Question: A sprawling 18 acres in size, the world’s largest castle dwarfs all rivals near or far. Which castle is it?
Answer: Prague Castle, Czech Republic
First constructed over a millennium ago in the ninth century, and expanded near continually until the 20th century, Prague Castle is massive by any measure. With four churches, four palaces, three halls, eight other buildings (including a riding school), and a mighty tower, all surrounding seven gardens and three courtyards, Prague Castle has in turn been the heart of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, and now the Czech Republic. It has been home to kings, emperors, nuns, Nazi occupiers, and democratically-elected presidents—though it did sit empty for fifty years in the 15th century while war broke out. Having survived both fire and military assault, Prague Castle is a symbol of pride for the Czech people, and a treasure trove of discovery visit after visit.
Did you know… ?
- Adolf Hitler spent a night in the castle after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. But the primary German occupant was Reingard Heydrich, named the “Reich Protector of Bohemia & Moravia.” Despite having been told of the legend that anyone who dared don the treasured Crown of Bohemia would die within a year, Heydrich tried on the diadem—and was killed months later by soldiers.
- When Alexander Dubček appeared on a balcony during in Wenceslas Square during the Prague Spring of 1968, the crowds started chanting “To the castle! To the castle!” Their hope was that he would assume the presidency, but it would be 25 years before a democratically elected president moved in. Vaclav Havel—who always maintained he was “a writer, not a politician”—was never comfortable in the castle’s grand hallways, and reportedly navigated them aboard a scooter.
- While there are many dazzling features, one worth noting is the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk inside the castle’s St. Vitus Cathedral. Held up by a troop of silver angels, the saint’s final resting place weighs two tons.
- The Mihulka Tower has changed use multiple times, variously as an alchemist’s workshop, a dungeon, and a bell-maker’s atelier. But it gets its nickname, Powder Tower, from years as a gunpowder repository—a plan that backfired when the combustible stores ignited and blew up most of the structure.
- The guards in formal blue uniforms that you see at the main gate are not just any soldiers. The officers must complete at least a bachelor’s degree, if not a Master’s, even to be considered. Then they have to pass a pair of psychiatric evaluations, one of which is specific to fitness for castle guard duty. Even then, they must look the part: they must be between 5’9” and 6’2,” with no “cosmetic defects,” no eyeglasses, and no visible tattoos, not to mention short sideburns (which must end higher than their earlobes hang).
- The Summer Palace was built as a present from Ferdinand I to his wife Anna. Work began in 1538 but took so long that she never saw it; she died in 1547 while giving birth to their 15th child. Ferdinand himself had left Prague by this time and never lived in it either.
- There was once a royal garden with a distinction that has been lost to history: it was the first garden in Europe to plant the tulips that later became all the rage in Holland (and became synonymous with Dutch culture). After tulips were brought here from Central Asia, the Habsburgs carried bulbs from Prague to Holland.
- Emperor Rudolf II once maintained a Lion Courtyard, named for the king of the beasts—which did, in fact, roam here in a royal menagerie … until the French killed all the animals and cut down the trees that sheltered them.
- From 1755 to 1919, the castle housed The Institute for Noblewomen, which educated 30 daughters of nobility at a time. It was intended to provide an outlet for single young women over 24—then considered past the expected marrying age. For its first proprietress it was more than just a labor of love: it was established by the empress’s daughter, herself unmarried and in need of something to occupy her time.
Find out what other treasures await you in Prague when you join Grand Circle Cruise Line for Old World Prague & the Blue Danube.