Guinness Book of World Records – that venerable volume cataloging the fabulous feats and eccentricities of people who have done something extraordinary, life threatening or pathologically absurd – quite often all three at the same time – tells us that the world’s largest castle created by man stands on 81 acres above the Vltava River in Prague. This is the famed Prague Castle. Upon visiting I was surprised to discover it was not so much a castle, as it was a very large complex of magnificent structures that any major city would be proud to call their own. The castle or Hrad as Czechs call it, provides Prague with such a surfeit of man-made beauty, architectural glitterati and royal refinement that it was hard for me to figure out just where to start. More daunting is the realization that one could spend a lifetime visiting the Castle’s treasures, learning the history of its streets and buildings without ever getting anywhere close to an endpoint. After touring it on a cold, blustery day in mid-March I could not dispute the castle’s world record status for size or breadth. I found the depth of history and culture on offer withering.
Seeing It Through – A Cathedral Fit For A Castle
I barely scratched the surface, spending very little time inside any of the buildings while roaming the streets in sheer wonderment for many hours. After a bit of exploration, I realized that Prague Castle was a misnomer. Trying to think of it in the conventional sense of a singular, standalone castle was impossible. It must be considered in its entirety. Prague Castle is more like something that sprouted from a Hans Christian Anderson tale, filled with fantastical buildings. It contains a series of stunning architectural features from differing eras that taken together is a compelling record of how to create the very essence of royalty. Because there are so many buildings and so much area to cover, it is difficult in retrospect to differentiate between everything I saw. Or for that matter figure out where the castle begins and ends. I must say though, that it is easy to understand why the castle is such a treat for visitors. There is bound to be something for everyone’s taste.
For me it was St. Vitus Cathedral, a church of outsized proportions. A mind meld of old and neo-Gothic. The sheer size of the cathedral did not immediately become apparent due to its placement in a courtyard and proximity to so many other structures. I only realized its scale while standing in front of the main entrance. What I found most amazing was how long St. Vitus Cathedral took to construct. In medieval Europe it was not uncommon for construction on large cathedrals to take up to a century. The technologies of the age did not allow for speedy building processes. Interestingly, it seems the longer something took to build, the longer it would last. The building materials of stone and more stone could withstand the elements, as well as the test of time. St. Vitus shares this similarity with many European cathedrals.
Unfinished Business – A Construction Project For The Ages
What makes St. Vitus an outlier is just how long it took to complete, almost six hundred years. Work on the cathedral started with the laying of a cornerstone in 1344. Frenchman Matthias of Arras was brought in to oversee its design and construction. Less than a decade later, Matthias was dead. Then a German prodigy, by the name of Peter Parler, was brought in to continue the work. Parler toiled for nearly a half century. By the time of his death at the end of the 14th century, only the choir and south transept had been completed.
This began a strangely stagnant period that stretched over the next four and half centuries. The incomplete edifice was not torn down, it was not finished it just stood on the castle grounds half-built. No one quite knew what to make of it. Finally, in the mid-19th century as Czech nationalism began to soar so did the cathedral. Work was restarted. It took almost another century to complete. The finished cathedral suffered from a split architectural personality, its eastern side Old Gothic, its western side Neo-Gothic. What I found most impressive was the gigantic south portal. Not just its size, but the fact that it was finished only in 1953, the last year of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia. The completion of St. Vitus Cathedral under communism, was just as unfathomable as the length of time it took to finish. An act of patience, dedication and will power against the odds and era in which it finally was brought to fruition. It “only” took twenty-nine generations worth of artistic magnificence, indifference and stubbornness to finally see it through.
Golden Lane – This Moment Might Last Forever
The last place I visited in the castle complex was by far the most enchanting, The Golden Lane, a street of colorful facades fronting modest homes that were built to first house sharpshooters who once guarded the castle. Later it was home to goldsmiths, from which its name derives. Such was its charm that I expected the Seven Dwarfs to come rollicking down the cobbled lane any moment. Due to the heavy skies and the fact that it was late afternoon, the usually crowded lane was nearly vacant. All the kitsch filled souvenir shops were shuttered. A silence hung over it as heavy as the air. Lamps along the lane began to twinkle on, adding a bit of quaint illumination to the cobbled way.
I suddenly found myself wishing that I could enter one of the homes for the rest of my life or just one night. Either one would do. I caught a feeling that only comes in the throes of the most passionate love, like this moment might last forever. The homes looked so warm and inviting. The gloomy gray weather that had hung over the afternoon evaporated. There was something both royal and humble about the Golden Lane. I no longer felt like I was in the world’s largest ancient castle, more like I had finally found a home. Now I understood why everyone loved Prague so much, it was a dream that could fit to the size of reality.