One of my college friends and I met up in Prague last week, because – well, who really needs a reason to go to Prague?
In researching Prague, I found that one of the most important sites in the city was the Astronomical Clock tower. I also found that it’s considered to be the second most overrated tourist attraction in Europe, behind the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. Naturally, we had to find out what all the fuss was about, so we visited the clock tower – more than once. I disagree with the sentiment that it’s an overrated ‘attraction,’ and I’ll try to explain why.
The Astronomical Clock was built. That’s pretty much all that anyone knows about it. No one is quite sure when the original clock and tower were built, but they do know that it took the form that it has today sometime around the year 1410, with the lunar clock face being added later, sometime around 1490. When it was built, it was an amazing thing; there were very few clocks like this in Europe, and even fewer that were as accurate. People came from all over the known world to marvel at it.
There are several legends surrounding the Astronomical Clock, one of the favorites being that of Master Hanuš (hah-noosh). The story goes that Master Hanuš took over the maintenance of the clock, and, when he did, the clock functioned better than ever. He was considered the mastermind behind the success of the clock. In order to keep him from taking commissions in other cities for building clocks – and thereby drawing revenue from travelers away from Prague – the city council elected to take drastic measures to make sure that he absolutely could not do so. Instead of simply making him swear not to do anything or imprisoning him, the council sent thugs to poke out his eyes and cut out his tongue. Here’s where the stories diverge. One version of the story says that one night, after being attacked, Master Hanuš had his assistant help him up the clock tower, where he pulled a vital cog out of the machinery, ruining the clock, and immediately died of a broken heart. Another version claims that Master Hanuš had his assistant help him up the clock tower, where he threw himself bodily into the machinery, killing himself and effectively causing the destruction that the city council had feared so much. Either way, he got his revenge, and it was years before they could get the clock working again.
Today, the engineering work behind a clock might not seem that impressive, but remember that this was the 15th century. They created a wonderfully accurate clock without the help of the internet, and then set it without the help of cell phones. Not to mention that the tower itself was extremely tall by the standards of the day. At the time that it was built, it was about seventy meters high; today, it’s about sixty meters high, but not because it shrunk – the city of Prague raised its street level to counteract flooding.
In addition to telling time and lunar cycles, every hour on the hour, the Walk of the Apostles takes place in the tower, right above the clock face. As if a wonderfully accurate clock was not impressive enough in the 15th century, they added some more fancy machinery that allowed wooden statues of the twelve Apostles to rotate through two small windows just above the clock face. The carvings on either side of the clock face also move, and the skeleton on the right pulls a cord to strike the bell. This is the part that most tourists label as being ‘overrated.’ All the literature promises moving figures and makes it sound very exciting, and then it turns out to be just simple wooden figures going in a circle. They claim that they wait for long periods of time only to be disappointed by a mediocre show.
Clearly, these people don’t appreciate the symbolism of the skeleton ringing the bell. To them, I say – send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
In all seriousness, I again claim the 15th century as a reason for impressiveness. People who had barely invented the fastening screw built an animation sequence for their town clock. They may not have had a postal system yet, but, by God, they had moving statues.
They last thing I’ll say about the Astronomical Clock – there’s plenty of reading out on there for anyone who would like to know more about it – is this: the people who thought it was overrated clearly didn’t look very closely. At the base of the tower, off to one side, there’s a very small sign that reads: “Clock Tower tickets sold in tourist office.” That’s right, for 150 koruna (about 6 USD) – 70 with a student card – you can climb the clock tower and look out over the city of Prague from the observation deck 60 meters up. If that’s not worth an hour or two of your visit to Prague, I don’t know what is.