** CZECH REPUBLIC 2009 - PRAGUE **
2009 - the capital city of Prague:|
Our base for our three day stay in Prague was the appropriately named Sunny
Camp, a family-run small and secluded green oasis set in a former orchard amid a
residential area of apartments in the SW suburb of Stodůlky. Their web site describes precisely the
helpful and friendly hospitality we received: 'we take it for granted
that we offer a personal and courteous service'. To see more, visit:
What better day for our first visit to Prague than 28 September, the Czech national holiday of St Václav's (Wenceslas') Day. The 15 minute walk to the Luka Metro station for the 5 kms journey into the city centre gave us our first glimpse of Prague's suburbs with their swathes of paneláky, prefabricated tower block estates (Photo 1 - Prague suburb of Stodůlky with its paneláky). The Prague Metro is clean, modern and efficient, with three colour-coded lines serving the outer suburbs and thee interchange stations in the centre. (Photo 2 - Luka station on the Prague Metro system) Illuminated displays on the trains announce the next station; tickets valid for 75 minutes on any number of lines or stations cost 26Kč (around 85p), and you can buy these at Sunny Camp reception. For details, visit this web site: Prague Metro system
We emerged from the Metro at Náměstí Jana Palacha, renamed after the young student martyr of the ruthlessly crushed 1968 Prague Spring. Formerly called Red Army Square, this was the first of the many city streets and squares to be renamed after the 1989 Velvet Revolution and fall of Communism. One side of the square was lined by Prague University's Philosophy Faculty where Jan Palach had studied. But what irresistibly commanded our attention was the view across the River Vltava looking up to Prague's hilltop Castle and Cathedral (Photo 3 - Prague Castle and Cathedral from River Vltava). This iconic vista left little time for other than a brief glance at the grand 19th century concert hall of the Rudolfinum, now home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Photo 4 - The Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic).
Along the embankment, we reached what is probably Prague's most famous landmark, the Charles Bridge, lined with its sequence of Baroque statues. Despite the crush of tourists and intrusive restoration work scaffolding, we made the most of the wonderful photographic potential of views looking along past the bridge statues across to Castle hill (Photo 5 - Prague Castle and Cathedral from the Charles Bridge). Continuing along Karlova with all the garish noise blaring out from tacky souvenir shops, we passed the huge bulk of the Klementinum, the former College of the Jesuit storm troopers whose Counter Reformation stranglehold on Bohemian cultural life was only broken when these Catholic bigots were booted out of the Habsburg Empire in 1773; the building was then handed over to the University and now houses the National Library. The winding street led through to Staroměstské náměstí, Town Hall Square, the traditional heart of the old city. The square is dominated by the Radnice (town hall), a hotchpotch of Gothic buildings topped by a graceful tower with its ornate astronomical clock; huge throngs of tourists cluster around this on the hour to witness the clock's chimes and parades of mechanical figures. Overtopping the far side of the square are the twin Gothic towers of the Hussite Týn Church bristling with baubles, spires and pinnacles (Photo 6 - Prague's Old Town Hall Square and Týn Church). Perennial crowds of tourists mingled with locals celebrating St Václav's Day gathered around the Square's most recent feature, the colossal art nouveau Jan Hus Monument erected in 1915, the 500th anniversary of Czech religious reformer's execution by the Catholics; the majestic figure of Hus towers above this powerful symbol of Czech nationalism. The largest secular building in the Square is the Rococo Palác Kinských. Although now an art gallery, the building is notorious for the fateful speech from its balcony by the Czech Communist leader Klement Gottwald in February 1948; flanked by his Communist henchmen, Gottwald announced the bloodless coup which brought the Communists to power. Little could the 1000s then gathered below in the square appreciate the 40 years of oppression, terror and economic mismanagement which this foreshadowed (Photo 7 - Jan Hus Monument and Palác Kinských in Prague's Staroměstské náměstí). Today's holiday mood in the Square was further enlivened by a troupe of musician and dancers from the Slovácko region in traditional costume, performing the lively folk music and dances of Southern Moravia where we had been four weeks earlier (Photo 8 - Moravian traditional musicians and dancers performing in Staroměstské náměstí).
