2) Vyšehrad: The mythical cradle of Prague

View from Vyšehrad, photo: Irina Ručkina

“I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.” According to legend, those words were prophesized by Libuše (a mythical ancestor of the Přemyslid dynasty) on Vyšehrad Hill. Libuše then commanded her councillors to found a city named Prague at the spot where Brusnice, a small stream, joined the Vltava River. The legendary quote actually comes from Virgil and was misattributed to Libuše by the medieval historian Cosmas. 1300 years later, the Vltava nonetheless flows through Prague. It is still joined by its small tributary, Brusnice, although it today mostly flows through underground pipes. And Vyšehrad, the site of the prophecy that was to give birth to the city, still looks over Prague. How has life changed on one of the city’s most famous hills?

Today, Vyšehrad belongs among the most significant Prague landmarks, although it is not as popular with tourists as Prague Castle and Charles Bridge. For Czechs though, Vyšehrad is a place where history intertwines with legends and myths.

There is probably no other place in the capital that has so many traditional Czech stories associated with it. From Libuše’s legendary prophecy to the legend of the “Knights of Blaník”, who sleep under a nearby cliff, ready to wake up and come to the rescue of Bohemia at the time of impending peril.

Basilica of St. Peter and Paul,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

Many people believe it was right here that the most important chapters of Czech history were written. Historians and archaeologists have still not reached a consensus on whether Vyšehrad is older than Prague Castle, the traditional seat of royal power. Radio Prague International spoke to Petr Kučera, director of the museum at Vyšehrad, about local history and the most recent archaeological findings.

“Although artefacts found at Vyšehrad are a couple of thousand years older than the ones from Prague Castle, medieval construction activity started at Prague Castle about 100 years before at Vyšehrad. So, from that standpoint, Vyšehrad is 100 years younger than Prague Castle. But we know that there was a settlement on Vyšehrad many years before that.

Petr Kučera,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“Nonetheless, from the 10th century onward, there were castles on both hills. In the area between them, more settlements were founded, and those went on to become modern-day Prague districts. The first documented name of Prague, “Between Castles”, reflected this reality.”

In the beginning, the status of the two castles on both Prague hills was about the same. But as time went on, their influence and standing began to change. Which historical period can be considered as Vyšehrad’s most illustrious period, and how did the area's status change throughout the centuries? Petr Kučera explains:

“The history is long and complex, and the standing of Vyšehrad changed quite a lot throughout it. Its most famous period is rather short and is associated with the first crowned Czech king, Vratislaus II, who chose Vyšehrad as his residence (he was later buried here as well).

“He started a grandiose rebuilding of the castle, founded a royal acropolis and royal collegiate chapter here along with the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, which became the main church of Vyšehrad. That was a relatively short – and in fact the only – period during which Vyšehrad was more important than Prague Castle.”

Rotunda of St. Martin,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

From the Czech Chronicle of Cosmas, we know that on the 30th of July 1119, a tornado went through Prague (the first tornado ever recorded in Bohemia). The hardest-hit area was the southern side of Vyšehrad. At least 900 people were killed and many buildings on Vyšehrad Hill were destroyed. Although most buildings were quickly repaired, the significance of Vyšehrad was rapidly fading in favour of Prague Castle. During the 14th century, that began to change.

“The Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, besides rebuilding Prague Castle, also significantly altered the look of Vyšehrad. But not because he wanted to live there. Instead, he considered Vyšehrad to be the starting point of the history of Czech rulers. He built up Vyšehrad to be a sort of monument to his ancestors.

Tábor gate,  photo: Kristýna Maková

“Positioned on the southernmost tip of the city, Vyšehrad was also of military significance. Although the Vyšehrad Citadel, the construction of which began after the Thirty Years’ War, was never finished and instead twice fell into enemy hands.”

In the coming centuries, Vyšehrad again found itself in the “shadow” of Prague Castle and played no important role in the life of the city. The settlement on the hill was in fact an independent town from the 15th century until 1883 when it was officially connected to Prague. At that point, the situation again began to change.

“The importance of Vyšehrad began to rise again during the 19th century. During that time, the church here had two very patriotically minded provosts, Mikuláš Karlach and Svatopluk Štulc. The two men had a vision of Vyšehrad as a place with a sort of mythical meaning to the Czech nation, and this led to their founding of the national cemetery here. Besides that, they built many new buildings in the romantic architectural style that was popular at the time. And that only added to the patriotic aesthetic of the place.”

