PRAGUE – The Magical City, The Golden City, The City of a Hundred Towers, the Paris of the East
These are just some of the most common definitions adopted by tourist publications when talking about Prague, a city of around 1,300,000 inhabitants and, since 1st January 1993, the capital of lite Czech Republic, as well as the capital of central Bohemia.
The city offers a wealth of architectural, artistic, and cultural treasures, and possesses an individual charm: buildings everywhere are of pleasing architectural and proportional harmony, with close attention to ornamental detail. It lies proudly along the banks of the River Vltava, amid the gentle surroundings of the hills which characterize this part of Bohemia. Prague has been a melting pot of ethnic groups since ancient times, existing by combining Czech elements with Jewish and German ones, and allowing the development of religious movements, trade and commerce, and of industry, thanks to its favorable geographic position on the communication between Central and Eastern Europe, and between the North and South of the vast German and Slavonic area. A jealous keeper of its mysteries, the city is reluctant to reveal itself to the curiosity of those wanting to unearth the secrets of the alchemists of the past.
The birthplace or one-time residence of many famous people, such as the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the Dientzenhofers, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonin Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana, Jaroslav Hasek, Franz Kafka, Jan Hus, St John Nepomuk, and many other illustrious figures, the city bears witness to cultures and civilizations from all over the world. Over the centuries it has survived wars and disasters.
Only in 1968, the tanks of the Warsaw Pact were able to defeat its rebellious nature: the people’s thirst for freedom was satisfied 23 years after Jan Palach had been engulfed by flames, making him the martyr of a shattered “Spring”.
The first settlements on the site of the modern city date back to Neolithic time and fortified settlements were first recorded in the 9th century. Primitive centers joined together around the fortresses of Hradcany and Vysehrad between the 9th and 10th centuries, and from that time onwards the Premyslids made this the most important castle in Bohemia. As a result, it became the focal point for the activities of craftsmen and merchants, attracting mainly Jews and Germans. Having become a Bishop’s See in 973. Prague obtained city status between 1232 and 1235.
Charles IV then made it the capital of the Empire, founding the University here in 1348 and preparing the ground for large-scale urban development. In 1419 the followers of Zelivsky freed the Hussites held prisoner in the New Town Hall and threw out the Catholic counselors.
This marked the beginning of a long period of religious conflict. In fact, the ascension of the Habsburgs in 1526 marked the decline of Prague, and this became even more marked after the failure of the revolt against the Viennese sovereigns in 1547. While having suffered limitations to its autonomy and the loss of its Court, which had been transferred to Vienna, the city underwent a brief period of revival under Rudolph II who settled here between 1583-1610, and who also contributed to the Germanisation of the city.
The Czech revolt of 1618, which began with the “Second Prague Defenestration“, led to the Thirty Years’ War. Following its defeat in the Battle of the White Mountain ( 8th Nov 1620 ), Prague entered a period of deep decline from all points of view: the wave of middle-class emigration in the first half of the 17th century was of biblical proportions. The uprisings of 1848 failed in their attempt to gain freedom for the Slavs who opposed the die centralization policy introduced by Joseph II. 1861 marked a clear turning point with the success of the Slavs in the municipal elections. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the economic and industrial development of Prague led to a considerable influx of the rural population and caused a growing interest on the part of the nobility in cultural and intellectual pursuits. After the First World War Prague was proclaimed the capital of Czechoslovakia.
The city endured the brutal domination of the Nazis from 1939 until 1945 when it was liberated by the Russians. In 1948 a Communist coup d’etat transformed Czechoslovakia into the Popular Republic, and 1960 marked the birth of the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic.
The long ordeal seemed to be coming to an end in 1968 when the new, more liberal program adopted by Dubcek (the so-called “Prague Spring”), appeared to open the way towards reform and civil liberties. However, the ever-present threat of the Soviets, Communist monolith was brutally felt on 20th August 1968 when tanks were sent into Prague, causing the indignant reaction of its inhabitants, and culminating in the suicides of the students Palach and Zajic.
Twenty years later a protest march was held against the Soviet occupiers to demand liberty and civil rights. Despite police repression, which was repeated a year later to oppose the demands of the “Charta 77” movement, this event later led, through the “Velvet Revolution”, to the fall of the Communist Regime in Czechoslovakia and the resignation of Gustav Husak. Vaclav Havel took his place and became President of the Republic at the end of 1989. The free elections of 1990 marked the victory of the list led by Havel and Dubcek, the latter having returned to his country from Slovakia. On 1st January 1993, the division of the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia was ratified, giving rise to the Czech and the Slovak Republics, with Prague and Bratislava as their respective capitals.
Approaching the city from the air, over the sharp bends of the Vltava, the majestic and austere beauty of Prague appears with the bell towers, spires, and buildings which have given it the deserved title of “Paris of the East“. The city stands out like a precious stone set in the green surroundings of the gentle hills of Bohemia.
