Monday, May 31, 2010 9:45pm – – Our second day – first full day – in Prague. Lovely Praha.
This morning Dwight and I breakfasted at the hotel, then got a taxi to the Strahov Monastery. This is what I’ve wanted to see for years. This is why I came to Prague.
A few years ago I came across a blurb – literally a few lines and a picture tucked into the corner of a page to fill a couple inches of empty space – in National Geographic Traveler Magazine. It told of a library of surpassing beauty, hidden away in a former Communist bloc country, accessible only by special arrangement. The picture accompanying the article, small as it was, took my breath away. I had never heard of the Strahovský Klášter before, but I knew somehow I had to find myself there one day.
The article referenced some high-end tour company that would arrange a private tour of the library. When we were planning our Eastern Europe itinerary I contacted that tour company to have them reserve a booking for us, but was turned away on the grounds that they will only organize the Monastery excursion in conjunction with an entire trip planning package. We already had our own bookings and no need for their services outside this one attraction . I decided to contact the Strahov Monastery directly to see what other options there were. With a couple emails back and forth I was easily able to book a private guided tour of the library, for about a quarter of the cost the tour company was charging.
The Strahov Monastery was founded in 1143 as a cloister for the order of the Premonstratensians and this order is still active within its walls to this day. The magnificent library consists of two parts: the Philosophical Hall and the Theological Hall: two wings within the Abbey which hold some 200,000 works, including thousands of manuscripts and incunabula. The abbey is open daily to tourists for a small admission fee, but the entrances to the halls are cordoned off and standard admission allows you only the opportunity to peer into the room from behind a velvet rope. Fortunately our private tour took us further, not so much behind the scenes as inside the scenes. I can’t imagine walking in there only to be stopped at the threshold.
Our guide, a brusque woman who met us at the monastery to give us the tour in English, walked us through the Theological Hall and talked about the history of different books and artifacts. This hall was built in the 17th century and the Baroque features are evident in some of the wood carvings and ornate detail. Carved walnut cartouches above the shelves formed a sort of filing system by indicating the subject matter of the books below. Over our heads stretched a ceiling of vividly painted frescoes depicting Biblical scenes and scripture passages. A statue of St. John the Evangelist stood piously in one corner. The effect of being in the middle of this room was mesmerizing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another human creation so beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. We walked past rows and rows of ancient books, texts, manuscripts, and incunabula as the ceiling frescoes gazed down on us impassively. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of pale grey books, bound in pigskin or vellum, with hand-inked titles on the spines. There were worn brown leather-bound books with titles like “Apocalypsum” in gold ink. Books so old the titles had long since faded away. Books – forbidden books – locked away in secret niches above the doorway. There were huge globes, half as tall as me, drawn with the finest details of Europe opposite a vast unfinished tracing of the mysterious New World. Ornate wooden furniture from the 1600s that held yet more treasures. I could have spent days or even months in there – if only I had been allowed to touch those beautiful books.
Sadly I wasn’t allowed to touch anything, especially those beautiful books. Also sadly, we did not get to tour the Philosophical Hall as it is under reconstruction until December. Dwight and I lingered a long time, filling our camera memory cards with all the memories we wanted to try to keep. We visited the gift shop on the way out, bought some postcards and a book, and then headed out to explore more of the Castle District.
Want to do this yourself?
Find the library within the Strahov Monastery:
Strahovské nádvoří 1/132
118 00 Praha 1
Email in advance to book a private tour of the Theological Hall and Philosophical Hall: