Charles Bridge is more than a way to get across the Vltava River. It’s also Prague’s non-stop public space. Day and night, there is something to do, watch, buy, or photograph.
Connecting two important sections of Prague–the castle and Old Town–the bridge was started in 1357 and completed in 1402. Legend has it that Charles Bridge (first called Stone Bridge) has lasted for over 600 years because Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, an enlightened king and fervent believer in numerology, laid the first stone at 5:31 am on July 9, creating a palindrome (1357 9 7 5:31) to ensure additional strength to the structure. It seems to have done the trick, since it was the only bridge until 1841.
Sure, there have been repairs, mostly from floods damaging some of the 16 pillars. From 1965 to 1978, Charles Bridge has a major overhaul…that’s when vehicles were finally prohibited and it became a pedestrian bridge. Given the crowds that swarm during the day, I wonder how a tram or bus could ever have squeezed through.
Like all public spaces, activity shifts according to the time of day
I crossed the bridge a dozen times during my stay. Early morning brings joggers, as well as photographers. Brides and their entourages show up for photo shoots in front of the castle or by one of the 30 statues of Czech saints. It’s a peaceful time to stroll the bridge…but you’ll never have it all to yourself. Still, it’s quiet and the “golden hour” of light makes for soft, rosy photos.
By mid-morning, vendors and artisans have set up shop the entire length of the bridge. They chat among themselves and watch each other’s wares when one of them needs a break. I stopped to buy handmade bracelets from a young woman who told me she’s there every day. “Tomorrow will be cold and rainy. I’m not looking forward to it.” Why not skip a day, I asked. “Oh, no! I couldn’t! I like it…and I need the money.”
Afternoons are packed. It was my least favorite time to cross Charles Bridge. Tourists jostle aggressively to pose in front of Prague Castle or one of the statues. Selfie sticks are in every hand. It’s difficult to walk, even down the center where there is nothing to see. More vendors–and now buskers–line the edges. Some folks may find the scene energizing, but I just felt jostled.
Evenings bring another mood. It’s still busy, but not as crowded or frenzied. Couples stroll, families push buggies, and there are fewer vendors. Still a lot of selfie posers, but who can blame them? The light from the lamps looks, well…romantic. The castle glows in the background and boats offering dinner cruises brighten the dark river. It’s lovely.
Thirty Czech saints to inspire and protect
Originally, Charles Bridge only had a single cross…now it’s part of a crucifixion statue. Then–as the Czechs were hassled and ultimately ruled by the Habsburg Catholics–the leaders decided to add the statues to remind people that God was watching. Thirty saints line the 1,700 ft. length of the bridge…almost six football fields. Carved from local sandstone, they did not age well with time and pollution; they are being replaced with copies and the originals stored in the city’s museums.
One of the favorites St. John of Nepomuk. He was a 14th-century priest who heard the queen’s confessions. The king, not trusting his wife, demanded that Father John tell him her secrets. No way, said John. He was tortured and thrown off Charles Bridge, at the spot where his statue now stands. When he hit the water, five stars appeared, proving his purity of heart. Czechs love St. John and believe if you touch the plaque by his statue and make a wish, it will come true. (Caveat: You only get one wish. No do-overs.) There are St. John statues everywhere, always with a crown of five stars. But only this one has the magic…
There are towers at each end of the bridge, and for less than $5 (90 Kc) you can climb the stairs for excellent views.
Charles Bridge ranks as the second most popular attraction in Prague, behind the 9th-century Prague Castle. The thing is, you have to pay to see the cool parts of the castle. The bridge? It’s free…and you’ll use it everyday.
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