This week’s journey takes us back to the hauntingly beautiful city of Prague (Czech: Praha). This enigmatic metropolis – modern capital of the Czech Republic and historical capital of Bohemia – was our destination for a Memorial Day road-trip in May 2016.
The city has played a unique cultural, political and economic role in the fate of central Europe for much of its rich 1,000-year history. Founded during the Romanesque era, Prague served as the main residence for both the kings of Bohemia and several Holy Roman Emperors, and later as an important center for the Habsburg monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire. It also played major roles in the Bohemian and Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years War, both World Wars and the post-war Communist era. Since 1992, the extensive historic center of Prague – including its ancient castle, iconic Charles Bridge, historic Jewish Quarter and famed astronomical clock – has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. It is of little wonder that since the fall of the Iron Curtain, this intriguing “City of a Hundred Spires” has become one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.
We started the first day of our journey through Prague – a very wet one! – on the banks of the Vltava River. The river – a dominant feature of the city’s landscape – is also thought to lend Prague its name; indeed, the Czech name Praha is derived from the old Slavic word práh (meaning ‘ford’ or ‘rapid’), referring to the city’s origin at a crossing point of the river.
After leaving the river bank, we wandered through the streets of the Malá Strana, also known as Lesser Town, in the direction of Prague Castle, mounting several dozen stairs before reaching the castle terrace. The views here – across the city’s iconic red-tiled rooftops – are some of the finest anywhere in Prague. It was absolutely lovely!
Prague Castle (Pražský hrad), dating from the 9th century, is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. The castle was also the seat of power for the kings of Bohemia, several Holy Roman emperors, and the presidents of Czechoslovakia. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Prague Castle is the largest ancient fortress in the world, occupying nearly 70,000 square meters (750,000 square feet) atop Castle Hill (Hradčany).
St. Vitus Cathedral – officially known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert (metropolitní katedrála svatého Víta, Václava a Vojtěcha) – is the largest and most important church in the Czech Republic. A prominent example of Gothic architecture, the cathedral today serves as the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. Part of the castle complex, St. Vitus contains the tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman emperors.
A small vineyard – Saint Wenceslas Vineyard (Svatováclavská vinice) – is situated on the southern slope of Hradčany. Dating back to the 10th century, the vineyard’s location is said to have been selected by Prince Wenceslas himself. Samples of the vineyard’s wine are available exclusively from the nearby Villa Richter restaurant. While the restaurant’s terrace is typically open for tastings in the summer months, the rain and looming thunderstorm closed this popular veranda on the date of our visit.
The rain began to pick up considerably as we left the castle complex, and we decided to take a break from exploration to partake in one of the city’s greatest gifts: its amazing (and amazingly inexpensive!) food and beverage. Our beer and wine were less than 1USD per glass, and our dinner of pasta and steak – both delicious – came to less than 10. It doesn’t get much better than that!!
After enjoying our beer, wine and supper (and a respite from the downpour), we headed in the direction of one of the city’s most popular and iconic attractions: the historic Charles Bridge (Karlův most).
Construction began on the bridge in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, replacing an older bridge (built 1158-1172) earlier destroyed by flood waters. The new bridge was officially completed in the early 15th century; originally known as Stone Bridge (Kamenný most) or Prague Bridge (Pražský most), it has been referred to as the Charles Bridge since 1870. As the only means of crossing the Vltava until 1841, Charles Bridge served an incredibly important function as the city’s sole connection between Prague Castle and the Old Town. This connection also made Prague a once-vital trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.
The bridge is 621 meters (2,037 feet) long and nearly 10 meters (33 feet) wide. It is flanked by a continuous alley of 30 baroque statues and statuaries, erected between 1683 and 1714, depicting various saints and patron-saints. Beginning in 1965, the original statues were systemically removed from the bridge and replaced by replicas.
The sun began to seep through the clouds as we left the bridge and began walking on the opposite bank of the river, back toward our hotel. On the way, we passed the city’s magnificent National Theatre (Národní divadlo) and enjoyed beautiful views of both the Vltava and Charles Bridge, from a distance.
We started our second day in Prague with mostly cloudy skies and a quick spot of tea and coffee at an outdoor cafe on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. The area, also known as the Josefov, is located in the heart of the city’s Old Town (Staré Město).
Jews are believed to have settled in Prague as early as the 10th century. Their existence was threatened from nearly the start, as the first pogrom, in 1096, resulted in their forced concentration within the small, walled ghetto of the Josefov. The persecution of the city’s Jews continued for several centuries thereafter; in 1389, one of the worst pogroms saw approximately 1,500 massacred on Easter Sunday.
