High And Mighty
Prague Castle has been home to emperors and dictators, potentates and presidents, but it is the complex itself that has always reigned supreme over the Czech capital
Archaeologists have been digging at Prague Castle since 1925; the place is still filled with buried treasures. For the past four years, they've been looking for the original tomb of Charles IV, the 14th century Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor. His body was moved to a royal crypt two centuries after his death in 1378, and the location of his initial resting place was lost until, in March, the researchers drilled a 4-cm hole under the main altar at the castle's St. Vitus' Cathedral, peered through it and found the spot.
However, when I paid the archaeologists a visit, they seemed just as interested in the castle's current occupants. I overheard one of them reassure another: "Don't worry. They [the administration of Czech President Vaclav Klaus] won't be here in two years!" The exchange was a reminder that political power is transient, but Prague's marvelous castle will always endure.
The building — or more accurately, collection of buildings — doesn't look much like a castle. Perched peacefully on a gentle hill, its four spires pointing upward and away from the worldly bustle of Prague, the complex originated as a Christian church in the late 9th century. In addition to the cathedral, it contains St. George's Basilica and several chapels, but most of its inhabitants have been more concerned with the exercise of earthly powers than with spiritual matters. Dictators, emperors, governors, kings, presidents and princes have come and gone, but the castle has silently dominated the skyline — and Czech political life — for more than 1,000 years. Czech rulers never had enough cash to commission a complete overhaul of the buildings. Instead, over the centuries, palaces and churches rose next to and on top of each other.
Inside St. Vitus' Cathedral is the Chapel of St. Wenceslas, dedicated to the eternal ruler of Czech lands. And inside the chapel, behind a door, are the St. Wenceslas Crown and the Czech Republic's state jewels, which have only been exhibited in public 10 times in the past 100 years. Fortunately, the castle itself is strewn with other jewels: Vladislav Hall with its graceful Late Gothic vaulted ceiling, masterpieces such as Titian's Young Woman at Her Toilet and Rubens' The Assembly of the Olympic Gods on display in the Castle Gallery and, most magnificent of all, the cathedral, infused with the sublime light that streams through the medieval rosette and the stained-glass windows by 19th century Czech artists, including Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha. Prague is clearly still king of the castles.