Towering over the left bank of the River Vltava and above the red tiled roofs of Mala Strana, Prague Castle is both dramatic and picturesque. Seen from a distance it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the place, but its massive size has earned it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest ancient castle in the world. It’s home to the majestic St. Vitus Cathedral, which is a rival to any cathedral in Europe, as well as a couple of palaces, churches, a treasury, dungeons, a vast expanse of gardens and a whole street that once housed artisanal workers.
You could easily spend a whole day making use of one of the unnecessarily complicated ticket options. The only down side, and it’s a significant one, is that Prague Castle is the most popular tourist destination in the city. I queued for 30 minutes just to get past security, then there was a queue to buy tickets, and then finally there were queues to get into several of the buildings on my Prague Castle – Circuit A ticket. The longest queue was for St. Vitus Cathedral, and the space outside the entrance was heaving with people as tour group after tour group swept through.
The sheer number of people made it pretty hard to enjoy many of the main attractions of the castle complex, particularly when so many people are wielding selfie sticks. The fascinating history of the place make it a must see, even if the crush of people makes enjoyment fleeting. The castle dates from the 9th century and has been the home of Bohemia’s Kings, Holy Roman Emperors, including Charles IV, Czech Presidents and, for a period during the Second World War, Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. Hitler even spent a night in the castle.
Heydrich, the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, was one of the key organisers of the Holocaust and chaired the Wannsee Conference, the meeting where leading Nazis agreed plans for the Final Solution. He did more than enough to earn his nickname as the Butcher of Prague. His assassination in 1942 led to vicious reprisals against Czech civilians, including the destruction of two villages and the murder of all the villagers.
I finally made it into the St. Vitus Cathedral, so named because Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, had acquired the arm of St. Vitus as a holy relic in the 10th century. The current building dates from the 14th century but was only consecrated in 1929. It’s a very impressive building, inside and out. I strolled through the Old Palace complex before making my way to St.George’s Basilica. I headed down the lovely Golden Lane, where alchemists once tried to turn base metal into gold, and where Franz Kafka once lived and worked.
Golden Lane was packed with people and the weather had become remarkably cold, so I made a quick visit to the dungeon before cutting my losses and heading back down towards the river through Mala Strana. Just before you leave the complex there is a bronze statue of a naked young man with a golden penis, called Youth. The gold colour of the penis is made by people rubbing it for good luck. I wish I was joking, but I’m not. Proof, if it were needed, that humanity is very weird.
There’s one final surprise just after you exit the castle, a viewing point on the edge of the castle gardens that offers spectacular views over the city. It almost makes climbing up to the top of the hill and battling through the crowds worthwhile. Almost…