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Prague Castle (Czech Republic)

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Being one of the largest castles in the world, it dates back to the 9th century. It is home to the crown jewels.

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    • More +
      25.09.2009 11:34
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      A castle - or maybe a cité

      How do you like your castles? Do you go for grey, forbidding, lurking hulks with curtain walls and implicit violence? Or something more refined like a French chateau, more curlicues than crenellations? Do you like to poke about in weed-grow ruins or do you prefer your castles with a roof and coats-of-armour furnishings? What about size - a small tower to guard a pass, or a full-scale fortress covering a large area and a lot of history? The point I'm making is that "castle" encompasses a wide variety of structures and a range of purposes. So on my first visit to Prazsky Hrad, Prague Castle, I was prepared for any or all of those things, but what I found didn't really fit even this flexible definition. In fact, I've been trying to find a better word than castle to describe the complex (apart from "surprise", obviously). The best I can do is the French "cité", or, less good, "citadel". Both those go some way towards describing a collection of military, religious and administrative buildings dating from various periods and whose relationship to each other is more locational than functional.

      Before going inside to try to make sense of it all, I recommend taking a long view of it from a distance. You will probably emerge from the metro at Malostranska and immediately look upwards to get a glimpse. Unfortunately from here you won't see a great deal - too close and at the wrong angle. You need to be further away. Across the river in Staré Mesto, the Old Town, the view is restricted by narrow streets and tall buildings, plus you've got other things to look at over there. So aim for somewhere in the middle - Charles Bridge, or a boat on the river (nice on a hot summer afternoon). Now you can see the structure clearly: a long, low group of buildings running along a rocky outcrop with defensive-looking masonry at each end, not unlike the hull of a ship. It was first built in the 9th century to protect the ford below and for that its position is ideal. You might also be struck by the rows of little windows dotting the exterior walls, giving it a colander-like look, but we'll come to the windows later. Dominating the whole caboodle, towering above the low-rise surrounding buildings and complete with spires and buttresses, is a gothic cathedral. Looking northwards (from your left to right) you'll see something that looks like, and is, a basilica. Eventually, at the far northern edge, are a tower and some battlements - a castle at last.

      It has been described as the "largest medieval castle complex in Europe", but that's only half right. While the size is not in dispute, "medieval" is not apt, as wars, fire and individuals' desire to make their mark all contributed to rebuilding in the 12th, 14th, 16th and 17th centuries. It is still in use today by the President of the Czech Republic. What it does provide, better than any text book, is a potted history of Prague and its importance in the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later as you wander round the Old Town you will be able to add flesh to the bones of what the castle has to tell you.

      Let's start with the big, dominant cathedral which appropriately was put there by a big, dominant ruler. You can't go far in Prague or the Czech Republic without coming across Charles IV. It's his bridge, his university, his town in the north of the country and his countless squares and streets. Although a 14th century King of Bohemia and later Holy Roman Emperor he was modern in outlook and a great builder, not just in the bricks and mortar sense. He and his father John of Luxemburg fought with the French at Crécy, against another father and son combination Edward III and the Black Prince. It was partly that experience which led to his pragmatism and dislike of fruitless gestures. He ordered the construction of this cathedral in 1334, on the site of an existing Romanesque church, to contain the relics of St Vitus.

      Why St Vitus? He was a popular saint in central Europe. People used to dance at his shrines, hence the name St Vitus' Dance given to Sydenham's chorea whose sufferers display involuntary muscle movements. As well as the patron saint of dancers and entertainers he also guards against animal attacks and lightning strikes, among many other things. So a very practical and useful saint. You won't learn this in Prague; remember you read it here (courtesy of Google).

      The cathedral is "transitional gothic", so not quite the full flowering you get in the finest English and French gothic cathedrals, no delicate tracery vaulting or soaring lightness. Nevertheless it is a very nice place to be. It is stuffed full of art treasures and has a crypt of Bohemian kings (including Charles), but I thought the nicest part was the chapel of St Wenceslas (yes, that Wenceslas) which contains his tomb. It is covered in semi-precious stones which sounds way too ornate, but the dark reds and greens produced an understated opulence I found very beautiful.

