The Course Of A Falling Star – Albrecht von Wallenstein: Astrology & Assassination

“Ah my Wallenstein! They painted him blacker than he was” were the words cried aloud by Ferdinand II the Holy Roman Emperor. He reputedly exclaimed this phrase when he received the commander’s collar of the Golden Fleece that had been worn by his greatest general, Albrecht von Wallenstein. The collar provided final verification of Wallenstein’s assassination. Wallenstein had defeated numerous Protestant armies opposed to the Counter-Reformation during the first half of the Thirty Years’ War. These victories secured Ferdinand’s rule over much of East-Central Europe. Now Wallenstein, a name loathed by those who had once feared it, was dead. After his cry of anguish, Ferdinand ordered 3,000 masses spoken so that Wallenstein’s soul would rest in peace. Something he cultivated very little of in a life marked by conflict.

Was Ferdinand’s grief genuine? Despite the histrionics, it is doubtful. He was likely just crying crocodile tears. After all, he had been the one who ordered Wallenstein’s murder. The two men had not spoken to one another for six years. During that time Wallenstein had fallen out, then in and back out of favor. Once the emperor lost confidence in him Wallenstein’s fate was foresworn. It led to a blood-soaked climax in a bedroom at Eger (present day Cheb, Czech Republic) in northwestern Bohemia on a winter night in 1634. That incident was the final act in Wallenstein’s precipitate fall from power.

Albrecht von Wallenstein - The Generalissmus

Albrecht von Wallenstein – Generalissmus

“Difficult Times” – the Power Of Predictions
Despite his martial exploits, Wallenstein had been forced into retirement in 1630 by opposition from the Imperial Diet. He was a polarizing figure that managed to unite the Catholic and Protestant princes in German territory against him. Pressure was exerted on Ferdinand to remove him from command. For the next two years, Wallenstein spent in an inordinate amount of time dabbling in astrology. He hired Johannes Kepler, the famed astronomer to provide him with horoscopes. One of Kepler’s predictions proved uncannily prescient. In March 1634, the horoscope warned of “difficult times” ahead for Wallenstein. Truth be told, Wallenstein had already been suffering through many years of “difficult times” long before that prediction. During retirement he had fallen into heavy debt, to the point where he sold off much of his large landholdings, yet even then he was still forced to take out loans with very high interest rates. His inability to pay these back, pushed him to the edge of bankruptcy.

Wallenstein needed money, as much as he needed power. Both were connected, battlefield victories brought him power and money. One could be used in the service of the other, but only for so long as constant campaigning would allow. In 1632, after Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden dealt the Emperor’s forces several resounding defeats, Wallenstein was called back into service. The Generalissmo, as he was often called, proceeded to win several important victories. In 1632 he faced off against Adolphus and his army at the Battle of Lutzen. Adolphus was killed, but the battle resulted in a stalemate. Wallenstein had been unable to finish off what would have been a critical victory. He then searched for scapegoats, finding many among both his officers and common soldiers. Seventeen of them, including twelve officers, were executed. This only served to lower morale in the army and increase resistance.

The Course Of A Falling Star - Wallenstein Horoscope by Johannes Kepler

The Course Of A Falling Star – Wallenstein Horoscope by Johannes Kepler

Listlessness & Lassitude – Losing It & Then Losing It All
Wallenstein had lost his nerve on the battlefield. While off it, he was succumbing to a dreadful lassitude and became increasingly listless. He also betrayed the emperor’s trust, not allowing Ferdinand’s son to command armies in the field. This was a level of insubordination that Ferdinand could not tolerate. It was in direct contravention to Imperial authority. The Monarchy was greater than any one man, a fact that Wallenstein, swollen with pride and arrogance had long since forgotten. Meanwhile Wallenstein had not only been losing the Emperor’s trust, but he had also been plotting a separate peace with the Monarchy’s enemies. At one time or another he was in peace talks with the Swedes, Saxony, Brandenburg and France.

Meanwhile his army took up what looked to be permanent residence on the Ferdinand’s territory. While all this was occurring, Wallenstein became increasingly reliant on astrology in the conduct of his affairs. In other words, he was losing it and was on the verge of losing it all.  In 1634, during the second week of January, Ferdinand and his advisors met in Graz. There they decided Wallenstein would have to be brought in dead or alive. The former was certainly preferred over the latter. On the 24th of January, Ferdinand issued the order that relived Wallenstein of his duties and ensured that army officers were no longer under his command. Exactly a month later, a group of Scottish and Irish mercenary officers caught up with Wallenstein and his most trusted officers in Eger. Wallenstein had fled there, in hopes of making a deal and going over to the Swedish side.

Unwittingly, several of his most trusted officers agreed to a dinner invitation at Eger Castle (Cheb Castle). They were subsequently murdered about an hour into their meal. This left Wallenstein all alone at the burgomaster’s (mayoral) residence except for a nominal guard and servant who were quickly dispatched by the assassins. Wallenstein awoke before they made it into his room, but not in enough time to adequately defend himself. He was approached by Walter Devereaux, an Irish captain. Reports relate that Wallenstein attempted to ask for quarter, but Devereaux ran him through with a halberd, shouting “Faithless rebellious old villain” just before he committed the final act. With that, the most brilliant and faithless general in the Thirty Years’ War was dead.

The Killing of Albrecht von Wallenstein in Eger (Cheb), Kingdom of Bohemia

The Killing of Albrecht von Wallenstein in Eger (Cheb), Kingdom of Bohemia

Looked Down Upon – “The Mighty From their Seat”
The final word on the fate of Wallenstein lies in the memoirs of a contemporary observer, Michael Heubel, a commissioner of war and judge for the monarchy. “I saw the room in Eger with two side doors bearing the ineradicable stain of Wallenstein’s blood, and also the staircase down which his corpse was dragged feet first, he who only an hour before had been a great duke and is now become the least and most unworthy of all men – so swiftly can the Lord put down the mighty from their seat.” Wallenstein who had once aspired to be the most powerful man in the Holy Roman Empire – and may well have been – was now history. He would become a byword for egoism, vanity, megalomania, superstition and treason. Wallenstein, who had once brilliantly commanded armies that reordered the map of central and eastern Europe, was just a bloody corpse. His most lasting legacy would be Wallenstein Palace, forever standing in the shadows of the great Prague Castle. From where it would be looked down upon for centuries to come.

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Greater Than The Gods – A Palatial Reminder: The Vanity Of Albrecht von Wallenstein

I was standing on the eastern edge of Prague Castle looking down at the heart of the Czech capital. I could easily spot the Charles, Legion and Manes Bridges, the Vltava River slowly surged forward with the historic architecture of Prague’s Stare Mesto (Old Town) visible just to the west of it. Below me was the Mala Strana (Lesser Town) with its red roofs and beautiful Baroque architecture. One area of it that I could not help but notice was the Wallenstein Palace. Today it houses the Czech Republic’s Senate, but the palace is most famous for its namesake, Albrecht von Wallenstein. The sight of the palace and its adjacent grounds gave me pause, I felt a strange, menacing fascination. That name Wallenstein meant much more than a palace, it meant power and betrayal, war without end and ultimately murder.

Wallenstein was one of the most famous warlords in what was Europe’s most infamous conflict prior to the 20th century. He brought himself fame and fortune during the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict which caused untold suffering and ravaged Central Europe for much of the first half of the 17th century. He rose to become the supreme commander of the Habsburg Monarchy’s forces before he fell from favor and was assassinated. It was almost impossible for me to separate the man from his fate. Wallenstein’s murder was chilling, but not surprising. More than anything, Wallenstein was dedicated to war and that dedication brought him to a very bloody end on a deadly winter night.

Wallenstein Palace - in Prague's Mala Strana District

Wallenstein Palace – in Prague’s Mala Strana District (Credit: packare)

A Conversion To Power – Faith In Opportunism
Ambitious, opportunistic and rapacious are all words that aptly describe Albrecht von Wallenstein. His pursuit of power knew no bounds and would eventually lead to his downfall, but it also led him to surmount the circumstances of the world into which he was born. Wallenstein came from a family of poor Bohemian nobility. “Poor” is a relative word though. The Wallenstein family owned a castle and seven villages, but by the standards of Bohemian nobility they were impoverished. Albrecht acquired an excellent education, first at Protestant schools and universities – he was raised Lutheran – then later under the tutelage of Jesuits. Some believe this Jesuit instruction was the main reason for his conversion to Catholicism. This decision would ultimately pay off, as Wallenstein had effectively aligned himself with the Habsburg Monarchy during the Counter-Reformation. Only Catholics could be appointed to positions of power in the monarchy. Whether Wallenstein went through a legitimate conversion is open to question. The conversion was just as likely opportunism.

