cathedrals

Prague: Prague Castle

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I knew all too damn well going into it that Prague Castle was not going to be for me.  But I guess it’s one of those things you’re supposed to see, and I don’t know when I’ll be in Prague again, so I went along with it.  The castle had two strikes against it from the get-go as it is: a.) very touristy and b.) up a large hill.  I’m way too lazy to be walking up hills, and I hate people.  I also wasn’t impressed with the queue to buy tickets, or the weird photographic licence you had to buy if you wanted to take pictures (50 CZK, and I only saw it being enforced inside the castle itself; the cathedrals were a free-for-all).

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Prague Castle is actually a large complex of buildings on a hill, and not just the castle, so there are different admission prices based on how much you want to see.  Due to my obvious lack of interest, we opted for Circuit B, which included the cathedrals, the castle, and the “Golden Lane,” but excluded a few of the exhibitions.  At 250 CZK (about 7 quid), it was fairly pricy by Czech standards, and I was glad we didn’t go with the 350 CZK Circuit A.  As you can probably tell from the pictures, St. Vitus Cathedral was a complete madhouse; not quite as bad as the Vatican, but close.

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The stained glass was gorgeous, but I always resent having to pay to visit a cathedral, especially because you were allowed to walk in the entranceway (probably not the official churchy term) without a ticket, you just couldn’t venture all the way to the back (the best of the stained glass was at the front anyway).  And another thing…even though I am not at all religious (I can’t emphasize this enough), my grandparents were, and so I light a candle for them whenever I visit a cathedral, because I know they would have appreciated it.  Usually, you drop a donation into a box, and then you’re free to select a candle, light it, and put it wherever you want to on the candle rack (or alternatively, light the candle of your choosing, if they’re the bigger votive kind).  Well, not here.  I put my money in the box, but then some man came up, thrust a tea light in my hand, whipped out a dirty old lighter to light it for me (usually they have little sticks you light off one of the other candles or a main flame, so it feels classier/more ritualistic), and then gruffly pointed at a spot on the rack to show me where I had to put it.  I don’t know, if I actually was religious, I probably would have been even more pissed off about it.

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We happened to walk out of the cathedral right around noon, which is when they do the changing of the guard, so we stopped to watch for a little while, although I was at the back of the crowd so I couldn’t see squat.  I got bored after a minute, due to my inability to see anything other than the tops of their hats, but I did like the band.  There was also an oompah type band near the entrance, who provide the musical accompaniment to traditional Czech dances done in traditional Czech costumes, which look very similar to Polish or really any other Central/Eastern European dances/costumes I’ve seen.  Not that I’m complaining; I kind of dig a good polka.

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So we left before all the hordes did, and headed swiftly over to the castle, which you really do need a ticket to enter.  As I said before, the photographic licence thing was “enforced” here, by a very meek girl who politely asked to see your licence and then quietly said, “please stop taking pictures” if you didn’t have one (I shouldn’t make fun of her I guess, I’d rather that than some burly security guard who smashed your camera in a fit of rage).  It was pretty spartan inside though, and it felt like you were only allowed to enter a very small portion of it.

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Fortunately, that part happened to include the window where the Second (and most famous) Defenestration of Prague took place.  Now, I took a fair few Renaissance and Early Modern History classes as an undergrad (well, my whole Master’s was on Early Modern History too, but I focused on England then), and I seem to remember discussing the Defenestration of Prague a lot.  Or maybe it just stuck in my mind because it was one of the few bits that was interesting.  Anyway, the Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618, when the Protestants in Prague got pissed off at the Catholic Hapsburgs who controlled the government, walked into what was meant to be a civilised meeting with them, and ended up hurling a few Catholic officials out the window in a fit of rage (you know, as you do).  The officials survived, despite it being a third story window, which the Catholics tried to chalk up to a miracle (the Protestants blamed a dung heap), and it ended up being one of the catalysts for the Thirty Years’ War.  All I know is that there is something intrinsically amusing about the concept of defenestration (as long as it doesn’t end in death); in fact, I used to play a game with one of my old flatmates wherein we had to make up different variations on defenestration like decapifenestration, where someone cuts off your head and throws it out the window, or depedifenestration, where someone just cuts off a foot and throws that out the window (yes, we were nerds).  So I was exceedingly pleased to see the window where this all took place (I dunno whether it was actually the same glass and everything, the sign next to it was pretty vague, but still), and this was by far the most enjoyable part of the Prague Castle experience for me.

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There was also a balcony where you could see exactly how far the defenestrated men must have fallen, and some upstairs rooms (that we almost missed, because you have to walk past the exit to find a staircase leading off the main hall) with some amusing plaster animal heads that I suppose are copies of ones that adorn the castle (though I didn’t notice the real ones; they were probably way up in the rafters), but none of this compared to the joy of seeing the historic fenetre.

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We also got admission to St. George’s Basilica, which was far less impressive than St. Vitus’s Cathedral.  You probably could have poked your head in for free, and again, save for that funny looking painting of a man up there, the most interesting part was what I think were relics on the way out of the basilica.  They weren’t really that great of relics; in fact, except for some bones at the bottom of one, I’m not even sure what they were (nothing like Catherine of Siena’s head in Italy, which is creepy and neat and definitely worth seeing).

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The last area our tickets covered was the “Golden Lane,” apparently so named because a lot of goldsmiths used to work there (I guess because it was right next to the palace, and it was probably the royal family and courtiers who bought a lot of the gold).

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It was made up of brightly painted cottages that I think I was supposed to find adorable, but they were just kind of meh.  We ended up wandering into some armoury museum, having been promised an amazing and unique experience by one of the signs.  It turned out to be a very long narrow room with a few suits of armour and weapons and things in it (granted, the bird armour was cool), but you had to just shuffle along single file because there were so many people.  It was also completely airless in there, which was not welcome on a very hot day.  At least it was included in the admission price.

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Some of the cottages (the ones that hadn’t been turned into gift shops), had little re-creations in them to show what they would have been like when people of various professions lived in them.  The most popular by far was the fortune teller’s, which actually had a full-on line outside of it that I was not about to wait in, but Kafka supposedly lived at number 22 for a while, so I at least got a picture in front of that one, despite the obvious annoyance on my face at being surrounded by so many tourists (more on Kafka in the next post).

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There was some tower at the end of the Golden Lane, but I wouldn’t recommend going up it.  We walked up a shitload of steps just to see some lame fake “torture chamber.”

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On our way out, we managed to get a better look at some of the gargoyles outside St. Vitus (one of the exhibits our ticket didn’t include had more info about them).  It turns out that they included a frog (adorable) and a lobster (which is frankly more terrifying than any monster gargoyle could be, I hate lobsters).  There is also a statue of a boy with a golden penis.  I have no idea why he has a golden penis, or who he is, but naturally I got a picture with him too.

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I think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t terribly impressed with the castle’s offerings, as a whole.  I also didn’t appreciate that they charged to use the toilets there…didn’t I pay enough already?  The Defenestration of Prague window was by far the best thing they have to offer, and I’m still not even sure that was the actual window used (the sign was implying it was, but it didn’t actually come right out and say it…maybe it was a faulty translation).  Without the window, I would have been perfectly content to just wander the complex and look at the buildings from the outside, as St. Vitus’s Cathedral was really the only one with an impressive interior.  And I could definitely have done without the masses of tourists…this is why I generally aim for more unusual attractions – so I don’t have to deal with them.  2/5.

