The contrast could not have been more different. I started my day with a walk through Prague’s Old Town not much after sunrise. The streets were empty. Crossing the Charles Bridge there were only a handful of people milling around. It was eerily quiet as I walked up the steep hill towards my destination, the Strahov Monastery. The monastery is one of the glories of Prague and I was expecting queues. Instead, I visited the magnificent Strahov libraries only in the company of a Japanese couple. Proof the early bird gets the worm?
Several hours later I exited Prague Castle’s massive complex of buildings and squares feeling dehumanised. The experience of tourism on a scale that was off the scale is not one I’ll readily forget. The serenity of Strahov Monastery was long gone by the time I’d been processed through the Prague Castle ‘experience’ along with thousands of other people. A day that had started with a sense of wonder at the extraordinary beauty of this elegant city, ended wandering down the hill towards the Vltava River in a tourism induced daze.
The outstanding sight at the Strahov Monastery are the two extraordinary Baroque Theology and the Philosophy Rooms, containing around 60,000 books in the second oldest library in Bohemia. The rooms are adorned with frescos and stucco decoration depicting historical and mythological scenes, and the library is home to rare gems like the Strahov Gospel from 860 AD, the oldest book in the collection. One of the guides told me they had the second largest collection of bibles after the Vatican, but there are also books on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and poetry.
The low arched ceiling of the Theology Room is exquisite, in the middle of the room are globes, one of which was made in Rotterdam. You’re not allowed into the rooms, a wise precaution given the age and fragility of some of the books, but as I chatted to the guide a small tour group showed up and was allowed into the room. Apparently, you can go into the room if you pay a premium and book several months in advance. It was clearly time to leave.
Outside things were hotting up tourism-wise, but the weather stubbornly remained cold and cloudy. I was heading to Prague Castle following a route that passed some of the magnificent palaces and churches in the Hradcany area, and down strangely untouristed streets and cobbled lanes. I stopped in the Loreto, the Baroque Church of the Nativity, with its plain exterior hiding a stunning interior. Its small museum has some extraordinary monstrances, including one known as the Prague Sun that is encrusted with over 6,000 diamonds.
Opposite the Loreto I popped into the gardens of the Černín Palace before losing myself in the nearby streets. Hradcany is a small area close to the castle and doesn’t take long to explore, but the unexpected peace and calm made me linger longer than I’d planned. This delay may explain why, when I finally arrived in the square outside the main entrance to Prague Castle, there was a queue of around two hundred people stretching from the entrance gate into the square.
It was approaching midday and, as I stood there trying to decide whether I should skip visiting the castle for a leisurely lunch, more and more tour groups were arriving in the square. I took a deep breath and joined the end of the queue, I mean how bad could it be? Pretty bad it turned out…