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Gothic Prague – City of a Hundred Spires

Having heard for a long time that Prague is the most Gothic city in Europe, last year I finally decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I would be disappointed, and took the plunge.

To give you an idea of the architectural richness of Prague, although this European hub is known as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, it was actually estimated that the city enjoyed 500 towers and spires until a few years ago. So, once there, be prepared to look up!

First day exploring the City of a Hundred Spires!

The capital of the Czech Republic is a mish-mash of medieval Gothic architecture, Romanesque basilicas, Renaissance interiors and Baroque sculptures and statues. The ‘old town’, or historical centre of Prague, is a real treasure trove, straight out of a sultry ‘underworld’ movie – no wonder it has been included in the Unesco list of World Heritage sites for more than 25 years.

Even if your trip to Prague is limited to just a few days, there are some experiences that are simply unmissable. The heart of the old town is certainly Prague Castle which, unlike the name suggests, is not just one castle but a complex of historical buildings, monuments and sites around a large square. It’s like a city within a city, comprising three courtyards, the lush royal palace with its famous Powder Tower, the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral and St George’s Convent, which houses a number of historical artistic pieces, not to mention a number of other palaces, such as the Lobkowicz Palace, that contain artistic exhibitions and private collections.

Saint Vitus Cathedral

If you haven’t realized yet, a couple of hours are certainly not enough to visit. I dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this landmark. Be prepared to walk, gawp and crane your neck. I urge anyone who visits to wear comfortable shoes. And don’t worry, in between bouts of climbing stairs and taking photos of the amazing views and architectural wonders, one can always take a break and relax in the beautiful Royal Garden, the Belvedere or the South Gardens.

Be warned, however. The Castle complex is on top of a hill, which means that in order to get there you have to walk up many steps or up a long, steep road. On the plus side though, this means that there are some very beautiful panoramic views.

Personally, my favorite part of the Palace complex is the so-called ‘Golden Lane’, where a conglomeration of small, medieval shops and tiny houses belonging to noted historical figures are to be found, literally on top of each other. These tiny vintage nooks offer not only medieval and post-war exhibitions, but also a number of diminutive shops selling hand-made unique items.

Views of Prague Castle Square

Huts proclaiming to have been ‘the fortune-teller’s home’, or ‘the herbalist’s shop’ show you a slice of life during the 16th century, when the cramped street was most active. And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at the Prague Astronomical Clock, which can easily be found on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the square.

Although some areas of the complex are free, such as the gardens, most of the buildings are not. I would suggest purchasing a block ticket which would allow you to roam wherever you like.

Magical Charles Bridge!

Apart from the historic fulcrum of the city, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Prague is the Charles Bridge. Constructed more than 250 years ago, this enormous arching bridge is portrayed in many movies. The stone bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is adorned by a surprising number of baroque statues portraying saints and knights. I crossed the bridge both by day and by night – two two very distinct memorable experiences.

This is another unique thing about Prague – at night it looks very different and magical. So, if you visit, make sure to stroll around the cobbled, winding streets at night too. I adventurously attended a four-hour walking ghost tour and, though my feet were falling off by the end of it, I would do it again if I had to revisit.

There is so much to see in Prague apart from the Old Town. If you take the underground or a bus and venture a few streets away, you will discover the Jewish Quarter, which is well worth the effort. Located between the Old Town square and the Vltava river, the Jewish Quarter dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish population of Prague was warned to vacate their homes and settle in one area.

The Spanish Synagogue is a real jewel

This happened throughout Europe; however, Prague’s Jewish Quarter in particular is known to be the most well preserved of the ‘Jewish ghettos’ in our continent. Testament to the Jewish presence in Prague, the Jewish Quarter comprises six synagogues, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. One can purchase a block ticket to visit all these sites, which are to be found within walking distance of each other. The golden-encrusted Spanish Synagogue is something to behold; no wonder it is known to be the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.

