A Tale of Two Towers

St Nicolas church, photo: archive of Radio Prague

Prague’s skyline gave the capital one of its nicknames: the city of a hundred spires. But in actual fact around a thousand spires, belfries and towers of various styles and ages now grace the city centre. Some of them are popular tourist attractions offering great views of the city, others only recently revealed their mysteries. One served as an observation post for the secret police; another hosted a morbid display of a dozen severed heads.

St Nicolas church, photo: archive of Radio Prague
My guide meets me outside St Nicolas, a magnificent Baroque church with green copper cupolas that dominates the Malá Strana, or Lesser Quarter, area directly below Prague Castle. Karel Kučera from the Prague City Museum is in charge of five of the city’s towers that are open to the public.

Some time ago, Prague City Hall outsourced them to a private firm but they are now again run by the museum. We enter the tower through a small side door and soon find ourselves climbing the 215 stairs leading to the top. Having reached the tower’s first floor, we stop in an area that was once home to the tower’s keeper.

“This watchtower does not belong to the church but to the municipality of Lesser Town.”

Ok, so it’s a municipal tower. What was its purpose? Why was it built?

“That’s a good question but we don’t really know the answer. The structure was built at the same time as the church of St Nicolas. After the church was complete, they also built the tower. But it always belonged to the town rather than the church.”

Who lived here? You said the place where we are now standing once served as a living area – so who lived here?

“This was the flat of the night watchman. He was watching out for fires, and also announced the time with his horn.”

The small apartment, consisting of two rooms and a “black kitchen”, was inhabited until the end of the 19th century. Several dozen stairs later, we arrive at another level. Karel Kučera says this was once a shop.

St Nicolas church, photo: archive of Radio Prague
“We weren’t exactly sure what purpose it served but we learned from 19th century documents that this was apparently a shop. However, we still don’t know what was sold here.

Well, that seems a little difficult. If this was a shop, all the customers would have to climb all those stairs...

“Yes, that’s true. But we don’t know why the shop was located here, so high above the street.”

Is it possible that this was just some kind of a souvenir shop for visitors who came to see the tower?

“Maybe later, towards the end of the 19th century. But if it was here before, I don’t think so. You know, back in those days, many people lived in towers because housing there was very cheap.”

As we ascend, we leave the solid stone steps behind and are now climbing a spiral wooden staircase. At one point, we pass an electric clock which in the 1990s replaced an older mechanism. Just a few more steps, and we reach the top of the tower that was for decades the busiest part of the building.

“This was the observation room used by the communist secret police. It was first used in the 1960s when they started monitoring western embassies. The buildings of the American and British embassies are very close, and the police could see what was going on outside the buildings.”

Was somebody here at all times? How did it work?

St Nicolas church, photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Yes, one or two men were here on permanent duty and they kept watch using binoculars or cameras.”

We can in fact see some remains here; there is of course none of the actual equipment left expect for some sockets in the walls but none of the spying tools. But we can see they liked sports – there is a little board here with newspapers clippings: “Dukla Prague draws 0:0 against Celtic Glasgow”; here are some pictures of ice hockey players, and other clippings… Are you planning to preserve these somehow?

“We haven’t made a decision on this yet because we would like to install here the same equipment that was here back then if we manage to get the various objects, like old binoculars and so on. There was also an old black and white TV.”

But how did it work? This could only work during the day, couldn’t they? And at night, the diplomats could do whatever they pleased?

“I don’t think so because they had nigh vision so the watch was permanent.”

By the way, the football match between Dukla and Celtic was played in May, 1967. There are four small windows in the tower’s topmost room, one in each wall. They are fitted with wooden blinds that have round openings in the middle. My guide says these were put in by the secret police as a disguise: when you look up from street level you cannot really see the openings but they are big enough to provide a great view of the street in front of the American, British, Serbian – then Yugoslav, and German – then West Germany embassies. I asked Karel Kučera if the museum ever got in touch with any of the secret police officers who served here.

“Not yet. We just took over and only recently started some research. But we hope that we will find someone who did serve here.”

Old Town Bridge Tower, photo: Štěpánka Budková
Prague City Museum runs four other towers in the capital; besides the belfry at Svatý Mikuláš in Malá Strana, it is the lookout tower in Petřín, the Gunpowder Tower on the edge of Old Town, and the towers at each end of Charles Bridge. Karel Kučera took me to the one at the bridge’s Old Town end. Known as Old Town Bridge Tower, the Gothic tower-gate lies on the city’s busiest tourist route. It was built in the second half of the 14th century, at about the same time as the bridge itself.

“It was built as the main entrance to Prague’s Old Town, and it also served as a triumphal arc for the processions of Bohemian kings on the route to Prague Castle. During coronations, the kings rode through this arc to the castle.”

We enter the tower through a narrow door inside the arc. Inside, we walk up to a large hall with windows, fitted with stained-glass panes, overlooking the river on one side and Old Town on the other. Mr Kučera says that during the ceremonial royal processions, some VIP guests might have watched the happenings from this room.

“This hall served for representation purposes, and maybe some important people watched the royal processions from here.”

We walk up through another, less splendid room before we reach the gallery at the top of the tower, 65 metres above ground. People come here to enjoy the view. But centuries ago, this was a less cheerful place. In 1621, after the Catholics defeated a Czech protestant revolt, 27 leaders of the uprising were executed in Old Town Square. Twelve of them were decapitated, and their heads were put up on the tower’s gallery and remained there for quite some time.

“Their heads were put up in the main gallery of the tower. They were here for around 80 years before they took them down. It was a warning from the court in Vienna to the Czech Protestants.”

Do you know what happened to them when they were eventually removed?

“I don’t. But maybe they were burnt.”

The view from the Old Town Bridge Tower, photo: Štěpánka Budková
Well, that is a scary story.

Visitors can climb the towers at both ends of Charles Bridge. Karel Kučera from Prague City Museum says they are planning to set up an exhibit in the Old Town Tower Bridge to highlight its significance in the city’s architecture.

“This is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Prague, and we would like to set up an exhibition here about the tower and its history. The tower represents the height of Gothic architecture at the time of Emperor Charles IV.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 13, 2013.