The Vitava River is Czech Republic’s largest and most prominent waterway. The 430-kilometer long body of water originates from the mountains of the Sumava (Bohemain Forest) in Central Europe and winds northwards through the cities of Krumlov, ?eské and Prague until it joins the Elbe at the Northern border. The river, which is the focus of Czech composer Bed?ich Smetana’s classical symphonic poem Vitava, flows under 18 bridges and has several dams constructed upon it, the largest of which is the hydroelectric Lipno Dam in Sumava.
The name Vitava is said to have originated from the old Germanic term “wilt ahwa,” which stands for “wild water.” And the Vitava has certainly proven itself wild in 2002 when it rose to terrifying levels after extremely heavy rainfall, causing extensive damage to the island of Kampa near the western bank of the river and the districts of Karlin and Holešovice in the north. Millions of dollars were used to restore the Prague Metro subway system, which collapsed after 19 of its 57 stations were submerged in floodwater. Prague’s Jewish Quarter, the National Theater and the old military fortress Terezin also required major renovations. There was thankfully little loss of life and historical artwork largely because of the city’s prompt response to flood warnings. A year after the devastation and massive restoration projects that followed, Prague and the Vitava were once again brimming with life.
It is not uncommon to see local anglers with bucketfuls of carp and pike during the warmest summer months of July and August. Bathing and picnics are also popular on the shallow parts of the riverbank. The best way for visitors to enjoy the Vitava, however, is by enjoying a relaxing cruise that passes by many of the historic city’s most remarkable attractions and right under Charles Bridge, which was commissioned by King Charles IV and designed and built by German architect Peter Parler in 1357 originally to provide a venue for knight tournaments. On any ordinary day, Charles Bridge is teeming with locals, tourists, street artists and jazz bands that provide charming entertainment for a bargain price.
On the western end of the bridge is the entrance to the quaint district of Malá Strana (Lesser Town), with its medieval burgher houses, cobblestoned streets and traditional Czech pubs. At the foothills of Malá Strana stands the imposing Prague Castle, the largest medieval castle complex in the world, which saw the coronation of Czech kings and queens and houses the tombs of patron saints and members of the royal family. Today, the Prague Castle is the official residence and main workplace of the President of the Republic of Czech. On the other end of Charles Bridge is Staré M?sto (Old Town), which began as Prague’s central economic district in the 12th century. Today, Staré M?sto is home to the city’s most magnificent Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque architectural structures, including the Astronomical Clock and the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn.