The Charles Bridge, which is now one of the main tourist attractions of Prague, was built not because of tourist but because it was a vital connection between both banks of the Vltava.
A bridge was badly needed soon
From the very beginning, Prague consisted of several units separated by the river. The left bank (i.e. Hradčany and the Lesser Town) was the seat of the dukes and later kings, the bishop of Prague as well as some highest ranking officials of the country. The Old Town, on the right bank, was a trade centre, the Jewish Town (as in other European cities, the Jews were compelled to live together in a township separate from the Christian parts of the city) was a financial centre. Further south, there was also the Vyšehrad and later the New Town was founded between Vyšehrad and the Old Town.
Ill-fated Judith Bridge
The wide river was a major obstacle to communication in the east-west direction. Large stone bridge was built by the end of 11th century and bore the name of Queen Judith wife to the first Czech King, Vratislav II. In that time, it must have been an incredibly ambitious project – and the first stone bridge in Bohemia we know of.
The Judith Bridge, however, was destroyed by a flood in 1342. When Charles IV became Czech King in 1346, he was already the King of the Holy Roman Empire (later he was crowned Emperor). Prague thus became one of the main centres of Europe. As such, it needed a new bridge more than ever.
Foundation of a new bridge
Charles IV, therefore, launched a construction of a new stone bridge. He did so on a carefully chosen date as well as at precisely set time – on 9th July 1357 at 5:31. Why this emphasis on the precise moment? The King – as almost all people of that time – believed in numerology. The sequence of odd numbers 1357 (year) 9 (day) 7 (month) 5 (hour) 31 (minutes) was to provide the bridge a better fate than its predecessor had.
Interestingly, the bridge was not named after its founder until 19th century which was quite unusual for Charles IV.
A legend also said that eggs were added to the mortar to improve its quality. Only recently this legend has been proved untrue. However, the same research revealed that the mortar contained milk and wine. We can only guess why but we all know today how the public tenders could be tricky if price is the only criterion and quality is not assessed.
The new bridge was built at the same place as the Judith Bridge. Some parts of the previous bridge made their way into the Charles Bridge, most notably the head of a bearded man (its Czech name “Bradáč” means exactly this) which serves as a watermark. If the water reaches Bradáč, there would be a flood.
Lack of luck
Unfortunately, the fate of the Stone Bridge (as it was originally named) was only slightly better than the one of the Judith Bridge. Several floods damaged the bridge heavily and after floods in 1890, even the demolition of the Charles Bridge was considered! Also military action took its toll. In 1648, the Swedes already holding the left bank, wanted to invade the Old Town. They were stopped on the Charles Bridge on a barricade defended – inter alia – by students of nearby Jesuit college Klementinum. However, the Swedish guns destroyed statues on the bridge and also on the Old Town Bridge Tower. More damage was made during the quelling of the revolt of 1848.
Because of those unfortunate events, the bridge can be seen also as a display of statues of several centuries. The oldest ones are on the Old Town Bridge Tower where you can see also Charles IV – the statue was made during his life and is a realistic depiction of the King. It has included also Charles’ hunch which he had in later life. Most of the statues stand on both sides along the bridge and they are from the Baroque era. They replaced older Gothic statues. Not even all of the Baroque statues survived either. That is why there’s even a statue from early 20th century.
John of Nepomuk
The most popular statue is of John of Nepomuk (Jan Nepomucký but the correct name should be of Pomuk/Pomucký). John was a vicar of the archbishop of Prague John of Jenštejn (Jan z Jenštejna). The King Wenceslas IV (son of Charles IV) had a feud with the Archbishop. After a quarrel between the King and the Archbishop, Wenceslas IV – who was prone to fits of rage – had arrested John of Nepomuk. John was tortured and died during the torture on 20th March 1393. His body was thrown to the Vltava (this scene is depicted on the pedestal of his statue). Decades later, the legends also added that John was murdered because he was Queen Sophia’s confessor and denied to tell Wenceslas IV what she had confessed him. That is very unlikely, though. Nevertheless, John was soon considered martyr. In 17th century, his cult had boomed considerably and, eventually, John was proclaimed a saint in 1729.
The statue on the Charles Bridge is said to grant a wish. That is the reason that there are neatly polished parts of its bronze components.
How to get there?
Tram is the only option within the public transport network. On the right bank either to station Karlovy lázně (Nos 17 and 18) or Staroměstská (17 and 18 again). The left bank leaves only one option, Malostranské náměstí (Nos. 12, 20, 22).
However, the Charles Bridge is located very conveniently near many major historical sites of Prague. If you are dedicated to know well the historical centre of Prague, you would cross the Charles Bridge more than once during your walks. There will be always something new to discover there.