McDonald’s may have given arches a bad rap, particularly on this side of the Atlantic, but there is something sublime, poetic almost, about this most basic of architectural structures.
Perhaps it’s the underlying tension hidden beneath the harmonious aspect of every arch. “The arch never sleeps,” an Eastern proverb says; it’s always at work, transferring the downward pull of gravity into the pillars.
Since its invention more than 4,500 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, the arch has supported bridges, doorways, aqueducts, viaducts and cathedrals. It’s been triumphant and golden, segmented, elliptical and even inflexed. It’s everywhere.
Few structures showcase the beauty of the arch as well as the Roman aqueduct – if only for its sheer size, height and longevity. The Roman arch is semi-circular built, from an odd number of bricks, with the highest serving as the arch’s keystone. It’s not the strongest type of arch, but it is the simplest.
Nineteenth-century railway viaducts, inspired by their Roman precursors, can be nearly as imposing, and, luckily the Czech Republic has a few stunning examples.
One of the finest is located on the outskirts of Prague.
The Prague Semmering Railway includes two 25-metre high viaducts that span part of Prokopské údolí, a small valley between Jinonice and the Vltava, south-west of the city centre.
Named after the more famous Austrian Semmering Railway – an alpine route that leads from Gloggnitz to Mürzzuschlag – the Prague line is just 15 kilometers long with an elevation difference of 180 metres. Constructed between 1870 and 1872 by the company Buštěhradské železnice, the route is today used only infrequently. Since the late 1990s, there have been several proposals to close down the route because it’s economically inefficient, according to Zdeněk Dušek writing for Klub za starou Prahu, a historical preservation society.
The railway experienced a brief flash of glory in 2002 during the floods, when the Semmering was used to partly replace temporarily halted transportation near the banks of Vltava.
These days the only type of train to travel the route is a small diesel – dubbed “krabička (the little box) – that passes over Prokopské údolí twice a day. The passengers are mostly day-trippers, looking to take in the scenery from the train’s elevated position. The tracks snake along the Vltava river, then cut across the valley and meander out of Prague through a landcape of 1970s-era panel housing projects.
Although riding the chubby little diesel can be a charming trip in its own right, the best way to see the viaducts is from below.
There are several paths leading to the bottom of Prokopské údolí. The most conveniently accessible from the city centre is the yellow-marked trail that starts from Jinonice, a stop on the B metro line. It slowly winds down into the valey on a gentle incline among tangles of overgrown bushes and weeds.
The bottom of the valley, surrounded on several sides by panel high-rises, is like a small world unto itself: a handful of patched-together gardener’s huts, a pub/sausage stand that looks more like a squatters’ den, a run-down boarded-up train station (the train still stops there, but if you want to wait out of the rain, you’re out of luck), and a vast abandoned factory complex.
Lending the shambolic surroundings a sort of world-weary dignity, the Semmering viaducts and their soaring, majestic arches reign over it all.