Lavish celebrations to mark the 650th anniversary of Prague's Charles Bridge are a token of the city's genuine affection for one of its chief tourist draws.
By Patrick Jackson
The bridge connects the Old Town and Prague Castle
Czech film-maker Karel Vachek has said you can imagine a view of Prague without the Castle but not without Charles Bridge.
In his 1992 documentary, A New Hyperion, he includes a photo montage of Europe in which the bridge links the Bastille of Paris to Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral, with the Statue of Liberty at its centre.
When the bridge's foundation stone was laid by Emperor Charles IV on 9 July 1357, the city was at the heart of a Holy Roman Empire which stretched as far west as Luxembourg.
Today Prague is one of the architectural treasure-chests of the European Union and a magnet for mass tourism, an essential stop for package holidaymakers or a picturesque bonus for beery stag parties.
In high summer, the pedestrian-only bridge can become as congested by foreign visitors as the Rialto in Venice.
With four million of them streaming across each year, is there any room left for the Czechs?
Bridge of nations
One Prague citizen particularly wary of mass consumerism is Filip Remunda, co-director of the 2004 documentary Czech Dream, about an imaginary hypermarket.
He is more concerned about Prague's traffic congestion than the tourists, saying he finds the crowds on London's Oxford Street much worse.
"You do have some people in Prague who complain it is too crowded but the tourists are part of life here and you have to consider it as part of the development of society," he told the BBC News website.
"I remember the time before 1989 when we had fewer tourists and it was less crowded but the atmosphere was different. It was a Czech, Czech, Czech city with some Soviet influence.
"Maybe it was more romantic? It was certainly better for photographers taking pictures as it was easier to find the bridge empty. But we were facing a lot of problems.
"The positive side of the tourist industry, I think, is that you meet people from foreign cultures with different points of view and you can have a dialogue with them.
"Of course, mass tourism is questionable. Why is it so important to put your body on a plane and go somewhere for a couple of days without making any real contact with local culture?
"But I am not advocating restrictions. Change must come through education."
Bridge of sighs
Charles Bridge remains a favourite stroll for Remunda, whether with his girl-friend or alone, walking past the tourists.
"A bridge is about water and water always has a strong emotional impact," he says.
"And Charles Bridge is itself like a piece of art. It has meaning like a painting."
The Czech satirist Jaroslav Hasek was attracted to the bridge for a different reason one February night in 1911.
He was spotted on the other side of the parapet attempting to throw himself into the River Vltava, according to the police report, and was only prevented from doing so by a passing hairdresser.
Hasek tried, rather unconvincingly, to laugh the episode off afterwards, saying he had probably mistaken the parapet for a lamp-post in his drunkenness.
A few months later, he began work on what would become The Good Soldier Svejk, a product of Czech culture at least as enduring in its universal appeal as the bridge which would not let him go.
Years back, before the tourists discovered Charles Bridge, my buddy and myself were practicing white-water canoe movements, some hundreds of yards upstream, we did overturn and had to swim to Charles Bridge,to get back into our canoe.
It was Xmas Eve, quite cold, but we were cheered by the crowd on the bridge, for whom we were the entertainment of the moment.
Zavis P.Zeman, Toronto Canada
It is a splendidly romantic bridge - I asked my wife to marry me on it. Its romance certainly worked. She said yes. She'd said no once before.
Nick Jones, Hamilton, Bermuda
My first experience on Charles Bridge was in 1983 when black market exchanges of dollars for Czech crowns took place furtively, while strolling with my "banker". This summer, my stroll was accompanied by hundreds, like me, enjoying music, dodging sketch artists and cutesy refrigerator magnet stalls. Give me the black market bankers.
Richard, New York City
Charles Bridge calls to mind numerous images and memories for me. While studying in Prague for a year, I was privileged to participate in the Prague International Half Marathon. The race began right on Charles Bridge, as thousands of athletes flooded the bridge before entering the Old Town. I also recall numerous newly weds strolling across the bridge, highschool choirs singing, countless paintings, and beautiful statues.
Prague is truly the most beautiful city in Europe.
