Did you wander across Charles Bridge during your vacation in Prague and look at the statues on the railings? You weren’t the only one because Charles Bridge is the best loved bridge in Prague and always full of people milling about. While most tourists saunter up and down at least once during their visit, locals hardly ever walk across, preferring a tram or metro.
Charles Bridge or Karluv Most in Czech spans the Vltava River and connects the Old Town with Mala Strana or the Lesser Quarter. The view of Prague castle is fantastic. Charles bridge is the best loved and most famous sight in Prague, pedestrian only and definitely tourist territory. The slightly curved bridge teems with Baroque statues. Tourists stroll along inspecting the tiny stalls selling trinkets, artwork and Charles Bridge souvenirs. Buskers play mini concerts and hope for generous admirers.
The History of Charles Bridge
Charles IV commissioned the construction of the Charles Bridge in the mid-fourteenth century, after floods had destroyed the old Judith Bridge. This new bridge is 516 m long, 10 m wide and rests on 16 arches. On the old town side, the Old Bridge Tower formed and integral part of Prague’s fortifications, it’s facade a riot of mini-sculptures.
For a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area, you climb to the top of the tower. On the Mala Strana side, the bridge ends in two towers. The shorter one stood guard over the old bridge.
The Statues of Charles Bridge
The thirty statues adorning Charles Bridge are all replicas. The original sandstone ones weathered badly and are now in the Lapidarium Museum, the official depository for Prague’s sculptures threatened by demolition or the weather.
The statues stand on both parapets of Charles Bridge. Most of them were erected early in the 18th century. Aristocrats, the Church, universities and the City of Prague commissioned them.
The earliest statue to appear was the Crucifix. The Hebrew inscription reads Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts. Legend has it that one of Prague’s Jewish inhabitants was found blaspheming in front of the cross. His punishment was to pay for erecting a cross on this spot. You can see the cross in the middle of the bridge on the right side when coming from the Old Town.
The most popular statue is St John of Nepomuk and easy to spot on account of the halo of five gold stars encircling his head and a crowd of people in front. Nepomuk was a cleric who refused to reveal the confession secrets of Queen Sophia, the wife of Wenceslas IV. He was tortured and flung off the bridge, five stars appeared above the water. It is more likely that he was in the wrong place during one of Wenceslas’s anti-clerical rages. Nepomuk is now the patron saint of Prague and Bohemia and visitors rub the relief to attract good luck, and hopefully a return visit to Prague one day.
Another statue features a snarling dog and a potbellied Turkish jailor guarding three persecuted Christians. The prisoners behind the prison bars look desperate. The onlooking friars seems not to care.
The Best View of Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge offers the best view of Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral, but for the best views of the Bridge itself, you have to go to Smetanova Embankment, next to the Smetana Museum.
Kampa Island is another excellent spot to view Charles Bridge. Kampa is the largest of the Vltava River islands, but still very small. Its southern tip is a whirl of pink blossom in spring. The riverside path is photographer’s paradise because it offers the best views of Charles Bridge.
For another spectacular view of Charles bridge, take the funicular railway or walk up Petrin Hill. Climb the 299 steps of Petrin Tower, a miniature look-alike of the Eiffel tower. The multitude of people on the bridge resembles Lilliputians. The spires and domes of the Old Town sparkle in the sun. To the west, the looming towers, pinnacles and buttresses of St Vitus Cathedral stand out against the blue sky.
The crush of people on Charles Bridge seldom abates. Your visit to Prague is only complete after you have mingled with the crowd on Charles Bridge and seen the statues. The best loved bridge of Prague festooned with Baroque statues is the best place to hang out.
Photo credits: Marianne Crone