Spanning the ages in Prague


Charles Bridge: Disputes have delayed repairs to the 600-year-old structure, damaged by weather and time.

February 19, 2003|By David Holley | David Holley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic - Legend has it that when the Charles Bridge was built in the 14th century, farmers supplied raw eggs to strengthen the mortar. One village's peasants, fearing breakage along the way, boiled the eggs first - and are still laughed at today.

Some believe the much-loved story reflects reality, while others think it grew from a nation's pride in the medieval bridge's endurance. Either way, the Charles Bridge has long stood at the heart of Prague's identity. It is one of Central Europe's main tourist attractions. And now it needs repair.

While the graceful pedestrian bridge lined with statues is just one of thousands of historic structures in the Czech Republic that badly need maintenance or restoration, it is probably the most important one. Yet the required work has been stymied for more than a decade by bitter technical disputes between experts and concerned residents.

"It's heritage No. 1. It's not just a bridge," says former Prague Mayor Jan Kasl, who until leaving office last year pushed hard but unsuccessfully to begin protective work. Responsibility for the bridge lies primarily with the city government.

Charles IV laid the foundation stone to the bridge at an astrologically auspicious moment in 1357, and the structure was completed about 1400. It has gone through repeated damage and repairs since then but has never been swept away.

"When I come here I feel like I'm in paradise," says Vladimir Pinta, 69, a saxophone player who works the bridge, which offers a spectacular view of Prague.

"Prague wouldn't be Prague without the bridge," says Eva Imrichova, 30, a Czech woman visiting the capital. "It has atmosphere. It's beautiful. There's a mood to it."

The 1,600-foot bridge over the Vltava River looks old, but charmingly so. It combines beauty and history in a way that makes it "natural for every Czech to be proud," says Jana Cisarovska, 26, who sells etchings on the bridge. "An American woman came by and said, `It's just like something out of Disneyland.'"

But beneath the cobblestones, trouble is brewing. In the 1950s and 1960s, cars were allowed on the bridge, and salt was spread during icy winters. Largely because of that salt, the bridge's interior is waterlogged, with biological and chemical processes that are eating out the sandstone from inside.

The stones of the bridge "are getting soft - they are much more porous than they used to be," says Jiri Witzany, rector of Czech Technical University in Prague, who is part of a team that has spent years refining a conservation plan, only to be repeatedly blocked by critics' complaints. The water-filled pores make "an excellent environment for bacteria," which produce chemicals that eat out more of the stone, he says.

Restoration can only stop the rapid weakening. So the longer the delay, the worse shape the bridge will be in after the repairs and the shorter the probable life span, Witzany says. If properly cared for, the bridge should be able to survive for centuries.

"I love Charles Bridge," Witzany adds. "The construction has within it a tremendous message of the advanced level of medieval craft and the natural connection of the function and purpose. The simplicity of the shape, with its aesthetic and creative impact - when I compare it with some of the decadent creations of modern architecture ... then I admire the bridge even more."

The statues lining the bridge were added starting in 1683, when the Jesuits put up the bronze image of St. John of Nepomuk. A relief at the base of that statue recalls his 1393 execution by being thrown off the Charles Bridge in a suit of armor. According to the story depicted there, he was killed for refusing to divulge to King Wenceslaus IV the confessions of the queen, although historians say he was really the victim of a bitter church-state conflict.

Several of the original statues have been moved to museums for safekeeping, with copies replacing them on the bridge.

Witzany's group - which includes bridge construction experts, an architectural design studio and technical researchers - has largely focused on the processes destroying the stones from inside. Worries also focus on the strength of the bridge pillars' foundations in the riverbed and the effects on the stonework of repeated freezing and thawing of water that gets into cracks.

Part of the dispute between the technical group and its critics is over the relative importance of these threats. Although the bridge survived a severe flood last summer without visible damage, fears remain that a similar onslaught could cause serious harm.

Critics centered in the Club for Old Prague, a historic preservation group, have called for priority to be given to strengthening the foundations and for work on the bridge surface to be limited to little more than a new layer of waterproofing not far beneath the cobblestones.

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