But once one has landed in the modern, functional Ruzyne Airport and arrived in the city after a transfer of about 20km, there is no more time for reflection. What remains instead is the difficult task of choosing between the many attractions on offer in “The Golden City“. Prague is undoubtedly a fascinating city, although rich in striking contrasts: the central areas are those subjected to the incessant pressure of tourists, from the inevitable Japanese, the tireless Germans, the innumerable Spanish and English, to the Italians, as noisy and easily identifiable as ever.
These quarters make it easy to see why Prague is often compared to Vienna, Paris, or London, thanks to the elegant shops and nightclubs, first-class restaurants and hotels, the tidy, clean streets, and the punctual and efficient public transport system ( even though both its visual and spoken indications are all in Czech ). In this melting pot of languages, cultures, and nationalities Prague has what it takes to compete with the ability and confidence of the most advanced Central European and Western metropolises.
A tour around the quarters of Prague might begin at the citadel of Hradcany with its Castle, its monumental buildings, the Loreto shrine, and the Strahov Monastery. This is one of the highest quarters in Prague and the views it offers over Mala Strana and Stare Mesto are some of the most charming and eloquent in the city.
Descending from the Castle, beyond the Nerudova, lies the picturesque quarter of Mala Strana. Here we find various austere buildings (mainly the home to embassies), imposing Baroque churches, and an important attraction for the faithful, the “Holy Infant of Prague”, kept in the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The wooded hill of Petrin, with its numerous attractions, is one of the capital’s greenest areas. The characteristic of this quarter is the ever-present craft workshops and the “vinarny” with their attractive and imaginative signs.
Beyond Charles Bridge, with its emblematic statues, throngs of tourists, jugglers, and vendors, lies Stare Mesto, the “Old Town“, with its magical, alluring atmosphere and its treasures of art, history, and architecture. The narrow streets, bursting with people and lined with shops selling souvenirs and local products, lead invariably to the architectural jewel of Staromestske Namesti, a theatrical composition of buildings, churches, and monuments in an incredible hubbub of tourists, horse-drawn carriages, and orderly market stalls.
To the north of this square, one of Prague’s main attractions, lies the Josefov quarter. This is the Jewish area, one of the most charming parts of the capital, with its Ghetto, Jewish museum, synagogues, cemetery, and the ancient memories of a people and culture which survived centuries of persecution.
Wandering from Staromestske Namesti towards the “Golden Cross” ( the crossroads where the quarter’s main thoroughfares meet ), it is surprising to note the meticulous care and attention given to the ornamental detail of the buildings: splendid attics, tympanums, statues, stucco work, friezes, and various other decorations enrich and refine the buildings’ facades, transforming even an anonymous building into a small architectural masterpiece.
We are now in Na Prikope, near Wenceslas Square, the fulcrum and heart of modern Prague. Further south lies Nove Mesto, the “New Town“, with its imposing Town Hall and the enormous square named after King Charles. Majestic buildings, interesting churches, and the legend of Dr. Faust are all within the visitor’s reach.
Last, but by no means least, the Vysehrad quarter is an obligatory stop for those wishing to really get to know the city. It is easily reached by underground, and not far from the station are some of the most recent architectural achievements in Prague’s urban history ( the Forum Hotel and the Palace of Culture ).
These exist side by side with one of the oldest settlements on the banks of the Vltava. Vysehrad is not only a quarter; not only does it bear important witness to the history and art, past and present, of this extraordinary city, but it is also, and above all a serene oasis of peace, a tranquil area of greenery a little off the beaten tourist track, and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that it possesses such quiet beauty and affords such enchanting views over the Vltava, the hills and the city itself.
Ghetto ( židovske ghetto ) – Prague’s old Jewish Ghetto occupies a part of the Stare Mesto quarter and is important both in terms of its size and the cultural and tourist interest it provokes.
The Josefov quarter takes its name from Emperor Joseph II. The first Jewish settlements in Prague appeared around the 10th century, and by the 17th century, more than 7000 Jews had made the city their home. Persecutions, fires, and plundering were regular occurrences throughout the centuries, making life difficult for the Jewish community. Towards the middle of the 18th century, Maria Theresa of Habsburg decreed that the Jews should be driven out. Later that century, however, Emperor Joseph II had the walls of the Ghetto demolished, restoring both the Jewish quarter itself and its administrative status. The area was named Josefov in his honor. Jews were not granted Civil rights until 1848.
The period of Nazi occupation in Prague ( 1939-1945 ) was the darkest time for the Jewish community whose members became the object of persecutions and deportations. It is estimated that 90% of Bohemian and Moravian Jews were killed during the Second World War. The group of buildings, used for religious and non – religious purposes, which, together with the cemetery, make up the Ghetto, has now been transformed into a kind of large open-air museum.
