I lived in a little country town called Naike, in New Zealand, until I was seven. The primary school had two classrooms and when I started school I was in one and my older brother (by three years) in the other.
I vividly remember sitting on the mat (arms and legs folded) and being asked what we wanted to be when we grow up. Typical things were coming up – doctor, fireman, farmer. I remember thinking, why aren’t they choosing something more exciting? The teacher said if you could be anything, didn’t she? So it came to my turn and I said, without a trace of embarrassment, “Princess.”
I suppose I think of this whenever I visit a castle. Lofty aspirations.
I opt for a tour of Prague Castle and end up with a hilarious man named Michael. He is half an hour late and turns up bright and bubbling, strong English accent but claiming to be German. We trot across the bridge and get onto a tram to take us up the hill to Prague Castle. The hill is good for defence, but bad for walking in 32° heat (and presumably also bad for attackers).
First stop is the Strahov Monastery which is heavy with quiet. I may come back here.
There is a look-out by the Monastery and from here the city stretches out, startlingly beautiful, all ochre and cream. The whole city looks like a grand castle, like a fairytale.
It’s down into the castle grounds after this, Michael regaling us with historical hilarities all the way. He is very into accents, and acting out strange historical stories. I should have been taping him.
Perhaps most memorable was the tale of the numbering on the main gate into the castle. The King who had it decorated did not want to pay the final wages of the artist and so instead of Anno, meaning year, it reads Ano, meaning anus in Spanish.
We entered through the “anus gate” as our guide termed it and quickly made our way to the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral. It is enormous and was only finished in 1929, 600 years after building began. Just to make sure we don’t forget it, the final four architects who worked on the building are carved into the front entrance wearing their modern business suits. They look strange up there in stone, as if the original artists were seeing into the future.
From there we walk around to the side of the cathedral which has exquisite gold detailing, behind which reside the Crown Jewels. Michael tells us that the room must be opened with seven keys and in the 20th Century was only opened nine times. In the latest televised opening of the room the Czech president had evidently tasted a little too much of the good stuff and weaved his way into the shot, lurched menacingly over the crown as if he might just throw up in it before finally standing rocking on his heels with his eyes alternately rolling or closed. Apparently nobody really minded.
We had a quick peek at the row of houses on Golden Lane which really looked like doll’s houses and I had one peer at the house where Franz Kafka lived for a short while, before the tour was off once more. We were, of course, running late. We wove through the cobbled streets of the castle to see various beauties and oddities (the statue of the young man whose nether regions are rubbed to a healthy shine by all the visitors – apparently it’s good luck. Nobody in our group was game.) I think my favourite building was the beautiful earthy red Convent of St George.
We finished up walking through the gorgeous Pleasure Garden where the grass is so perfect you are not allowed to walk on it. We all admired from afar. It was a quick walk down Nerudova – apparently one of Prague’s most beautiful (and steep) streets, though I was too hot to notice at this point – and the tour was done.
I slumped, hot and happy, onto the tram back to my hostel where I lazed into the early evening and ventured out at a cooler hour for dinner. Not a princess yet, but one castle closer.