Prague has become a "must-return-to-city" after our recent visit. This journal helps explain why!
by LenR on June 13, 2006
The Old Town of Prague is spread along the right bank of the Vltava River and around the Old Town Square. The pattern of streets and squares has remained largely unaltered since the Middle Ages. It is an area we kept returning to time after time because there was just so much to see and do.The first settlements on the site of the Old Town for which there is any historical evidence date from the 10th century. According to a contemporary report, a large market place with numerous stone houses covered the site of the present Old Town Square. As the years went by, this market place was fortified with a city wall in the early 13th century. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this today as far as I could see. In 1338, the Old Town was given the right to have its own Town Hall.All the busy streets near the border of the New Town lead to the Old Town Square. They approach the square from all sides and make it a natural center. It is the obvious place to start your Prague discovery tour. Despite the touristy trappings and the crowds we found it so interesting that it was tempting to spend all our time here. After wandering around and doing some sightseeing, we stopped at an outdoor café and people watched while enjoying a coffee.The impressive memorial in the center of the square honours the great reformer Jan Hus and was erected in 1915 on the 500th anniversary of his death. The houses on the east side of the square form a fascinating backdrop and are typical of the Old Town. These and the towers of the Tyn Church, give the square its special character.The Square has two other showpieces; The baroque Church of St Nicholas and the Old Town Hall. The Old Town Hall dates from the 14th century. The tower was built in 1364 and the famous astronomical clock dates in its earliest form from 1410. Unfortunately, the clock was covered with scaffolding when I visited and was not operating but in normal times it drags crowds to this spot each hour to watch Death ring the death knell and turn the hour glass upside down, the apostles pass the windows and a cockerel flaps its wings and crows. There are guided tours of the Old Town Hall and its exhibition rooms.
The spires of Our Lady before Tyn church dominate the old town as much as St. Nicholas dominates Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter). The best view of the exterior is from the Town Hall Tower and here you get a good glimpse of its "Walt Disney" style spires and turrets. To gain access from the Old Town Square you walk via the arcade of the Týn school. Because the church does not actually front Old Town Square, I was not prepared for its over powering presence from the square. I first saw the church in the evening when lights shining on it gave it almost an enchanted glow. From when I first saw the towers until the time I left Prague this church kept fascinating me. The Tyn church was built in 1365 as a successor to earlier Romanesque and early-Gothic churches on this site. Construction of the Romanesque/early-Gothic building started when German merchants provided funds for a basilica to serve as their main church. The grand portal was built in 1390. Up until 1621 it was the main church of the Hussites. The Catholic Jesuits then made the church their own by recasting the bell and replacing the Hussites symbolic chalice with a 10-foot figure of Mary nailed between the towers.The tall nave received baroque vaulting after a fire but the church is surprisingly original. Inside, I thought the Gothic pulpit was a highlight as are the paintings on the high altar and on the side altars by Skreta, the founder of Bohemian baroque painting. Don’t miss seeing the beautiful north-eastern entrance.The baroque Church of St. Nicholas on the other side of the square is the work of Kilian Dientzenhofer. It was completed in 1735. Historical sources mention this place of worship as early as 1273, originally as a parish church, where Hussitism and Reformation used to be preached. Later in the 17th century the church fell into Benedictine possession and the building burning down in a fire.I was interested in the unusual proportions of the church and learned that these have come about because there were originally houses between it and the square. The architect obviously had a major job building a fine structure in such a confined space. The houses were finally demolished in 1901. Now that it has been opened up it looks quite grand.The white façade is decorated with sculptures made by Antonín Braun. The chapel of St. Louis-des-invalides in Paris inspires the marvelous interior of the church. Note the delicate stucco decoration and the frescos. In 1781, all decoration in the church was removed. From 1870 to 1914, the Russian orthodox congregation used the church. During the Second World War, Czech army units were stationed in the church. Artists, who otherwise would have had to go to the front, were set to work by a colonel to restore the church. After the war, the church was handed over to the Czech Hussite movement.
The Powder Tower is the gateway to the Royal Route, which leads through the Old Town, over Charles Bridge to the castle. Until 1836, this route was used by the Bohemian Monarchs on the way to their coronation in the St. Vitus Cathedral at the Prague Castle.The 65m tall Gothic Powder Tower was a surprise to me as I had not heard of it before going to Prague. It was built in 1475 during the reign of King Vladislav II at the site of an 11th century gate, one of Prague's 13 original city gates. The master builder Matous Rejsek constructed an ornate tower based on the 14th century Old Town Bridge Tower. Originally the tower was known as the Mountain Tower, but ever since the structure was used as a gunpowder storage space in the 17th century, it has been known as the 'Powder' Tower.The monumental tower was severely damaged during the Prussian occupation in 1757. It was finally rebuilt between 1875 and 1886 by Josef Mocker. In the 1990s the Powder Tower, like many other historical buildings in Prague, was beautifully renovated and I now regard it as a ‘must-see’ on a Prague visit. The Municipal House Concert Hall & Exhibition Centre, which is right next to the Powder Tower, is Prague's most prominent Art Nouveau building and is worth a visit on that score alone. Situated on the site of the former Royal Court Palace, this impressive building is a frequent stop for visitors drawn in by the art nouveau gold trimmings, stained glass, sculpture, and the regular exhibitions and concerts. Historically, the Municipal House had been used as a seminary and a military college, but it was finally demolished and replaced by the present cultural centre, with many exhibition halls and an auditorium designed by A. Balasek. On October 28, 1918, the Municipal House was the scene for the proclamation of the independent state of Czechoslovakia. Boasting the biggest concert hall in town, The Smetana is situated in the heart of the building, and is sometimes used as a ballroom. The interior is decorated with works by leading Czech artists from the early 20th century—most notably the famous Alfons Mucha. There is also a café and the famous French Restaurant in the lobby hall.
