Moonlit Tour of Prague Castle

September, 2000

On Friday night my husband had been invited to “represent the Ambassador” at a reception celebrating the completion of a Getty Foundation restoration of a mosaic which is displayed over the doorway of St Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle (Pražky Hrád).

This is the kind of event which makes me glad to be married to a Cultural Affairs Attaché.Yes, it was a bit stuffy, but his obligations consisted of showing up, shaking a couple of hands, and then consuming the Ambassador’s share of lobster canapés and quality champagne. Otherwise, we were free to admire the 18th century reception room in which the reception was held, and to admire the views of Prague visible from the tall, arched windows set into four-foot thick castle walls. Sparkling light from spotlessly clean chandeliers gave the Baroque, gilded walls a rather poetic glow.

There were a couple of speeches which would have really offended Latin Americans with their brevity. In Latin America a man is judged by the length of the homage which he inspires. As soon as a glass was tapped by a spoon I tried to arrange my feet and my face in a comfortable position for the duration of what I was expecting to be at least 20 minutes of speechifying. In the Czech Republic, we were treated to a five minute, exquisitely polite, thank you for the eight years of work and funding which Getty had contributed, and a toast. In short: “Thanks, and let’s have another drink, shall we?” Refreshingly brief!

After making a bit of small talk, and trying to avoid looking completely goggle-eyes at our surroundings, we settled into gilt and damask armchairs for a meal that was literally “fit for a king.” We passed the dinner hour examining a very old tapestry on the opposite wall, depicting an interesting allegorical view of Africa and America. Two plump, Rubenesque figures with clearly European features were the centerpiece. One had black skin and lion’s head headdress and the other was brown with a feather headdress. The African one had an oversized housecat at his feet, representing a tiger, I suppose. The American one had a African crocodile curled around his feet–I guess it was meant to be an alligator! In the background, teeny little white people set up camp. Look out.

After the meal, we werein the process of taking our leave when we asked what had happened to Prague Castle under the Communists. The woman in charge of the event–the President’s public affairs person or something like that–immediately insisted on taking us on a tour of the castle! Rounding up the representative for the Getty foundation, we went through a hidden servant’s door into an even more grandiose reception room. Cool!

The castle is in absolutely immaculate condition, and the Czech staff obviously takes immense pride in it. Each room that we passed through was accompanied by a brief historical discusion. Most of the rooms have been restored to the original Baroque style, but some still retain the 1950s lighting and furnishings left behind by the Communists. I hope that they retain this mix of styles, and don’t completely erase all traces of the Communist period. (I think they are tempted to do so!) We saw the enormous room in which the Central Committee held meetings for forty years. Nice–apparently the commies weren’t averse to enjoying a few feudal comforts, such as a fifty foot table and chairs designed by some famous person. I can’t remember the name, but at its mention the Getty representative went down on his knees to check underneath one of the chairs, so I guess it must have been impressive.

At various locations throughout the castle, portions of the walls and ceilings have been left exposed to show the stages of development of the castle. One room, normally used by the President for important signings, has immense oak beams overhanging it. Another has a stone column in the corner, complete with centuries-old graffiti. Yet another curving stone wall has a huge oak door in it from medieval times. We would never have noticed many of these details had our guides not thoughtfully pulled back draperies or told us to look upward at various points. (At times like these I appreciate that year of AP Art History in high school. I actually have some idea what people are talking about some of the time!)

The most stunning room on our tour was the 18th century Spanish Room. The size of a gymnasium, this room is decorated from top to bottom with statuary and gilt molding. Enormous gold and crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. It sounds gaudy in the abstract, but in fact this is one of the few examples of Baroque architecture that is–dare I say it–tasteful. I couldn’t stand it any longer: I had to bring out my camera. A gentleman who is apparently the caretaker of this room promptly turned up the lights so that I could get a better picture, and pointed out some small things that would make good photographs. I have no idea what he was there at 10 PM on a Friday night, but I appreciated his help, and his enthusiasm.

As we returned through that hidden servant’s door (which I still think was one of the coolest things we saw), I felt like Alice in Wonderland returning to the normal-sized world after being tiny. We said our goodbyes and went for a moonlit walk through the cobblestone streets of the Castle. This same patch of land which is regularly invaded by hordes of tourists during the day, is almost completely unoccupied at night, except for the occasional lone person walking a dog, or couple strolling hand-in-hand. From the battlements we overlooked the Vltava River and the lights of Old Town. Prague really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We are lucky to be here!

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