We were howling through the night, crossing the bridge that seemed to lead across the netherworlds, fog wrapping up and down, and soon we were on the battlements of a castle, singing songs and drinking wine and liquor. That was my first exposure to Vysehrad so many years ago, and I still remember that crisply enough. So when I moved to Prague, I was thinking, “well, no rush to get to Vysehrad and see it in the day since I’ve already technically done that.”
Then I went from city to city, country to country, and now our four years is almost up, and I still hadn’t gone to Vysehrad. When my wife’s cousin came here to see the city, I decided this was the proper occasion to finally give the place a proper look.
view from a bridge on a cloudy day
Anyone who’s been to Prague knows Vysehrad, at the very least by sight: it's that other big church on the other hill on the river. Many people make the mistake of not going. They think “castle” and see Prague Castle, and left to a sense of general disappointment because they were thinking a castle had big walls and ramparts and all that jazz, where in Prague Castle it just feels like a semi-modern complex of government buildings and museums—because that’s what it is. Vysehrad though, actually retains that feel of a castle, touching a little on our Disney-world imagining of Europe, with huge stone walls, high ramparts, and massive gates.
A Tale of Two Castles
Long before the dawn of Prague, there were two castles on the opposite sides of the River Vltava. Czech historians are constantly bickering at which castle was first, and perhaps no one will ever know for sure. But the Czech folk tradition maintains that Vysehrad—which means “high castle” in Czech—was indeed the first castle and even the origin of all Bohemian tradition.
There in the castle lived a most fair maiden, named Princess Libuse, the daughter of the mighty King Krok son of Czech. But to understand Libuse’s importance, let’s rewind to Czech.
Libuse looking off to her fairy tale
Czech was the brother of Lech and Rus and they lived somewhere north of the Black Sea, in what would be modern day Ukraine. They went on a hunting trip together, and each followed different prey. Czech’s and Lech’s prey were pretty persistent, as Lech’s prey brought him all the way up to what is now Poland and Czech’s all the way over to what is now Prague. Rus’s prey must have been pretty easy, because Kyiv is where he ended up, which was only a spitting distance from where he started. Czech and his people were called the Czechs, Rus and his people were called the Rus (later Ukrainians and Russians), and Lech and his people were called the Pollechs. True story.
So Czech begat Krok who then begat three daughters, the youngest and wisest was Libuse. Her sister Kazi was a magician and Teta was a healer (hence the name of the Czech pharmacy chain), but she had the far superior gift of seeing the future. If you don’t know how this is superior, then you should either read Philip K. Dick’s “The Golden Man” or watch “Next” if you can handle Nicholas Cage.
a closer view of Libuse
Being that Libuse’s gift was that much more awesome than his other two dauther’s, Krok chose Libuse to take over the realm after he passed on. As they were walking along a cliff, or perhaps in another castle, or their house, or somewhere, legends are kind of dim here, Libuse said, “I see a castle on that hill, and a great city whose glory will touch the stars” (considering that Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler were both from Prague, maybe this was a literal and accurate prediction). So following his daughter’s instruction, Krok built Vysehrad, and Libuse inherited it. And it was good.
Libuse was a wise ruler, but her subjects were even wiser. They said, “How is it there’s a woman ruling our kingdom? This is madness! You must marry and show us a man to follow around blindly!”
a Czech angel praying for the end of matriarchy
Now Libuse had been having some visions, some erotic visions even, as she was in love with the man she had seen in her visions. She told her men, “If you would have me marry, then find me this man. He’s a ploughman with a broken sandal, and you’ll find him by letting a horse loose at a junction in the road.” They set out and found the man, whose name was Premysl, who became the father of a long dynasty of Czech kings. At their peak, they would come to rule all of the Czech lands, as well as Austria and Poland, and didn’t die out until the 1300s, though ancestors from the female side would live on and birth the great Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV.
The Presmyslids (ancestors of Premysl the Ploughman), in recorded history, were in Prague Castle for most of their reign, though they did make a short stay at Vysehrad.
the main castle gate
Charles IV in the 1300s laid the final fortifications of Prague Castle and by his time Vysehrad was a ruin, so he had it rebuilt as a principal defensive fortress and put a secondary residence there. After the Hussite wars, when it, like the rest of Prague’s monuments, was ransacked by drunk Protestants, it fell into disuse and disrepair, not seeing any TLC until the 1700s, when it was developed into a modern fortress with bastions and casements. Much of the upper city and palace area were destroyed to make way for barracks, weapons storage, and the burgrave’s residence.
looking out from the bastions
There are two really great ways to enter Vysehrad, and a plethora of really crappy ways. The easiest and laziest way, being the best, is to come by metro. This is the way we took. We rode the metro, which hangs underneath the huge dry bridge reaching over the valley neighborhood of Nusle, and got off at the Vysehrad metro station. Then it’s an easy walk behind some conference centers and down a neighborhood street until you finally get to a moat and a gate. There we were, Vysehrad.
the entry from Naplavka
The other way up, which we would find on a subsequent trip, was from Naplavka. Go under the train tracks and follow a really pretty street up, which then leads to the fortress gates. You go through the gates, and then come up through a forested path lined with lanterns, until you see the residence and then the beauty of the summer scene with its magnificent view of Prague and the Castle.
Our cousin was really concerned with seeing famous dead Czechs for some reason, which is what sort of led us to this location to show him. Since here, next to that aforementioned gigantic church, is a graveyard with such great composers as Dvorak and Smetana, along with the robot-inventing writer Karel Capek, and Nobel prize-winning writer, Jaroslav Seifert.
the great Slavin, under which is a smattering of famous Czechs
here lies the great composer himself
the arcade where Dvorak's tomb is
The quiet and reflective cemetery is located right next to the massive neo-Gothic St. Peter and Paul basilica.
St. Peter and Paul Basilica
The first church in Vysehrad was built in the 11th century, but it burned down. So as with most churches that burned down, the locals decided to build a bigger and better one, and they built a successive list of massive churches until they finally settled on this beauty in the 1800s.
approaching St. Peter and Paul
the entrance of St. Peter and Paul
Inside is one of the prettier churches in Prague (far prettier than say, St. Vitus) and has murals and paint from floor to ceiling. The paintings are all “neo-Gothic”, which in Czech church terms actually means they’re art nouveau and look like they could have been painted by Alphonse Mucha, though without breasts and curvaceous babes. They are really interesting and beautiful works though.
a woman on Facebook
not quite as curvaceous as a Mucha
Around the church is a vast park, filled with statues of different Czech figures, along with Czechs reclining, sunbathing, and drinking. The walk along the battlements is fantastic, which wraps around for what seems like a mile, incredible views everywhere, and just the nice feeling that you’re walking along some three hundred year old walls.
Festivals are commonly held here, and it’s a well known spot for great fireworks viewing on New Years.