Judging by his future career, the ends always justified the means. The same went for marriage, as Wallenstein attained much of his initial wealth and power from what would be termed today as marrying into money. In his case, he married into land and lots of it. His first marriage to a widow only lasted five years, but that was because she died and left him with vast landholdings. A decade later, he married the daughter of a count. Her family lands came into his possession as well. After the two marriages, Wallenstein was one of the wealthiest landowners in Bohemia, but that was not enough for him. The more he took, the more he wanted.

Albrecht von Wallenstein

Albrecht von Wallenstein (Credit: Anthony Van Dyck)

A Lust For Power – From Egomania To Megalomania
It was not just wealth, but also power which Wallenstein coveted. His wealth was a means to this end. He financed and outfitted an entire regiment to fight in the Thirty Years’ War on behalf of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II. Such was his military prowess that he quickly advanced to the upper echelons of the Emperor’s armed forces. He led troops in a stunning series of triumphs which included victory over Protestant forces at the Battle of White Mountain. After this victory, Wallenstein confiscated landholdings of Protestant nobles in Bohemia. Warfare was paying off handsomely, bringing him power, prestige and incredible riches. His military acumen extended well beyond the battlefield. He developed a system of “war taxes” whereby allies of the Emperor had to help fund the military. Prior to this, armies lived only off the plunder they gained from their martial exploits, now both ally and enemy would fund military expeditions. This system allowed Wallenstein to raise massive numbers of troops for a series of seemingly endless campaigns.

Amid his many glorious victories, Wallenstein failed to see that he was bleeding the population on his own side to death. Civilians became increasingly resentful of his methods. Wallenstein’s troops were notorious for being particularly brutal in their treatment of local populations. At the same time, his growing power was becoming a threat to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. The emperor was right to fear Wallenstein. Here was a man whose lust for power and wealth seemed to never be satisfied. Case in point, Wallenstein Palace, where no expense was spared in its construction and furnishing the interior.  Wallenstein built it to compete with Prague Castle, which towered just above it. As such, the palace’s Main Hall rivaled the Spanish Hall at the castle in size and splendor. One specific fresco in the Main Hall is particularly expressive of Wallenstein’s megalomania. In the middle ceiling, the fresco portrays Wallenstein as Mars, the God of War. In the past, Mars had been depicted driving a war chariot with three horses. In the ceiling fresco, he is driving four horses. Egomaniacal and vain, Wallenstein now thought of himself as greater than the gods.

Fresco depicting Wallenstein as Mars, the God of war - Riding in a chariot pulled by four horses

Fresco depicting Wallenstein as Mars, the God of war – Riding in a chariot pulled by four horses (Credit: Wikipedia)

Blind Ambition – Unretired
Wallenstein’s vanity was not limited to his grandest palace. He also collected titles and offices the way he collected wealth. At one time or another he was Duke of Friedland, Duke of Mecklenburg, Lord of Jicin, Holy Roman Emperor Count Palatine, Generallismo and my personal favorite, Admiral of the North and Baltic Seas. His ego demanded a multitude of honorifics, his greed vast amounts of treasure and his ambition unlimited power.  Ferdinand II began to fear that Wallenstein might eventually overthrow him, the princes in other areas of the empire both resented and feared Wallenstein. His army’s plunder and cruelty alienated both Catholics and Protestants. In 1630 Ferdinand relieved him of command. Wallenstein went into what turned out to be a rather short retirement of only two years. After the Emperor’s armies were dealt several resounding defeats by the brilliant generalship of the Swedish warlord, Gustavus Adolphus, Wallenstein was brought back as commander of the Habsburg forces. Little did he know, that the final part of his career and life were about to begin.

Click here for: The Course Of A Falling Star – Albrecht von Wallenstein: Astrology & Assassination


The Dancing House In Prague – Searching For Stability: Fred & Ginger By The Vltava

Modern architecture is like modern art for me: sterile, lacking in charm and for the most part, incomprehensible. When functionality is the best thing you can say about a modern building, well then there is not much left to say. At least modern architecture in the United States can be explained away by the fact that America is a place constantly reinventing itself, with a history that is relatively new. The opposite is true for Europe, it is called the Old World for a reason and to my mind the buildings should reflect that. The modern architecture I am most familiar with in Europe was the Socialist realist style inspired by the Soviet Union. It has all the rigidity and unimaginativeness of a Stalinist Five Year Plan. Function dictates style.

