The spot now occupied by the famous Charles Bridge, is a low point in the Vltava River where long ago, people could cross the river with ease. It’s where Prague got its start, and it’s never looked back. Castles were built on the hills on either side of the settlement in order to defend it, and a busy trading port was established. However, when King Karel (Charles) IV was chosen to be the Holy Roman Emperor in the 14th century, his hometown really flourished.
As the capital of the empire, Prague saw a building boom changed the skyline forever and made the city one of the biggest in all Europe. The next century saw the rise of early Protestantism and the resulting turmoil that brought war to much of the continent and beyond. In 1415 AD, Jan Hus was burned at the stake for preaching against the Catholic Church and the residents rose up in protest.
Unrest was the order of the day for much of the next 100 years. The Catholic Hapsburgs took control in 1526 AD and made Prague their official seat. You would have thought that peace would reign as well, but it was not to be, the Protestants were not easily silenced. Eventually, the Hapsburgs returned to Vienna and Prague became a provincial backwater, dominated from afar by the German-speaking Hapsburg Empire.
During the 19th century, the Czechs struggled to maintain their language and their distinctive culture. Politics proved to be an area controlled by the Empire, so they focused on journalism, drama, literature and architecture. At the end of WWI, with the support of the Allies, Czechoslovakia was formed and gained its independence on the 28th of October 1918. The celebrations had hardly slowed down when the Nazis occupied all of Bohemia on March 15, 1939.
Prague itself suffered little damage during the resulting WWII, but the Jewish residents were decimated. The buildings of the Old Jewish Quarter were left untouched; the Nazis wanted to preserve them as a museum ‘to an extinct race of people’. So too were the Prague intellectual class and those involved in the resistance, but there were enough left to rise up against the Nazis. They managed to drive them out one day before the Soviets marched in, March 8, 1945.
In 1968, the local Communist Party announced reforms intended to reduce censorship and give more democratic freedom. The Czech people responded with energy and enthusiasm to such a degree that the period was nicknamed the ‘Prague Spring’. The Soviet Union was alarmed at what was happening and responded with tanks and bullets. The death toll was put at fifty-eight Prague residents.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution commenced in Prague on November 17, 1989. Two weeks later the communist government was no more. However, it was the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakia as well, for on January 1, 1993 the elected leaders of the Czech and Slovak peoples agreed to dissolve the nation and Prague became the capital of the new Czech Republic.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We had an uneventful train trip from Dresden to Prague, but we were a little disappointed by the grey cloudy skies. It was a little depressing. Buildings look so much better when the sun is shining and the skies are blue. However, after figuring out the basics of the Prague transit system (including the fact that tickets are required for oversized suitcases), we made our way to the metro stop near our hotel and then were blown away by the longest escalator ride we have ever taken.
We had no idea we were so very far underground, and as we looked up the moving staircase we found it almost impossible to see the top. If that was a little disconcerting, looking down from near the top was even more harrowing. It’s a thrill ride for the price of a metro ticket. Priceless!
By this time, we had already been in Europe for six weeks and had adjusted quite easily to the Euro, especially as this wasn’t our first time using the currency. We found little difficulty managing the languages in Amsterdam, Belgium and Germany, but were taken a little aback with the Czech language and the signs. There seemed to be little or no relationship to any languages we had come across before; we began to feel the mild effects of culture shock. Add that to the fact that we were only in Prague for three nights and we had to figure out how much local currency to withdraw from the ATM; the Euro is not used in the Czech Republic.
These are not serious issues, but we did find that we were a little discombobulated by them coming at us so suddenly. We were a bit tired from our train trip and it was dark by the time we settled into our room, so we had a picnic dinner and went to bed early, hoping for better weather the following day.
Two full days in Prague is not nearly enough to see this city chock full of historic buildings, great museums and fabulous concert halls. We knew that but came with the intention of getting a feel for the city, knowing that we could easily return in the spring if we liked what we saw and wanted more. For that reason, we decided to see and admire the exteriors of the buildings and not get overwhelmed by trying to see any of the indoor attractions and museums in such a short time.
We walked for hours and hours; making good use of our three-day transport passes to ride the trams to the tops of the surrounding hills and walking down as we roamed from one place to. After a full day of sightseeing, we crossed the Charles Bridge, a landmark that has been on our must-see list for a very long time. To our dismay, we found that vendors have been allowed to set up shop on the bridge.
In our opinion, this is a major distraction from the beauty of the bridge itself and the river below. Not only does it slow down pedestrians and cause congestion, I had to work hard to take some photos without the stalls of the vendors in the pictures. We felt the same way about the Great Wall of China; surely there should be some places in this world where the commercial interests aren’t paramount.
We made our way to a restaurant for dinner on our second night in Prague, after finding that one listed in the Lonely Planet was very near our hotel. Pasticka had wonderful beer, great food, reasonable prices, and would have had a terrific atmosphere, but everyone was SMOKING! We could not believe that there were any countries left in Europe where indoor smoking had not been banned. We ate quickly and hurried out into the fresh air without being able to linger over our delicious meal.
On our second full day in Prague, we were surprised to see that all the shops were closed and that there were relatively few people on the streets. Even the traffic was lighter than expected. It took us some time before we finally asked someone what was up, only to learn that it was Independence Day, October 28th, a national holiday. That would explain how quiet the city was, and seeing that we’re not shoppers anyway, we appreciated the peace and quiet. It would have been a different matter had the tourist sights been closed as well.
It actually ended up working to our advantage, because we were able to walk around the grounds of the Vysehrad, the High Castle, long held to be the birthplace of Prague itself. On our way to the castle, we were consulting our city map to try and locate some of the Cubist Houses in the vicinity, when a young man on the tram asked us if he could be of any help. He advised us to travel one tram stop further and approach the castle from the rear, where we could see some fine examples of this architectural style first formulated in Prague.
It turned out to be terrific advice, because we walked up a long winding road and entered the Vysehrad through a tall arched gate and emerged into a lovely forest of trees and shrubs at their peak of autumn colours. We strolled around the grounds, walked to the various viewpoints above the Vltava River and admired the city spread out below the massive walls.
From the High Castle, we walked along the embankment in order to properly admire all the incredible buildings along the riverfront. We even managed to snap a photo of a building, locally referred to as ‘The Dancing Building’, designed by Czech architect Vlado Milunc in collaboration with Frank Gehry. Gehry was known to refer to the building at ‘Fred and Ginger’. ‘Ginger’s’ svelte waist was the result of neighbours complaining about losing their view of the river.
To give ourselves a break from walking, we hopped on the tram and rode it over a bridge and up the steep hill, around and behind the Prague Castle. It was much easier to spend the next couple of hours wandering through the grounds, admiring the differing styles of palaces and then the castle itself. We had read that the stairs leading up from the river are often choked with tourists, but this late in the season and this late on a holiday; we were almost alone as we walked down, down and down.
We ended our short stay in Prague with a quiet stroll along the river, taking in some controversial modern art by Czech sculptor David Cerny and then stopping to admire the colourful graffiti on the John Lennon Wall. It seems that after Lennon was murdered, he became a pacifist hero to many young Czech citizens.
We were surprised at how much we were able to see in just two days in Prague, but it feels like we only scratched the surface. We’ll be only too happy to return to explore more of the city’s delights, attend some classical music or opera performances and see Prague in the spring. However, we’re crossing our fingers that a smoking ban will be in place sooner rather than later, because it’s hard to appreciate the great Czech food and world famous beer through the choking haze indoors.