      Let's move forward nearly three centuries to the early 17th, the age of most of the buildings you see in the courtyards around you. It is also the time of Rudolf II, another modern, though quirky, Holy Roman Emperor, but notably less successful in the actual business of ruling. His courtiers despaired of his interest in "wizards, alchemists and the like" while he sought to make of Prague a renaissance city, attracting, no doubt among a host of witch-doctors and snake-oil merchants, the astronomers Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Here in the castle you can see his Court Chamber.

      Unfortunately while he was happy as a virtual recluse in Prague Castle, Europe was sliding into the unrest of the counter-reformation, which brings us neatly to the windows mentioned earlier. The Czech assassination method of choice is defenestration, a poncy latinised way of saying chucking people out of windows. It is effective, of course, but surprisingly not always for the victims, some of whom survived. In 1618 the defenestration of two Catholic governors and their secretary unleashed the Thirty Years War, which in its Europe-wide devastation rivalled anything the 20th century produced. You can see the very window and obelisks now mark the landing spot. But by then they were well practised. In 1419 they had done exactly the same thing, flinging out a collection of town councillors to start the Hussite Wars. Later when you stand in the middle of the Old Town Square admiring the statue of Jan Hus, and seeing Hapsburg building frontages round the square obscuring church façades, you can reflect that the castle was where it all started.

      Meanwhile we continue strolling through the castle and the centuries. Like most of Prague, the focus is largely on the exteriors and the ensemble, rather than individual interiors and the interest is by association rather than what you actually see. There are no exquisite furnishings, no beds where monarchs slept. The interior of St George's Basilica is no longer a church but a collection of Bohemian art. Where there are portraits they are of Hapsburgs, a graphic illustration of the outcome of the Thirty Years War and an empire that lasted until 1918.

      As did the castle, and indeed still does, although the major events of the 20th century - the creation of Czechoslovakia, the German invasion, the declaration of a communist republic, Prague Spring, the new Czech Republic - took place elsewhere in the city. Nevertheless two further points of interest bring us up to date. Golden Lane, at the northern end of the complex, is a street of former and indeed current artisans' houses, though now mainly of the tourist sort. Nevertheless its collection of brightly coloured Hobbit houses and cobbled paving is still charming. Kafka lived in one of them for a time, in the shadow of the castle. How apt. Then moving from the sublime to the ridiculous there is the changing of the guard. Vaclav Havel when he was President was responsible, apparently, for the sky-blue uniforms with white cravats. In this get-up, complete with dark glasses and long hair, they look like the bodyguard of a South American drug baron. The Brigade of Guards would have a fit. The bits of ceremonial heel-clicking take place in the front courtyard with the backdrop of the baroque façade. Your time is better spent admiring that, or indeed the fine view over the city.

      There are more buildings - a toy museum, a powder tower - and some I've only alluded to. Overall it's an eclectic mix and therefore difficult to rate. It's not strikingly beautiful, or awesomely impressive, or even the sum of its parts. I hesitate to use the word "interesting" which has overtones of "worthy and boring" but, like the castle itself, I struggle to find a better description.

      Some practical points. Firstly, getting there. Back at Malostranska metro station you need to get up the hill. You can walk, of course, but my advice would be to save your legs for the castle itself and instead take one of Prague's excellent trams two stops up the hill. Next you have to decide whether to buy a ticket, and if so which of several options. A ticket is not essential - you can wander all over the complex and into St Vitus Cathedral for free (although there are usually queues for the latter). There are three levels of ticket, depending on which and how many buildings you actually want to go inside. For this purpose Golden Lane is considered a "building" and fee-paying. The ticket office usually has a patient queue of people while all these options (including family tickets and audio guides) are explained in the appropriate language to every visitor. Finally, you will be one of many visitors. Although the complex is large there are bottlenecks, and if you are irritated by umbrella-wielding tour leaders and forests of arms brandishing digital cameras, best go at a quiet time of year.