Danielle Thow, Vancouver, Canada
I went to Prague three years ago in the summer when i was still studying University. Going to the Eastern Europe with a backpack has been a very romantic and cool action for a University student in Hong Kong.
With a lot of research, i really admired the tranquility and the sense of loneliness of the bridge as seen in many pictures. And I also got that sense of feeling from the allusion to Kafka the modernist master.
Well when i got there it was really exhilarating, but I'd never thought of the place being that crowded.
There were really a mismatch between my expectation or what the place has been described and what we've seen. Well, not really disappointed but just very different.
Wing Kiang, Hong Kong
My boyfriend and I walked across the Charles just after Christmas in 2005 and told our best jokes and admired the dark statues. It was cold and quiet and beautiful. I will never forget it.
Lauren Zimmermann, Madison, WI, USA
The eery sight of beggars at night, prostrate, silent, hands held out palm upwards, faces next to the cold stone.
They sit in a neat line on one side of the bridge.
Last time I was there, some American tourists could simply not believe this sight from a different, older Europe.
Gary Threlfall, Wirral
My lasting memory of the bridge was crossing it for the first time at 11pm on a snowy winter night. I was in Prague for a job interview, and I am happy to say I now live here, but I have never again seen the bridge so beautiful and quiet as that first night in Prague.
Aaron , Czech Republic
It is the most beautiful bridge in the world and tourists should not be allowed to use it :-)
Vaclav Kabat, Cork,. Ireland
Charles bridge in Prague is just amazing! It mesmerizes, there is something mystique about it.
Evgenia B., Moscow, Russia
One evening Daphne and I walked from the Castle down hundreds of steps to the Charles bridge.
It was dark, with few lights to show us the way. And then the bridge, it was like walking in a floating fantasy in the dim, magical atmosphere. The great Guard towers framing the entrance to the City of Praha in the cold night. An unforgetable, dreamlike experience.
John and Daphne Scott, Palmerston North New Zealand
I remember that, as a teenager, I used to run with my friends on top of the side walls of the bridge between the statues. When I came back as a tourist I realised how dangerous it was but when I look back it was great fun!!
Charles Frohlich, Sandy, USA
My most vivid memory of the Charles Bridge was in March 2006 when my grown children and I strolled across the bridge on a snowy Sunday afternoon. It was the most beautiful site I have ever seen -- so much so that we did not even feel the 19 degree (F) temperature, and stopped often to take both digital and camcorder pictures. One of the pictures is my wallpaper on all my computers. And while Paris will always be my most favorite city, The Charles Bridge covered with snow will always be my most favorite memory.
Jane Draper, New York, New York and Austin, Texas USA
It is very interesting how the bridge has the atmosphere to break any social barriers, I was justo strolling on the bridge when a group of italian turists offered to share with me their watermelon. Just because!
JorgeAdrian Olivares, Mexico city, Mexico
My favourite recollection of my travel across the bridge is the spooky candle placed outside a house window, at the far side of the bridge. According to local legend, if the light flickers out whilst you are looking at it, then it signifies instant death. Even a quick glance induces a quirky feeling!
Matthew , Yealmpton, Devon
In the summer of 1996, I was attending university in Prague as part of a study-abroad. The Charles Bridge was a regular destination for myself and my fellow students. The vibe was unbeatable - artists and musicians dotted the bridge doing their thing. People milled about, looked at art, listened to music or just peered over the edge of the bridge at the river below. It was always amazing to walk around the corner and see the bridge and its inhabitants open up before me. I will always remember those lazy summer days when a stroll across the bridge was the best part of the day.
Jeff Forward, Woodland, California - USA
In 2001 I cycled alone, from Venice to Prague. On arrival in Prague, I remember pushing my bike across Charles Bridge, which was so packed with tourists on a busy summer´s day that I could barely move! I didn´t enjoy it at all. However, the next morning I went for a jog around 6am across the same bridge & barely saw a soul, it was truely awesome, in the early morning mist, alone, at the end of my travels.