In 1850 the quarter was renamed “Josefstadt” (Joseph’s City) after Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, who emancipated Jews with the Toleration Edict of 1781. Two years before, Prague’s Jews were permitted to settle outside of the city, resulting in a marked decrease of the Jewish population within the Josefov itself.
Most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to model the city on Paris. What was left were only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall.
The Jewish Ceremonial Hall (pictured below) was built in 1911-1912 in the neo-Romanesque style. Originally used as a ceremonial hall and mortuary, it now forms part of the Jewish Museum of Prague.
The Spanish Synagogue, the newest synagogue in the Josefov, was built on the site of what was once the oldest. The synagogue is built in the Moorish Revival Style and since 1998 has housed an exposition on modern Jewish history in the Czech lands.
The area – particularly the cemetery – is popular with tourists, and we quickly found ourselves crowded out of the quarter’s tiny streets by the arrival of several tour buses. Although we wished very much to visit the cemetery, we opted to avoid the long admission lines and headed instead in the direction of Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí). With its multitude of architectural styles and cultural sights, the square is among the city’s largest and most popular gathering places.
The first building we encountered here was Kinský Palace, a richly decorated Rococo residence built between 1755 and 1765. It now serves as seat of the National Gallery (Národní galerie) in Prague.
The Jan Hus Memorial occupies a large area in the center of the square. The monument – depicting victorious Hussite warriors, Protestants forced into exile 200 years after Hus, and the figure of a young mother, symbolizing national rebirth – was unveiled in 1915 to commemorate the 500th year anniversary of Jan Hus’ martyrdom.
Born in 1369, Hus became an influential religious thinker, philosopher and reformer in Prague. His works criticized the perceived moral decay of the Catholic Church, a position that ultimately condemned him to death at the stake in 1415, sparking the Hussite Wars.
To the people of Bohemia and other regions around Prague, Hus became a symbol of dissidence and strength against oppressive regimes. His opposition to Vatican control of the church gave strength to those who opposed Habsburg control of Czech lands in the 19th century, and Hus became a potent symbol of anti-Habsburg rule. He is said to stand arrogantly in the square in defiance of the cathedral before him.
The Church of Mother of God before Týn (Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem, also Týnský chrám), often referred to as the Church of Our Lady before Týn, is a Gothic church and prominent structure within the Old Town Square. It has been the main church in this part of the city since the 14th century. Its towers are 80 meters (262 feet) high and topped by four dramatic spires.
The Church of Saint Nicholas (Kostel svatého Mikuláše), a Late-Gothic and Baroque church on the northern edge of the square, was built between 1732 and 1737 on the site of a former Gothic church from the 13th century. Since 1920 it has been the main place of worship for the Czechoslovak Hussite Church and its Prague diocese.
The Old Town Hall – towering over the western portion of the square – is one of Prague’s most noteworthy monuments, particularly given its association with the city’s famed astronomical clock (orloj).
Mounted on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall, the clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third oldest timepiece of its kind in the world (and the only one still in operation). The clock mechanism itself has three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the sun and moon; the “walk of the Apostles”, an hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months.
The oldest parts of the orloj, the mechanical clock and astronomical dial, date back to 1410. Later, presumably around 1490, the calendar dial was added and the clock façade decorated with Gothic sculptures. Wooden statues were added in 1629 or 1659, followed by figures of the Apostles after major repair works in 1787-1791. The golden figure of the rooster was incorporated into the design during the next major repairs in 1865-66.
The orloj suffered heavy damage during the Prague Uprising in May 1945, when German tanks fired upon – and set alight – the Old Town Hall and several nearby buildings. The wooden figures and calendar dial were badly burned, but thankfully repaired following extensive restoration works beginning in 1948. Works were again undertaken to preserve the clock in autumn 2005 and in the summer months of 2017.
This magnificent late Gothic door, located in a house next to the orloj, serves as the main entrance to the Old Town Hall.
The area directly adjacent to the square – with its richly-detailed buildings, narrow streets and cobbled plazas – is one of the loveliest in the Old Town.
This unique sculpture, situated in the Old Town, depicts psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hanging by a hand, pondering whether to hold on or let go. According to artist David Cerny, Freud is represented in this way to signify his constant struggle with fear of death. The sculpture’s popularity has inspired exhibitions in London, Berlin, Rotterdam and Chicago. Often mistaken for a suicide attempt, sights of ‘Man Hanging Out’ have initiated multiple calls to police and fire services.
As we’d planned in advance to spend the rest of our weekend at nearby Sedlec Ossuary before making the long drive back to our home in Germany, we ended our journey through Prague here. Despite the poor weather and brevity of our visit, we had a wonderful time exploring this incredible city. We can’t wait to go back!
Thank you for joining us on this adventure in lovely Praha! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Sunrise Hike on Sella Pass – Italy