An added attraction in the Old Town Square, Prague
17.02.2008 - 24.02.2008
There’s so much to see when planning your travel itinerary, but when you happen across something totally unplanned, a once-in-a-lifetime event, a special moment in history and you’re an on-the-spot witness, this is the birth of an everlasting memory.
Such was the occasion on my recent visit to the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, when on a sunny winter's day I walked through the Old Town Square to be confronted by something so out of place in this historic open space, a space featuring more than its fair share of tourist attractions: the Old Town Hall with its confounding Astronomical Clock, the Jan Hus Monument, the Rococo Kinksy Palace, the decorated Storch House, the Baroque Church of St Nicholas and the most distinctive landmark, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn with its Gothic steeples that I’m sure inspired the Disneyland designers. Here, overpowering the aged palette of the past, I’m confronted by a massive, bright yellow crane, its feet firmly rooted trustingly upon the small cobblestones with its extended tentacle stretching upwards towards the Tyn steeples.
Looking something like a promotion display for a construction company and attracting a large curious crowd, the crane began to lift something from a thin alleyway beside the Church. As soon as the object became high enough for the crowd to see, a sigh of wonderment rippled across the square as they recognized the familiar shape of a large, heavy bell. Silence then fell over the onlookers as they became totally consumed by this historic event.
Originally the Church towers housed six bells until WWII when the Germans seized control of Prague and proceeded to melt the bells for their metal to be converted into military equipment until only one bell was left. The bell, called Marie, manufactured in 1553 and weighing 6,500 kilograms, is the second oldest bell in Prague. In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution, one new bell was installed and on this day, Tuesday 19 February 2008, three more bells are being lifted to their new home, high up in the north tower. From this point placing and tuning the new bells will take until Easter Sunday, when they will chime for the first time during the Easter Mass. A sixth bell will have to wait until sufficient funds are donated as each bell can cost up to 1 million Czech crowns and take almost two years to make as long as there’s no mishaps as the largest bell being installed today was melted down after the first attempt was slightly off-key.
Lifting each bell was a nail-bitingly slow, precise operation as the crane operator constantly received instructions from the engineers peering out of the steeple window to ensure that no overhanging ancient ornaments were damaged. This meant that the bell could not be lowered directly into the tower but needed to be hooked and pulled from within, a process unseen from the street, but most likely with the aid of some sort of hydraulic mechanism as the weight would have been to much for the number of men the small space could accommodate.
One bell after the other are lifted until the largest weighing 2,500 kilograms is manoeuvred into the north side window as Jan Hus looks on approvingly in the knowledge that once again multiple bells will toll through the Town Square and momentarily scare off the ever-present soiling pigeons.
To have read about so much oppression and turmoil over the years, which has meant so much rebuilding, and then to witness this single element of the process brings such resurrection into direct, overwhelming perspective.