Our first morning after arriving in Prague we planned the day ahead over breakfast at our lovely hotel – the Neruda – which was very conveniently located just below Prague castle. Stepping out onto the cobbled streets we were pleased to see the sun already blazing down on us, surprisingly hot for a late spring day. Strolling up the hill and steps we joined the throng of other tourists heading towards the castle grounds. On reaching the main square outside the castle we stopped to admire the view over the town below and across to the green hill of Petrin Park with its copy of the Eiffel tower lurking through the canopy of trees.
Nearby was a little market consisting of a few stalls selling Czech souvenirs and local food, including the famous sweet baked dough, Trdlenik. Jerome noticed a blacksmith forging metal for a sword over an open fire in the middle of the market stands. We watched him curiously and Jerome checked out the finished sword for sale, but at around 200€ it was definitely not a cheap souvenir to take home with you.
Moving on towards the main entrance to the palace we noticed the long queue winding itself like a snake across the entire square and up along towards Schwarzenbersky palace. The concierge had warned us that the waiting time would be up to two hours long at this peak time of day before we had left, and he was right. They now, for security, search every person entering the castle grounds.
We made the decision that waiting in a queue for such a long time in the heat was not worth it, even if that meant we would have to come back another day or even miss out on visiting perhaps the main attraction in Prague. However this meant that we had to change plan and were contemplating about what to do instead. I had seen a photo of a brick tunnel in one of the guidebooks during my research about what to do in Prague and knew that it was located behind the castle’s grounds. After asking a guard in a building close by we were told it was part of the deer moat in the palace’s gardens and they gave us directions to the entrance to the gardens.
After a short stroll down from the main square we reached a gate into the gardens where we were also searched by a security guard, before being allowed to enter the moat. Surprised by such high security just to enter the moat and gardens we walked down the steep stairs onto the shady paths of the trench that still runs below the north side of the castle and that once was home to bears from Russia. A narrow stream ran along the moat’s bed and large chestnut trees grew up on either side. Heading downhill we soon found the brick tunnel, a fairly new addition to the moat, which now connects the upper and lower moat sections. The foot tunnel runs underneath the bridge that connects the Royal garden with the rest of the palace and it is a great piece of architecture that seems to be wasted away from the crowds. At the other end of the tunnel we noticed a path leading up the hill to the rest of the gardens and could not believe our eyes when we saw people coming down towards us. We asked them if it was possible to enter the Royal Garden from there and felt like we had struck gold. This truly was a way around the masses of tourists wanting to enter the gardens and the palace. A walk through to the gardens had neatly avoided a two hour queue!
At the top we found ourselves next to the locked Baroque green house and walked towards the far end of the gardens where we arrived at the Royal Summer Palace or Belvedere. The palace was built for Anna Jagiello and while the lower part of the building is in a Renaissance style the copper roof was designed by a different architect in a Gothic style and therefore rather unique. In front we saw the beautiful “Singing Fountain”. Sadly the summer palace is not open to the public. Jerome and Chris strolled along the paths, through the Italian Style Garden, by far not as impressive as we had seen in Italy on Isola Bella a few weeks before but they still make it pleasant to stroll through. Some kids were running over the lush, green lawns and immediately were told of by one of the guards patrolling the grounds.
The Ball Game Hall at the South end of the Royal Garden, was my favourite building of the grounds. Used as a hall for tennis and other ball games, this gem of a Renaissance building is entirely covered in striking grey and white sgraffitoes on the outer walls between the pillars and glass doors. Nowadays the hall is used for concerts and other social events.
We were strolling towards the bridge that connects the gardens with the castle, but just before we got to the Riding School we stumbled upon a falconer with his selection of birds of prey hidden in the shade of one of the buildings. Someone was standing on the grass between the display of animals holding an eagle. Jerome had always wanted to hold an owl, his favourite bird of all and there was a selection of them, including an eagle owl with its bright orange eyes. We learnt that for a donation of 200 CZK visitors were able to hold one of the birds and take photos.
I was in two minds about whether we should support the practice and allowing Jerome to hold one of them. He seemed so eager that we decided he could do it just once. He was second in line and while the others finished their photos Jerome chose the smallest owl, a Little Owl rather than the Barn Owl that looked like it was asleep under its tiny roof. The little owl appeared to be quite happy to come onto Jerome’s hand and the falconer told Jerome that she liked to be stroked. Jerome stood there in awe, stroking this tiny creature and it really gave us the impression of enjoying Jerome’s affection rather like a cat. I stroked the cute owl as well and was surprised by how soft the feathers were. Jerome was allowed to hold the owl for much longer than the others as it was so happy on his hand. When he finally handed the owl back to its owner we could see that he was sad to give it up and leave it behind. Holding the owl was his favourite experience of our trip to Prague and he still mentions it a lot. We learnt that the birds were grown as pets, get to fly free each evening and they are not at the castle every day, so we felt like they were being treated well even if really we all felt deep down that they should be left wild.
Crossing over the bridge to the castle’s entrance we saw the final parts of the changing of the guards, which takes place every day at noon.
It is free to enter the castle, however, admission to the palaces and religious buildings requires a ticket. These can be purchased at one of the ticket offices at the gates or inside the castle. The system is quite complex as there are many options so it is worth thinking about what you really want to see if you do visit.
We wandered over to entrance of the Neo Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the largest religious building in Prague. Walking underneath the archway we stood right in front of the impressive portal and the stained glass window above. I would have loved to see the interior of the cathedral but again the queues were horrendous. Instead we walked to the Great South Tower of the cathedral to find that not many others were mad enough to climb the 287 steps to the viewing platform.
However they did not know not only we got to see amazing vistas of the Castle, the river with its many bridges and the rest of Prague, they also missed out on seeing the largest bell in the country and the back of the tower’s clock work. I admit it was quite a strenuous trek up the narrow, winding steps but very rewarding at the top. The people in the courtyard below were as tiny as ants and the river Vlatva shimmered in the afternoon sun. Jerome liked the view of the castle’s roof with its distinctive, diamond pattern and we noticed that almost the entire city had red clay roofs. On the way downstairs I almost felt giddy and was glad to have firm ground underneath my feet.
We wandered on past the many other buildings, filled with historical artefacts and furnishings. It can take a full day or more to see all the buildings from the inside and many have limited interest for children. In our case the chance to wander in the sun prevented us from wanting to venture inside to explore one of the other buildings, even though the Vladislav Hall in the Old Palace was a possibility. The hall held jousting competitions where the knights would enter the room on horseback via a dedicated staircase, it sounded very compelling – and could have even caught the interest of Jerome’s mind.
We left the castle through the main entrance gate, noticing that the queue was a lot shorter then earlier. We were pleased with ourselves that we had found a secret way in and I would suggest if you do see a big queue at the main square to check one of the other gates as there may well be a shorter wait.
We wandered on to have lunch and visited Petrin Park in the afternoon. Read all about it in my next post.