Making a way through the crowded streets, we reached the northern end of Prague's other famous landmark, Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square); actually, it's not a square at all but an elongated boulevard lined with elegant art nouveau buildings. There is no doubting however that Wenceslas Square is the pivot around which modern Prague revolves. It was the natural focus of the 1989 Velvet Revolution when night after night during November, more than 250,000 people crammed the square demanding political change until the Communist old guard finally threw in the towel. Even then as mass popular demonstrations forced an end to Communist rule, the vile bilé přílby (white helmets) and červené barety (red berets) of the hated riot police were out in force, wielding batons and bludgeoning the peaceful demonstrators with relentless brutality. Twenty years earlier in 1968, the Square had been the scene of the most tragically violent confrontations between protesting Czechs and the invading Soviet backed Warsaw Pact tanks which crushed the Prague Spring and bolstered up the Communist hold on power. The top end of the square is dominated by the brooding hulk of the National Museum, forming a backdrop to the Wenceslas Monument, a grandiose equestrian statue of the Czech patron Saint Václav (Photo 9 - Wenceslas Square with the Wenceslas Monument). The monument has provided a focus for political protest all during the 20th century, culminating with the tragedy of the Prague Spring crushed by Soviet military might in 1968 and the emergence from the Communist dark age in 1989. This is still the city's favourite soapbox venue, and as we walked along the length of the square, a small group of youngsters was tamely protesting against Catholic ban on contraception, waving placards with explicit messages for the pope who had visited Prague at the weekend. If this was the reason for the heavy police presence and police cars constantly circulating around the square, no wonder Czechs recalling police brutality in 1968 and 1989 regard their police with utter loathing and contempt.
Close to the Wenceslas Monument, a small memorial flower bed marks the spot where in 1969, in a gesture of human defiance towards the unbridled brute force of Communism, the young student Jan Palach set fire to himself in protest against the Soviet occupation of his country (Photo 10 - Memorial to Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square). In stark contrast to the political monuments, the northern end of the square is lined with brash glass-structured shops of the 1920s Functionalist period, including Bat'a's flag ship shoe shop, a full 6 storeys of classy footwear (Photo 11 - Bat'a's shoe shop in Wenceslas Square). Just around the corner in Na Příkopé, we found the newly established Museum of Communism with horrific displays tracing the 1921 origins of the Czech Communist Party (KSČ) through the early ideals following its 1948 assumption of power to the ghastly nightmarish realities of life under this oppressive regime, with indoctrination of the young, enforced nationalisation and collectivism, economic mismanagement and forced labour. The displays culminated with the 1989 collapse of Communism and re-emergence of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, East Germany and the Baltic States symbolised by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, following Gorbachev's Perestroika. This was a sobering experience, and we felt we had earned an early evening beer at the U Provaznice pub, just behind Můstek station from where we caught the Metro back out to our camp in the paneláky-land suburbs.
Our second day in Prague was to be spent up on the Castle Hill. At Malostranská Metro station, we emerged into Mala Strana district amid the trams and traffic at the foot of Castle Hill. Just around the corner, we reached the rather insignificant gate leading into the gardens of the Valdštejnský palác, now the Upper House of the bicameral Czech Parliament, the Senát. The building is only open to the public at weekends and the new parliamentary session did not begin until October, so we were unable to visit, but the views from the Italianate gardens up to the Cathedral are spectacular (Photo 12 - Valdštejnský palác, Upper House of the Czech Parliament). Viewed from below, Prague Castle presents an austere palatial façade topped by the great Gothic mass of St Vitus' Cathedral. The hill-top site overlooking the city has been occupied as a castle since first fortified by the 9th century Přemyslid Princes, and since then has formed the seat of ruling power, an object of both admiration and contempt reflecting the alternating fortunes in the country's history: the golden age of Charles IV, the dark ages of later Habsburg absolutism, the optimism of Masaryk's First Republic, the WW2 German occupation, the 40 years of Stalinist terror and Communist oppression, and finally the post-1989 democratic presidential republic, all emanating from the symbol of power, the Hrad (Castle).
