We didn’t expect to climb to the top of the Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague. It was one of those attractions that we looked at but walked past, heading across the bridge to Mala Strana. Unexepectly, we found ourselves with a delightful, unique opportunity: come to the top of the tower at night, after we’ve closed, offered by our friend and guide Mirek. So while he closed up for the night, we climbed the old tower stairs to the top where we had an amazing view of the city.
There was a half full moon hovering over the tower, hanging above its spires. Some of the tower’s decorative elements denote the moon cycle, but we failed to notice them as we fixed our eyes on the sky and the skyline. The Vltava River stretched out below, the lights and revelers on Charles Bridge arching across the dark water. Prague Castle lit up the horizon line, the churches of Mala Strana below providing light in the foreground. As we leaned back to take in the view, upstream on the river glowing red lanterns were released into the sky.
As we climbed the tower’s spiral staircase with Mirek he shared with us the reason for its clockwise turn upward: right-handed sword-wielding defenders has a better stroke on their way down the stairs than if it had curled the other way. Quite the thing to think about, but after all, the foundation stone for the tower was laid on 9 July 1357 for the purpose of protecting the cities and the bridge. One of the inscriptions on the exterior of the bridge reads (in Latin) “Be told, be told and watch out; he who touches me, dies“.
It was a treat to visit the tower with Mirek, who pointed out the different kinds of stones in its stairwell. He shared with us the best view (of course, of the castle) and gave us more history. As a final treat, he put the great big, old and authentic key to the tower in Vinnie’s hand and asked him if he wanted to lock the door on the way out. Of course he did! So as we left, Vinnie turned the key in the lock, followed by a final check from Mirek to make sure that the old lock fit in place just the way it liked.
A few days later we laid eyes on another set of castle keys after we made the climb up to Karlstejn Castle, just a short train ride outside of Prague. As we crossed the river and walked up the cobbled streets of the town below, Vinnie made the comment that this was a proper castle. Indeed, it had all the feel of a defensive keep: it soared above town, perched on an outcrop of rock that made it’s sides impossibly steep. Tucked away in a narrow canyon, you couldn’t really see it from out in the valley, unless you knew to look. Our tour guide told us that when the holy relics were taken from Prague Castle to be hidden at Karlstejn, the Swedish army passed by twice before they found the castle.
Karlstejn isn’t an imperial palace like Prague Castle, and what it lacks in ornamentation, it makes up with pure burliness. In some places it’s walls are 7 meters thick and this is castle has outer and interior walls, so an attacker would still have to fight hard once they’d breached the first gate. This castle is yet another project of Charles IV, who was the king of Bohemia and also the Holy Roman Emporer. A series of towers provided the stronghold for both the Bohemian and Holy Roman treasurers, with the relics housed in the tallest town, the Chapel of St. Cross. During the summer months, the tour actually goes to the tower, but not so in March.
As we climbed from the courtyard to the hall of the knights, our guide unlocked the door behind us, then locked it when we had all entered the hall. So it went as we wound our way through the castle, always locked into the room we were viewing. The man carried a big ring of keys, a collection made up of keys much like the one Vinnie held at the Tower Bridge.
Even on this somewhat warm day, inside the castle it was cold. Finally, when we reached the throne room, we warmed up a bit and our guide told us why. The throne room had wood paneling – deep wood panels, at least six inches thick. It was carved in geometric patterns, but all that wood provided insulation that made that one room noticeably warmer.
We had a terrific time getting out of the city to see this castle. The next time we come to Europe, we’ll be looking for castles that are off the beaten path where we can have more of this kind of experience.
Views from Old Town Bridge Tower
Sites from Karlstejn Castle