After more than two weeks of European explorations in Austria and Mallorca, another highlight of my 2009 European odyssey was waiting for me: a three-day trip to Prague, one of the destinations I have been wanting to visit for a long time! As I had always heard, Prague was supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and I definitely wanted to see that for myself.
So early this Monday morning, my brother and my sister-in-law packed me in the car and went for the hour and a half drive to Vienna from where I was scheduled to take my train ride to Prague. I had booked the train ticket a couple of months ago with the Austrian Federal Railways, and at 29 Euros for a ticket from Vienna to Prague I had really lucked out with a great price.
We stopped briefly at the restaurant at Vienna’s Südbahnhof (Southern Railway Terminal) and had some typical Austrian soups as a late breakfast: Fritattensuppe (pancake strip soup) is always one of my favourites, and it was going to tide me over for the next few hours.
Shortly before 10 am I got on the train and said goodbye to my brother and my sister-in-law. Departure was delayed a little bit because apparently there had been a train accident where a person had got hurt, but about half an hour later we started rolling through the suburbs of Vienna. Through the flat landscapes of lower Austria we quickly entered into Czech territory and after some time we passed by the capital of Moravia and the Czech Republic’s second largest city, Brno. A young Czech woman entered my compartment and we started to have a great conversation about life in Central Europe.
Helena told me that she is studying in Berlin and loves that city’s multicultural cosmopolitan flair. We also touched on Czech food, German food, and right-wing extremism that has become a problem in some parts of Europe. But Helena has been living in Berlin for the past five years and loves it. It was great to connect with her and get a bit of an insider’s perspective.
The train finally arrived in the Prague Holesovice train station and I started to make my way to my Hotel. I was staying in the Hotel Jalta, an upscale hotel on Wenceslas Square, right in the heart of Prague’s New Town area. Although I do not speak a word of Czech, I had no problems whatsoever navigating my way through the subway system of Prague. As a matter of fact, people in the Metro were all very friendly and helpful.
Four subway stops later I exited at the “Muzeum” Metro station and enjoyed this daytime look at Wenceslas Square, one of Prague’s most important public spaces. I arrived at the Hotel Jalta, a four-star hotel propertyh, and as I was checking in I was greeted with a glass of sparkling wine. I went up to my room which was very spacious and featured all kinds of amenities. My favourite feature of the room was the balcony from where I had an excellent view of the Square and Prague’s National Museum with its elevated position at the eastern end of the Square.
After freshening up a bit, I met my tour guide Jitka Simkova who had brought a young colleague by the name of Karel. Jitka is the founder and owner of Prague Walks, a company that provides guided walking tours of Prague. Karel explained that Wenceslas Square originally was a horse market and today is the centre of New Town, one of Prague’s four main central city districts.
The architecture dates mostly from the early 20th century, and Jitka explained that one of the architectural gems of this area is the famous Hotel Europa whose Art Nouveau interior has been almost completely preserved, simply because of dispute among the owners that prevented them from renovating the hotel.
Two old streetcars are located in the central area of the square and are used as snack vending booths. Karel and Jitka pointed out the Lucerna, a popular historic concert hall that has launched the career of many Czech bands. The Koruna building on the Old Town side of Wenceslas Square is another stunning historic building and has been turned into a shopping centre and office building.
Jitka also explained that Wenceslas Square played a major role in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution when Czechoslovakia transitioned from Communist rule to a democratic nation. She personally remembers the events very clearly because she had just moved to Prague shortly before and witnessed many of these events first-hand.
On November 17, 1989, thousands of students participated in a peaceful demonstration that came in from National Avenue and moved onto Wenceslas Square. The demonstration was suppressed by police. As a result demonstrations continued for the next few days, even a general strike was held on November 27, 1989. Finally on November 28, the Communist Party announced that it would give up power and allow a multi-party state. Communism had fallen, and Wenceslas Square had played a major role in these historic developments as a location of many of these history-making demonstrations.
Crossing the Na Prikope Street we now entered Prague’s Old Town district. Karel pointed out the open air Havaski Market that is open daily and sells vegetables, flowers and souvenirs. This market dates back to 1230 when the first small market was opened in this location. The original market was an egg market. Walking on cobblestone streets that got ever narrower, I started to get a feel for the historic core of Prague.
One of the things that really fascinate me about Prague are the many interconnected passageways, many of them with picturesque inner courtyards, that connect historic buildings in the inner city, giving the place a very romantic feel. Through a narrow street we finally reached the Little Square, a triangular shaped square that features a historic well in the centre. Karel stopped to explain some examples of historic house signs that can be found in the centre of Prague.
House signs started to come into being in the early 15th century since there had been no numbering systems on houses. Frequently used symbols include lions and various coats of arms of established families. Karel pointed out places like the House of the Golden Lily, House of the Golden Crown, the House of the Little Blue Horse etc. All the images on the house signs correspond exactly to the names of the houses.