At the Old Jewish Cemetery

Two other astonishingly beautiful attractions to be found in Prague are the Clementinum Library and the Strahov Monastery. A special treat for bookworms and book-lovers, these two historical baroque buildings are not as easy to find as other attractions, but again, they are well worth a visit. The baroque library hall at the Clementinum contains some of the oldest, most precious and most expensive illuminated world globes, not to mention unique first-edition, ancient books and tomes, and magnificent frescoed walls and ceilings.

Wowed at the Strahov Monastery

The Strahov Monastery, originally founded as an abbey in the 12th century, does not only contain a historic frescoed library, but also various exhibitions relating to different periods of Prague. The bad news? Both the Baroque Library Hall at the Clementinum and the Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery, which are the fulcrum of both places, are actually out of bounds. One cannot enter inside. However, you can look at them for as long as you like from outside the cordoned doorway and take pictures from there.

One cannot visit Prague without carousing for one evening at the decadent Absintherie. A mecca for all cocktail and drink lovers, the Absintherie Bar and Museum is a historical landmark offering more than 100 types of absinthe, as well as many absinthe-based cocktails and products. Known as ‘the green fairy’, absinthe is an alcoholic drink containing wormwood, fennel and green anise.

Banned in certain countries, it was originally used in ancient Egypt for medicinal uses. Of course, its use and consumption changed over time. The Absintherie Museum contains a number of unique items on display and is features of the largest absinthe-related collections in Europe.

Drinking at the Absintherie

Just a suggestion, if you visit the Absintherie, make sure to have a safe means of transportation back to your accommodation – one which does not require you to drive or take any intricate decisions!

This article written by yours truly was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Oxford University – The Real Hogwarts

Have you ever found yourself in a particular place, and suddenly felt completely at home? I couldn’t identify this pervading feeling at first, but when I visited the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England, a couple of years ago, for some strange reason, it felt amazingly familiar. I had never been there before, and yet, that indecipherable feeling of connection could not be shaken off.

The Streets of Oxford

The architecturally gothic buildings and the streets thronged with bustling students, the jovial camaraderie and the many fairy-like gardens and little shops sporting old tomes and colored school uniforms… I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started visiting specific places of interest that is, and then all the pieces of the puzzle magically made sense. Oxford is Hogwarts. It is Diagon Alley. It is Lyra’s parallel Oxford from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy’. It is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen University’ on Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien’s playing field, C.S Lewis’ inspiration, and Lewis Carroll’s domain. Traces of Wonderland and Narnia permeate the streets. Oxford – the place where so many literary titans met, conversed, evolved, were influenced, and created their master works.

Balliol College

We left our car in a small parking area outside the city proper, and took a bus which left us on Magdalen Street, where the first thing we saw was Balliol College. This is the oldest of the 38 constituent colleges which make up the University of Oxford. When one speaks of this University, one must keep in mind that the different Colleges, or communities in which students live and study, all present different outlooks and approaches to learning, having their own various idiosyncrasies, sports teams, coloured uniforms, patron saints, facilities, and academic prospectus. And yet they all make up one University – 38 different parts of one great whole, as well as a number of academic departments divided into four divisions. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Balliol College Courtyard

Balliol College, founded in the late 13th century, had long existed as a medieval hall of residence for students. There is in fact evidence that teaching took place here as far back as 1096AD, making Oxford the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Moving on towards the iconic Bodleian Library, I passed outside the enchanting Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century. Its eight-sided cupola is truly a sight to behold, however I had no time to enjoy any of the music concerts or lectures taking place within. As we walked away from the theater, I chanced to look up and for a moment, thought I had been suddenly transported to Venice. This is because I was passing under Hertford Bridge, also known as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’, which joins the two sides of Hertford College. Although popular for supposedly being a replica of the eponymous Venetian Bridge, it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge of the same city.

Hertford Bridge

My target however, was the second largest library in Britain; the Bodleian Library, which is famous for containing each and every book published within the United Kingdom. Over 11-million volumes housed on 120 miles of shelving to be precise. Are you impressed yet? I was all agog even before going inside. When I stepped over the threshold, I was flabbergasted – it WAS Hogwarts! Literally. The Bodleian Library was used as part of the set throughout four of the Harry Potter movies, not just as a library, but as the infirmary, as well as serving as the Hall where Professor McGonnagal teaches the students to dance in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. Duke Humphrey’s Library, which is the name of the oldest reading room within the Bodleian, was used for the scene where Harry Potter enters the Restricted library under his invisibility cloak with a lamp to steal a book in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Here, one can also find a section of mysteriously chained books, which are known to have inspired Terry Pratchett’s depiction of the magical library within his ‘Unseen University’ of wizards. And what about the magnificently vaulting ceiling within the interior of the ‘Divinity School’, a medieval building which is attached to the library itself? Definitely not to be missed!