Devil’s Column,  photo: Kristýna Maková / Praha křížem krážem

Prague Castle has always been the symbol of the active power of church and political leaders. Vyšehrad, on the other hand, is more of a memento of history and traditional Czech legends. This was different in the years before the 10th century, when Vyšehrad was of greater political and cultural importance.

At least according to the old myths and legends. The truth is, there are no physical documents or archaeological findings from those times, and so, there is a relatively long period during which it is unknown what exactly was going on here.

“We can safely assume that there will be more findings here which will help to answer a list of questions. In fact, we have only searched about 17 % of the area. For comparison, 80 % of the area at Prague Castle has been examined. So, there really is quite a lot of potential to make some new findings here.”

To this day, Vyšehrad is somewhat overlooked among Prague landmarks. Partly because it is located farther from the main tourist routes and attractions in the city centre. According to Petr Kučera, tourists tend to quickly “run through” Vyšehrad, taking a few selfies and then moving on. But this breath-taking place, which is at once a park and a cultural landmark, deserves more attention.

Vyšehrad around 1420,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

“It is important to keep in mind that Vyšehrad Hill is a very significant geographical feature. It sort of juts out of the Pankrác Plain, overlooking Prague from the south. It is moulded by the Vltava River on one side and the smaller Botič on the other. The rich medieval, modern, and patriotic heritage only adds to the natural charm of this place.

“Several different types of rather rare plant and animal life can be found here as well. The local population is about 40 people, and several different institutions are based here. The attitude of Vyšehrad citizens is somewhat rural and community minded. That is why I always say that Vyšehrad is a monument, a park, and a village all in one.”

Tourists who decide to dedicate at least half a day – or even a full day – to their tour of Vyšehrad, will certainly not be disappointed. There are many interesting places to visit here, including the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, the Rotunda of St. Martin, a network of underground casemates, the summer amphitheatre, the Church of Decollation of St. John the Baptist, and the remnants of the old Gothic fort. The peculiar rock formations found here are another interesting feature:

Vyšehrad casemates,  photo: Kristýna Maková / Praha křížem krážem

“Besides statues, we have a few rather mysterious rocks here. The most popular of these is the so-called Devil’s Column, which is located right behind the basilica – that is actually not its original site, as the stones have been moved around about five times.

“There are many theories as to where Devil’s Column comes from. The most famous speaks of a certain local priest who made a bet with the Devil. The Devil was to bring a column from the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome to Vyšehrad before the end of evening mass. So, the Devil flew to Rome, ripped out a column, and started making his way back. But his return trip was hindered by St. Peter (one of the patrons of Vyšehrad, along with St. Paul), causing the Devil to fall into the Venetian Lagoon three times. In the end, he arrived late, and, in his fury, the Devil flung the column through the basilica roof.

“The legend is commemorated by a painting inside the basilica. The column then switched places several times before ending up where it is today. There are also other theories about the origin of the Devil’s Column, such as that it is a remnant of a pagan settlement underneath Vyšehrad, for instance, or that it was part of a solar calendar.

Leopold gate,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

“The last theory is in truth nonsense because Slavs had no such technology during the early medieval times. What is certain about the rocks is that they are fragments of an old building that used to stand here – possibly one of the numerous churches which were built here and eventually destroyed.”

This year, Vyšehrad celebrates an important anniversary. It marks 950 years since the local collegiate chapter (the Royal Collegiate Chapter of Ss. Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad) was founded by the first Czech King Vratislaus II. The ruler founded the chapter following a dispute with his younger brother Jaromír, who was, at the time, the archbishop of Prague.

To distance himself from his fraternal rival, Vratislaus moved his residence to Vyšehrad and founded the independent local chapter. It answered directly to Rome and to the Pope, instead of to the Czech bishop and archbishop. That is why the local church was named for Saints Peter and Paul – just as the basilica in Rome, which, like the church at Vyšehrad, also has the Crosses of Saint Peter in its emblem. The chapter enabled Czech rulers to be in direct contact with Rome. It also successfully survived all the metamorphoses of Vyšehrad and is the second-oldest continually functioning church institution in the Czech Republic.

Leopold gate,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
Authors: Vojtěch Pohanka , Irina Ručkina