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      • More +
        15.02.2009 18:02
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        There are better things to see and do in Prague

        I went to Prague Castle last week while on holiday with my dad. He's really interested in history and we'd been told that this was one of Prague's must-sees. I'd been before a few years ago to see the admission-free parts but couldn't remember anything about it (perhaps this quite telling).


        --Getting there--

        Although we were staying in Mala Strana, the same part of town as the castle (we could see it from our hotel!), it took us the best part of an hour to get up the hill to it because there are only a couple of streets with access to the castle and they're not very well signposted. Sometimes the signs even send you in the wrong direction. We kept having to double back on ourselves, but eventually made it up there and were rewarded by lovely views across the city.


        --Prices--

        After spending a few minutes watching the very still guards (and coveting their warm-looking fur hats and thick coats!) we went into one of the ticket offices and decided on the short tour, as we only had a few hours before catching a train. The lady who sold us the tickets offered us hand-held audioguides but we declined, as they cost as much as the the tickets, and I don't like walking round with something like that stuck to my ear for a long time. The short tour cost 250 koruna (Kc) - around £7.90 at the time of writing (Feb 2009) and included 3 sites; the longer tour 350 Kc (£9.20).

        Off we went, armed with our colour-coded maps and tickets that informed us that we could enter the Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St George and Golden Lane. The castle complex is huge and I can't imagine how anyone on the long tour would manage to see everything in one go. Firstly we approached St Vitus' cathedral and I wanted to go in, but it wasn't included on our ticket, so we walked the 5 minutes to Golden Lane.


        --Golden Lane--

        This is a medieval street of houses that our guide book described as nothing more than a themed shopping mall. True, most of the houses were converted into overpriced (but picturesque) shops, but the upstairs floors have been knocked through to form one long space, which, quite surprisingly, houses a museum of armour, weapons and clothes. It was fascinating. It wasn't clear from the descriptions, though, whether or not the exhibits were genuine or copies, and there was very little information to read. The atmosphere seemed very genuine though - it was freezing cold, dark and probably not much different to when it was built! This was probably my favourite part of the castle complex as it was completely unexpected and the outfits were really interesting to look at and imagine soldiers and Czech townsfolk wearing them hundreds of years ago.

        We didn't bother with all of the shops in Golden Lane as they seemed to be selling the same tourist tat you can buy outside for half the price, but the quaint little clock shop was worth a peek, if only to hear hundreds of antique clocks ticking and chiming away in unison.

        At the end of Golden Lane, just past the exit, was a medieval prison, Daliborka Tower. It still had cells and a hole in the floor with a pulley, into which prisoners were dropped and then hauled up again as a means of torture. There was an information panel on the wall with the story of the knight whom the prison was named after and tales of other prisoners; it was quite a good read! The torture instruments didn't need much explanation - body cages, a rack, thumbscrews - all looking as though they'd seen some use - though there was something called the 'violin' whose function wasn't immediately apparent to me. I must say I found it all more than a bit creepy, but a group of Spanish teenage boys and some of the other male tourists milling around seemed pretty interested in the grisly objects, and one little German lad was even taking photos, much to his mum's exasperation.

        Coming out of Golden Lane, we really needed to warm up. There were either a couple of expensive restaurants or a café, so we plumped for the latter. It was pretty uninspiring, as well as being self-service (overpriced drinks from a machine) but I suppose we were a captive audience. It was well-heated though!


        --St George's Basilica--

        On our way to the Basilica a man approached us and asked whether we were interested in attending a classical concert that evening. I smiled and said "No thank-you" (we were leaving that afternoon) and he became all huffy, scowling at us and muttering under his breath as though we'd insulted him. Charming, I don't think!

        The staff seemed pretty rude in general. Next we passed a building advertising a Toy Museum. What we didn't realise was it was on the 5th or 6th floor, and when we got to the top and my dad was still recovering from all the flights of stairs, the stony-faced custodian pointed to a price list without even saying hello.

