Fate frowns on a vain merchant but smiles on a poor villager and bridge guard
Two tales tell of strange reversals of fortune that took place on Charles Bridge. One is a rather fishy account of bad karma, and the other is a curious mix-up on the dream plane.
For centuries, Charles Bridge was the only connection between the two sides of Prague, and it was a melting pot of all classes.
A woman owned several shops and stalls on all the busy streets, and she just kept getting richer and richer. Her stores were quite diversified, so if one item temporarily went down in value, another was sure to go up. It seemed she could do no wrong, at least in business.
One day she was crossing Charles Bridge in her coach, and a ragged beggar woman caused her horse to slow down, as people and carriages shared the narrow surface. The beggar asked for some money, but the rich don’t get rich by giving money away. The merchant woman was a notorious miser and foul-spirited as well.
She told the beggar to get out of her way, or she would be flogged for insolence.
The beggar was unperturbed. In that tone of voice and cryptic grammar only used when people are about to prognosticate some ill tidings, she said: “Beware! Be thee not so haughty, as soon it will suit you like an ill-tailored dress. By the time one year passes, it will be thee sitting on this very spot, holding out a withered hand and hoping for alms.”
The rich woman wasn’t having it. She got out of her coach and went to the beggar. She took off a gold ring with a brightly colored gemstone. For a moment she pretended she was going to give it to the beggar woman.
Instead, she threw it over the bridge’s railing and into the Vltava river.
“I have as much chance of sitting there begging like you as I do of ever touching that ring again — none. Now be off you with you. You have wasted too much of my time, and in fact you aren’t worth any of it,” the rich merchant said.
She went on her way and never gave the beggar another thought.
Some weeks later, the merchant was having a lavish banquet at her house on V Kotcích Street, where she lived above one of her stores. When the baked carp was served, the woman cut into her piece and was surprised to hit something hard. She probed the fish with her fork and found the ring she had thrown into the river. The carp had eaten it from the bottom of the river and swam off to be caught in a net downstream from the city. Somehow it was missed when the fish was prepared.
The merchant put no stock in what she considered an unlikely coincidence, but soon bad luck hit her like a long line of tumbling dominoes. Barges with her goods were sunk by freak storms on their way down from Hamburg. Highwaymen robbed her couriers and suppliers. Crop failures seemed to hit just the farms she had contracts with.
Much of the art she invested in turned out to be fakes and forgeries. She was forced to sell it at a fraction of the purchase price, mostly for the value of the frames. Even the ring from the fish had a fake stone.
She invested in some risky propositions to try to get rich again quickly so she could buy more goods for her stores, but all of these deals collapsed.
The banks were not sympathetic to her sob stories. Most of the bankers never had any faith in a woman doing business, and they were all too quick to foreclose when their suspicions were confirmed. She could get no more credit.
The dark clouds that hit were not just a metaphor. Lighting shot out of the sky and hit her house, setting it on fire.
She found herself out on the street with no place to go. She tried to sleep on a bench and found out that the homeless had all of them claimed in a sort of squatters rights system. She was pushed farther and farther down the streets and soon found herself on Charles Bridge, right where the beggar woman had stopped her coach.
What happened to the original beggar is not known, but her space on the bridge was vacant and the formerly rich woman took it up.
The next tale is a bit happier. A peasant lived in a small house just outside of the city with a tiny garden and a few fruit trees that he used to supplement the food for his struggling family.
He prayed for a miracle to change his fortunes and did the odd kind favor for people. But he was not in particular a saint, just an average decent guy.
The man kept having a dream that he would finally find his fortune on Charles Bridge. He pictured a glass jar filled with gold coins sitting there, as people walked by without seeing it.
The dream made no sense, as certainly the jar was visible to all.
He had the dream three nights in a row and decided to go to Prague and look, as there must be something to the dream.
