The Seven Ages of the Bridge
This piece was published by the British Czech and Slovak Association Journal and in Troglodyte, one of the most esoteric magazines that I know. This page also gives you the opportunity to listen to a 'Charles Bridge Special' version of the jazz classic Basin Street Blues. This is performed by 'Jazz No Problem' of Prague. I am grateful to the band for letting me use this.
Apologies for some of the accented characters not being right. This is due to the limitations of the Times New Roman font.
In the city that must soon be challenging for the number one spot in the 'most desired destination for visitors' league, the Charles Bridge in Prague must be the most favoured tourist spot. You'd probably say that everything that could be written about it has already been written about it. Maybe, but this essay is an attempt to get a few of the thousands of visitors who throng it every year to look at it afresh. Its story reflects that of the Czech Republic, and perhaps the wider world. I shall try to tell this with a mix of history, personal reflection, and anecdote.
I. Medieval Times and Earlier: The Judith Bridge
Few enough people realise that Charles Bridge, Karlov Most, was not the first stone bridge built over the Vltava River to link the Old Town (Staré Mesto) and The Little Quarter (Malá Strana). That honour goes to the Judith Bridge, erected in 1172 during the reign of the first Wenceslas (Václav). It replaced a series of wooden constructions dating back to the early middle ages, to the time when Bohemia was founded by the Slavs or early Czechs.
The Judith Bridge collapsed during a flood in 1342, but part of the associated buildings can still be seen at the Malá Strana end of Karlov Most. The smaller of the two bridge towers is a twelfth century remainder of the earlier construction.
II. Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries: The Imperial Bridge
Prague was the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire when the Judith Bridge was destroyed by floods. The Emperor Charles IV ordered the start of the construction of a replacement in 1357. The foundation stone was laid on 9 July - at 5:31pm to be precise - giving a 'pyramid' of odd numbers reading backwards and forwards. In charge of construction was Petr Parlér, the Royal Architect. The story goes that he ordered the local villages to provide egg yolks to strengthen the mortar, and that one of the villages boiled their eggs first. The raw eggs must have done the trick, though, because the original bridge has survived, despite a few difficulties. These include battle damage in the war against the Swedes in 1648, the destruction of two arches by storms in 1890, and very bad floods as recently as April, 2002
The bridge was grand in scope, providing sufficient width for four carriages to cross at the same time. It was a long time in construction - over sixty years - and was not completed until 1420. Today, we call the bridge Karlov Most after the Emperor, but for many years it was known simply as Kamenny Most, 'the Stone Bridge'.
III. Late Fourteenth Century: The Saint's Bridge
The favourite saint of the Czechs is John of Nepomuk. He was born about 1340 in the small town in the district of Pilsen that gave him his name. He took Holy Orders in 1373 and rose to become Vicar-General, an assistant to the Archbishop. The late fourteenth century was a time of extreme conflict between Church and State, and when he went against the wishes of Wenceslas IV to confirm the election of the monk Odelenus as the Abbot of Kladrau in 1393, he drew the Royal wrath upon himself.
Along with the Cathedral Provost, another official, the Archbishop's Steward and later, the Dean of the Cathedral, he was flung into prison. The others gave way to the wishes of Wenceslas, but not John. He was made to undergo all sorts of tortures, but did not relent. Eventually he was put in chains, led through the city with a block of wood in his mouth and on 20 March cast from the bridge to drown in the river.
The traditional spot from which St. John was thrown is marked roughly half-way over, on the right hand side going towards Malá Strana. In 1729 he was canonised, with a Feast Day of 16 March.
IV. Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries: The Baroque Bridge
The Charles Bridge is notable for its statues. There about thirty of them. Many of the visitors to the bridge have an interesting time picking out the representations of such as Joseph, the father of Jesus; St. Christopher; and St. Dominic as they pass. But the bridge was unadorned for about 200 years, save for a simple crucifix where the more elaborate one now stands. The first sculpture - that of St. John of Nepomuk - was not erected until 1683. This one is easy to identify. Its plaque has been polished to a shine by the hands of the countless people who have touched it in over three centuries. Touching the statue is supposed to ensure good luck and the safe return to Prague.
The last statue was erected in 1859. It was a replacement of that of St. Wenceslas, the same Václav I who ordered the building of the earlier Judith Bridge. In fact, many of the statues are not the originals. These are housed in The Lapidarium in Vystaviste.
This 'Baroque' period roughly coincided with the demotion of Prague to a provincial city within the Austro-Hungarian empire and the subservience of the Czech and Slovak peoples.