        We decided not to bother and to continue towards the Basilica and Palace instead. En route we entered a bureau de change so my dad could get some more koruna: there we were once again given the rude treatment, with the cashier just walking away as Dad was halfway through asking a question.

        The Romanesque Basilica was extremely ornate but there was no information to read and so, not having paid for audioguides, we quickly tired of looking at it, pretty though some of the gilded statues were.


        --The invisible sign--

        Onwards to the Royal Palace - except it was closed for renovation. We went back to the ticket office to ask about this and were told that we should have known that the Palace wasn't included in the short tour anymore. The sales assistant said there was a sign on the wall with this information and went to point at it, before realising that actually, there wasn't a sign. We asked why the tickets still said the Palace was included; she said the tickets and map were out of date and we should have realised this and not followed the colour-coded route. Again she invoked the non-existent sign on the wall.

        Her colleague then came over and started shouting at us, accusing us of wanting to see things we hadn't paid for. We apologised for our confusion over the tickets and maps (only to placate him - how stupid to give tourists tickets and maps with the wrong info on them!).


        --The Story of Prague Castle--

        According to the invisible sign, the lady said, we were allowed to go to the Story of Prague Castle exhibition instead of the Palace, so we walked over there. I wasn't too impressed. A good collection of artifacts relating to the castle, but displayed on fabric of the same colours, meaning that you couldn't see them properly, especially since there was hardly any light and no windows. The info plaques (yes, there were some here!) were black with illuminated blue writing, making them really hard to read. The ones in Czech were at eye height but some of the English translations were in smallish type and about 3 feet off the ground in certain places, meaning we had to bend double to try and decipher them. Part of the exhibition was closed for 'technical reasons' (it appeared to be littered with half-full bin-bags).


        --St Vitus' Cathedral--

        After about half an hour we decided to walk back into town and look at something more tourist-friendly before our train left. We popped into the Gothic St Vitus' Cathedral on the way out - it turned out that entry to this building is free, but neither our tickets, nor our maps, nor the sign outside advertised this fact. We just noticed there was nobody checking tickets and worked it out ourselves. It was a lovely building, but leaving it until last meant I couldn't be bothered to spend much time in there.


        --How to make the most of Prague Castle--

        Having been on a fantastic walking tour in Prague, I'd say the best way to see the castle complex would probably be to take a guided tour there - they start in the centre of town and walk you up to the castle. They generally include admission to some of the castle buildings and a few hours' worth of commentary from an experienced guide. We saw a few in action during our visit and they looked like good fun. I'm sure most tourists would get a lot more out of them than trying to get through the huge array of buildings on their own; plus the tours cost less than the price of an audioguide and full admission. To join a tour, just look for the guides holding umbrellas on the left-hand side of the famous Astronomical Clock in town.


        --Conclusion--

        In summary, the castle complex is full of architectural and historical gems. If you want to make the most of it, I'd recommend going early and as part of a guided tour. Be prepared to pay around £18 if you go independently and want to access a lot of the buildings and use an audioguide. Don't expect friendly, helpful staff or accurate maps, though! This is puzzling, as we found everyone else we came across in Prague to be really pleasant and happy to help tourists. Evidently people are always going to visit the castle, so the staff don't feel they need to make an effort.

        I might have come across as a bit of a Moaning Minnie in this review, but the whole time I was at Prague Castle I felt that we really weren't welcome and to me, that's not an enjoyable or relaxing travel experience.

        Visitor info: http://www.hrad.cz/en/prazsky_hrad/navsteva_hradu.shtml

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        • More +
          01.12.2008 23:47
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          There are much better things to do with your time in Prague.

          As some of you will know from my other review I visited Prague recently. I didn't include Prague Castle in that review because it seemed like the review was already really long but as it is one of the main attractions.

          This review is going to be really mixed because there is so much to Prague castle. It's really like going to a little village because there is so much to the castle and the area around it and if you want to see it all then you'll need to spend the entire day there.

          -Tickets-
          I bought a Prague Card and got the short tour free on that but if you don't have a prague card the prices are:
          Short Tour- 250 crowns (£9.22)
          Long Tour-350 Crowns (£12.90)
          You can also pay to get into individual attractions and discounts are available, as well as family tickets.