From Little Square we were just steps away from Old Town Square, the heart of Prague’s Old Town and probably the city’s most visited area. I was simply blown away by the gorgeous Gothic-era architecture that frames this medieval square. Starting first and foremost with the Church of Our Lady before Tyn on the east side, I was marveling at the unusual towers of this church that was started way back in 1365. Karel explained that the towers are of unequal size, that’s why they are often referred to as Adam and Eve.
The square itself was originally used as a fish market, starting in the 9th century AD. From the 12th century onwards, Czech, Jewish and German merchants came together here to sell their goods. Due to its proximity to the Vltava River, the square often got flooded, and in the Middle Ages it was decided to raise the level of the square by filling it in up to a height of 4 metres. This means that many of the ground floors of these buildings now became cellars. Many of the Romanesque area cellars have today been converted into restaurants and bars, and the original rounded vaults can still be seen today.
The east side of Old Town Square features a beautiful collection of historic buildings, including the Gothic-era House of the Stone Bell, which used to be the seat of the Czech royals. Beside it is the Kinsky Palace, one of the most outstanding examples of Rococo architecture. Originally built as a palace for an aristocratic family, this palace was turned into a grammar school in the early 20th century and today is used by the National Gallery for temporary exhibitions.
The centre of Old Town Square is home to a statue of Jan Hus, a 15th century religious reformer who criticized the Catholic Church for many of its excesses. Denounced as a heretic, he was burned at the stake in 1415. He was a key contributor to the Protestant movement in Europe and his teachings had a significant influence on Martin Luther who initiated the Protestant Reformation about a century later.
On a location that has held a church since the 12th century, the baroque Church of St. Nicholas dominates the northern side of the square. The western side of Old Town Square is home to one of Prague’s most popular sights: Old Town Hall, a striking Gothic building that was built in 1338. Prague’s Old Town Hall holds one of the city’s most celebrated attractions: the Astronomical Clock, which delights the crowds with its hourly ritual when 12 carved apostles make an appearance, followed by the crowing of a rooster and the chiming of the bell on the hour. Big crowds of people gather here every hour, and we were lucky that we caught the 6 o’clock performance.
The north side of the Old Town Hall was destroyed by fire on May 7 and 8, 1945 when the Nazi army tried to suppress the Prague Uprising at the very end of World War II. Unfortunately the Prague archives were housed in this building, and with the fire all the city’s records were destroyed as well. This is the location of a small park on the west side of the square today. A plaque with the inscription “Dukla” on the east façade of the Old Town Hall reminds us of an important WWII battle that helped to liberate Czechoslovakia from the Nazi occupiers.
In front of Old Town Hall are 27 white crosses embedded in the pavement, a memory to 27 Protestant leaders that were executed here in 1621. Obviously Old Town Square has seen many significant events over the last many centuries. From here Jitka and Karel took me to a gorgeous historic hotel, the Hotel By the Prince.
We walked all the way up to the roof terrace from where a magnificent view over Old Town Square and beyond opened up. Jitka added that this hotel probably provides the best view of Old Prague anywhere. We could even see the far away Siskov Hills and Prague’s unpopular TV tower. Looking westwards we had a great view of Prague Castle, Strahov Monastery and Petrin Hill with its miniature Eiffel Tower. Jitka added that the Hotel By the Prince is very popular with British tourists as a wedding location.
We then walked through the Clementinum, an expansive Baroque-era university complex, and Marianske Square which features Prague’s modern Town Hall, built in 1912. This building is adorned by a statue of Rabbi Loew, an important Talmudic Scholar of the late 16h century who, according to legend, created a human being from clay, the golem.
Our walk then took us to the Knights of the Cross Square which is the entrance to the historic Charles Bridge, one of Prague’s most popular sights. The Charles Bridge was started in 1357 under King Charles IV and was finished in the early 1400s. This stone bridge was built to replace an earlier bridge from the 1100s, the Judita or Judith Bridge. This more than 500 metre long bridge forms the connection between Old Town and Prague Castle and is an important part of the Coronation Route that Czech kings took when they ascended the throne.
The Knights of the Cross Square also features two baroque churches: the Church of St. Francis, on the north side, and the Church of the Holy Saviour on the east side which is also part of the Clementinum complex. A large, dark brown Gothic tower marks the eastern entrance to the Charles Bridge and we walked about half-way onto the bridge from where we had a phenomenal panorama of the riverfront and Prague Castle. 30 stone statues of religious personalities adorn the bridge. Prague is also known as the “City of 100 Spires”, and from the bridge we were able to see a whole assortment of church towers on both sides of the river.
After our visit on the Charles Bridge we turned around, and Jitka announced our plans for the evening: a visit to a real Czech beer hall!