It all started with a 17th century library.
While doing research for our travels to Prague, I ran across photos of the Strahov Monastery Library. It was one of the most beautiful libraries I’d ever seen. As I was adding it to our itinerary, I discovered that visitors couldn’t actually step inside the rooms. Instead, they were relegated to a brief peek through an open doorway. Looking from the outside can work well in some places. But the Strahov Monastery Library clearly didn’t seem like one of those places.
There had to be a way to get inside.
I turned to Google and found a video of Katarína Krušpánová who was leading a tour inside Strahov for a company called Personal Prague Guide. As she talked, she seemed incredibly enthusiastic, animated and passionate. It turned out that Katarína is licensed to take small groups all over Prague, including beyond the Strahov open doorway. Suddenly my plan to tour Prague on our own shifted gears to an all-day sightseeing affair with Katarína.
Charles IV Bridge
It was 8 a.m. when we met Katarína in the lobby of our hotel. I had requested focusing our tour on the Castle area where Strahov Monastery is located, but Katarína had other ideas. “We’re starting early. This is great!” she told us. “Our tour of Strahov isn’t until 2:30. We have time to do the bridge before it starts getting crowded.”
The bridge she was referring to is Prague’s historic Charles IV Bridge, named after the king who commissioned it in the mid-14th century. Charles IV Bridge spans the Vltava River and connects Old Town with Malá Strana, the “Lesser Quarter” neighborhood where we were staying. With its three bridge towers, 30 Baroque statues and a length of about two thousand feet, the pedestrian-only structure seems more like a grand avenue than a means of crossing a river.
As we walked, Katarína talked about the bridge, spinning historical stories and explaining the significance of various statues. The enthusiasm I had detected in her video was even more apparent in person. She tossed out so much information that it was almost impossible to keep up with every detail. And then there were the quizzes. Katarína would ask a question about a fact she had told us or why we thought something might be true. If we answered correctly, she would laugh, hold up two fingers and shout, “two points!” This delightful woman was definitely not your typical tour guide, and we felt truly lucky to be spending the day with her.
The thirty statues along Charles IV represent Catholic saints important to the Czech Republic and line both sides of the bridge like trees flanking a pathway. In between are lovely red-roofed views of Prague. When I commented that everything seemed to be in pristine condition, Katarína explained that the bridge is highly monitored by security and even by ordinary citizens. And at that moment, as if on cue, we watched a woman admonish a visitor for leaning on a statue!
By 9:30 the bridge was getting crowded. Really crowded. We had reached the Old Town side, grateful for Katarína’s suggestion to get an early start.
From Old Town, we rode Prague’s Tram Number 23 along a tree-lined cobblestoned route to Castle Hill. Katarína suggested getting off at the Royal Gardens, a picturesque, less crowded stop just below the castle. The gardens are home to Queen Anne’s Summer Palace, built in the mid-16th century by Ferdinand I as a gift for his wife.
St. Vitas Cathedral
As we walked uphill, the Gothic spires of St. Vitas Cathedral came into view. Prague Castle is an expansive complex of palaces, churches, gardens and museums, and St. Vitas is undeniably its star attraction. The towering Czech national church is an architectural wonder of flying buttresses, Art Nouveau stained glass windows, soaring arches, opulent tombs and gold and silver statuary.
Strahov Monastery Library & Theological Hall
We headed outside, walking past palaces and museums decorated with detailed designs and painted in an array of colors from salmon to yellow to sandy beige. It was an almost overwhelming collection of buildings and possibilities, and I was happy we had narrowed our focus to St. Vitas and Strahov. The castle complex is one of those places where a little advance planning goes a long way.
We reached the library entrance and waited a moment while Katarína spoke to one of the attendants, who seemed to take on the role of security guard. Once we were cleared to enter, the attendant unhooked a rope that was strung across the infamous open doorway, and we found ourselves in the Theological Hall. Beautiful wooden globes, an antique desk and a pastel-toned frescoed ceiling filled the space, all bathed in a soft light pouring in from a wall of arched windows. Volumes of fragile-looking books lined every wall, often organized on shelves in two rows. There was even a gilded locked case containing books that had been prohibited long ago.
Strahov’s Philosophical Hall
A corridor at the far end of Theological Hall leads to Strahov’s second stunning masterpiece – Philosophical Hall. It’s the kind of room that immediately comes to mind when imagining an old-world library. Elegant walnut bookshelves filled with rare and ancient books dating as far back as the 10th century line every wall. A balcony with bookshelves that reach intricate crown moldings wraps around the perimeter. The high ceiling is decorated with a fresco called “Spiritual Development of the Mankind.” And my favorite part…a secret door revealing a hidden spiral staircase that provides access to the balcony.
Philosophical Hall contains more than 33,000 volumes in the sciences, mathematics, history, astronomy and other disciplines that were traditional “philosophical” subjects at universities of the day.
It was late afternoon when we finished our tour. Katarína suggested a nearby café for a coffee, and without missing a beat she added, “and you must try the apple strudel!” We settled into our seats on a terrace at Restaurant Bellavista, aptly-named for its peaceful views overlooking this enchanting city. We had planned to spend the following day touring on our own, but when Katarína told us she had a couple of free hours in the morning, we seized the opportunity.
“Good!” she said, confirming our reservation. “We will start early. I will meet you by the Charles IV statue at 8 o’clock!”
I had to smile. It would be another early day, and we were still adjusting to the nine-hour time change. But how could we resist the chance to once again avoid the crowds and spend a little more time in Katarína’s intensely wonderful world?