The Jewel of the Czech Lands

YES, it's huge and casts a majestic glow, most especially at night, and it can turn all heads towards its direction. It is the "Jewel of the Czech Lands" -- the Prague Castle. Or, is it called such because it houses the Bohemian Crown Jewels?

If it's not time to take out the republic's "precious" for viewing (usually on a milestone event like the national foundation day or when a new president is elected), don't fret. The Prague Castle is the jewel itself and the Bohemian Crown Jewels is the plus. After the visit, you have bragging rights on having seen the largest ancient castle in the world (as listed in the Guiness Book of Records), and perhaps add the changing of the (good-looking) guards?

Interesting trivia: The Bohemian Crown is cursed! Old legends say a usurper who places the crown on his head is doomed to die within a year. It took a victim during the Nazi occupation of Prague.

Getting up the hill to the castle grounds, in the district of Hradcany (aka the Castle District which consists mainly of noble historic palaces), is best done on foot. Not only is the walk on the upward-sloping cobblestone paths very manageable, it can be sweet and scenic, with delightful sights and surprises popping up along the way (which makes you slow down your pace and forget about the time), and rewarding, for the view of the city on higher ground is breathtaking.

The elevated position of this once independent borough offers a breathtaking view (not because you're short of breath from the hike) of the other three former boroughs that constituted Prague in the past -- the Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter), Stare Mesto (Old Town) and the NoveMesto (New Town). All four have been integrated into one city.

Spread across almost 70,000 square meters of land, the 880-founded castle has been the seat of power for Bohemian kings, Holy Roman Emperors, and Czechoslovakian presidents. After Czechoslovakia was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it became the seat and official residence of the Head of State of the new Czech Republic.

From the first walled structure of the palace, the Church of the Virgin Mary, the complex grew through the centuries with the foundation of more buildings -- palaces, churches, fortifications, galleries, etc. presenting a mélange of architectural styles -- by the different reigning emperors. The grandest of which is the St. Vitus Cathedral, the biggest and most important church in the republic, is built in Gothic style, and the Basilica of St. George, rebuilt in 1142 and the oldest surviving church building within Prague Castle, is in the Romanesque style.

Making up the castle complex are a couple more holy places, the All Saints Church and Holy Cross Chapel; several palaces and halls- the Old and New Royal Palaces, the Belvedere or Royal Summer Palace, Lobkowicz Palace, the Column, Spanish and Rothmayer'sHalles and Rudolph's Gallery; a fewother buildings and defense towers, which includes the Dalibor and Powder Towers, the Golden Lane, Ball Game Hall and Riding School, and the Old and New Provost Residences; several gardens; and, museums, including the National Gallery collection of Bohemian baroque and mannerism art, the Toy Museum, a picture gallery of Prague Castle and an exhibition dedicated to Czech history. Most of these areas are accessible for viewing to tourists.

Make sure you have enough time to spend in this place and do the proverbial travel motto of "soaking everything in." A ticket is required to access the castle's areas. My 250Kc ticket allowed me to check out four major areas of the 10 spaces open for public viewing, which included the Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St. George, the Golden Lane, and the magnificent St. Vitus's Cathedral.

For the other six spots-the Story of Prague, Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral and its South Tower, the Prague Castle Picture Gallery, Powder Tower and Rosenberg Palace, I will check them out on my next visit. This I know because I touched the plaque on the statue of St. John of Nepmuk, which assured my return to the city.

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