From the top of the steep castle steps, the city was spread out below. Plainly uniformed guards stood, indifferent to tourist cameras, in front of what is now the Presidential Palace, occupied from 1989~2003 by President Václav Havel and since then by Václav Klaus now in his second presidential term. Passing through the arched gateways, we reached the Starý královský pálac (Old Royal Palace), seat of princes and kings of Bohemia from the 11~16th centuries until the Habsburg take-over. You enter through the huge expanse of the Vladislav Hall, with its beautifully Gothic rib-vaulted ceiling, where early Bohemian kings were elected and every Czech president since 1918 has been sworn into office. In another chamber where the Diet of Bohemian Estates once met, a glass case displayed replicas of the Bohemian crown jewels with the crown of St Wenceslas (Photo 13 - Replica of Bohemian state crown of Saint Wenceslas).
The third courtyard of the Hrad complex is filled by the soaring Gothic bulk of St Vitus' Cathedral. Its blackened exterior stonework showed the cathedral's chequered history: work began in 1344 under Charles IV who commissioned a French architect to design a French-style Gothic dom. Little progress was made for the next 450 years, with the half-built cathedral becoming a symbol of Czech frustrated aspirations to nationhood particularly during the 19th century national revival. The cathedral awaited the post-1918 First Republic for completion and was opened in 1929, exactly 1000 years after the death of Bohemia's patron saint Wenceslas (Photo 14 - Prague's Gothic Cathedral of St Vitus). Despite the tourist crowds, we entered the cathedral to be greeted by the vast Gothic scale of the country's largest church. The lofty nave was lit by clear glass windows which although 20th century, were in keeping with the original 14th century design. The south transept was filled with the grandly decorated Chapel of Saint Václav, built by Charles IV in an attempt to promote the Wenceslas cult to cement his own dynasty's tenuous claim to the Bohemian throne. Although dedicated to St Vitus, the cathedral is as much the bailiwick of St Václav: the wall paintings on the chapel walls recount his murder by his pagan brother Boleslav who later repented and buried Václav here (Photo 15 - Chapel of Saint Wenceslas in Prague Cathedral). The gardens on the northern side of Castle Hill brought us back down to the heavy late afternoon traffic around Malostranská Metro station where we had started this morning.
Our third day in Prague began amid the turmoil of traffic and trams around the city's largest square, Karlovo náměstí, surrounded by the modern and art nouveau buildings of Nové Město (New Town) (Photo 16 - Trams amid the modern buildings of Prague's Nové Město). As usual we had caught the Metro into the city from Luka, passing through stations whose names were now becoming familiar: Lužiny, Hůrka, Radlická, Národní Třída. On the journey, we got into conversation with an elderly gent who was eager to practice his English; we compared the difficulties of our respective languages, saying how impossible we found it to pronounce the Czech ř sound (something like a rolling rrr... combined with the s of 'pleasure'). His attempt to enlighten us with the tongue-twister třítisícetřista stříbrných štříkaček left us literally tongue-twisted and no nearer to succeeding! This was another of those delightful encounters, and we at least were able to wish him na shledanou. In the back streets we found the Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius, where the final tragic scene of the 1942 assassination of Heydrich occurred. Members of the Czech resistance were parachuted in and Heydrich was gunned down in a brave but botched attack; the assassins were hidden in safe houses and later took refuge in the church's crypt but were betrayed by one of their own number. A large force of SS besieged the church, and rather than be captured, the assassins shot themselves. The day after Heydrich's funeral in Berlin, the reprisal atrocities began: the villages of Ležáky and Lidice were destroyed; in all some 5,000 members of the Resistance and innocent civilians were murdered including the Orthodox Bishop and church elders for sheltering the assassins. The church crypt has been preserved as a shrine with the bullet pock marks on the walls, and outside a plaque on the church wall recalls the tragic events of June 1942.
