The Prague Castle is the definition of a tourist attraction. As well it should be. It has churches and parks, it has a concert hall and fountains. Peacocks strut the grounds and hawks stand tethered to low-lying branches. The castle is a labyrinth of unique grandeur—the modern understanding of a royal palace.
But if you are like me, and I assume you are—because, well, I’m really cool—then you will want something to do that is less crowded. Nobody likes a sea of contracting lenses flashing in no-flash areas or large umbrellas intended to herd tourist groups that, in reality, block your view. Don’t get me wrong, the castle and its wonders should be viewed in full (especially the iconic St. Vitas church), but you can get away from this loud poshy area right inside the palace grounds.
Yes. You can dip in and out—you can tour and stroll—ike a visitor and citizen, all at once.
Enter the castle grounds from the top of the hill (metro stop Hradčanská)—walking down into the city is easier than climbing up out of it—and immediately find your way into the Castle Park. Here you will see a collection of the world’s trees placed in a beautifully maintained garden. Flower beds in ornate arrangements, leaves in fall dropping like golden rain, statued men spouting water from circular mouths. The whole deal.
Walk through this until you begin to see your first stunning views of Prague below—the castle is on the city’s biggest hill—and then amble down the old stone steps into a low, green valley. You have now entered the Stag Moat.
You see, the Prague Castle is a medieval castle and like all medieval castles under siege the architects built a moat. To keep out invaders, to go on night swims, to keep pet crocodiles and giant fish. Just kidding. In reality the “moat” was never under-water; it did waylay attacking enemies but in peace time it was used as hunting grounds, primarily for deer. Since modernity has established castles no longer need moats, for protection or hunting, what you get is a giant, lush, depressed semi-circle that traces the old stone walls.
The Stag Moat in Prague is breathtaking. The jutting towers of St. Vitas stamp the sky, their pointed silhouetted tops black and ominous. In Autumn it was particularly gorgeous—swaths of trees slowly turn, their leaves coat the fertile green grass. A tan gravel path leads you through the area; an old wooden bridge crosses a stream that follows your walk. The grass is emerald, bright in the day and wet with mist. It is almost as if you walk through a different century in the Moat, the trees look the same, the stream remains. All that you miss is the King and his deer.
The serenity continues when you realize there is nobody else around you. Maybe a few thought-lost Czech citizens, this just their afternoon stroll, or a few literally-lost tourists. With all the spectacular must see items above the Moat, the Stag doesn’t seem to get visited all that much. In the summer months it can get more crowded, but otherwise you are free and lone to wander.
Two wonderful perks in the moat:
- The Josef Pleskot Tunnel. Built in 2000 (yes, modernity is here too) the tunnel bridges two ends of the moat and lies under an ancient bridge. Lit from the bottom and quite oblong, it distorts space effectively enough that you feel as if in another time, again. Definitely walk through, if not hang out for a while and take a breather.
- Krakonoš, The Ghost of Giant Mountains. Built by Františka Stupecká in 1957, Krakonoš hails from greek mythology and form. Coming out of the tunnel you are face-to-face with this hewn piece of rock. Then, as you step back, it takes the shape of a bearded man struggling out and into the world. Features define themselves. For whatever reason I thought this was old and magnificent, not a modern reinterpretation of the masters. Something about the willful movement and literal lack of motion, the prison of action in which he resides. It moved me.
The Stag Moat is the treat one hopes to find at a beautiful UNESCO heritage site. See the major attractions, be one with the mass of visitors because, in reality, it is entirely worth the crowds. But when you get tired, or even before you start your long tour of fantasticality, go to the Moat. It will calm you, it will enchant you.