Charles Bridge gets a facelift


Repair work has started on Prague's most famous landmark Charles Bridge - which recently celebrated its 650th anniversary. The bridge was last repaired in the second half of the 20th century and since then people traffic, floods and the excessive use of salt to melt the snow and ice in the winter months have all left their mark. Workers moved in on Monday - but tourists need not worry - the bridge will remain open to the public throughout the entire reconstruction process.

This past weekend was the last opportunity to move freely across Charles Bridge. On Monday manual workers and experts moved in and cordoned off one side so that reconstruction work could begin. Digging up cobblestones, replacing sandstone ashlars and stabilizing pillars is not easy to do with a stream of tourists constantly moving up and down the bridge but the town hall decided against closing down Prague's most popular landmark for even a short period of time. Work will start at the Mala Strana end and progress towards Staromestska tower, then workers will switch sides and work the other way. According to Prague mayor Pavel Bem the first phase of reconstruction should end in 2010.

"The first phase should cost 222 million crowns which will be covered by city hall funds. I must add however that after the 2002 floods we collected over 10 million crowns in public donations. The people of Prague were extremely generous."

The second phase of reconstruction work should last another eight to ten years and will be even more demanding than the first. It will involve replacing damaged sandstone ashlars along the entire bridge. Historians and builders are determined to save what they can and produce near perfect copies of whatever cannot be restored. Josef Stulc is a leading art historian:

"We will strive to save every stone laid by Petr Parler's masons and those that cannot be saved will be replaced by new stones from a quarry that is as similar as possible to the old sandstone quarry used for Charles Bridge."

Just finding a quarry that would produce matching sandstone ashlars took months. The sandstone used in the 1970s reconstruction is already ravaged by time. Paradoxically, the original sandstone - 650 years old - has withstood the test of time much better. But finding sandstone of such quality has not proved easy. A months-long search of possible sites around the Czech Republic has finally brought results - sandstone of the best quality is only available in two Czech towns - Kamena Zehrovice and Brezin. Although it will mean opening a new quarry the inhabitants of both towns are practically vying for the honour of supplying Charles Bridge with the best sandstone! After that it will be up to today's masons to match their skills to those who built the bridge almost seven centuries ago.