similar to the cure for hangovers (although is more likely to actually work). The best prescription for ABC syndrome is the hair of the dog, ie more castles. And the bigger – and more spectacular – the better. It is in Prague, then, that I finally overcome the dreaded affliction.
And that is Prague Castle,” our taxi driver says as he gestures out of the car window towards the palace on our drive in from the airport. It is night time so the castle is beautifully lit, its shimmering omnipresent form overlooking the equally gorgeous city. I yawn. It has been a long trip to the capital of the Czech Republic – thanks to a flight delayed by weather – and I’ve only just returned from a holiday around the UK, where I’ve seen plenty of castles, thank you very much.
So it would be true to say I am lacking some enthusiasm as I walk towards the city’s most spectacular landmark the next morning. And this is not entirely due to the steep gradient and the heavy backpack.
Prague Castle (Pra_sk_ hrad) is spread across a hilltop overlooking the city centre and the River Vltava. It is not protected by the usual towers and stone walls, but a bleak palatial facade. There are a number of ways to approach the site – most of them rather hard work with a backpack – but if you walk up the Zámecké schody, after crossing the famous Charles Bridge (Karluv most), you can catch your breath under the guise of taking in the spectacular views. Once at the top, grab an audioguide and map to make sense of the castle’s streets, courtyards and gardens. You can wander around for free but you’ll need a ticket to enter most of the sights, including Golden Lane – a small street lined with historic houses – and the Old Royal Palace, the home of the princes and kings of Bohemia until the 16th century.
The old Royal Palace
The Royal Palace became the principal seat of the Czech rulers as early as the 11th century, when the castle was first fortified,” says our guide as we walk across the courtyard and into the grand hall.
The hall – “considered to be the most important sample of secular architecture in the late gothic style” – is enormous. “So large that not only court balls and banquets could have been held there but also jousts and knights’ tournaments,” says the guide as we are led towards a second entrance, this one wider with shallow steps, which “enabled riders on horseback to enter the hall directly from the courtyard”.
From the stately Royal Palace to the crammed quarters of Golden Lane, so named after the goldsmiths who once lived there. “Golden Lane consists of a row of modest dwellings built into a curve in the castle wall,” our guide explains. The small houses, now overflowing with tourists, were originally occupied by the 24 castle marksmen who guarded the castle gates. Later it was the home of petty craftsmen, mainly goldsmiths, then alchemists, who tried to make gold during the reign of Rudolph II.
“Alchemists in the emperor’s court tried to create a philosopher’s stone, an elixer of life, and gold,” we are told as we squeeze in and out of the small apartments which have been converted into tourist shops. “It is said about the alchemist Edward Kelly that he turned copper into gold right before the emperor’s eyes – it was of course only a trick.”
The appeal of Golden Lane lived on into the 20th century, when Prague’s most famous export, novelist Franz Kafka, moved in.
“Golden Lane in the 20th century attracted many Czech writers and poets,” says the guide, “its history inspired some in the creation of their own work, others simply lived here – Franz Kafka lived in house No.22 in 1916 and 1917.”
• Rebecca Galton travelled to Prague with Opodo (0871-277 0090; www.opodo.co.uk) who have return flights with British Airways plus two nights’ accommodation at the Acc Nifos Rott Hotel from £173 per person.”