Walking Tour 1: Malá Strana (Lesser Town)
Start: Old Town Bridge Tower (Staromestská mostecká vez).
Finish: Church of St. Nicholas (Kostel sv. Mikuláse).
Time: About 3 to 4 hours.
Best Times: Early morning or around sunset, when crowds are thinner and the shadows most mysterious.
Worst Time: Midafternoon, when the bridge is packed.
Dating from the 14th century, Charles Bridge is Prague's most celebrated structure. As the primary link between Staré Mesto and the castle, it has always figured prominently in the city's commercial and military history. For most of its 650 years, the 510m-long (1,673-ft.) span has been a pedestrian promenade, as it is today.
The first sculpture, St. John of Nepomuk, was placed upon the bridge in 1683. It was such a hit that the church commissioned another 21 statues, which were created between 1698 and 1713. Since then the number has increased to 30. The locations of each statue are shown on the accompanying map. Note: As this book was being researched, city authorities had begun a long-term reconstruction project to repair damage to the bridge and to strengthen it. It is still crossable and beautiful, but the presence of scaffolding and work crews does detract from the setting somewhat. Work was expected to continue into 2010 but hopefully will be wrapped up by the time of your visit.
As you stand in the shadow of the tower on the Old Town side of the bridge, first turn to your right, where you'll find an 1848 statue in tribute to Charles IV, who commissioned the bridge's construction between Prague's oldest quarters. Now walk toward the bridge entrance straight ahead, but first look up at the:
1. Old Town Bridge Tower (Staromestská mostecká vez)
This richly ornate 1357 design was made for Charles IV by Peter Parlér, the architect who drafted the Gothic plans for St. Vitus Cathedral. The original east side of the tower (facing the Old Town side) remains pristine, with coats of arms of the Bohemian king and Holy Roman Empire. Shields also depict each territory under the auspices of the Bohemian crown at that time.
Above the east-side arch, seated to the right of the standing statue of St. Vitus, is Charles himself, and on the left is a statue of his ill-fated son, Wenceslas IV (Václav IV), who lost the crown of the empire.
The tower's western side was severely damaged in a battle against invading Swedish troops in 1648. During the Thirty Years' War, the heads of 12 anti-Habsburg Protestants were hung for public viewing from iron baskets on the tower.
Climb to the top of the observation tower for postcard views of the bridge below.
As you pass through the archway, the first statue on the right is of the:
She is attending to a kneeling St. Bernard, flanked by cherubs. Like most of the statues on the bridge, this is a copy; the originals were removed to protect them from weather-related deterioration.
With your back to the Madonna statue, directly across the bridge is a statue of:
3. St. Ives
He is the patron saint of lawyers and is depicted as promising to help a person who petitioned him. Justice, with a sword on his right, is also portrayed. If you see his outstretched hand holding a glass of beer, you'll know that Prague's law students have just completed their finals.
Cross back again and continue to do so after you view each statue.
4. St. Dominic & St. Thomas Aquinas
These two figures are shown receiving a rosary from the hands of the Madonna. Below the Madonna are a cloud-enshrouded globe and a dog with a torch in its jaws, the symbol of the Dominican order.
5. St. Barbara, St. Margaret & St. Elizabeth
These statues were sculpted by two brothers who worked under the watchful eye of their father, Jan Brokoff, who signed the work as a whole. Franz Kafka has written about the finely sculpted hands of St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, situated in the center of the monument. To art experts, however, the sculpture of St. Elizabeth (on the left) is the most artistically valuable figure in this group.
6. The Bronze Crucifix
Produced in Dresden, Germany, it was bought by the Prague magistrate and placed on Charles Bridge in 1657. The statue's gilded Hebrew inscription, which translates as "holy, holy, holy God," is believed to have been paid for with money extorted from an unknown Jew who had mocked a wooden crucifix that formerly stood on this site.
7. The Lamenting of Christ
This sculpture depicts Jesus lying in the Virgin Mary's lap, with St. John in the center and Mary Magdalene on the right. Executions were regularly held on this site during the Middle Ages.
8. St. Anne
The Virgin Mary's mother holds the baby Jesus as the child embraces the globe in this statue from 1707.
9. St. Joseph
This statue of Joseph with Jesus dates from 1854 and was put here to replace another that was destroyed by gunfire 6 years earlier by anti-Habsburg rioters.
10. St. Cyril & St. Methodius
These Catholic missionaries are credited with introducing Christianity to the Slavs.
