If one historic monument in Prague had to be singled out it would have to be the Charles Bridge. It is visited by thousands every year as they make their way to the imposing Castle above or tread down to Prague's Old Town Square. The bridge, though flanked by countless buskers, puppeteers, and trinket sellers today, retains its ancient grace, and the view is tremendous: late in the evening when its Baroque statues fall into shadow, nearby Petrin Hill is lit up by dozens of tiny lamplights. The dark waters of the Vltava River churl below and you can not help think about the bridge's history and wonder who its original builders were.
Famous Czech monarch and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV first commissioned the construction of the bridge in 1357 - fifteen years after the collapse of the Romanesque Judith Bridge. The floods of 1342 swept it away, leaving only one third standing. Following the catastrophe a temporary wooden bridge was used for a full fifteen years before Charles IV made up his mind to commission the new one Construction fell to the brilliant Petr Parler of Wurtenberg, just 27 years-old at the time. He also headed the construction of St Vitus' Cathedral following the death of Matthew of Arras. Josef Stulc, the director of the Institute for the Preservation of Historic Monuments, characterises Parler's work as genius, calling him one of the best architects and technicians of his day.
"The bridge is not only a wonderful masterpiece of architecture but it is also an original document of the technique of the Middle Ages."
The founding stone for the Gothic bridge, which, for centuries would only be known as the Stone Bridge, was laid by Charles IV on July 9th, 1357. The day and time are said to have been carefully chosen by astrologers: 5:31 in the morning for the reason that lined together the date and time formed a series of symmetrical numbers. 1 - 3 - 5 - 7- 9 - 7 - 5 - 3 - 1. Whether one believes in astrology or not the bridge has been lucky through its long history. It has survived numerous floods over the centuries including heavy floods last year, when experts feared the bridge was in serious danger. The most serious threat to the Charles Bridge though came in 1890, when three arcades actually collapsed, two columns undercut. That was the worst damage the bridge ever suffered, clearly no small test. Even last year - in August 2002 - it appeared for a while it might be swamped when waters reached five-hundred year floods. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron reported from the scene at the time:
"The historic, famous Charles Bridge has already been closed. They have mounted cranes on some of the other bridges - I can see one in front of me - they are to remove debris from the water to stop it from damaging the columns, but I think, really all they can do is wait and see."
In the end Charles Bridge survived that test but there was no denying those days put fear in the hearts of many: preservationists, historians, and residents alike. After all, the bridge has been with us for 646 years.
What about the builders of Charles Bridge- and their techniques? We know from documents that survived these were sophisticated indeed. Builders of the day were capable of blocking off parts of the river during the laying of the foundations for the bridges columns - the heart and soul for any such structure. In Petr Parler's day the technique was to build a six-sided reservoir sunk into the river bed, its walls covered with lime to block water from passing through. Water inside was then removed using a water wheel or Archimede's Screw, drawing out an enormous amount of water. The bases for the bridge's columns were then prepared using wooden pilot stakes driven into the river bed, and built up using oak beams, upon which large millstones were laid.
Also a source of wonder is the sheer amount of material used to build the bridge, by some estimates more than 100, 000 tons. In the end, there is even a charming legend that goes with the building of the bridge - it is said egg yolks were used to strengthen the exceptional mortar. Says the legend Charles IV ordered eggs from villages throughout the kingdom of Bohemia in order for there to be enough: but one rather simple-minded village apparently sent eggs that had been hard-boiled. Not much use, really. Were egg yolks really used though? Just a legend most experts say.
Today, visitors are able to appreciate a Charles Bridge that has the added lustre of Baroque statues that began to be added in the 1600s - in Charles' time the bridge had only been decorated by a single cross. The first Baroque statue was introduced in 1683, inspired by Bernini's statues on Rome's' Ponte Sant' Angelo. The statue was of St. John of Nepomuk, The saint canonised in 1729, who died tortured at the hands of Wenceslas IV. His body was bound and thrown off of the Charles Bridge. Other notable statues include St Vitus, featuring a scene in which the martyr is licked by lions instead of being mauled. A few others include: the Madonna, John the Baptist, St Francis of Assisi, St Ludmila and the crucifixion scene. The gilded crucifix is decorated with words in Hebrew exclaiming: "Holy, holy, holy lord" - paid for by a Jew who had been punished for blasphemy.
Finally, worthy of note and just about all we have time for in this edition: when you visit Charles Bridge there are a number of reliefs one can touch that are said to bring good luck - one shows John of Nepomuk's body being tossed into the Vltava - it has been polished bright from the thousands who have touched it through the centuries.
So, no matter where you go in Prague all roads will eventually take you to the Charles Bridge. Perhaps you'll experience an early sunrise coming back from the clubs, squint in the early morning light. Or just spend an afternoon there with your children taking in the autumn breeze. Share a cup of hot wine with friends there as Christmas approaches. Or experience a sublime walk in the fog when the bridge's statues appear out of the mists like ghosts. Such moments are rare. But well worth waiting for. As Monet visited the Rouen cathedral at just about every time of day, so you too will want to experience this remarkable stone bridge.