25 Things You Should Know About Prague

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Imagine a storybook town—with hilltop castles, ornate bridges, and enchanting clock towers. Prague is exactly that idyllic picture come to life. It's one of the reasons the capital of Czechia has become a booming tourist destination, setting a record with more than 7 million visitors in 2016 [PDF]. And the city of more than 1.2 million residents continues to grow, mixing its historical roots with modern charm, as illustrated in these 25 alluring facts.

1. Although proof of hunters in the area has been tracked back to the last Ice Age about 25,000 years ago, clues of human life in the Prague valley reach as far back as 600,000 BCE.

2. Still the centerpiece of the city, Prague Castle (or Pražský Hrad) was built in the late 880s as a wooden fortress. Development came and went, but at the end of World War I, there was a major overhaul, followed by even more significant ones after the Iron Curtain fell. With an area of about 17.3 acres, it holds the world record for being the largest ancient castle in the world.

3. The most precious items at the castle are the Bohemian Crown Jewels, which consist of the St. Wenceslas Crown, Royal Sceptre, Royal Apple, Coronation Cloak, belt, maniple, stole, and collar. They’re guarded in an iron safe with seven locks, with the keys held by seven different people, who must all gather to open the vault—a tradition set in 1791 by King Leopold II. The chosen seven? President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the Prague Archbishop, the Chairman of the House of Deputies, the Chairman of the Senate, the Dean of the Metropolitan Chapter of St. Vitus Cathedral, and the Lord Mayor of Prague.

4. The majestic St. Vitus Cathedral’s first foundation stone was laid by Emperor Charles IV in 1344, but the newest sections were completed as recently as 1953, after the church was consecrated in 1929. The first architect, Matthias of Arras, started the choir in 1344 using French Gothic style, but died eight years later. Famed architect Peter Parler took over and used late-Gothic style, until he passed away in 1399. Influences of Baroque and Renaissance stylings continued to be added until mid-19th century, when there was finally a push to finish the cathedral.

5. The cobblestone road lined with shops in tiny houses by the Castle is now named Golden Lane, but used to be Goldsmith Lane back in the 16th century because it housed castle defenders, marksmen, and, of course, goldsmiths. Writer Franz Kafka lived in the home numbered 22 from 1916 to 1917.

6. Before that, from 1896 to 1907, Franz Kafka lived at Celetná 3, next to the Church Of Our Lady Before Týn—an Old Town standout, which is gothic on the outside and Baroque on the inside, built predominately in the 14th and 15th centuries with later interior work.

7. A trademark of Prague’s architecture is the 1700-foot cobblestone Charles Bridge lined with 30 mostly Baroque statues stretching over the Vltava River with 16 arches. The structure was commissioned back in 1357 by King Charles IV. For 460 years, it was the only way to cross the river by foot.

8. One of the Charles Bridge’s statues is a patron saint of the Czech Republic, St. John of Nepomuk, who was killed by being thrown into the river’s cold waters in 1393 after an altercation with Charles IV’s son, King Wenceslas. But legend has it that if you touch the plaque on the statue, it’ll be good luck—and mean a return trip to Prague.

9. The entrance of the Coronation or Royal Route into Old Town Prague is at the Powder Tower. Completed in 1475, it was one of the original entrances to the city. Today, its 144-foot-high viewing gallery offers a sky high view of Old Town.

10. Covering almost five acres, the Klementinum is one of Europe’s largest building complexes. Originally founded in 1556 by the Jesuits, the premises started expanding in 1653 and continued for more than 170 years. Now, it’s home to the Baroque library, astronomical tower, Meridian Hall, and Mirror Chapel, in which classical concerts are often held.

11. On May 23, 1618, the Second Defenestration (the act of throwing someone out the window) of Prague took place. Two imperial regents and their secretary were thrown out of a council room window at Prague Castle for stopping construction of Protestant churches, going against the religious freedoms outlined in 1609’s Letter of Majesty. The trio survived the 70 foot fall, supposedly thanks to a soft landing on horse manure. But the situation still stunk: It helped lead to the start of the Thirty Years’ War. Although the most notable, this wasn’t the first defenestration in Prague’s history: A 1419 incident led to the Hussite Wars.

12. František Křižík, who has been nicknamed the Czech Edison, built an electrically lit fountain for the World Exhibition in 1891. Today, Křižík’s Fountain has been decked out with 1300 multicolored reflectors, almost 3000 nozzles, and 49 water pumps, making extravagant dancing water and light shows possible. Nightly shows range from classic themes like Mozart and the Three Tenors, pop ones featuring music from Katy Perry, John Legend, and One Direction, to cinematic shows, including music from Titanic, Mamma Mia… and even a stripped-down soundtrack from Fifty Shades of Grey.

13. Reaching new heights: Loosely modeled after the Eiffel Tower, the Petřín Tower looks just like a miniature model of Paris’ trademark, due to its location at the top of a hill. The top is 1240 feet above sea level, which is actually higher than the actual one’s height (1184 feet) above sea level. Finished in 1891, the Czech version is two years younger than its inspiration and also has eight sides compared to the French one’s four sides.

