Losing ourselves in the cobbled streets of Prague’s old town
Welcome to Praha (aka: Prague)! This city has been many things in its 1,200 year history: capital of modern-day Czech Republic, capital of the former Communist state of Czechoslovakia, heart of the ancient kingdom of Bohemia, and seat of the Holy Roman Empire for almost 100 years. Much of the city’s amazing architecture survived the wars of the 20th century, so today the city is also one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s the city’s history that attracted us to Prague – I’ve been wanting to come here ever since I first saw a photo of the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. This immense cathedral looks like something out of a horror movie, with its spires and dark roof. It was one of the first sights we saw when we did our orientation walk around the city with our tour group and it was just as amazing in “real life” as I had remembered the photo being.
We started our morning bright and early in Český Krumlov as Shane wanted to get some early morning photos around town before we caught the bus out. It was lovely walking the streets of the village at about 6:30am, before most people were awake, watching the sun come up and illuminate the buildings with its warm golden glow. The sight of St Martin’s Cathedral reflected in the waters of the Vltava River in the wee hours of the morning is something we will always remember.
After that great to start to the day, we then walked up to the public bus stop with our tour group and caught a local intercity bus to Prague. And let me tell you, this was one fancy coach! We had a hostess serving us drinks, screens in front of every seat so we could watch TV shows or movies (your choice of Czech or English shows), and plush leather seats. Very comfortable and not at all as dodgy as I thought it might be. In general Czechia has been a pleasant surprise – far more modern and “civilised” than we expected. The roads we drove down today to get to prague were pristine – nary a pot hole in sight! The drive itself was fairly uneventful; we passed through forests, farmlands and few small towns, and arrived into Prague safe and sound about 4 hours later.
From the bus station we hopped on the metro and caught the train to Staré Město (translation = the Old Town), where we’re staying. Our accommodation for the 3 days we’re here is great: they have us all staying in separate self-contained apartments. This is great as it means we can cook for ourselves for a few days (eating out all the time does get a little tiresome), and we’re literally just 100m or so from the Staroměstské Náměstí (translation = Old Town Square), with all its amazing Gothic and Baroque architecture.
After giving us some time to settle in and grab some lunch, Eliza, our tour leader, took us on a walking tour around Prague’s Old Town. We just loved walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Staré Město, ogling at all the old buildings and learning about Prague’s long and illustrious history along the way.
Founded in 885AD, Prague has been a major European political, cultural and economic hub for over a 1,000 years. According to legends, Prague was founded by the Czech duchess and prophetess Libuše and her husband, Přemysl, founder of the Přemyslid dynasty. Libuše is said to have had a dream and, based on this vision, ordered a city built at the crossing of the Vltava River. She foretold that the city would become great and powerful in time, which it certainly is. In particular, Prague flourished during the 14th-century reign of Charles IV.
As King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV transformed Prague into an imperial capital and it was at that time the third-largest city in Europe (after Rome and Constantinople). He ordered the building of the New Town across the river from the existing Old Town and had the Charles Bridge built to connect the two parts of his city. During his reign Charles University was also founded, which remains the oldest university in Central Europe. As Prague grew it firmly established itself as an important Central European city. Then, in 1576, a second Czech/Bohemian Holy Roman Emperor was elected – Rudolf II.
Emperor Rudolf II was a Haspburg but moved his court and the capital from Vienna to Prague in 1582. He was a devotee of what were then termed “the occult arts” and of science, and surrounded himself with alchemists, astrologers, magicians and other such interesting characters (including the now famous Nostradamus). His court is said to have been rather unusual, shall we say, and it was during this time that Prague acquired a reputation as a city of mystery and dark magics.
In the 1600s, however, the city was severely damaged by the Thirty Years War and never fully regained its former glory. When the Holy Roman Empire collapsed in 1803, the Kingdom of Bohemia became a vassal state within the Austrian, and later Austro-Hungarian, Empire. It continued to thrive as the region’s capital city but its “hey days” really were in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
After World War I ended Czechoslovakia was created and Prague was chosen as its capital. Interestingly at this time Prague was a true European capital with highly developed industrial sector and a thriving economy. The 40 years of Communist rule, however, severely affected the city’s (and entire country’s) economic and social advancement. In wasn’t until the Velvet revolution of 1989 that Prague again started to once again become an important European city. Certainly for tourists like us having this city open and available to be explored is a gift – we had a great afternoon exploring the Old Town (Staré Město).
We ended out walking tour of Prague at Wenceslas Square, one of the main city squares in Prague and a traditional setting for demonstrations, celebrations, and other public gatherings. The square is named after Wenceslas I, or St Wenceslas as he is now known (the patron saint of Czechia). Wenceslaus I was the duke of Bohemia from 921 until his assassination in 935. His martyrdom quickly gave rise to a reputation for heroic goodness, resulting in his being elevated to Sainthood, posthumously. He is the subject of Good King Wenceslas, a carol written over 900 years later, in 1853, that remains popular to this day.
We didn’t actually cross Charles Bridge into the Nové Město (translation = New Town*), and we didn’t venture up the hill towards Prague Castle. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we’re going to do tomorrow. Dobrou noc until then!
*The term “new” here is relative; the Nové Město dates back to the 14th century. I guess that’s “new” compared to the “old” part of town around Staré Město which dates back to the 9th century. This city is just so OLD!
Categories: Czech Republic