He scrutinized the bridge, walking back and forth. He even tried to kick a few paving stones at the site depicted in his dream to see if any were loose and might have a treasure underneath. This caught the attention of one of the patrolmen who kept watch over the bridge.
Embarrassed at being caught, the man told the guard the story of his dream, as it seemed his only hope to avoid some charge of attempted vandalism.
Shocked, the guard said that he too had a dream three nights in a row about a glass jar filled with coins. Only his dream took place a small house just outside of the city with a tiny garden and a few fruit trees.
The man said the description matched where he lived, and one tree in particular sounded like the one the guard described.
As soon as the guard’s shift ended, or just a little bit before actually, the pair went to the house with the garden and dug near the tree. There they found the jar filled with coins.
They had the likeness of a ruler who lived very long ago, and the coins had obviously been buried way before the house was built by someone who was never able to come back and claim them. Likely, it was still a forest when the jar had been hidden.
Whether they were the spoils of a crime or someone’s savings, there was no way to ever find out. There was nothing in local records at all from that era.
The two men decided the only fair thing to do would be to split the money. The peasant was able to expand his house, buy a proper orchard, and send his children to school.
The guard wasted his half on wine, women and song, but it was his choice to do so and he was happy while the coins lasted.
It would be nice to say that some went to charity for those less fortunate, but alas, if that ever was part of the story that page is missing now.
Charles Bridge is the oldest in Prague, but not the oldest in Bohemia. A stone bridge in the town of Písek was built in the latter half of the 13th century.
Construction on Charles Bridge started in 1357 on the 9th day of the 7th month at 5:31, making the numerical palindrome 135797531. The time was selected by astrologers, as Emperor Charles IV believed strongly in the occult.
The bridge was completed in the early 1400s. But it wasn’t known as Charles Bridge until 1841. Before then it was just called the Stone Bridge or Prague Bridge. The statues on the bridge were not part of the original design. They are added one at a time in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most of the bridge technically belongs to Old Town, and a statue of a knight named Bruncvík, on a pillar by the side of the bridge, holds the city shield to remind people of who owns it.
Bruncvík is related to several legends, including one that his sword is hidden in the bridge and will be reclaimed by the spirit of St Wenceslas when Bohemia faces its greatest danger.
There are many other legends associated with the bridge, including one about the Devil helping to rebuild it, and another that touching a plaque under the statue of St John Nepomuk will bring good luck.
The bridge and Prague Castle also create a sort of local Stonehenge.
V Kotcích Street is one of the places in Prague where time seems to stand still. Despite being in the heart of downtown it is often devoid of people as it is cut off at both ends by streets that block crosstown traffic, and it has little to attract tourists save for some solitude. Both sides of the street have the back doors of stores and restaurants, not the entrances.
The several surrounding streets were all markets, and most still are filled with shops. Havelská Street, which runs parallel, still has outdoor market stalls with goods for tourists. It has allegedly been there since 1232.
V Kotcích used to be a center for textile merchants, and even into the 1970s people could find cheap clothes there, but no longer. It also had a theater in the 18th century, the city’s second one, but that is long gone as well. The street was already established by the 1300s.
Prague used to be much smaller, with just Old Town, New Town, Malá Strana and Hradčany counting as the city. Many of the outer neighborhoods used to be separate villages and towns. In time the city grew to overrun the rural villages. Some old churches and squares show where the village centers used to be.
Prague’s last official expansion was in 1974. The formerly independent town of Zbraslav, founded in 1118, was subsumed into Prague at that time, for example, along with more than three dozen other neighborhoods. Archaeological zones of Celtic settlements also became part of the city, adding centuries to the city’s history.
Many legends and tales talking of farms near the city are likely referring to places that are now counted as part of Prague itself. Some areas within the city limits have fields cultivated for crops such as poppies or rapeseed, and one can find some sheep and poultry, though this is increasingly a curiosity. Patches of fruit trees can also be found in between high-rise developments and in many urban backyards.