Our final afternoon was spent exploring Prague's former Jewish ghetto of the Josefov district. As with other European cities, the Jews of Prague were from medieval times until the 18th century confined into appallingly over-crowded and insanitary living conditions of the ghetto. Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, son and successor to Maria-Theresa, continued her works of enlightenment with the 1781 Edict of Tolerance which removed the restrictions and discriminations against Jews. The former ghetto was named Josefov in his honour. In 1893 however at the height of Habsburg economic power, it was decided that Prague should have a bourgeoisie makeover to rival Paris; the key to this transformation was the 'sanitisation' of the former ghetto. The horrendous maze of insanitary alleyways was demolished; out went the Jewish poor and the prostitutes to make room for the new 'des res' blocks of richly decorated art nouveau luxury mansions. This building extravaganza marked the end of Prague's Jewish community which had existed for a millennium. What the Habsburgs started, the Germans finished in WW2. Prague's Jews were confined to the ghetto of Terezin in Northern Bohemia prior to onward transportation to an appointment with death, German style, in Auschwitz. But unlike other European cities where former Jewish quarters were demolished as their residents were liquidated by the 'Final Solution', by a grotesquely ironical twist of fate, Hitler preserved the Prague ghetto for his planned Exotic Museum of an Extinct Race. Jewish artefacts from all over Central Europe were gathered here to form one of the richest collections of Judaism in Europe. The Jewish Museum was handed back to the surviving Jewish authorities after WW2, but suffered neglect and anti-Semitic repression under the Communists. After 1989, the Museum was again able to re-assert itself and now displays many of the books and artefacts in the five surviving former synagogues.
The 1590 Maisel Synagogue presents the history of Jewish settlement in Bohemia and Moravia from the 10th century diaspora to the 18th century, describing the social and legal discrimination restricting Jewish life and work. The 1869 Spanish Synagogue is the most ornately decorated with all the interior surfaces and huge dome covered with gilded Moorish designs (Photo 17 - Spanish Synagogue in Prague's former Jewish ghetto of Josefov). The women's gallery displays documents recording the modern history of Prague's Jews, particularly their fate at the hands of occupying Germans in WW2 and the anti-Semitic repression during the Communist period. The Pinkasova Synagogue was built in 1530, but since 1958 has been devoted to a chilling memorial to the 80,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust. Every square inch of wall space is covered with the engraved names of victims, dates of birth and dates of transportation or murder. This is the world's longest epitaph, but represents a tiny fraction of those who died across the whole of Europe, systematically annihilated by the archetypally efficient German killing machine (Photo 18 - Names of a few of the 80,000 Czech Holocaust victims at the Pinkasova Synagogue Memorial). This was all distressing in itself, but even more grievous was the display of children's drawings and paintings from the 10,000 children deported via Terezin for murder at Auschwitz; no more than 242 survived. This was an utterly moving testimony to the fate that befell these children at barbaric German hands.
Behind the synagogue, a path led into the Starý židovský hřbitov (Old Jewish Cemetery), used from the 15th~18th centuries and estimated to contain 100,000 burials. Ground available for Jewish burials was so limited by discriminatory restrictions that over the centuries, burials were heaped on top of one another as many as twelve layers deep. We walked in silent awe around the tombstones inscribed in Yiddish script, a poignant reflection of the ghetto's confined inhuman conditions, its inhabitants subject to grotesque overcrowding even after death (Photo 19 - Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague's former ghetto). Josefov's only remaining active synagogue serving Prague's small surviving Jewish community stands bizarrely neighbouring onto Pařížká, the city's main shopping street lined with the ultimate in turn of the 20th century art nouveau buildings and now housing all the trendy designer clothes shops, yuppily sordid! We hot-footed it back to the Old Town Hall Square for a final look around this glorious heart of the city, before retracing our steps back to Můstek station for our last commuting Metro ride. Our first thought on emerging in darkness from Luka station in the depths of paneláky-land was that in UK you would hesitate at any time of day to walk through such an area; life seemed so much safer in Česka compared with what we now face at home.
Our three days in Prague had been a wonderfully fulfilling experience: the modern city has retained its traditional spectacular sights, its public transport services are efficient and reliable, with sensible precautions its streets are safe to walk even after dark, and we had been able to see not just the regular tourist locations but to probe a little behind the glamorous façade. The sight that sticks in our mind and sums up for us our time in Prague was the view from the Castle terrace over the roof-tops with the Charles Bridge in the centre (Photo 20 - Rooftops of Prague and the Charles Bridge). Tomorrow we should resume our progression into Northern Bohemia, the area so deformed in the past by unrestrained industrialisation and open-cast mining and so polluted by the unfiltered effluent from lignite-burning power stations. This was not an area on the regular tourist trail, but we had to see for ourselves how well modern Czech governments have coped with their regrettable inheritance from the Communist period. Join us again in two weeks for our final episode from the Czech Republic.