Fortunately for Eastern Europe, communism did not destroy most of the old architecture in this region. It was needed for everything, from alleviating housing shortages to administrative facilities. It may be distasteful to think of gorgeous churches turned into museums of atheism for forty years, but at least they were not destroyed. What did destroy much of Eastern Europe’s older architecture (I am using this term loosely, denoting anything prior to World War One) was the Second World War. Some older areas were almost totally rebuilt, such as Warsaw’s Old Town. While Minsk was reconstructed in Soviet style. One place that survived the war relatively unscathed was Prague. An overriding majority of its historic core remained intact. That does not mean it did not suffer some damage, most notably in 1945, when American bombers struck the city. This would eventually mean opportunities for reconstruction. This is how the Czech capital became home to one of the most bizarre buildings in modern times, Frank Gehry’s Dancing House.

Fred and Ginger - Dancing House at dusk

Fred and Ginger – Dancing House at dusk (Credit: Dino Quinzani)

Stepping Out & Stepping Up – Dynamism’s Duo
Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers may have finished their last dance decades ago, but they can still be found immortalized on Jiraskovo Place (Jiraskovo namesti) in Prague. A different Fred and Ginger now spend their days and nights locked together, not far from the banks of the Vltava River. The difference between Fred and GInger on the dance floor and the two together in Prague is stark. While the former was an incredibly dynamic duo who wowed the world with their dance steps, the latter is an eclectic modern architectural wonder designed by another tandem, architects Frank Gehry and the Czech Republic’s own Vlado Milunic. Their creation was given the name Fred and Ginger by Gehry, but it is more popularly known as The Dancing House. I understood why after viewing it from just across the street at the Alois Jirasek Memorial (Pomnik Aloise Jirasek) that contains the statue of the famous Czech poet and playwright Alois Jirasek.

It was another Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, who was partly responsible for a new Fred and Ginger tripping the light fantastic in Prague. Havel grew up beside the area where the Dancing House now stands. During much of his lifetime, the site held the shell of a building that American bombers struck during the last phase of the Second World War. During the Cold War, Havel – who was a dissident famous for his unyielding opposition to Czechoslovakia’s communist regime – lived beside the abandoned site. Sometime during the mid-1980’s, before the Iron Curtain fell, Havel and Milunic who were neighbors, spent time discussing what could be done about the ruined property. They both shared an idea that it might eventually host a cultural center.

Something to look over - windows at the Dancing House

Something to look over – windows at the Dancing House (Credit: Mounirzok)

A Whimsical Appendage – Architecture As Ideology
After the Cold War ended Havel rose to the presidency of first Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. This put him in a position where he could help move the project forward. Meanwhile, Milunic had teamed up with the soon to be world famous architect, in what would be one of Gehry’s most fantastical architectural concoctions. The result was a building unlike anything that had ever been seen, not only in Prague, but also in the world. The fact that the Dancing House is part of a block replete with 19th century buildings makes it easily noticeable. Perhaps that is also because it stands on the corner of a block. Looking like a whimsical appendage, one part of it is a glass tower which leans into the other part. As though the two were engaged in a dynamic waltz. This glass tower with its curved pillars narrows at the center.  While on the Vltava side, the building’s second part consists of undulated mouldings that produce a flowing effect. This part also contains unaligned windows encased in protruding frames, adding a three-dimensional effect. The structure is crowned by Medusa, a domed, twisted contraption of metal.

From whichever angle I chose, viewing the Dancing House was disorienting. It is meant to be more than just a building, it is an architectural statement, symbolic of Prague in transition. The stagnation and rigidity of communism, gives way to dynamism, fluidity and individuality, a transformative ideology. Havel’s dream of a cultural center never took flight. Ironically, capitalism put paid to that idea. Perhaps that should have been expected since the developer of the building was a Dutch insurance firm, Nationale-Nederlanden, which became ING Bank in 1991. The Dancing House may have been a statement, but it also needed to make money. A host of multinational firms have offices in the structure and there is even a French restaurant occupying the top floor. Such tenants are a sign of globalism grasping post-Cold War Prague.

