Home TravelEuropeCzechia Looking up: Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral

Looking up: Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral

by Ellie Hopgood

St Vitus Cathedral is an impressive structure. It’s not exactly ground-breaking that I would suggest you visit here, given that it’s part of the castle complex that tops every ‘what to do in Prague’ list. It’s full name is The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert, so bum deal for Wenceslaus and Adalbert whose names get dropped most of the time (though with a name like Wenceslaus, he’s probably used to it). This is a massive Gothic cathedral, with flying buttresses (a phrase I can’t say without giggling because I am actually five years old) and something called a ‘decagon apse’. Sounds more like a medical condition than a design feature but whatever you say, architecture.

There were a couple of prior iterations of this cathedral before its current moody form, and even then, construction of the present-day cathedral had already begun by 1344. I have this vision of medieval humans just sitting around, throwing urine out of windows and catching the plague, but seeing past humans’ tangible creations makes me realise that those same humans built this incredible structure. Yes, it wasn’t officially finished until 1929, but when you have wars, fires and all your architects dying before their 40th birthday to contend with, 585 years seems like a reasonable estimate. Everyone knows constructions projects are always delayed and this was no exception. Be thankful when your kitchen remodel is only two months behind schedule.

I liked this church because it was so ornate. I am a simple creature. It was covered in gargoyles and intricate carvings and gold. The inside was full of amazing stained glass and lots of people queueing to take blurry photos of random marble slabs. Don’t worry, the latter is not a fixed feature.

I lay on the ground get this picture. True commitment to edgy angles

Both inside and out, my biggest recommendation is to look up. My favourite views were the gargoyles on the outside and the visual intersection of different layers of the cathedral. I got up close to the edge of the building and then looked up to the sky, which gave me a totally different perspective than merely looking at the church face on.

Once inside, the stained glass steals the show. Clearly a number of different artists have contributed to the windows so there’s huge variety in style and colour. I get teased by my friends for my love of beautiful glass (I once remarked that a glass bowl was pretty and Kate scowled at me and said “it’s actually vile.” It has snowballed from there) but even Jake and Iona agreed that the stained glass was amazing. Bonus points for the colourful shadows that get projected across the interior as the sun shines through the windows.

If you don’t pay for a ticket, you can only go into the first fifth of the church or so. We bought a ticket and walked all the way around, which was great aside from the other billion or so people that were doing the same thing. The cathedral had just re-opened after mass so there was an influx of people swarming the church. If you keep your wits about you to avoid being smacked in the head by a wayward selfie stick, you should be okay.

I have almost no photos of this part of the church, primarily because there weren’t that many great photo opportunities. It was very dark and there were a lot of shadowy shrines and metal statues that didn’t pick up the light well. I think often about the balance of taking great pictures whilst staying in the moment; an easy way to not get stuck behind the lens is to not take photos that are obviously going to be uninteresting.

Sometimes the light sucks. Sometimes there isn’t anything that interesting to photograph. Sometimes you’re being crushed by a hoard of eager tourists looking to capture their third photo of a plain pillar in a shadow. Either way, sometimes it’s better to put the camera away and just take a look around. The other visitors to the church clearly disagreed with me on this. I’m sure they’ll look back at the fifty blurred photos of a small, unassuming shrine to the Virgin Mary and sigh fondly.

While we were waiting for the cathedral to open after the service, we climbed the tower to get panoramic views of Prague. This was a good decision. It’s a long way up a very narrow tower and I remain grateful for the ability to climb three hundred steps directly upward without trouble. From the top my main thoughts were Prague is huge and the Czechs love orange. Being spared from both WW2 bombing and being forced to rebuild in the style of Stalinist architecture has allowed Prague to retain its classic medieval look.

If you like history, the castle complex (which includes St Vitus Cathedral) is one of Prague’s most notable historical sites. If you like architecture, this place has it in spades. One of the few benefits of it taking almost six hundred years to build this church is that multiple different architectural styles have contributed to the design. If you like photography, there are numerous small details and angles to give you interesting, unique pictures along with views spanning the whole of Prague. If you like being pressed up against strangers as you shuffle in formation around a cultural landmark, then welcome home.

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