Less a square than a boulevard, Wenceslas Square is a very long (750m) rectangle. The street slopes upward to the southeast end where the grand neoclassical Czech National Museum stands. The northwest end is the border between the New Town and the Old Town.The museum end of the street is dominated by a mounted statue of Saint Wenceslas, made by Josef Václav Myslbek in 1887–1924. Unfortunately, the statue was covered with scaffolding when I visited so it had lost much of its appeal. Wenceslas is the good king Vaclav from the Christmas carol, who was murdered by his brother over a thousand years ago, and who over the years has become the national hero. The image of Saint Wenceslas is accompanied by other Czech patron saints carved into the ornate statue base: Saint Ludmila, Saint Agnes of Bohemia, Saint Prokop, and Saint Adalbert of Prague. Beside the statue a plaque stands in memory of those who were killed during the Communist period. It would be very easy to miss this one if you are not aware of it. Included on the plaque is a picture of Jan Palach, who at the age of 20, set fire to himself in January 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of his country. Over 800,000 people came to his funeral.Wenceslas Square is currently considered to be the main street of Prague’s commercial district. Apart from its commercial importance, however, it is also of major historical interest, it was first laid out over 600 years ago and since then has been a regular parade ground for every kind of person, organisation or political party The wide boulevard was originally constructed during the Charles IV period when it was used as a horse market. Today the street is a hustle and bustle of commerce, tourist shops, restaurants, casinos, hotels, and countless shops.It was here that the first mass protest of the Velvet Revolution took place in November 1989, leading to the downfall of the Communist regime. With its beautiful landscaped gardens and plenty of benches to sit on, it's a great place to relax and people watch. There is much to see there but some of it is a little on the seedy side. You go from Casino's and clubs with dancing girls to fancy hotels and restaurants.The Prague Metro's Line A runs underneath Wenceslas Square, and the Metro's two busiest stations, Muzeum and Můstek, have entrances on the street. Tram tracks were removed from the street in 1980.
Oct-Apr: Daily 9am-5pmMay-Sep: Daily 10am-6pmClosed first Tuesday of the monthDominating the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague is the monumental neo-renaissance building, the National Museum. Designed by Josef Schultz as an architectural symbol of the Czech National Revival, this is the largest and oldest Czech museum. The National Museum sits on the site of the former Horse Gate. Construction started in 1818 and was completed in 1891. The Museum houses over 14 million artifacts covering all aspects of science and history. There are permanent exhibitions divided into five categories: Primeval history of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, Mineralogy, Zoology, Paleontology and an Anthropological collection.The permanent exhibition of the Prehistory of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, which I found most interesting, is divided into two sections. One depicts the concurrent development of the varied cultures in the area and the other contains archaeological discoveries and models of fortified dwellings and ritual burials. The collection of the Department of Mineralogy and Petrology has over 200,000 specimens of minerals, rocks, gemstones, meteorites; tektites and dynamic geology, but only around 12,000 are on display.The museum also holds a number of temporary exhibits. These are generally housed in the Hollareum exhibit hall on the ground floor of the main building as well as the two corridors leading to this space from the entrance vestibule. There are often other small exhibits in the Museum of Book Culture also on the ground floor before the entrance into the study room of the national Museum Library.What was a quiet, leafy area a hundred years ago is now the busiest place in Prague. With congested motorways on both sides of the building and two metro lines crossing right underneath it, the National Museum building is suffering considerably.Since the building was erected in 1891, it has not been renovated--only damaged: by everyday wear and tear, but mainly in two attacks. In 1945 a few bombs were dropped on the building. They did not explode but still damaged the building. And then in 1968 its façade was riddled with bullets when Soviet troops probably mistook it for the nearby Czechoslovak Radio building. Amazingly, when a metro rail line was built underneath it, the structural integrity of the building was impaired and the repairs are still only ‘provisional’. The building is also affected by pollution from the busy roads and so are the exhibits, as there is no air-conditioning.An interesting sidelight is that the grand staircase in the central lobby was used in the movie "Mission Impossible" to represent the American Embassy in Prague.
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