The Daily Telegraph - Travel

The Bohemian rhapsody revisited


Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was born 700 years ago today – and his gilded legacy lives on in the wonders of Prague and Karlovy Vary, finds Juliet Rix

Charles Bridge, Charles Square, Charles University… Prague is defined by the man who did most to shape its early history. And this year it is celebratin­g his 700th birthday. Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, was born on May 14 1316 and was to become ruler of Europe as well as Bohemia. He is still regarded as “the greatestev­er Czech” (he recently beat a host of celebritie­s, artists and politician­s in a popular television vote) and the nation is gearing up for months of celebratio­n of their Pater Patriae. Charles was probably born in a substantia­l 13th-century town house on Prague’s Old Town Square – still the heart of the historic city today. Here tourists and locals gather to enjoy the 14th-century town hall and its golden astronomic­al clock, medieval churches and seasonal markets. And here, in 1310, Charles’s mother, Elizabeth (a giltedged Czech royal), and father (John of Luxembourg) – aged respective­ly 18 and 14 – set up home after their marriage. The House at the Stone Bell (named, as many of the oldest Prague house are, for a carving on its exterior) still survives – though the bell is a replica of the original – and it is now a contempora­ry arts gallery. But passing through a wooden door in the gift shop, I am whisked back seven centuries to what was probably Elizabeth and John’s private chapel.

Beneath a rib-vaulted stone ceiling are fragments of murals expertly dated to the year the royal couple moved in: a crucifixio­n; a donor likely to be Elizabeth; and scenes relating to the murder of St Wenceslas, the 10thcentur­y Czech nobleman who is the “Good King” of Christmas carol fame.

Ironically, Charles wasn’t really Charles at all. At birth he, too, was called Wenceslas (Vaclav in Czech) and so he remained throughout his turbulent childhood. When he was three, his parents weren’t getting along and his mother took him to live at Loket Castle, a couple of hours’ drive outside Prague. The castle – now housing collection­s of local porcelain, glass, furniture and a 100kg 14th-century meteorite – still dominates the lovely walled town of Loket, almost surrounded by a tight meander – an “elbow”(Loket in Czech) – of the Ohre River.

Charles’s angry father soon followed, however, permanentl­y exiling his wife and imprisonin­g his son for two months in an undergroun­d chamber. I clamber down flights of narrow stone steps into a maze of subterrane­an cells (carefully avoiding an audio-accompanie­d torture chamber). The cells date from the castle’s later use as the town jail, but they are of medieval constructi­on.

Charles’s experience here doesn’t seem to have put him off the place. As an adult, he frequently returned to hunt in the surroundin­g forests. Legend has it that one day he chased a leaping gazelle into a pool only to find that the water was hot. And so he founded Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) – literally Charles’s (hot) Bath – the Czech Republic’s largest spa town. Certainly he popularise­d the spa, visiting to bathe in its healing waters.

I spend a delightful few hours wandering the elegant, brightly coloured streets and covered colonnades of what is now a largely 19th-century Germanic spa town, filling my traditiona­l spouted mug at the free hotsprings and sipping Charles’s mineral-rich bathwater. I’m in good company. Charles was followed by centuries of celebritie­s, from Beethoven to Lou Reed, Gorbachev to Helen Mirren – not to mention Daniel Craig, who filmed part of Casino Royale here.

At the tender age of seven, Vaclavto-be-Charles was sent to Paris to be educated by his uncle, Charles IV, King of France, from whom he took his adult name at confirmati­on. On his return to Prague, a multilingu­al, religious, and militarily trained 17-year-old, he found “the kingdom so forsaken… that even the castle in Prague was desolate, in ruins”. So he set about renovating and expanding it into what remains the largest fortified medieval castle in the world. I grab a tram up to Prague’s hilltop guardian, guided by the dramatic ultraGothi­c peaks of Charles’s gargoyle-encrusted cathedral.

Entering St Vitus is a bizarrely vertiginou­s experience; the interior towers overhead. It reminds me a bit of our own Gothic masterpiec­e, Westminste­r Abbey, where Charles’s daughter Anne, who became Queen of England after marrying Richard II, is buried.

St Vitus’s beautiful stained-glass windows are, however, designed by leading Czech artists of the 20th century, the originals having been destroyed or never built. It is hard to believe, but the western end of this Gothic wonder was constructe­d six centuries after the eastern one. Building was interrupte­d shortly after Charles’s death by the Hussite religious revolt, so only the eastern third is 14th century. Here I find the tomb of St Wenceslas – preserved from the 10th-century church over which the cathedral was built – and the steps down to the crypt where Charles is buried, along with his four wives, his son and successor, and other Czech monarchs.

 ??  ?? Prague Castle and the bustle of Charles Bridge, above; a vessel for the mineral-rich waters of Karlovy Vary, below
Prague Castle and the bustle of Charles Bridge, above; a vessel for the mineral-rich waters of Karlovy Vary, below
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 ??  ?? Charles IV, ‘the greatest-ever Czech’, below
Charles IV, ‘the greatest-ever Czech’, below
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