For such a small nation the Czech Republic certainly has grand designs, nowhere more so than in Prague. It is here where Czech greatness is affirmed in architecture, culture and history. For most, the apogee takes place at Prague Castle and the surrounding Castle District (Hradcany). I must admit to being rather awestruck by Castle Hill, to me this was where a fairy tale met the massive, symbolized by such disparate structural elements as the Golden Lane and St. Vitus Cathedral. A world in miniature, a world in monumental, seamlessly integrated to the point that everything in the Castle District looks to have sprung as if by magic from a master plan. I have seen few places so impressive. It left me asking one particular question following my visit: After this, now what?
The Castle District provides all a traveler, historian or architectural buff could ever want. Everything else in Prague seems beneath it, both literally and figuratively. The thought of this depressed me. It informed a sense of hopelessness that the rest of Prague would forever fail to live up to the Castle District’s exalted standards. That feeling would turn out to be wrong, but it was not any of Prague’s most popular places (Old Town Square, Wenceslaus Square, Charles Bridge) that managed to defeat this great depression festering inside of me. Instead it was the last place I went in the city, on my final day.
Scaling The Walls – The Highest Citadel
The ancient citadel of Vysehrad or at least what’s left of it sits high above the Vltava River. This was to be my final destination in Prague as I set out on foot from the guest house. It was my last afternoon in the city and I was hoping to see something memorable. Just getting to the citadel required quite a bit of legwork as I had to make my way up to the craggy rock outcropping it sits atop. Not long thereafter I realized why Vysehrad means “High Castle”. I spent a fair amount of time huffing and puffing my way up to one of its many entrances. Geographically, Vysehrad holds a commanding position over the right bank of the Vltava. On that side of the fortress, it is almost a sheer drop down to the river. The side from which I approached it was nothing to scoff at either. I could not imagine an army trying to make this approach which required walking at a steeply inclined angle for many minutes.
Against well-armed defenders, such an approach would have been suicidal. Conversely, an approach from the riverside was impossible. I would later discover to my surprise that the fortress was not impregnable, far from it. During the first half of the 15th century it was ransacked twice and left in ruin. The Leopold Gate was my point of entry to the Vysehrad Narodni Kulturni Pamatka (Vysehrad National Cultural Park). The fortress complex, as it stands today, is almost entirely the product of reconstruction work done during the Baroque era of the 18th century, but Vysehrad’s history goes all the way back to the earliest days of Slavic settlement in the area. Much of this time, which predates the 10th century, is shrouded in mystery and obscured by myth. The upshot, Vysehrad is rich in both folkloric and historical connotations.
Abundant Myths, Foundational Facts – The Royal Way
Legend says that a tribal leader by the name of Krak built a fortress in the area as early as the 7th century. One of his daughters, Libuse, envisioned that a great city would sprout from this location. Libuse went on to wed a ploughman by the name of Premysl. He then became king, while Libuse founded Prague. This was the legendary beginnings of the Premyslid Dynasty. The truth about Vysehrad is a bit more benign. It was likely settled prior to the year 1000 AD. A fortified town came to occupy the crag during the 11th century. At one point, the seat of Royal Power was moved away from Castle Hill and to Vysehrad by Vratislaus II, the first King of Bohemia. This led to a thorough reconstruction of the area, which included the development of a palatial complex. In 1140 the seat of power went back to Castle Hill where it would stay. The next major development atop Vysehrad occurred under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Charles was directly related to the Premyslid Dynasty on his mother’s side, as such he wanted to create a tangible connection between Vysehrad and the Czech people.
Charles decreed that the royal coronation would begin from Vysehrad and terminate three kilometers away on Castle Hill. He also expanded the fortifications, added a new gate and connected its walls with the New Town (Nove Mesto), which Charles had founded. Existing palace complexes were improved and the Gothic church of St. Peter and Paul was upgraded. This period was truly a Golden Age for Vysehrad, a period when it was part of a glorious present that maintained an integral link to a mysterious past. The abundant myths concerning its earliest history provided a foundation upon which the Czech people could stake their claim to the area. It appealed to ethnic pride and eventually to national greatness. Hardly anything from the period of Charles’ rule still stood at Vysehrad. I should have been disappointed, but the setting was so spectacular that I spent much of my visit marveling at the wonderful views.
Looming Threat– In The Shadow Of Castle Hill
Even after a thousand years of change it was easy to see why Vysehrad held a special place in Czech history. Impressive and intimidating were the two words which came into my mind. The views from the walls looking up and down the Vltava were quite impressive. They were also intimidating. The dark waters of the river made a wide sweep below the fortress, flowing wide and languid toward the Old Town. In the distance I could see the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral in the Castle District silhouetted beneath a bright blue, early spring sky. It was only fitting that one of Castle District’s main attractions should be seen looming in the distance. From a historical standpoint, the Castle District had been Vysehrad’s main competition for the epicenter of Prague. The Castle District may have won that battle, but Vysehrad held its own prominent place in the Czech pantheon, nowhere more so then in and around the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Click here for: In The Shadow Of Giants – Vysehrad: The Soul Of A Nation