Alllie Lehtinen, Kangasala, Finland
I was in Prague in 2005. I found the St. Charles bridge a magnet for photographic expression. Yes, it is often filled to capacity with people,lingering people, but at times such as rain and snow, those same people gather inside, and the bridge can be admired in its solitude. The artisans who spend their days on the bridge offer views of St. Charles not otherwise seen, from photos at sunrise, sunset, and during a lonely full moon while everyone sleeps. It is haunting, and a central player in Prague life.
my memories of the bridge are the early morning crossings in the autumn with the mist on the vltava slowly rising and the spectacular views of hradcany, mala strana and stare mesto . . . one of the most beautiful views in europe! absolute magic with few tourists, and stopping to help some of the 'locals' fish coins from the rain gratings. as rippolino tells us: prague, she will never let one go!
jeffery b., vancouver, canada
I remember walking over the Charles Bridge in September of 1990. That was about nine months after the period known as the "Velvet Revolution", or the fall of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia. I have a photo of streams of Russian soldiers walking over the bridge looking around like typical tourists. Some soldiers were eager to sell their personal equipment as souvenirs, and I was able to purchase a furry blue army hat with a bright red communist star.
George Kletecka, Cleveland, Ohio USA
There was an older man standing in the middle of the bridge playing "Some Enchanted Evening" on the saxophone. As it is one of my favorite songs and fashion myself to be a singer, I joined in. We then performed at least 10 songs together, to the glee of many passersby. With the tips earned, he took me out for a coffee with his wife. One of my fonder European memories.
Amy Dieta, Seattle, U.S.
A truely beautiful bridge that is being affected by cheap travel. I wouldn't say its the mass tourism that is the main problem, rather the pickpockets who thrive on the tourists.
I took a week-long busker's holiday to Prague in the spring of 1992. I busked one afternoon on the Charles Bridge. It was strange and wonderful to be playing and singing American roots music in a city that has known so many different songs over the course of so many centuries. Passersby that day were mostly Czech, although there were a fair number of tourists. People were in a good mood, and those that paused for a few minutes were affable and attentive -- and generous. After a few hours of playing, my guitar case was nicely filled with money. Nice audiences, nice cash, few other buskers around...had I stumbled on to the Holy Grail of Buskerdom? I thought that I was on to a very. very good thing. Back at the hostel where I was staying, it took a little time to count up all the money. When I sorted out all the bills and coins and consulted the day's exchange rate, I discovered that I had made.....about ten U.S. dollars.
Well, it wasn't quite the financial windfall I'd first thought, but at that time it was enough to pay for a night's lodging in a rennovated Communist-era college dormitory (talk about a way to disaffect your youth!), a three-course meal in a nice restaurant, and a night on the town. The local beer was first-rate, and cost about 15¢ a liter. I met some memorably fine folks in that short week, but the main images your piece evoked are of the sumptuous buildings, the glorious architecture of a grand old city that made it through the twentieth century pretty well, all things considered.
Richard Goodman, Portsmouth, Va, USA
I lived and went to school in Prague from 1987 for two years and lived not so far from the Carlov Most, I have some great memories of that bridge. I had a fantastic time experiencing that beautiful city and its people in its less raucous times and I am honoured I had that priviledge. Visiting Prague for the first last September since I returned back to the UK I was horrified to see groups of drunken Brits littering its once peaceful streets, swimming in the fountains and generally behaving as loutish Brits know best - embarrassingly.
Ilah Williamson, Leiden, Netherlands
I spent a week in Prague in 1988. There were no tourists! I remember sitting on the Charles Bridge and crying. You could see the past glory and beauty of the city but everything was covered in grime. The attitude of the people was grim and no-one smiled. Such a contrast to Vienna, visited on the same trip. I look forward to seeing it again, as it should be seen, crowds of tourists included!
Janet Lewis, Toronto, Canada
In the summer of 2005, a friend and I were accosted by a young man on the Charles Bridge who very agressively tried to sell us different types of drugs. He was surprisingly persistant, almost following us the entire length of the bridge!
Alec Perkins, Phoenix, U.S.
I walked across the Charles Bridge in the summer of 1968. Nine days before the Russian tanks ended the "Prague Spring". No, I'll never forget. Today- that bridge should become an icon in the "sustainable world" movements. We KNOW how to build excellent structures that are spectacularly durable. We need the will.
P.A.Rutter, Canton, MN, United States