Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Prague's Palace Gardens

Pražský hrad, or Prague Castle, crowns the city's skyline.

Descending the steps along the old, crenellated wall of Prague Castle (just visible in the upper left quadrant of the image below), one gets a very special glimpse down into what seems to be a series of private gardens. Steep terraces give way to grassy lawns, planting beds, fountains, stone passageways and secluded alcoves, but no certain entrance is visible.

Known as the Ledebour Garden, the Great and Small Palfy Gardens, the Kolowrat Garden and the Small Furstenberg Garden, the five consecutive areas form a beautifully linked expanse of green, open to visitors (for a small fee) from early morning to late in the evening.

The site upon which the gardens now flourish was originally a 13th-century complex of ramparts that surrounded the castle until about 1620, when the walls were demolished. The open area attracted a less than savory group of Prague's citizens and in order to clear out the area, city officials divided the area into parcels that were then sold to wealthy burghers.

The families cultivated their new plots of land, planting vineyards and leisure gardens in the popular Italian style. But in 1648 Prague Castle was captured by Swedish forces in the final battle of the Thirty Years War and the gardens were destroyed. They were later rebuilt in a more fashionable Baroque style, using terraces, statues and fountains, fanciful pavilions, and balustraded stairways. At that point in time, the independent plots were linked to form one rambling row of gardens, the plan that is essentially visible today.

In 1939 Nazi troops invaded Prague and the resulting oppression, compounded with the decades of Communism, took their toll on the gardens. By the 1950s they had fallen into such disrepair that they had to be closed to the public.

But the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which brought Prague's Marxism-Leninism government to an end, regenerated not only the nation, but the gardens, too.

The State Institute for Preservation of Historical Monuments stepped in and took over ownership and care of the gardens, aided by financial support from the Czech and other European governments, as well as the Prague Heritage Fund, established by England's Prince Charles and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, in the early 1990s. Slowly the gardens were completed and, one by one, reopened to an eager public.

Today all five gardens are fully restored and in bloom with roses, figs and wisteria. Each garden offers its own unique plantings, as well as its own special features and views of the surrounding city. The gardens also play host to classical music concerts on summer Friday and Saturday evenings.

In 2006, the Palace Gardens, as they are known as a whole, welcomed some 85,000 visitors - a record number - and one that is expected to climb, as the location becomes more well known over the coming years. As well, 2008 will see the unveiling of the sixth garden, the Great Furstenberg Garden, which, unlike the others, is owned by the city of Prague, which has been somewhat remiss in its restoration duties. (Nevermind the added complication of having to somehow squeeze bulldozers through the Polish embassy in order to gain access to the garden.) But alas, better late than never, and soon the entire string of pearls will be shining again.

The Great Palfy Garden's restored sundial is painted with the motto, "Claret in orbe dies, ac taetras, hora pete umbras" or "Let the day be clear over the world and chase away the ugly shadows."

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