River Vltava flows northwards through the Czech Republic’s capital city of Prague, and the city lives on the banks of the river — the longest in the country. On the one side is the castle with its beautiful baroque architecture and churches with colourful towering domes. On the other is the old town, with its narrow streets with tall multicoloured buildings on both sides and a typical old town-square filled with tourists. Connecting the two is the Charles Bridge, which as I was soon to discover is much more than just a bridge today.

As I walked from the castle to the old town and on to the stone bridge, as it was called before it was named Charles Bridge (after Roman Emperor Charles IV, who had laid the foundation of this bridge), I notice boats drifting across the narrow canals beneath it. A live musical performance and live cooking were happening close to the steps that lead to the bridge. From the bridge one gets parallel views of the city skyline on both sides of the river.

The foundation for the bridge was laid on July 9, 1357, at 5:31 in the morning. If you write it in numerals, the number reads 135797531 — a palindrome. That time that day was considered auspicious, and more than 700 years later, the bridge continues to serve the people of Prague. The bridge established a land route that connected east and west Europe and made Prague an important trade centre that brought prosperity to the city. In fact, it remained the only land connection over the river till the mid-19 century. Charles Bridge has seen massive floods and during one of them it almost lost an arch. It has seen leaders being executed and wars being fought. It must have begun as a pedestrian bridge before the days of horse carriages that were followed by public transports like electric trams.

Row of statues

Towards the late 17 and early 18 centuries, as many as 30 big and small Baroque style statues were installed on the balustrades of the bridge. As was popular during that period, the subject of the statues were saint and patron saints of the time. A few pieces of art did come in the later periods. You would see all of them on the bridge today, but none of them is the real one; they are all replicas. The originals have been removed in the last few decades to the national museum.

Towards the end of the bridge, where it meets old town, is a massive structure that appears to be guarding the bridge. As you reach that point, along the balustrades, you would see a sea of people admiring the city skyline with its intricately painted buildings, watching ships with tourists enjoying a cruise and listening to the birds seated on wooden logs. Rows of artists sit with their artworks, working and entertaining their potential customers. There are caricature artists creating collectible portraits for tourists, while jewellery artists sell wares made of unusual material like leather or steel wires besides the usual stones and crystals. There are painted postcards and sketches of Prague and its famous places, among many things. Each vendor has a small portable kiosk or a wheeled cart that can be opened to display products and used as a table for working. There are beggars sitting in innovative poses with their hats working as a begging bowl, and their eyes on the floor.

As you reach the end of the bridge to enter the old town, you cross the dark gothic tower that is as old as the bridge. This was a guarding tower meant to protect the residents of old town. Brochures tell me that you can climb this tower and get a bird’s view of Vltava, Charles Bridge and the town, something that I missed doing. There is a similar tower on the other side of the bridge, known as Lesser Town tower.

When in Prague, you must take a stroll across this bridge that is a part of history, and is a live museum of medieval sculptures and a living cultural hub.

HOW TO GET THERE

Prague is connected via major airlines to most big European cities, which are connected to major Indian Airports.

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