11. St. Francis Xavier
One of the cofounders of the Jesuit order, he is depicted carrying four pagan princes on his shoulders -- an Indian, a Tartar, a Chinese, and a Moor -- symbolizing the cultures targeted for proselytizing. This is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding Czech baroque sculptural works.
12. St. John the Baptist
The saint is depicted here with a cross and a shell, symbols of baptism.
13. St. Christopher
The patron saint of raftsmen is shown carrying baby Jesus on his shoulder. The statue stands on the site of the original bridge watch-house, which collapsed into the river along with several soldiers during the Great Flood of 1784.
14. St. Norbert, St. Wenceslas & St. Sigismund
All three are patron saints of the Czech lands.
15. St. Francis Borgia
He was a Jesuit general and is depicted with two angels holding a painting of the Madonna. Look on the lower part of the sculpture's pedestal, where you'll see the three symbols of the saint's life: a helmet, a ducal crown, and a cardinal's hat.
16. St. John of Nepomuk
He was thrown to his death in chains from this bridge, and this, the oldest sculpture on the span, was placed here to commemorate him. The bronze figure, sporting a gold-leaf halo, was completed in 1683. The bridge's sole bronze statue, St. John is now green with age and worn from years of being touched for good luck. Just to the right of the statue along the top of the wall, you'll find a crossing marking the spot where he was allegedly tossed. Touch this too to ensure good fortune.
17. St. Ludmila
She points to a Bible from which St. Wenceslas is learning to read. In her left hand, St. Ludmila holds the veil with which she was suffocated. The statue's relief depicts the murder of St. Wenceslas.
18. St. Anthony of Padua
Dedicated in 1707, this statue depicts the preacher with baby Jesus and a lily. The relief is designed around a motif inspired by the saint's life.
19. St. Francis of Assisi
The first Roman Catholic martyr to be incorporated into the Bohemian liturgy, the contemplative saint is shown here between two angels.
20. St. Judas Thaddeus
He is depicted holding both the Gospel and the club with which he was fatally beaten.
21. St. Vincent Ferrer
He is shown boasting to St. Procopius of his many conversions: 8,000 Muslims and 25,000 Jews.
22. St. Augustine
Holding a burning heart and walking on "heretical" books, this statue of St. Augustine is a 1974 copy of a 1708 work. On the pedestal is the emblem of the Augustinians.
23. St. Nicholas of Tolentino
He is depicted as handing out bread to the poor. Behind him is a house with a Madonna, a mangle, and a lantern on its top-floor balcony. Walk quickly. Legend holds that if the lantern goes out while you pass by the statue, you'll die within the year.
24. St. Cajetan
The saint stands here in front of a column of cherubs while holding a sacred heart. Behind the statue, a triangle symbolizes the Holy Trinity.
25. St. Lutigarde
This figure was created in 1710 by 26-year-old M. B. Braun, and it is widely considered to be the most valuable sculpture on Charles Bridge. St. Lutigarde, a blind nun, is depicted here as able to see Christ on the cross, in order that she might kiss his wounds.
26. St. Philip Benitius
He was the general of the Servite order and is the only marble statue on the bridge. He's portrayed with a cross, a twig, and a book. The papal tiara lying at his feet is a symbol of the saint's refusal of the papal see in 1268.
27. St. Adalbert (1709)
The first bishop of Bohemia is blessing the Czech lands after returning from Rome.
28. St. Vitus
Attired as a Roman legionary, he stands on a rock between the lions to which he fell victim.
29. St. John of Matha, St. Felix of Valois & St. Ivan
This statue was commissioned for the Trinitarian order, which rescued Christians from Turkish captivity. In the huge rock is a prison, in front of which there's a dog and a Turk with a cat-o'-nine-tails guarding the imprisoned Christians. With money for their freedom, St. John is standing on the summit of the rock. St. Ivan is seated on the left, and St. Felix is loosening the bonds of the prisoners.
30. St. Cosmas & St. Damian
They are the patron saints of physicians and were known for dispensing free medical services to the poor. The statues, which were commissioned by Prague's medical faculty, are attired in gowns and hold containers of medicines.
31. St. Wenceslas
This statue was commissioned in 1858 by Prague's Klar Institute for the Blind.
