Tuesday, June 5, 2012

May 14 Morning - Prague

The tour company offered an optional morning sightseeing tour by bus up to the castle and then a walking tour. We decided we had seen a lot yesterday and knew our way around so we would go out on our own.

We head out for old town and it is so much nicer in the square today compared to yesterday. The sun is shining  and the remnants of the marathon are gone.

View of Church of Our Lady before Tyn as we turn into the square. It was built by Hussites, followers of Jan Hus and it played a key role in their movement, being the seat of their Bishop, Jan Rokycana from 1424. Buried inside, among many others, is Tycho Brahe. This Danish astronomer was the leading observer of planetary movement at the time, and it was his notes that Johannes Keppler used to determine that the earth was not the center of the universe. Both men were invited to Prague by the visionary Emperor Rudolf II who was interested in all things occult and science, but unfortunately, Tycho also died here. Allegedly the incident involved a burst bladder (mercury and lead poisoning could have been factors) because no one is allowed to rise from the dinner table before the Emperor does, and poor Tycho had enjoyed too much beer too fast.

 Jan Hus Memorial. He was born in 1369 and was the first rector of Charles University. Among others, he simplified the Czech writing rules and he wasn’t afraid to firmly criticize the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church and the Papacy at those times. In 1415 he was declared a heretic and burned at the stake. His beliefs were shared by the Czech nationalists (nobles and simple people alike) and the Hussite wars in the 14th and 15th centuries followed his dramatic death.
Unveiled in 1915, the statue is a rare example of Art Nouveau as memorial. Hussite warriors are depicted on the left and huddling Protestants forced into exile 200 years later on the right. A young mother nursing her child symbolizes national rebirth, another rare thing to see in a statue (unless it’s the Virgin Mary, of course).

Now it was time to see the astronomical clock in its full glory.
Across the square sits Old Town Hall, on one side the standing remains of a pink building and on the other the exquisite Renaissance Minute House with its intricate exterior painting. The main attraction here is the Astronomical Clock, called Orloj, where a procession of apostles makes an appearance for the crowds every hour on the hour.  The crowds gathering on the hour.
The astronomical clock was constructed in 1410 by the clockmaker Mikulas of Kadan in collaboration with Jan Ondrejuv Sindel, professor of mathematics and astronomy of Prague Charles University.

The entire appearance of the astronomical clock helps to make it unique. The inner ring of the clock face shows the symbols of the zodiac. The outer ring is numbered in Roman numerals, from 1 to 24, to show the time. On the very edge of this ring, Schwabacher numerals indicate Old Czech time. A figure shaped like the sun, attached to a golden arm, moves around the zodiacal circle. A moon icon is also found here.

Other figures, on each side of the clock face, also move. These figures also show the prevailing prejudices of the time in which they were made. Going from left to right, the first figure is Vanity. This is the figure of a man admiring his reflection in a hand mirror. The next figure is a Jew with a bag of money, representing Greed. Death, represented by a skeleton, beats a drum and nods its skull. A Turk is the Infidel rounding out the set. Four other figures remain motionless – The Astronomer, Chronicler, Philosopher, and Angel. 

During the Prague Uprising in May of 1945, the Nazis damaged the clock severely with anti-aircraft guns; the clock lay still for the next three years.
The figures of the 12 apostles, blessing the city at every hour were added in more recent times, during the major repair work carried out between the years 1865-1866. They march around the balcony when the skeleton rings the bell which I loved.  There is also a rooster that crows after the Apostles have finished their blessing.

As the last chime fades, a trumpeter in the tower, wearing a yellow-and-red uniform, plays a short tune to the crowd below, waving to them after his performance. 
Here is a panoramic view of the Old Town Square.

Where to next?

Beautiful St. Nicholas Church at the Old Town Square was completed in 1735. It replaced a parish church, mentioned in records dating back as early as 1273.
St. Nicholas is a Baroque church, decorated with sculptures by Antonín Braun. The interior design was inspired by the chapel of St. Louis-des-invalides in Paris.
In 1781 decorations inside St. Nicholas were removed after emperor Josef II ordered the closure of all monasteries without a social function.
From 1870-1914 St. Nicholas became Russian Orthodox. Then, during the second World War, Czech army units were stationed here and artists were set to work restoring the church.
After the war, St. Nicholas was handed over to the Czech Hussite movement, with whom it remains today. It now serves as both a church and a magnificent venue for classical concerts.

We decided to walk to the Jewish area. On the way we saw this amazing view of the Castle.

As you leave Old Town Square via Parizska street, walk all the way to the end and there, on the left, lies the single oldest gothic structure (or what remains of it) in all of Prague. This half rebuilt building is the Old-New Synagogue and it is in fact is the oldest synagogue in Europe that is still currently used for religious services. Of architectural note is that it was originally called the New Synagogue when it was first built – in the year 1270. And it was one of the first Gothic buildings in Prague. As other, newer, synagogues were constructed, it became the Old-New Synagogue, and now remains the oldest standing Gothic building in the city. Also of note: Franz Kafka's bar mitzvah took place here.
Maisel Synagogue

 I love this restaurant van!

 Looking towards the Jewish graveyard. You have to be on a tour to visit it, however, Monika, our guide, had told us there is a hole in the wall where you can look in. We went looking for it.

The Old Jewish Cemetary was established in the first half of the 15th century. Along with the Old-New Synagogue, it is one of the most important hictoric sites in Prague´s Jewish Town. The oldest tombstone, which marks the grave of the poet and scholar Avigdor Karo, dates from the year 1439. Burials took place in the cemetery until 1787. Today it contains some 12,000 tombstones, although the number of persons buried here is much greater. The cemetery was enlarged a number of times in the past. In spite of this the area did not suffice and earth was brought in to add further layers. It is assumed that the cemetery contains several burial layers placed on top of each other. The picturesque groups of tombstones from various periods emerged through the raising of older stones to the upper layers.The most prominent person buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery is without a doubt the great religious scholar and teacher Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as Rabbi Loew (d. 1609), who is associated with the legend of the Golem. Among the many other prominent persons buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery are: the Mayor of the Jewish Town Mordechai Maisel(d. 1601), the Renaissance scholar, historian, mathematician and astronomer David Gans (d. 1613), scholar and historianJoseph Solomon Delmedigo (d. 1655), and rabbi and collector of Hebrew manuscripts and printed books David Oppenheim (d. 1736).

As we left the Jewish quarter we came across this plaque attached to a wall by the Jan Palach Square (Náměstí Jana Palacha)  on right bank of the Vltava River next to the Jewish Quarter. Unlike other squares in the Old Town, Jan Palach Square was formed at the end of 19th century, making it one of the newest ones. Formerly called 'Red Army Square' changed name after the 1989 Velvet Revolution in great honour of Jan Palach, the 21-year-old philosophy student who immolated himself to death in January 1969 as a protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. On the east side of the square is the philosophy building of Charles University, where Palach attended his lectures. 

We headed towards the river and were treated to more great views of the castle and St. Vitus Church dominating the hill.

We head back to Old Town and as you can see by the clock on the Old Town Tower it is almost noon and the crowds are gathering once again for the Astronomical Clock display. We are ready to have lunch and then meet our group for our afternoon excursion.

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