Prague

Posted by on Dec 16, 2011 in Czech Republic, Europe, Travel | 0 comments

Prague

As you walk out the heavy, oversized medieval door that leads from our apartment building to Prague’s Lesser Town Square, there are a few things that you can’t help but notice.  The first is Prague castle, perched on the hill overlooking the rest of the city.  During the day, it is an imposing reminder of the history of this beautiful city, and at night it is lit up spectacularly, giving the impression that you have stumbled into a real life fairytale.

 

The next thing you notice is the incredible church which dominates the lesser town square.  The church of St Nicholas is a stunning piece of baroque architecture which took nearly 60 years to complete.  The highlight of St Nicholas is the stunning dome which can be seen from almost anywhere else in the city.

 

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Lesser Town Square

 

The final thing you notice is your ears. Being December in Prague the thermometer won’t get above 3 or 4 degrees all day, and it’s often much colder than that.  Snow is common, and if it isn’t snowing it’s probably raining.  This gives you an acute and constant awareness of your ears – you become incredibly aware of precisely where they are, how disgustingly cold they are, as well as how desperate you are for one of those ridiculous fur hats worn by Russian stereotypes and cold tourists all over this part of Europe.  If only you could stomach the shame…

 

Walking the back streets of Prague

Emma walking the back streets of Prague

 

Our free walking tour began in Old Town Square, roughly a ten minute walk from our apartment door.  The quickest route happens to be the most spectacular, taking us down cobblestoned streets and over the Charles Bridge.  Despite the biting wind and the beginnings of a rainy day, the old-world beauty of Prague is spellbinding.  The bridge is gated by two gothic towers, one at each end, with a parade of saintly statues lining either side for the entire length.

The cobblestones shine slightly from the morning’s rain, and underneath us the waters of the Vltava rush by, as they always have.  If you look back towards the lesser town, you can steal a glimpse of St Nicholas’ Church above the Bridge’s tower, with the magical Prague castle standing proudly on the hill – a view that hasn’t changed for the better part of 300 years.

Old town square is another chapter in the Prague fairytale.  At this time of year there is a Christmas market which dominates the square’s centre, and there has been one since the 10th century.  The centrepiece of the Christmas market is a massive Christmas tree, which has been carefully chosen and transported from a mountain range in the north of the Czech Republic.  On one side, the massive tree is dwarfed by the Church for our Lady Tyn, a church as beautiful as it is intimidating.  The two spires prompt memories of the Disney castle and is a sight to behold lit up at night.

 

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Church for our Lady Tyn

 

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The Christmas Market

 

Opposite the church, on the other side of the massive tree, is Prague town hall.  The town hall is famous for its astronomical clock, which features a series of moving figurines every hour when the clock strikes.  Our guide reminded us that it was constructed in the 16th century, so not to expect too much.  Apparently it’s a huge source of disappointment to many tourists who gather at its base every hour, and was even voted the most disappointing tourist attraction in all of Europe at one point!

 

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The astronomical clock

 

The tour took us through Prague’s Old Town, the New Town and the Jewish Quarter.  We saw a number of buildings which were important to the history of Prague including the last standing concert hall that saw a performance directed by Mozart and a medieval gate that provided the original entrance to the Old Town.  The Jewish quarter provided a rather sombre note, as it symbolised the persecutions of Jews, not just throughout the Nazi occupation, but also the majority of the history of Prague as a city.

The Jewish quarter was built on the worst piece of land in the city, at a bend in the river which was often flooded and always swampy.  The quarter was originally constructed with a wall around it to keep the Jews in.  Nobody was allowed to go outside the walls of their quarter unless they had special permission to do so.  It was also horribly overcrowded, with roughly 10% of the city’s population living in what was only a couple of blocks.  As a result, it became a haven for crime, poverty, disease and misery.

The decree was finally overturned in 1850, allowing the Jewish community to live wherever they pleased throughout the city.  Naturally, most of them did, leaving only the poor, the sick or the elderly.  This left a tremendous amount of space in the old Jewish quarter, into which moved poor people, students and criminals. Once again, this area became a haven for crime and disease, and the decision was made to knock down the entire suburb in 1890, with the exception of a few synagogues.

After destroying the suburb, the rubble from the previous buildings was used to raise the land height, removing the risk of flooding and thus increasing the value of land.  New apartment buildings were quickly built, in a French art Nouveau style which was popular at the time.  Ironically, these buildings now have become the most desired apartments in all of Prague with the average asking price for an apartment in the old Jewish district at roughly 2 million euros.

 

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Perhaps what left the greatest impression on us was not the actual buildings we saw, nor the places we went.  Rather, it was the story behind each stop that began to give us an appreciation for what it must be like to be a citizen of Prague.  Within a fairytale setting with buildings and spectacular vistas that haven’t changed in centuries, live a community that has changed so many times in the past century that they could be forgiven for losing track themselves.

Before WWI the Czech Republic was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In 1918, with the end of WWI the treaty of Versailles led to the formation of the Republic of Czechoslovakia.  Then, with the invasion of Germany in 1939, they became a part of the Nazi empire.  With the fall of the Nazis in 1945, helped slightly by a rebellion by the citizens of Prague, they again celebrated the declaration of a republic.  By 1948 however, Czechoslovakia was a communist ruled state and became a satellite country of the Soviet Union.

Prague suffered under communist rule for 41 years until the fall of the iron curtain in 1989, when the Republic of Czechoslovakia was re-established.  Then, on the 1st of January, 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into two completely independent countries – the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

That’s a total of seven distinct countries in less than 100 years, and sheds some light on their national anthem, which when translated into English means “Where is My Home?”  It also provides an incredible contrast against the solidarity and longevity of the buildings of Prague.

On the surface, a visitor could easily draw the conclusion that Prague hasn’t changed much in the last few centuries.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

The rooftops of Prague

The rooftops of Prague

 

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

 

St Vitus' Cathedral

St Vitus’ Cathedral

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