          (Please not that the currency in Prague is changing so prices may not be accurate.)

          -Getting There-

          Obviously travelling there will depend on where you're staying but the easiest way is probably to take the metro to Malostranska from there you can get the tram but I would highly recommend walking up the steps to the castle because the view from there is amazing. Of course you can take the easier way and get the tram up and then walk to the top of the steps.
          The view is simply breathtaking and while there are towers that you can go up for similarly great views they cost money and this is free. From here you can see all over Prague.
          I personally think that it's worth going to the castle just for the view. It was the highlight of my day...but then much of the rest of the day was a huge disappointment so maybe that's not saying much!

          -Free Things to do in Prague Castle-

          -The Changing of the Guards
          I've never really seen the appeal to this but we found ourselves at right place when the guards were changing and stayed to watch. We actually didn't have a choice as we trapped on the other side of the fence and couldn't get out without walking through the guards, which was quite tempting because it was so boring.
          I don't like to say that this wasn't worth going to see because it could be the best changing of the guards in the world and it just wouldn't interest me. If you're interested in this kind of thing then go to the castle. It happens every hour and at noon there's a fanfare and flag ceremony.

          -The Gardens
          It was winter so there wasn't anything great to see in the gardens, all the flowers were dead but I'm sure that in the summer they're a lot better.

          -St. Vitus Cathedral
          Once again something I have no interest in but if you like Cathedrals then it's worth visiting. It's pretty enough but I personally have no interest in this and thought it looked much the same as any other Cathedral.

          -Paid Things to do-

          -St. George's Basilica
          Apparently there is a lot of history to this place, unfortunately I learnt nothing about it because all of the information (and there wasn't much of it) was in Czech. I don't think I can hold this against them as we were in Czech Republic but it was a bit disappointing.

          -Golden Lane and Daliborka Tower
          Daliborka Tower is very interesting in my opinion. It's small but it contains so much history and all of the information was written in many languages including English. It's basically a tower that was used a jail where people were tortured. Not the most pleasant of histories admittedly but certainly very interesting.
          Golden Lane while very pretty is just a row of gift shops. I was personally shocked that they actually charge you to go to a gift shop...surely that's not good for business!

          -Old Royal Palace
          Interesting building. It's a shame that they don't have any information up anywhere about it. I would have liked to have found out some information about this building but didn't realise until after we went in that there wasn't any information written anywhere and by that point it was too late to get an audio guide.

          -General-
          This was a very disappointing day out. I was expecting so much and it delivered so little.

          First of all my ticket was supposed to cover the short tour which according to their website includes The Story of Prague Castle. I was really looking forward to seeing this and then when we arrived we were told that the short tour did not include it (it still says on their website that it does). When I mentioned this to the staff they weren't very helpful at all.
          Generally the staff were unhelpful and seemed to not really know what they were talking about. I had to ask a couple of members of staff for directions to a place only to discover that it was the same building that the first member of staff had refused to let me into with my ticket. I then returned to the building and was told that yes, it was the right place and I did have the right ticket.

          The signposting was confusing. There were signposts but they seemed to either lead to nowhere or back the way we had come. I don't have the best sense of direction but I can usually follow sign posts.

          Some attractions had no information at all which I found disappointing because I like to know about the buildings I'm visiting. I wanted to know about the history of the castle but left knowing very little.

          I would not recommend buying tickets for the attractions unless you happen to have a big interest in that area. It's worth going to see the free attractions, if you have nothing better to do with your day and as I said before it's definitely worth going up there for the view but the tours are pretty much a waste of money.
          And they're not tours. They give you a map and that's it.

          I'm giving this attraction two stars, one for the view and one for the tower but I think that's quite generous.
          There are other attractions in the same area so you can go for the view and not waste the day but do keep in mind that most attractions aren't open on a Monday (Prague castle is though).

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          Being one of the largest castles in the world, it dates back to the 9th century. It is home to the crown jewels.