The legend of the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town of Prague seems to have come straight from the Brothers Grimm. The dark tale is set in the fifteenth century, when the clock is said to have been created by the great clockmaker Mikuláš from Kadaň. Such was the reputation of his craftsmanship that Mikuláš was approached by many a foreign nation, each wishing to have its own town square topped with a marvelous astronomical clock. Mikuláš refused to show the plans of his masterpiece to anyone, but word got back to the Prague Councilors.
Overcome with fear that Mikuláš might build a bigger, better, and more beautiful clock for another nation, the Councilors had the brilliant clockmaker blinded, ensuring that their clock would never be topped. Driven mad, the clockmaker took the ultimate revenge, throwing himself into his extraordinary work of art, gumming up the clock’s gears and ending his own life in one stroke. In doing so, he cursed the clock. All who tried to fix it would either go insane, or die.
While this is only a legend, it stands as a testament to the extraordinary nature of the Prague Astronomical Clock. The clock has been modified, destroyed, and repaired many times since its creation in 1380. It is perhaps the most well-known astronomical clock in the world, with four moving automatons (including a skeleton ringing his death knell for each hour), and rotating statues of the 12 apostles. It displays Babylonian time, Old Bohemian time, German time, and Sidereal time. It also shows the moon’s phases and the sun’s journey through the constellations of the zodiac. The calendar dial, just below the clock, shows the day of the month, the day of the week, feast days and allegorical pictures of the current month and sign of the zodiac.
Though the legend of Mikuláš is apocryphal, Prague is not without a dark history – the cobblestones of the Old Town Square below the clock are marked with 27 crosses commemorating 27 beheaded Czech noblemen. Be sure to go upstairs for a tour of the interior of the fascinating clock.
In Czechia, the Prague Astronomical Clock is known simply as the Orloj, from the Latin word horologium.
As the saying goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. When it was created, the Prague Astronomical Clock was an outstanding technological achievement. In modern times, Koreans fascinated by the Orloj built a working replica of the clock and the tower of the Old Town Hall. Their building in Seoul is called Castle Praha Hongdae.
Update January 2019: After nine months of restoration—the most extensive since the 1940s—the clock has been returned to its former glory and is back on view.
Know Before You Go
There are free walking tours available to the area, also check out the main visitors and climb the main tower for amazing views of the square and city.