Prague Old Town: Royal Route Part I
Start - Municipal House
Welcome to a tour of the Royal Route through Prague's Old Town. My name is Rod, and I'll be your guide.
You should be standing in a small square next to the art-nouveau-style Obecni Dum, or Municipal House. Ironically you are standing in what is called New Town, just outside the walls of Medieval Prague.
Before we get started, let me give you a bit of background.
Since the first coronation of a Czech king in 1086 to the last one in 1836, 26 Czech kings and 28 queens were crowned and blessed. Coronations happen in a ceremonial mass in the St. Vitus Cathedral at the Prague Castle, on the west side of the Vltava River. At the height of the Middle Ages, King Wenceslav IV established his Royal Court here in Old Town, an urban royal residence with luxurious accommodation and appropriate representation for that period. It was located by the fortification wall dividing the Old Town and New Town, along the busy road to Kutná Hora. The coronation processions to St. Vitus Cathedral started to follow this route in the middle of the 1400s, at the crowning of Albert II of Hapsburg in 1438.
Turn to face the Municipal House, and look at the tall dark tower to the left of it. Can you see it? It has a large archway at its base, which the road runs through.
That was the main gate on that road to Kutna Hora, and Prague's fortified walls ran to the south and north. All those walls are gone now, and only a few towers remain. The Municipal House next to it was built in the late 1800s, and occupies the land where wall and royal residence once stood.
OK, so let's be on our way! Turn so that the Municipal House is on your right-hand side, and walk across the square. Then cross over the pedestrian crossing just in front of the tower – but beware of the traffic. Celetna Street was and still is a major thoroughfare through the commercial heart of Prague in the Middle Ages.
VoiceMap uses GPS to pinpoint your location and trigger the relevant audio. This means you can put your phone away now and relax. I will tell you where to go
The Powder Tower
Now turn right, and walk down the road, going past the tower. Stay on the left-hand side of the road.
Looking at the tower, you can see how effective it was as a tollgate coming out of Old Town. It only gained its name of Powder Tower when gun powder began to be stored here in 1715.
Carry on walking down the narrow road ahead.
The king or queen-to-be were accompanied by a huge entourage of royal family members, court officials and other celebrities of the day. You can imagine the line of nobles mounted on fine horses as they made their way from the residence onto Celetna, the road you're walking on now, and westward.
The building and its arcade that juts out into the road ahead on the left was once the site of the Mint built in 1537, then enlarged and now the Provincial Courts Office.
Now walk through the arcade.
Each side street and arcade holds another Prague story.
Like many buildings in Old Town, most of the buildings along Celetna have Gothic elements and walls, especially in their basements. The Vltava River has regularly flooded parts of Prague every twenty to fifty years to heights of several meters, so buildings were reconstructed vertically after the flood waters receded. Some basements closer to the river even go back to the late Roman era.
Keep going straight.
The street on your left leads to a market square called Ovocny Trh, The Fruit Market. We'll continue straight in a moment, but first I want to show you something down this road. So turn left, and keep walking.
Now stop here, and look down the road ahead. Do you see that large building standing by itself at the far end of the square? That is the Stavovske Divadlo, The Estates Theatre. Mozart staged the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni there in October 1787.
Now turn around, and head back to Celetna, the road we were walking on a moment ago. We're going to continue along the Royal Route.
As you walk, pay attention to the darker ocher building on the corner on your left. This is The House of the Black Madonna, originally a department store built in 1915 in the distinct architectural style called Czech Cubism. It houses a museum exhibiting many examples of Cubism's influence on interior design, furniture and other aspects of Czech culture. Definitely worth a visit!
When you reach Celetna, turn left and continue in the same direction as we were heading earlier.
West on Celetna
Keep walking straight down Celetna, on this wide cobblestone thoroughfare.
Today the streets are lined by shops catering to every tourist's tastes, but during a coronation procession there would have been precious carpets and fabrics hung from every window overhead. Colourful banners and garlands of flowers would be draped across the street like many vast trellises over the long procession.
On your left is a building in the style of Czech Romantic Neo-Renaissance of 1897, by the architect Ohmann on the site of demolished Medieval buildings. It is an important milestone on the road towards Czech Art Nouveau architecture.
Ok, continue down Celetna.
Now look across the street to your right at the House at the Goats or Menhart's Palace, and keep walking straight. Originally a Gothic construction, it took on its Baroque appearance in 1706. Through the early 1700s, the Menhart family built a theatre and a concert hall in its courtyard where many travelling German and Italian theatre ensembles performed. Imagine strolling with those many actors and touring minstrels as you carry on your walk.
So almost every building along here has late Roman or Gothic foundations with subsequent centuries adding to their distinctive styles, shapes and characteristics to stand before you today.
Continue heading straight.
Here on your right is the House of the Golden Deer. It was originally a Romanesque building from the beginning of the 13th century, and its current appearance is peak Baroque from the 2nd quarter of the 18th century.
Carry on going straight.
To your left, with big wooden doors, is the House of the Black Sun. It was originally an early Gothic house. After much reconstruction, today it stands in its 18th century late Baroque appearance. It was said that in the late 1700s, Mozart often visited here.
Now look to your right, at the twin towers of Tyn Cathedral or the Church of Our Lady before Tyn rising over the rooftops. Members of guilds and churches, pupils and students would probably have presented themselves to the royal party here, cheering and singing.
The huge square we're heading towards is Prague's Old Town Square, the social and commercial hub of the city for hundreds of years. Continue walking towards it.
Old Town Square
Take a few steps out onto the square, and stop for a moment. You can see many architectural eras before you, from Medieval right through the Renaissance to Baroque and Rokoko.
Now turn right, and walk alongside the buildings with the square off to your left.
The first two houses were originally Gothic, and were first rebuilt in a Renaissance style and then in late Baroque.
The third building, just before the narrow lane, was also two Gothic houses. They were joined together at the beginning of the 15th century to become the Tyn School, which operated until the mid-19th century. On the first floor there is a fresco of the Assumption of Our Lady from the 18th century and above it two Renaissance gables.
House of the Stone Bell
Now stop here, and turn to your right. Can you see the building on the left of the narrow passageway? It's made with weathered stone, and has pointed arch windows.
That's the oldest building on the square, called the House of the Stone Bell. A large stone palace stood here in the late 1200s. It was converted into a grand urban residence for King John of Luxembourg in around 1363. It has been reconstructed many times over the ages. It was restored to its Gothic configuration in the 1900s, and many elements from that era can be seen on closer inspection.
Now turn away from the House of the Stone Bell, so that it's behind you. Then walk just to the left of the large statue in the centre of the square.
Jan Hus Monument
Stop here and have a look at the statue on your right.
That's the Jan Hus Monument, commemorating the part he and his religious movement played in European history. He predated Luther in the reformation of the Christian church and was burned at the stake for heresy by the Roman Catholic Church in 1415. His followers waged a successful rebellion against the church defeating five consecutive papal crusades in the Hussite Wars.
Now turn so that the statue is once more on your right-hand side. Can you see the tall clocktower ahead and a little to the left? We're heading for the narrow building attached to it on the right. It has a large arched doorway.
When you're ready to move on, make your way over to it. I'll meet you there.
Executions of 1621
Now stop for a moment, and look on the sidewalk just in front of the narrow building attached to the clock tower – or pavement if you're British. Find the darker cobblestoned rectangle with two large white crosses.
In the early 1600s, the Catholic Hapburgs crushed a Protestant landowner's rebellion. 27 nobles and civilians faced a special tribunal and were convicted. An execution stage, 20 paces wide, wrapped in black cloth was built right here. On July 21st, 1621, ten aristocrats and two townsmen were beheaded, and the remainder were hanged. The executions took four hours to complete. The twelve heads were hung from the upper gallery on the Old Town Tower Bridge. You'll be there soon!
But today you're walking in the Land of Beer, a happier time.
Now turn so that the square is on your left. Then follow the road to the right, going around the clock tower.
Old Town Hall and Orloj
Okay, stop here for a moment, and look to your right.
This tall building on the corner of the square is the Old Town Hall. The intricate mechanism above the small door to your right is a medieval astronomical clock called the Orloj.
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The clock was installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in operation. You can see the many elements of the clock that indicate the astrological signs of the zodiac, the times of the sunrise and sunset and the phases of the moon. The figures to the right and left of the clock characterize the villains of those times – Vanity, Greed, Death and Lust. If you are here near the top of the hour, you might want to wait for the appearance of the Apostles at the doors when the clock chimes the hour.
Today the Old Town Hall houses mostly art galleries, exhibitions, wedding ceremonies and grand social functions.
When you're ready to move on, turn so that the clock and tower are on your right-hand side. Then walk straight down the wide cobbled road, away from the square.
The Small Square
As you walk straight, cross through this narrow avenue that opens onto the Small Square, once a hive of businesses, hotels and social amenities in Medieval Prague with its ornate well with water troughs at its center.
As you walk, stick close to the building on your left, the House of the Blue Deer. It was originally several Medieval buildings and Prague's first pharmacy before 1400. Today's facade is 1760s rococo with its classicist main stone portal of 1798.
Carry on walking into the narrow street ahead.
The Royal Route now passes into narrow winding Karlova Street, as it turns sharply to the left at the House of the Golden Crown.
It leads through a residential quarter centuries old. After you turn, you'll see the House of the Three Pomegranates on the right corner, another Baroque reconstruction from several Medieval houses.
Karlova snakes its way through Old Town's oldest and most picturesque neighbourhoods.
We're going to turn right here, but stop on the corner for a moment.
Next is the House of the Three Angels at Karlova 2,1 where two Gothic houses were connected in a late Renaissance reconstruction. You'll see a statue of the Virgin Mary above your head.
Consider the many renovations and reconstructions these building underwent through the ages.
Across the street at numbers 42 and 40, a large Gothic house was divided into two building in high Baroque style, then rejoined in 1941. Both still have Gothic vaulted ceilings and fragments of Gothic frescos.
Ahead you can see the zig-zag the Royal Route takes through Husova Street. Let's keep following it now, down the narrow cobbled street.
Winding Karlova Street
Most of the facades you see are from the 1800s, having replaced the older wooden constructions from Renaissance and Gothic times.
Imagine a regal procession of many horses making their way through these jammed, claustrophobic streets, accompanied by musicians and cheering crowds. During the coronation procession of Maxmilian II in 1564, there was amazement among the surging throngs as a herd of six camels ridden by their Moorish masters made their way along Karlova.
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Keep walking to the end of the street. Then turn right and keep going.
Left, Back on Karlova
On the corner with its stone portal is the House of the Golden Sheep. Originally two Gothic houses, it was reconstructed in late Renaissance, Baroque and finally early Classicist of the 1700s.
Now turn left into Karlova.
Continue straight along the narrow cobblestone road.
The coronation procession would stop many times. City representatives made speeches at various spots, and students and performers gave impromptu poetry readings and staged short dramas in honour of the gathered royalty.
In centuries past, this area was full of students and academic staff. Many faculties of Charles University still occupy a large number of buildings both on the streets and in the interiors of the city blocks in this quarter.
Carry on walking.
Keep walking straight ahead. On your right is a high walled building occupying the entire city block to your right.
This is part of the Klementinum, with its arched portal and rounded wooden doors on the ground floor. A Dominican monastery dating from 1263, it became a Jesuit dormitory in the 1500s. After 1773 it became a university library and is now the National Library. There are many tours inside the Klementinum.
In this small plaza in the early 1900s an Arabian or Armenian tradesman was the first person in Prague to sell coffee. Supposedly he opened the first coffee house in Prague in 1914 on the other side of the river.
Last Block of Karlova Street
Continue away from the small plaza as Karlova Street narrows again.
There's only one more block to the river embankment, where we'll end our walk.
The round church on your right is the Chapel of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Next door is the much larger Church of Saint Salvador begun in 1578. It faces the main street along the embankment.
All the houses on your right are Gothic in origin with later adaptations. Very near the end of Karlova, at number 4, the House at the French Crown is a very narrow building with a memorial plaque to the famous German astronomer Joseph Kepler above the portal on the right. He lived and worked in the years 1607 to 1612.
Keep going. I'll catch up with you a little further ahead.
The End of Karlova
Stop at the intersection for a moment. You've come to the end of Karlova Street. As you face the tower, to your right is Krizovnicke Street and to your left is the Smetana Embankment.
We're going to cross the busy avenue ahead. Be careful to cross with the lights, and be aware that in Prague trams have the right-of-way at crosswalks!
When you get to the other side, walk straight into the square. I'll meet you there.
End - Krizovnicke Square
Welcome to Krizovnicke Square, the last plaza on this side of the Vltava River and Old Town, and the end of our time together.
To your right is the Church of St. Franscis of Assisi, with its stone statues and large dome.
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On your immediate left are a group of old commercial enterprises that supported the bathhouses and spas operating here since the Middle Ages.
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In front of you is the Old Town Tower Bridge. Do you remember our tour passing the Execution Stage of 1621 in Old Town Square? Those twelve heads hung from the tower's upper gallery.
Now if you walk closer to the tower and look off the bridge to your left, you can see a line of buildings jutting out from the shore. These are Novotny Lavka and the Old Town Water Tower. At one time these buildings were a collection of mills powered by the river. You can see the weir that stretches west across the river still maintaining the correct water level.
Well, that's the end of part one of the Royal Route. The second part continues across Charles' Bridge and the third takes you up the hill of Lesser Town to Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral.
Hope you've enjoyed the tour. Goodbye!