One of the most beautiful architectural features of the Ghetto is the Jewish Town Hall ( Židovska radnice ), a Renaissance building that dates from the second half of the 16th century. It was remodeled in Baroque style in the latter half of the 18th century and extended at the beginning of the 20th century. Note the unusual clock situated in the tympanum, under the small clock tower: it has Hebrew figures and the hands move in an anticlockwise direction.
After a short walk through the Old Town, you’ll visit the Old Jewish Quarter, also known as Josefov. The earliest mention of Jewish merchants and their activities in Prague dates back to the beginning of the 10th century. Josefov was separated from the Old Town by walls and gates. The whole area was renewed in the years 1896 – 1911, replaced by the new, mostly art nouveau, buildings. From the original Jewish Quarter only some parts have been preserved, including the network of streets, the town hall, six synagogues, and most of the Old Jewish Cemetery.
The Jewish Museum, founded in 1906, is located here, with its richest collection of Jewish heritage relics in the world. The Old Jewish Ghetto has a one-of-a-kind, secretive atmosphere, product of centuries. You’ll easily be able to imagine Rabbi Lowe and his grand creation, the Golem. You’ll also see the Old Jewish Cemetery ( 15th century – 12, 000 Jewish graves preserved ), the Old-New Synagogue ( 13th century – the oldest preserved synagogue in Europe ), the Klausen Synagogue ( 16th century ), the Pinkas Synagogue ( 16th century ), the Spanish Synagogue ( 19th century ), and the Town Hall of the Jewish Quarter ( 16th century ).
There are many synagogues in the Jewish quarter.
The High Synagogue ( Vysaka synagoga ) was built in the second half of the 16th century, to a design by P. Roder. In the 19th-century restoration work was carried out to separate it from the Town Hall. The central, square hall, originally Renaissance in style, was transformed in the 17th – 19th centuries and remodeled in neo-Renaissance style. Note the magnificent stellar vaulting. The rooms of the synagogue are used for exhibitions by the State Jewish Museum ( they contain vestments, manuscripts, and precious ornaments ).
The Old-New Synagogue ( Staronova synagoga ), originally Gothic in design, was extended in the Cistercian Gothic style in the 13th century. Further modifications and additions were completed between the 15th and 18th centuries. Renovation and restoration work was also carried out in the 19th – 20th centuries. The synagogue is still used for religious functions.
A Statue of Moses by F. Bilek can be seen in the adjoining park.
The 17th century Klausen Synagogue ( Klausova synagoga ) is built on the site once occupied by the Jewish School of Löw ben Bezalel, a 16th century Rabbi, and philosopher. The Baroque building houses a collection of prints and manuscripts.
The earliest religious building on the site of today’s Pinkas Synagogue ( Pinkasova synagoga ), probably a ritual bath, is said to date from the 11th – 12th centuries. In the first half of the 16th century, a late Gothic synagogue was constructed in the building which had been the home of Rabbi Pinkas ( hence the modern name ). This was rebuilt and enlarged in the first half of the 17th century, in the late Renaissance style. In the 1950s the synagogue became the seat of the Memorial of the 77, 297, a monument erected in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
The building which today houses the Spanish Synagogue ( Spanelska synagoga ) bears some striking Moorish features, added in the second half of the 19th century. The temple interior is strongly reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada. The synagogue owes its name to a community of Iberian Jews who came to Prague to escape persecution. It has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times, and occupies the site of the Old School, the oldest synagogue in the city ( 12th century ).
The Maisel Synagogue ( Maiselova synagoga ) takes its name from the mayor of the Jewish quarter at the time of Rudolph II. It was built in Renaissance style at the end of the 16th century, and reconstructed in Baroque style about a century later, after a fire. The building as it appears today was restored in neo-Gothic style between the 19th and 20th centuries. The interior houses the splendid exhibition of Silver from Bohemian Synagogues, including interesting examples of Baroque and Rococo art by Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Viennese craftsmen, as well as decorations and treasures from various eras, collected from synagogues and private homes.
Prague Museum ( Muzeum hlavniho Mesta Prahy ) – The neo-Renaissance building that houses the museum was erected towards the end of the 19th century to a design by A. Balsanek and A. Wiehl. The facade is decorated with sculptures by various artists, and above the staircase hangs the face from the Old Town Hall Astronomical Clock showing the months of the year by J. Manes, who also painted the Signs of the Zodiac.
The tondi in the outer ring is inspired by The Annual Cycle. The Museum’s collections offer an interesting view of the city’s urban, architectural, cultural, and economic history.
The model of the city as it was in the early 19th century deserves special attention. It gives a reliable indication of the urban reorganization work carried out in the historical center and the Jewish quarter, and the size of the model ( 20m2 ), and the great care given to the detail of buildings and architectural features is extraordinary. It was made in 1830 by the lithographer A. Langwell.
Other exhibits worthy of note in the museum’s collection include historic costumes, jewelry, sculptures, china, and furnishings, as well as a substantial collection of attractive house signs.