The Dancing House - in black & white

Shall We Dance – Fred & Ginger in black and white (Credit: BRENAC)

The Glass Tower – Leaning Into An Uncertain Future
I must confess that the Dancing House was not to my liking. It was hard for me to see the point, other than to advertise Prague as a progressive, contemporary city at the heart of a New Europe. The building would have looked more at home in New York, Hing Kong or Dubai, those global centers of the contemporary. I did not feel that the Dancing House was unpleasant architecture, just that it was out of place in the New Town (Nove Mesto) of Prague. It did not fit with the rest of the surrounding area, but from what I understand that was a deliberate choice. The Dancing House’s glass tower may have symbolized Ginger leaning into Fred, but to me it represented Prague leaning into an uncertain future, while searching for something to stabilize itself against.

Click here for: Greater Than The Gods – A Palatial Reminder: The Vanity Of Albrecht von Wallenstein


For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night – Prague Castle: St. Vitus Cathedral & The Golden Lane

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.

For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night - Golden Lane

For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night – Golden Lane

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.

The Gothic - St. Vitus Cathedral

The Gothic – St. Vitus Cathedral

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 - Prague Castle

Golden Lane – Prague Castle

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.

Click here for: The Dancing House In Prague – Searching For Stability: Fred & Ginger By The Vltava

High Water Marks – Prague’s Historic Floods: The Vltava Strikes Back

I was fortunate to visit Prague when I did. It was late March and the tourist hordes had yet to descend upon the city, though legions of Italian high school students tried to do their very best to replicate the noise, clamor and pushiness.  The sky was leaden during much of my visit, but the city was still intensely compelling. The gray bellies of cloud that lurked over Prague made its Gothic architecture look more menacing than usual. The same went for the Vltava River which divides the historic heart of Prague. The Stare and Nove Mestos (Old and New Towns) lie on the Vltava’s right bank, while Mala Strana and Hradcany stand on the river’s left bank.

The river’s dark waters flowed past this part of the city at what seemed to be a tepid pace. The Vltava may have been Prague’s river, but it meant little to me. Its name did not have the same cachet as the Danube, Rhine, Vistula or Volga in the pantheon of Europe’s historically great rivers. Staring at its waters, I wondered how Prague could have been saddled with such a relatively benign river. Such a thought exposed my ignorance of the Czech Republic, for the Vltava was not just Prague’s river, but the Czech nation’s as well. The Vltava’s waters looked less than inviting, while its depth, width and breadth did not make much of an impression. This was deceptive, for if I had been there during one if its periodic floods, my opinion of the Vltava would have been very different.

Ferocious flow - The Vltava River takes on the bridges of Prague

Ferocious flow – The Vltava River takes on the bridges of Prague (Credit: Ondrej Kofinek)

Dangerous & Deadly Inundations – The Drowning of Prague
When I think of a flood threatening a major European city my thoughts usually go back to a time before the 20th century, prior to the age of regulation and channelization of rivers. Before dams and their resultant reservoirs created relatively constant flows that mitigated nature’s precipitate excesses.
Prague was no stranger to dangerous and deadly floods. The present day riverscape of Prague is known as much for the historic Charles Bridge, as for the Vltava which flows beneath it. But if not for the river’s tempestuous ways, the Charles Bridge might never have been built. That is because its predecessor, the Judith Bridge, which spanned the river for 160 years, was irreparably damaged by the flooding Vltava in 1342. Construction on what would become known as the Charles Bridge began a decade and a half later. The bridge has battled the mighty Vltava ever since.

In 1784, the river became a gushing terror quite literally overnight. It rose an unprecedented four meters in a twelve-hour period. The fast flowing, forceful Vltava left five of the bridge’s pillars badly damaged, but somehow it withstood this severe test of nature’s swift force. The Vltava may not have been able to bring the Charles Bridge down, but it did leave plenty of destruction in its wake. Flooding of the Vltava took on an all too natural frequency between 1845 and 1890, as no less than four major inundations occurred. Then just as suddenly the forces of nature moderated. For five generations, the Vltava barely broke from its banks. A false sense of security set in, as the living memory of its once great floods died out.