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Ely, Cambridgeshire: The Stained Glass Museum

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By rights, my write-up of the Stained Glass Museum should be mainly a picture post, to show off the fabulous collection of glass-work housed within the upper reaches of Ely Cathedral.  However, the museum is one of those with a firm no-pictures policy (and no large bags, guess they don’t want you clumsily bashing into the glass!), so you’ll have to make do with photos of the cathedral (which is perfectly attractive, it’s just not entirely reflective (ha!) of the surprisingly largely secular museum collection).

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The entrance to the Stained Glass Museum is up a steep spiral staircase to the right of the main doors of this superb 12th century cathedral.  Ely Cathedral itself is free to enter, but admission to the museum will set you back £4.  The gift shop and admissions desk are inside a circular room, which leads off into a long gallery from which you can look down on the centre of the church below, with the stained glass arranged along the walls in two rows.  Evensong was taking place when we were there, which lent an appropriate atmosphere to proceedings.

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Along the balcony, you’ll find a series of doll-house sized dioramas demonstrating various stages in the glass-making process, from drawing the cartoon (basically a stencil to arrange the pieces of glass on), to cutting the glass, cranking out lead strips to go in between, and soldering the lead.  In case you couldn’t get the idea from the adorable dioramas, there’s also a video at the end of a man making a window, so you can see precisely how it’s done (always handy, as I sometimes have a hard time visualising the mechanics of things).

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Of course, the real meat(s?) of the museum are the stained glasses themselves.  The inner row progressed chronologically, with a detailed sign between each section describing the changes in technology and religion in that time period, and the resulting stylistic changes.  As you might expect, the earlier pieces were largely religious in nature, though there were a quite a few that weren’t, from the “Labours of the Month” depicting hog-slaughtering time, to the ever-popular (amongst the French) Reynard the Fox.  The medieval windows, in addition to being the oldest, are also some of the most beautiful, as stained glass became largely a forgotten art in England following the Reformation, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that glaziers again learned how to replicate the quality and range of colours of the earlier glass.

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The 18th century saw a change in the glass-making process, when a new technique for simply painting over a large pane of glass was introduced, eliminating the need for lead strips, and allowing for a more cohesive picture (but sacrificing the nuances and personality of earlier works), as evidenced by a large portrait of George III done using this technique. The Georgians and Victorians also seemed to favour portraying saints with the faces of members of the Royal Family, hence a portrait of the notorious Victorian Prince Eddy in the guise of St. George.

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The outer row contained modern glass pieces, which were often quite whimsical, like “Sure Enough the Duck,” which was of course, a picture of a duck.  Some of my favourite pieces were ones that were new interpretations of older themes, like the modern re-creation of “Labours of the Month,” a medieval-style fight with hammer and tongs from 1920, and a cartoon style panel of the Prodigal Son which was straight-up hilarious if you’ve had enough of a religious background (and are a dork) to know the original story (this version ends with the line, “But his elder brother was not pleased.  Neither was the fatted calf.”).  My favourite older pieces were, perhaps predictably, the ones with monkeys in them doing human stuff like drinking and smoking, and of course, Reynard the Fox, but I think the prettiest pieces of glass were a pair of angels done by Morris and Co. (who were largely behind the drive for improved glass-making techniques) in which the detail on the wings was exquisite.

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The majority of the stained glass on display (with the exception of the modern pieces) has been saved from churches and other buildings, and preserved within the back-lit interior of the museum.  I, for one, am quite glad it is being looked after, and I really enjoyed my visit here.  I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of non-religious art, and fascinated by the glass-making procedure (I think I might take a class on stained glass, though I totally lack artistic talent, and have terrible fine motor skills, so I’m fairly sure it will be a disaster. Cutting my nails is enough of a struggle.).  3.5/5.

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As a final note, after leaving the cathedral, I learned that one of Oliver Cromwell’s houses was in Ely, just down the street, but as it was already nearly 5 at this point, I was too late to go inside (damn shame, that; one of the bedrooms is rumoured to be haunted!).  Still managed to snag a photo with Ollie (and Mrs. Cromwell) out front (although he was almost unrecognisable without his warts)!

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