V. Early Twentieth Century: Hasek's Bridge
Jaroslav Hasek, more so perhaps even than Franz Kafka, is regarded as the national writer of The Czech Republic. Many Czechs are not happy with this identification. The trouble is that Hasek was a Bohemian in both senses of the word. He was born in Prague, and was also a Bohemian in the sense used in La Bohème. Particularly in the period before the Great War, he was very much an anarchist, and many do not regard him as a good advertisement for the Czech national character.
Yet it should not be forgotten that Hasek lived for most of his life in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a period which coincided with a rise of nationalist feeling among Czechs. The writer was famous, or infamous, for his many pranks. These included registering in a semi-brothel under a Russian-sounding name that spelled 'kiss my arse' when read backwards. He declared (at a time when war-fever was at its height) that he was in Prague to look into the activities of the Austrian General Staff, causing the Police to surround the hotel.
In 1911 he 'emulated' St. John of Nepomuk by jumping off the bridge at the traditional spot in a pretended suicide attempt. He was carted off to a psychiatric institution by the police who pulled him out of the Vltava. He used his experience as part of the book for which he is best remembered, The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the Great War. More importantly, he used his own experiences in the 91st Infantry Regiment, for which he was called up in 1915. These experiences included a spell in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp; enlistment in the (anti-Soviet) Czech Legion; and serving as a Deputy Commandant for the Bolsheviks.
Then, in 1920, he returned to his native country with his second, bigamously married, wife. In the following year he started to write Svejk. It was a popular success from the beginning, but he did not live long to enjoy it or the newly independent Republic. At the beginning of 1923, not yet forty years old and with Svejk still unfinished, he died.
VI. Mid Twentieth Century: The Winter Bridge
The Republic of Czechoslovakia, despite its rapid development of true democracy, was destined to have a short existence, too. The nineteen-thirties saw the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the dismemberment and annexation of the Republic less than twenty years after its formation.
After the war, it was little wonder that this 'far-away country with people of whom we know nothing', as Neville Chamberlain had called it in 1938, should have turned its back on the West and become part of the Soviet Bloc. In 1967, I intended to visit Czechoslovakia. It seemed to me to be an enchanting country, despite it being behind the 'Iron Curtain'. I got as far as getting a brochure from Cedok. One of the photographs in the brochure was of Karlov Most, with a thin covering of snow. There were only a few people dressed in winter coats crossing the bridge and, if memory serves after a period of nearly forty years, a few cars and vans as well. It was a most unattractive picture. How and why it found its way into a tourist brochure, I will never know, but it has always seemed symbolic to me.
I didn't go to Czechoslovakia in 1967, for financial rather than philosophic reasons I should admit, and the very next year saw the 'Prague Spring'. As we now know with the benefit of hindsight, the 'Spring' turned out to be not much more than a temporary thaw, and the country returned to another twenty-one years of painful winter. But then, to the surprise of most people in the world I think, the Soviet Bloc almost seemed to melt away.
VII. The Present Day: The Tourist Bridge
For one reason and another, I did not visit Prague until June, 2004. The City, and especially the Bridge, was swarming with tourists. The sun was shining out of a clear sky, and parties of children in boats cheered upwards as they passed under the Bridge. There were portrait painters and hawkers of every kind of souvenir in between all the Baroque statues. And there was a lively local jazz band, called, appropriately enough, No Problem. It was a confirmation of all that I had read about the Czech Republic having made an easier (but still not easy) transition to democracy than other countries in the former Soviet Bloc.
Only the grumpiest of us would turn their noses up at this scene. And yet I couldn't help but be aware that there is a 'McDonald's' disfiguring the wooded valley of Sarka not far away, another and a 'KFC' in Staré Mesto, and that souvenir shops and posters of the worst kind are already in abundance. I bought a CD from No Problem as much as anything because they represented America's greatest cultural gift to the world, in direct contrast to the worst excesses of Globalisation and Coca-Colonisation that are already starting to discolour Prague. If the former Soviet Bloc did have a purpose it was to act as a kind of counterweight to these dangers - dangers to the wider world as well as to the Czech Republic.
That counterweight has now been removed.
Still, perhaps this is unduly pessimistic. It could be that the country that gave the world the concept of 'Schweikism' - a special kind of passive resistance and dumb insolence in the face of superior force - has something to show us yet.
Click the button above to hear the special Charles Bridge version of BASIN STREET BLUES by JAZZ NO PROBLEM of Prague.