Rising tide - Povoden in Prague during the 2002 flood

Rising tide – Povoden in Prague during the 2002 flood (Credit: Effenberger)

Nature’s Wrath – Ferocity Flowing Into The Present
All that distant history aside, nature has a way of reminding humanity of its wrath. This was the case during the summer of 2002 when the Vltava River was transformed into a raging torrent that threatened to subsume much of Prague’s most venerable quarters and tear the Charles Bridge from its historic role of bridging the Vltava’s turbid waters. A perfect storm so to speak, descended on the area as two low pressure systems carried warm, moist air up from the Mediterranean causing a deluge of precipitation over large parts of central Europe. Northern Bohemia was one of the hardest hit areas. To give an idea of the unprecedented nature of the flooding, consider the German city of Dresden, which sits astride the Elbe River. The Vltava is a feeder river for the Elbe (Labe in Czech), which recorded its highest ever gauge reading that same year, surpassing the previous record set in 1275. This in turn led to catastrophic water levels on the Vltava. While the deluge was considered a 100-Year flood by some, for the Czech Republic it went beyond anything the region had experienced in recorded history. The swiftness with which the flood struck was breathtaking.

On August 11th citizens began to get word through state television and radio that major flooding was probable along sections of the city which abutted the Vltava. Two days later, flood waters began to surge into low lying areas of Prague. Evacuation of the Old Town began that same evening. Fortunately, there had been enough advance warning to minimize the loss of life. Nonetheless, 19 people would die in the coming days and 40,000 citizens of Prague were forced to evacuate their homes. The authorities allowed each of them to take only a single suitcase of belongings when they fled from the rising waters. The Old Town was now vacant in the summer, a rare occurrence by any standard. Many tourists were left to fend for themselves, forced to sleep wherever they could find a spare bed. By August 14th, no less than 29 of the city’s metro stations were under water. Anyone chancing the streets in the districts of Karlin and Florenc needed a rowboat. The city zoo even had to be evacuated. The river had struck a decisive blow against an unprepared Prague.

Charles Bridge & the Vltava River - In the 2013 Flood

Charles Bridge & the Vltava River – In the 2013 Flood (Credit: Ben Skala)

A Lasting Memory – Preparing Prague For Disaster
The first major flood in 112 years had brought Prague to its knees and served as a chilling reminder of the Vltava’s ferocious power. The worst of the 2002 flooding only lasted for a few days, but the memory of it lasted much longer and influenced efforts to protect the city from another such disaster. The false sense of security that grew during the floodless 20th century was all but gone. Next time would be different and so it was. In 2013 the Vltava again burst over its banks, but this time there was much less destruction. Flood barriers that had been erected following the 2002 inundation held the rising tide of water at bay. Prague was safe, until the next flood.

Click here for: For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night – Prague Castle: St. Vitus Cathedral & The Golden Lane

Love At First Fright: Prague’s Powder Tower: Illuminating Shadows

My first full day in Prague was due to start with a World War II tour. The tour, which had received rave reviews online, proved to be forgettable. I mostly recall the guide reciting a litany of details and information that I could have learned from any standard book on the subject. The most interesting part was his ambivalence towards Germans. I had heard that Czechs were lukewarm at best in their attitude towards Germans. There was a long, bitter memory of the Nazi occupation and dismemberment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Prior to that, there was sublimation of Czech national aspirations to Habsburg Imperial hegemony. The guide seemed neutral when it came to the subject of Germans. I found his attitude surprising. At the end of the tour, he informed me that his grandfather had been an ethnic German. Wartime guilt was not black and white according to him. His ire turned on the Soviet Union and their much longer and more recent occupation of the country. Other than this fascinating personal story, the most memorable aspect of the tour was its starting point.

Gothic Grandeur - The Powder Tower in Prague

Gothic Grandeur – The Powder Tower in Prague

An Explosive Situation – From Coronations To Conflicts
The tour began at the Powder Tower, which was one of thirteen gates that historically allowed entry into the Old Town (Stare Mesto). The name came from the tower’s role as a storage place for gunpowder, but it did not start that way. Prior to the Powder Tower’s construction, there had been another gate. Built in the early 1200’s, it was for some reason known as the Mountain Gate. By the late 15th century it had fallen into disrepair. The City Council of Prague chose to have what would be first known as the New Tower built on the site as a coronation gift for King Vladislav II in 1475. It was modeled after an existing tower built for the Charles Bridge a century earlier. The tower’s construction was not without difficulties. Riots in Prague caused Vladislaus to flee his palace, which was connected to the tower. This resulted in construction on the tower being brought to a halt. When Vladislaus moved back to Prague, he took up residence in the safety of Prague Castle rather than the Old Town. Because of this move, construction on the tower lay dormant for many years and the structure would not be completed until the end of the 16th century.

