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The Time-Honoured Astronomical Clock of Old Town Prague

Published by Bill Lehane, Writer

Country: Czech Republic

The Experience

Every year, thousands of people flock to Old Town Square in Prague to get a glimpse of the Astronomical Clock, one of the finest examples of its kind still around in Europe.

Located on the south wall of Prague’s Town Hall, the Astronomical Clock has an equally colourful history to match its colourful facade. Its oldest part was built in 1410 by a local clockmaker and a professor of astronomy. Other elements, such as the calendar dial and the moving statues, were added in the intervening centuries.

Upon first glance, it can be difficult to figure out what you're seeing, given the number of dials and figures that make up the famous Orloj (as it's known locally). The easiest way to understand the Astronomical Clock is to take it piece by piece. The outermost gold letters on a black ring around the Clock indicate Old Czech Time using symbols known as Schwabacher numerals. This curious system starts at 1 for sunset, and the dial moves during the year to reflect the changing time. Inside of this, there are golden Roman numerals. On the stem of the Clock’s hand is a golden star marking the sign of the Zodiac, and the sun and moon on the dial are used to indicate the current position of the sun and the lunar phase. Even the background of the Astronomical Clock carries its own astronomical meaning: The blue circle in the centre is the Earth, while the blue portion above it represents the part of the sky above the horizon. At night the inner dial moves to the red part to indicate dawn or dusk.

If you're starting to get confused with this detailed description, remember that this is no ordinary clock. It’s more a kind of basic planetarium that displays everything known about the Universe in medieval times. Beneath the main Astronomical Clock you'll see a decorative calendar ring added in 1870, which tells the time of year. To the left and right of the Clock dial you'll see a set of four statues, set in motion upon the hour. These four figures represent entities of loathing at the time of the Orloj's construction: Death (represented by the skeleton); Vanity (shown as a man gazing into a mirror); Greed (represented by a man with a gold bag); and the Turk (a figure dressed in a Turban). Finally, there is a presentation of the Twelve Apostles at small doorways above the Astronomical Clock. They appear and disappear at different times; but if you're there at noon you'll see all twelve present and correct.

The Astronomical Clock has been repaired a number of times over its long history. It suffered the most damage during World War II, when occupying German forces fired from armored vehicles upon the western side of Old Town Square. This was an attempt to silence broadcasts being made from the area. The town hall, along with some nearby buildings, the wooden apostles and the calendar dial on the Clock were all burned. Both were eventually restored and the Orloj began working again from 1948. Since then, it has attracted the curiosity and bemusement of locals and visitors alike.

When to Go to Astronomical Clock

The best time to visit the Prague Astronomical Clock is during the summer and the autumn. During these seasons you may face crowds, but you won't have to battle freezing temperatures. Also, many museums and other attractions have shorter opening hours in the off-season.

Prague in summer is a feast of colours, while the changing landscape of autumn is equally beautiful. Temperatures hit the 60°s (15°C +) beginning in May; while summer temperatures can go as high as the low 90°s (about 30°C). Autumn climes won't dip into the 50°s until after mid-October. If you do go in winter, watch out for freezing temperatures that can sink as low as the mid-teens (-10°C).

Odds n' Ends

Condor and Czech Airlines are the main carriers to the Czech Republic from North America. If you're already in the region, then there are an abundance of budget airlines offering cheap flights from other European cities. If you're touring around Europe, it may also be a good option to go by train from a neighboring country. Vienna to Prague, for instance, is a five-hour ride that will only set you back US$40.

Remember to pack for a variety of weather conditions depending on when you go. Rain is common in summer despite the sunny and warm conditions. As a major world tourist destination, English is widespread in central Prague, but take a phrasebook with you just in case.

The area around the Astronomical Clock can get crowded, especially on the hour and at midday when the Clock is in peak performance; although you should still get a good view of the clock.

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