14. The Prague National Theatre opened on June 11, 1881, for the visit of the crown prince at the time, Rudolf. But after 11 more shows, it was shut down for finishing touches—during which a fire erupted, destroying the stage, auditorium, and dome. The venue reopened on November 18, 1883, and operated without a hitch until it was closed in 1977 for reconstruction, and opened again on the 100th anniversary of the reopening on November 18, 1983.

15. The three lines of the capital’s metro system cover more than 40 miles with 61 stops, complemented with a tram system, with 948 vehicles, which spans 317 miles.

16. Heights and sites: For an aerial view of the city, hop on the 1673-foot-long funicular up Petřín Hill. The two-wagon ride climbs up a height of 427 feet at a rate of 8.5 miles per hour. The train started running in 1891 utilizing a hydraulic system, but stopped during World War I in 1916. In 1932, it was reopened with an electrical system until the landslides in 1965 destroyed the tracks. The system was finally started up again in 1985.

17. Stands selling the sweet Czech pastry trdelník have long been part of the city’s character, but recently, inventive locals have filled the hollow center of the treat with ice cream to create a made-for-Instagram foodie hybrid favorite, often sold under the name chimney cakes.

18. Raise a glass at one of the 28 breweries and brewpubs in town. The specialty is the pilsner (named after Plzeň, a city in the Czech Republic only 60 miles away from Prague), but beers of many varieties are also brewed in town. There’s even a museum U Fleků, which opened on the 500th anniversary of a brewery located in a former malthouse from the Renaissance. Every day, about 2000 glasses are served at the location. Na zdraví (that’s "cheers" in Czech) to that!

19. The Czech Budweiser, which is known under the name Czechvar in the U.S. because of trademark disputes, has its own network of Budvarka restaurants the country. The original location, Budvarka Dejvice in Prague, opened in 1915, and is still in the original house designed by architect Josef Paroulek, even though the state administration used it as a school cafeteria from the 1940s to the 1990s.

20. On October 9, 2015, when Prague’s Astronomical Clock turned 605 years old, it earned its own Google Doodle. And every single hour, the highlight of Old Town draws visitors to its parade of 12 apostles from two windows. "Despite over a half a millennium of wear and a brush with disaster in WWII, much of its original machinery remains intact, making it the oldest functioning clock of its kind in the world," Google explained at the time.

21. Martina Navratilova was one of the most prominent female tennis stars in the late 1970s and 1980s, and Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State of the United States. Besides having serious girl power in common, both were also born in Prague.

22. The city’s Kampa Island may be fake—so it’s no wonder the views of Prague Castle, the National Theater, and Charles Bridge from there are so surreal. Mixing lush landscapes and an artsy vibe with public installations and a modern art museum, Kampa has been home to Czech actor and playwright Jan Werich, composer Bohuslav Martinu, and poet Vladimir Holan.

23. The narrowest street in Prague is Vinarna Certovka at around one-and-a-half to two feet wide. It’s so narrow that there’s a traffic light installed so that pedestrians don’t block each other’s way.

24. Tucked away in a square by the French Embassy is the John Lennon Wall. After he was killed in December 1980, young locals painted an image of the singer on the wall along with Beatles lyrics and other graffiti. It’s been whitewashed several times, the most shocking being on November 17, 2014—the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution—when it was painted white with the words “Wall Is Over!” on it.

25. One of these things is not like the others: The Dancing House, designed by Czech architect Vlado Milunić and Canadian-American Frank Gehry in 1992 and finished in 1996, stands out as an architectural representation of the Velvet Revolution. Nicknamed the Fred and Ginger building, the male tower serves as a foundation, while the female is curved and wrapped in a dress, making the perfect dance floor couple, twirling along Prague’s busy Rašínovo Nábřeží street.

10 Enchanting Places That Align with the Vernal Equinox

A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Thursday, March 19, the vernal equinox heralded the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient civilizations built calendars and observatories to track the movements of the stars and mark this monumental time. Now, people still partake in a variety of traditions and rituals to honor the day when light and dark become equal. To take your celestial celebrations to the next level, here are 10 places that align with the spring equinox.

1. On the vernal equinox, a massive snake appears on the temple at Chichen Itza.

Legend says that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the Maya city of Chichen Itza receives an otherworldly visitor: Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity. On these days, a shadowy snake slithers down the side of the god's namesake pyramid. As the temple darkens, a single strip of light stretches from the top of the northern staircase to the snake head resting at the bottom, creating the illusion of a wriggling reptile.

2. A beam of light illuminates a petroglyph within Arizona’s Boulder House each vernal equinox.

The Boulder House in Scottsdale, Arizona, looks like a strange home wedged amid a jumble of rocks. But it’s actually a modern house built around a sacred Native American site. The Empie family, who bought the parcel of desert land in the 1980s, commissioned architect Charles Johnson to transform the cluster of 1.6-billion-year-old boulders into a functional house. Johnson crafted a unique structure, incorporating the rocks into the house’s foundation and preserving the prehistoric carvings. On the equinox, sunlight pierces between two boulders in the unusual abode, striking a spiral petroglyph on the wall to create a dazzling piece of home decor.

3. On the vernal equinox, a group of Moai on Easter Island stare directly at the sunset.

Seven Moai gaze face toward the horizon
On the equinox, these Moai stare directly at the setting sun.
abriendomundo/iStock via Getty Images

People aren’t the only ones who pause to watch the sun slip beneath the horizon on the first day of spring. On Easter Island, at a sacred site called Ahu Akivi, a line of seven Moai—the island’s giant, mysterious heads—gaze directly at the point at which the sun sets in the sky on the equinox.

4. Each vernal equinox, light drenches a petroglyph-filled cairn at Loughcrew.

The hills of Loughcrew, one of Ireland’s four main passage tomb sites, are crowned by 5000-year-old megalithic structures. At dawn on the equinox, sunlight fills Cairn T, a passage tomb carved with astoundingly well-preserved examples of Neolithic art. As the light dissolves the darkness, the cup marks that dimple its walls and the symbols adorning its back stones blaze into view. The illumination lasts for about 50 minutes, giving observers ample time to take turns squeezing into the cairn.

5. On the vernal equinox, light streams through one of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples.

The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples on Malta’s southern coast are archaeological wonders. They were built between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are believed to be among the world’s oldest freestanding stone buildings. Not much is known about the people who created these megalithic masterpieces, though it’s clear they constructed one of the temples with an eye to the heavens. On the equinox, the sun streams through the South Temple’s main doorway, flooding the structure’s major axis with light.

6. On the vernal equinox, the sun sits directly atop the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat would be a magical experience any day. Crowds hush as colorful hues paint the world’s largest religious structure with a gilded glow. Dawn at Angkor Wat is even more special on the equinoxes. Then, the sun rises behind the main temple before briefly seeming to balance on its tip like a fiery halo.

7. On the spring equinox, the sun rises through the entrance to Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Stonehenge has inspired replicas around the globe—including as far away as New Zealand. Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened in 2005, was built by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. The structure is an astronomical tool for observing the local skies, and blends modern astronomy with ancient starlore. If you stand in the center of the circle on the Southern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, you can watch the sun rise directly through the Sun Gate, two carved pillars that flank the entrance to the henge.

8. The shadow of the intihuatana at Machu Picchu disappears at noon on the equinox.

A curious stone structure stands atop a temple at Machu Picchu. It’s one of the rare surviving intihuatanas that wasn’t demolished by the Spanish conquistadors. This “hitching post of the sun” is believed to have been an astronomical tool. At noon on the equinox, the granite pillar’s shadow briefly vanishes. Unfortunately, the invaluable object now looks a bit battered. In 2000, a crane toppled into the intihuatana during the filming of a beer commercial, smashing part of it.

9. At sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun bursts through the door of a temple at Dzibilchaltún.

Sunrise at Dzibilchaltún
Each equinox, the sun appears within the door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
renatamsousa/iStock via Getty Images

Though now reduced to a medley of ruins dotting the jungle, Dzibilchaltún was once the longest continually inhabited Maya administrative and ceremonial city. The star attraction here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a building named for the mysterious human-like figures discovered inside. At dawn on the equinox, the sun shines through the temple’s main door. It’s believed the sacred structure was aligned with the equinoxes to mark the beginning of the planting season and the end of the harvesting season.

10. The 'Woodhenge' at the Cahokia Mounds aligns with the sunrise on the equinox.

During the Mississippian cultural period, Cahokia's population exceeded that of London. In addition to giant pyramids, the North American city also featured circles of wooden posts, since dubbed “Woodhenge.” The wooden markers were likely used to track the sun’s movements. One of the posts aligns with the equinoxes, as well as with the front of Monks Mound. On sunrise on the equinox, it looks as though the sun is emerging from the enigmatic earthwork.

Lítla Dímun: The Smallest of the Faroe Islands Has Its Very Own Cloud

While some islands are known for their unusual geography or unique history, Lítla Dímun is notable for its weather. The island, which is the smallest of Denmark's Faroe Islands chain, is often capped by a lens-shaped cloud, making it resemble a scene from a fairytale.

According to Mental Floss's own Kerry Wolfe writing for Atlas Obscura, the cloud floating above Lítla Dímun is a lenticular cloud. This type of cloud forms when moist air flows over a protruding geological feature, like a mountain top. When the wind moving up the landmass hits the air current directly above it, a sort of wave is created on the downwind side of the mountain. The moist air falling down this wave evaporates and then condenses into a large, flying-saucer-shaped cloud atop the mountain peak as a result.

Another factor that makes Lítla Dímun distinct is that it's the only one of the 18 main Faroe Islands without human inhabitants. Visitors to the mystical location will instead find a thriving population of sheep. Originally, Lítla Dímun was home to a group of feral sheep likely dating back to the Neolithic era. But they were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Domesticated sheep were introduced there around the same time, and today, farmers visit the island once a year to round up their flocks.

One of the few signs of human life are the ropes farmers use to scale the cliff faces bordering the island. Even if you have rock-climbing skills, Lítla Dímun may be dangerous to visit. A boat ride to the rocky shore is only possible when the surrounding sea is calm.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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