The Powder Tower came by that name only in the early 18th century, as it was transformed into a storage unit for the most valuable of military incendiaries. This also made it a target. When Frederick The Great’s Prussian Army battled for Prague in 1757, the tower, along with the surrounding area, came under attack. Much of its Gothic era plastic decoration was badly damaged and would eventually be removed. The city suffered as well, with 900 houses destroyed in the fighting. The worst damage though, was inflicted on Frederick’s Prussian forces. They lost 14,000 soldiers in the fighting, failed to take the city and ended up retreating. From this point forward, the Powder Tower was more a relic of a bygone age, rather than of any real use for defensive purposes. This is reflected in the fact that from 1875 to 1886 the Austrian overlords of Prague allowed for its restoration in the pseudo-Gothic style it still sports today. The preservation of such a defensive work is telling. Obviously, the Austrians felt it no longer had any military significance.

The Powder Tower - prior to restoration in 1856

The Powder Tower – prior to restoration in 1856 (Credit: Andreas Groll)

From Modern To Medieval –  History Means More Than Reality
The Powder Tower still acts as a portal of entry between the New and Old Towns. For many centuries, it was the starting point for the Royal Route which led through the Old Town then up to the Castle for coronations. It proved to be a different type of portal for me. It was the first Gothic architectural feature I saw in Prague. There were many more to come. My reaction upon seeing the tower was of love at first fright. It was a stark and foreboding visual. The tower looked as though it had been severed from Dracula’s Castle and landed on a modern city side street. The tower may have been rigid and ominous, but it exuded a dynamism and charisma all its own. All other buildings surrounding it, whether large or small, were dwarfed by its presence. The Powder Tower’s effect on the street which it stood, was to make all surroundings disappear from the viewer’s eye. The tower’s singularity caused me to fixate on it. After passing through the arched opening of its lowest part, I felt as though another world had been entered. A world where history meant much more than reality.

I would soon discover that for all its charm, Prague is home to buildings that can intimidate as much as enthrall. The Powder Tower imposed itself on present-day Prague, a finite dividing line between old and new, modern and medieval. I did not actually ever go inside the Powder Tower. Only passing under its arched opening in the coming days on multiple occasions. The fact that I never entered its chambers left me to imagine the interior. I envisioned dark and cold stone corridors where narrow minded medievalists had once issued decrees without a hint of remorse. As a place of passage for merchants, soldiers and aristocrats that controlled access to a world of power, wealth and royal privilege. The Powder Tower made this past palpable for me. The past was no longer stranded in dusty tomes, lost kingdoms or forgotten dreams.

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911 (Credit: Richard Moser)

A Dark & Dynamic Fairy Tale – Into Another World
That the tower still stood after four hundred and forty years, lording over the modern streetscape, was a testament to a powerful past that Prague preserved, a Golden Age Gothicism that was just as formidable and frightening, magnetic and alluring, intimidating and inspiring as it had been while dominating Europe. A dark yet dynamic fairy tale that had been kept alive for centuries to remind of the grandeur of the Gothic. A grandeur that could only be accessed in certain special portals such as Prague, a city that acted as a point of entry into another world. A world that still managed to exist on the other side of the Powder Tower, in the winding alleyways, narrow streets and illuminating shadows of the Old Town.

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Poster Childishness –  The Discovery of Prague: Rejection Confessions

The time finally arrived for me to visit Prague. As much as I loathed the idea, I knew it would eventually happen. What did I have against Prague? Mainly its popularity. Since the Iron Curtain collapsed, Prague has become the showpiece city of Eastern Europe. For Americans, visits to Eastern Europe almost always entail a trip to Budapest and Prague. In many cases, only the latter city figures into their travel equation. Hordes of tourists descend on the city to enjoy its immaculate architecture, Old World atmospherics and world famous Czech beers. Prague has become the model for Eastern Europe and a place for tourists to check off the region on a bucket list. Every time someone mentioned Prague I would cringe in anticipation of what they were about to say: “It’s amazing” “You have to go there” “It is like a fairy tale” “I love Prague”. In many respects, Prague had become the golden child of European cities. I met more people who had been to Prague than Vienna. Vienna was further East, but Prague was still where hundreds of thousands of tourists received their introduction to the former Eastern Bloc.

