If you are looking for a place to relax on a warm summer's day then there is no better place than the Palace Gardens located on the southern slopes of Prague Castle. With their terraces, fountains, stone passageways and secluded alcoves these Baroque gardens take you to days gone by - and give you a fabulous view of the city.
Many visitors who first look down at them from the ramparts of Prague Castle think that the exquisitely kept gardens below are private property but the five gardens which form a connecting belt of greenery are all linked up and are open to visitors for a small fee from early morning till late night. The Ledebour Garden, the Great and Small Palfy Gardens, the Kolowrat Garden and the Small Furstenberg Garden represent a unique historic complex that enchants visitors from around the world. It was in the Ledebour Garden that I met up with the head of the Palace Gardens, Martina Zelenkova, to find out more about their history and what they will offer visitors in the summer months.
"The southern slope of the hill below the castle originally served defense purposes - a complex system of ramparts was built around 1241. But then after the battle of the White Mountain in 1620 the fortification system was demolished and gradually the grounds started attracting vagabonds and criminals. In order to get rid of them, the area was parceled up and the land was sold to rich burgers. They started cultivating the grounds -planting vineyards and Italian style gardens that served for leisure and amusement. It stayed that way until 1648 when the Swedes captured Prague. In later years the gardens were rebuilt in the Baroque style -with terraces, stone statues, pavilions, stairways and fountains. They were linked up into a single belt of greenery that has been maintained to the present day."
Although today the Gardens are the pride of Prague Castle, this was not always so. Martina Zelenkova says it took much planning and hard work to restore them to their former glory.
"At the beginning of the twentieth century the gardens badly needed renovating and the authorities launched a renovation process of sorts, but it was inconsistent and gradually the once exquisite gardens went to seed and became overgrown. In the 1950s they were in such a state of disrepair that they had to be closed to the public. The fall of communism marked a new chapter in their history - the state Institute for Preservation of Historical Monuments set about restoring them to their former glory. This was made possible thanks to government funds, European Funds and the Prague Heritage Fund set up Britain's Prince Charles and the former Czech president Vaclav Havel. Gradually all the gardens were cultivated and one by one they were re-opened to the public."
Today the gardens look fantastic. Roses are in bloom, figs are ripening on the southern slopes and wisterias scent the air. Each of the gardens offers a slightly different view of Prague and each has its own special character. The firm which maintains them organizes a series of summer events for visitors. Martina Zelenkova explains what's in the pipeline for this summer.
"We wanted to bring these gardens to life and the perfect way to do that was with music. Last year we introduced a series of classical music concerts. They were a huge success and we are planning a cycle of baroque music concerts for this summer, with music by Czech composers and world composers who sought and found inspiration in Prague. These baroque concerts will be held on Friday and Saturday evenings through June and July. We also offer concerts with selected Czech musicians. Last summer we introduced Czech singers Daniel Barta and Marie Rottrova and also violin virtuoso Jaroslav Sveceny. This year we have a special surprise which is still under wraps - and we will also present singers Marta Kubisova and Vera Spinarova."
Although Martina Zelenkova would not say what the special surprise for the summer is, she did admit that theatre performances are also in the pipeline, for which the organizers still need to find additional sponsors.
Last year the gardens attracted 86 thousand visitors - a record number since they opened. And they have gradually become a popular venue for garden parties, charity events, weddings, fashion-shows and even news conferences. In the Great Palfy Garden you will find a sundial with the Latin inscription "Claret in orbe dies, ac taetras, hora pete umbras" or "Clear be the day around the world and may it dispel the ugly shadows."
The weather is sometimes unpredictable in Prague but the beauty of these gardens is sure to dispel any ugly shadows. And finally, just one more point - if you look up from the Lesser Town or down from Prague Castle at these beautiful gardens - you will find that there are actually six of them not five. The sixth - the Great Furstenberg Garden - does not belong to the State Fund for Preservation of Historical Monuments, as do the other five, but to the city of Prague. It is now under major reconstruction and is expected to open to the public next summer, completing the green belt on the southern slope of Prague Castle. Martina Zelenkova says that the idea is for all the gardens to be linked up and for visitors not to be bothered about ownership rights:
"People tend to get it mixed up - they think that all the gardens belong to the same owner and are supervised by the same authority. The Great Furstenberg Garden is not ours but we are happy that people see the gardens as a complex. We are cooperating closely with the City Hall and have agreed on what we call an 'open gate policy' on the southern slope. The gardens are a precious historical legacy and we want visitors to be able to wonder around freely through them all and savor their magic."