Follow the brick path toward the archway at the end of the bridge, but on your way, look up at the:
32. Lesser Town Towers (Malostranské mostecké veze)
The small tower on the left was built in the 12th century before Charles ever began construction on the bridge. It was a plain Romanesque structure, but Renaissance accents were added in the 16th century. The taller tower was built in the 15th century and completed the connection of the archway with the smaller tower built in the early 1400s.
After passing through the tower, you'll enter Mostecká Street. Take the first left to Lázenská Street. At no. 6, on the left, you'll find a former hotel and bathhouse that now houses a small cafe:
33. V lázních (In the Baths)
This was a well-known stop for visitors to Prague in the 1800s. The pub and baths, which once hosted writer François-Rene de Chateaubriand, were in operation on this spot from the earliest periods of Lesser Town's existence.
Just up Lázenská at no. 11, on the right side, is the former hotel:
34. U zlatého jednorozce (At the Golden Unicorn)
This was another favored stop for honored guests, including Beethoven. A plaque on the front bears the composer's face. The hotel was originally built into the heavy walls that once ringed Malá Strana.
Take a Break -- To the left of the Golden Unicorn you'll find a welcome respite from the tourist horde and the perfect spot for coffee or light lunch of salad or pasta. Cukrkávalimonáda (literally "sugarcoffeelemonade") at Lázenská 7 has a comfy and countrified feel with wooden floorboards and a blackboard menu. The impossibly thick hot chocolate, perfect on a cold rainy day, is so rich it should be illegal. One cup is plenty for two. Main dishes run between 120Kc and 280Kc, coffee around 50Kc.
On the other side of the street, at the curve of Lázenská, you come to the:
35. Church of Our Lady Below the Chain (Kostel Panny Marie pod retezem)
One of the best Romanesque designs in Prague, this church was built for the Order of the Maltese Knights, replacing the oldest church in Malá Strana after it burned in 1420. You can see remnants of the original inside the church courtyard.
After exiting the church back onto the street, go about 20 steps straight on Lázenská to:
36. Maltese Square (Maltézské námestí)
On the first corner of the square is one of the city's most posh French restaurants packed into a former pub, U Malíru or "At the Painter's".
Take a Break -- If Cukrkávalimonáda was full or you're in the mood for something more traditionally Czech, Restaurace Vinárna U Vladare (At the Governor's) at no. 10 hits the spot. You can sit out front on the terrace and order coffee and dessert or a meal from a full Czech-style menu. Inside, on the left, is a more formal restaurant serving traditional Czech food. On the right is what used to be a horse stable, The Konírna, with vaulted ceilings, cozy and heavy wooden furniture, and a full menu of hearty Czech food. Main dishes cost between 180Kc and 600Kc, though daily lunch specials cut the cost substantially.
At one end of Maltézské námestí you'll find the large:
37. Nostitz Palace (Nostický palác)
This palace represents a grand, 17th-century, early baroque design attributed to Francesco Caratti. A Prague family that strongly supported the arts used to own it. Its ornate halls once housed a famed private art collection. The building now houses the Ministry of Culture, though you can still occasionally hear chamber concerts through its windows.
Facing Nostitz Palace, walk to the right and across Maltese Square (past the Mandarin Oriental Hotel) to find narrow Harantova Street (which was not signposted at the time of writing). Follow this a short way to Karmelitská Street. After crossing Karmelitská and walking to the right another 50m (150 ft.), you'll come to the:
38. Church of Our Lady Victorious (Kostel Panny Marie Vítezné)
This is the home of the famed wax statue of the baby Jesus, the Bambino di Praga, seen as an important religious relic in Italy and other predominantly Catholic countries.
From the church entrance, continue up Karmelitská Street to see a complex of houses on the left side at no. 25, collectively known as:
39. Vrtba Palace (Vrtbovský palác)
In 1631, Sezima of Vrtba seized a pair of Renaissance houses and connected them to create his palace among the vineyards at the bottom of Petrín Hill. The lush, terraced gardens (Vrtbovská zahrada) surrounding this complex add to its beauty.
Proceed up Karmelitská, where you'll come finally to Malostranské námestí. To the left, around the uphill side of the square, is the imposing dome of the:
40. Church of St. Nicholas (Kostel sv. Mikuláse)
This high-baroque gem was designed by K. I. Dientzenhofer and completed by his son in 1752. Relax among the statues and take in the marble-and-gilt interior (entry by paid admission only). The church often hosts excellent if expensive afternoon concerts. Buy tickets at the western entrance (on the side of the church facing Prague Castle). You can also climb the tower for views over Malá Strana and the Old Town in the distance.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.