Vltava River & Charles Bridge looking towards Castle Hill in Prague

For What They Dream Of – Vltava River & Charles Bridge looking towards Castle Hill in Prague (Credit: Peter K Burian)

Misty-Eyed Memories – Making The Gothic Sparkle
There was also the Prague that I learned about from an American expat post-college student who had found and lost love in the city. His name was Thomas and I spent a summer working with him collecting fees at a campground on a distant shoreline along the Atlantic seaboard. Thomas had taught English in Prague, and as I would later learn, so had innumerable wayward Americans who had no idea what to do after college. He had fallen in love with a Czech girl. He loved her so much that he cheated on her. The relationship had collapsed, but the love was still there, lost in a misty-eyed memory that came back in the constant banter about her beauty and intellect. These dreamy reminiscences were interspersed with exhortations on the superiority of Czech culture and beer. It was hard to figure out what he was more in love with, the Bohemian ideal of Prague or the lost woman.  They were likely one and the same. His story was fascinating, but Prague sounded like a place where expats went to avoid real life. That should have appealed to me. In this case though, I imagined a city full of over educated, lost expats drinking themselves to oblivion while discussing their philosophy of life in the basement of a café.

Reading up on Prague only added to my displeasure. From what I learned, Prague in the early 1990’s was affordable, edgy and chock full of historic wonders. This version of the city was covered in a thin veneer of grit that only added to the Gothic-Baroque-Mannerist-Art Nouveauesque architectural aesthetics. Then Prague was “discovered”. The discovery went from the tens to the hundreds of thousands, then into the millions. As the crowds increased, so did the prices. Prague went from cheap to affordable to expensive by Eastern European standards.  Perhaps Prague’s popularity was inevitable. The city itself had been left largely unscathed by the Second World War. Its historic core was intact. The Czech Republic’s economy was boosted by its proximity to Germany. Along with Hungary, it became a darling of the West, more Mitteleuropa than Eastern European. Prague was the post-communist success story everyone wanted to see. And so the city was given a good scrubbing, a glossy restoration that even made the Gothic sparkle.

The Good Soldier’s Spiritual Home – A City Of Madness & Mockery
The popularity and poster childishness of Prague grated on me to the point where I decided to willfully ignore learning much of anything about the city. I kept Prague at a safe mental distance, relegating it to a second-tier status, one of those places that I could care less about visiting. All this was done because of a foolish fetish for the out of the way, forgotten and relatively unknown in Eastern Europe. I had something to prove against Prague and to myself. My resistance began to breakdown when I started reading a book about the spectacular assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during the Nazi occupation of the city. I suddenly felt an urge to see the city which had played such a large role in the events that resulted in the murder of one of the highest ranking Nazi officials. I was especially interested in visiting the church where the assassins were trapped and then fought to the death.

Very few people get interested in Prague due to World War II. The city was almost entirely spared of physical destruction, but the human toll was an entirely different story. The Czech population suffered grave brutality at the hands of the Nazis. Heydrich’s assassination had been an anomaly, just as Prague’s escape from Allied Bombing had been a rarity in central Europe. I now had a reason to visit Prague, but I was still not entirely convinced. Soon thereafter, I became engrossed in the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek, a novel that lampoons the madness of World War I. Prague figured heavily in the author’s life and is the spiritual home of Svejk. The Good Soldier Svejk was born from the cynical, anarcho-bohemian, ready for revolution Prague of the early 20th century. His Prague was the home of conspiracies and mockery, Svejk delighted in nastiness. Laughing out loud in the face of authority. What city and culture gave rise to such an attitude was worth exploring.

The path is clear - Charles Bridge just after dawn

The path is clear – Charles Bridge just after dawn (Credit: Estec GmbH)

Expectation Of A Destination – Extra Baggage
I could no longer hide my interest, Prague was going to be my next destination. As much as I hated to admit it, there was a sense of inevitability about visiting the Czech capital. What kind of self-professed Eastern European-phile would not visit Prague. It went with the territory so to speak. Would any American visit Eastern Europe multiple times without traveling to Prague? I must have been the only one to fathom such a heresy. I could not bring myself to avoid it. Prague had won me over the Atlantic. And thus I landed on a gloomy spring Sunday at Vaclav Havel Airport with little idea of what to expect other than the very best.

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