The Bodleian Library

Just a side-note – the official head of Oxford University is called the Chancellor, while the Vice-Chancellor is the one who organizes central administration and the in-house Professors are generally called ‘Masters’. Readers of Terry Pratchett should find themselves familiar with this state of affairs. The coat-of-arms of Oxford University, an open book with a crown underneath it and two above it, funnily looks a lot like the coat of arms of the Unseen University too.

Moving on down Catte Street, I soon visited other well-known Oxford Colleges, such as All-Souls’, Queens’, as well as Magdalen College, where C.S Lewis, author of the famous Narnia books, was a tutor, and Exeter College, where I could admire the bust of one of its most famous past students, J. R. R. Tolkien. On the other hand, unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the cloisters found at New College, which were used as the backdrop for certain scenes of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’.

Bust of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of Oxford University’s most famous students

Needing a break and something to eat after all this walking and awe-inspiring sightseeing, I paused at the Oxford Covered Market, centered in the middle of the city. This historic market goes back to the 18th century, and offers a plethora of fresh food stands, artisans’ products, traditional stalls, greengrocers, bakeries and hand-crafted knick knacks. Truly a landmark in its own right.

Christchurch Cathedral

After some well-merited refreshments, we walked on down Wheatsheaf Yard towards Christchurch Cathedral, which serves as both the College Chapel and Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford. The gothic long-spired building, with its colourful stained glass windows, vaulted cloisters and intricately carved ceiling, is truly one of a kind.

A short walk south of the Cathedral brought us finally to Christ Church College, which, for me personally, was the climax of my trip to Oxford University. I definitely know which College I’d wish to attend if I could be an alumna of Oxford University! ‘Welcome to Hogwarts’ – so says Professor McGonagall as Harry is about to enter his school for the first time – and those same steps we see on screen, are the same steps which actually lead up the dining hall at Christ Church College. The Meadow Building, built in the Venetian Gothic style popular during the Victorian period, dominates our view as soon as we enter this College. The courtyard also gives one a view of Bodley Tower, whose picturesque stone staircase was portrayed magnificently throughout various Harry Potter movies. Up the magical staircase we go to the dining hall at Christ Church College. The first thing we see on our immediate right as we enter the hall is a portrait of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The large stained glass windows around the hall and above the fireplace sport a myriad of Alice in Wonderland figures; from Alice herself, to the white rabbit, and even the mock turtle. It was while Dodgson was rowing on a small boat near Magdalen College with the Dean’s three daughters, of which one was called Alice Liddell, that he first started improvising the tale we all love and know so well.

Christ Church College

Christ Church Dining Hall, was the inspiration for the Hall in Hogwarts, with its wood-paneled walls, its long long tables and its tiny lamps. The movie was not actually filmed in it, but a perfect replica of the place was reproduced within studio. The many portraits lining the dining hall in Christ Church also played an important part in J. K Rowling’s novels. The table at the far end, known as ‘the High Table’ and used by senior members of the college, was also perfectly replicated as the table where Professors at Hogwarts dine and make speeches.

Christ Church College’s Dining Hall

No trip to Oxford in complete without a visit to Christ Church College, just as no tourist worth his salt could drive off without spotting the small store known as ‘The Alice in Wonderland Shop’. Located just in front of Christ Church College, this colorful Wonderland emporium stands on the historic spot previously filled by Alice Liddell’s favorite candy-shop. The shop is full of Alice in Wonderland merchandise – different decks of cards depicting characters from the story, tiny china tea-sets, replica pocket watches, figurines, tea cozies, books and much more. If, like me, you’re an Alice-aficionado, prepare your check-books!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times