City breaks are a great way of getting away, discovering new cultures, learning about the country and getting out of the day to day monotonous life that we live. I find my primary purpose of travel is my interest in history, discovering a new city and uncovering the past that you never knew existed. Over the next year, I will be writing a series of European city break blogs. There are so many guides to cities, so I thought I would try and write a story about my adventures, discovering the cities and adding flashbacks of the city’s history. The first historic city blog I wrote was about the city of Paris. This week is about the beautiful city of Prague, hope you enjoy it!
I arrived in the stunning city of Prague, full of beauty, history and great drink. I arrived with my friend Ash ready for an Interrail journey through Eastern Europe. Our first stop was the jaw-dropping city of Prague. It was Ash’s first visit to Prague, but I had briefly visited once before and looked forward to discovering more. We set out and traversed through the stunning city of Prague, looking to learn and discover a city unknown to us. The tall spiral buildings stand proud, observing us as we walk down the evocative maze of cobbled lanes and medieval passages. The charcoal cobblestone streets of grey and ivory boast a series of designs and patterns below our feet. The smell of sweet paprika from the goulash hung in the air as we passed bars and restaurants. The streets were packed full of stags, culture vultures, romantic couples and unusual characters. The chaotic hubbub of laughter and excitement brought on a feeling of joy and made me feel like we made the right choice coming to such a great city.
Overall the Czechs had a rough 20th Century full of wars and occupation. Despite the future now looking brighter, it is worth talking about the brutal past to better understand the country as a whole today. Czech nationalism goes back to the 19th century when philologists and educators promoted the Czech language and pride in the Czech people. It was hardly a surprise after the Austrian Hungarian Empire collapsed after the First World War that Czechoslovakia was born. Initially, Czechoslovakia started well, they were a democratic state and became an industrial powerhouse, but by 1938 German annexation of the Sudetenland (border region) effectively crippled Czechoslovakia’s defences and they continued with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The German occupation was a period of brutal tyranny. The Czechs lost freedoms and the threat of being sent to concentration camps. Czech’s losses resulting from political persecution totalled between 36,000 and 55,000. On 10th June 1942, 14 miles from Prague in a village called Lidice, Hitler ordered the village’s destruction in revenge for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague by Czech resistance forces. All 173 men from the village who were over 15 years old were executed. The 184 women and 88 children in the village were deported to concentration camps 82 of these children were later sent to Chelmno extermination camp, where they were gassed.
The Jewish Quarter is a small area in Prague where the Jewish population resided and dates back to the 13th century. The site has six synagogues, a Jewish Ceremonial hall and the old Jewish Cemetery. As you walk around the Jewish Quarter, there are many painful reminders of centuries of suffering and nazi occupation. The torment began in the 13th century when Jewish people were ordered to vacate their homes and settle in one area. Over the centuries, Jews were banned from living anywhere else in Prague, and with new arrivals expelled from other European countries, the Quarter was overcrowded. During the nazi occupation, the Jewish population was virtually annihilated. Many Jews emigrated during the German occupation, and more than 70,000 were killed. The population has never really recovered, and the Jewish population of Prague today is approximately 5,000. The monuments and the Quarter managed to survive the nazi occupation as Adolf Hitler decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter as a “Museum of an Extinct Race”.
Prague is full of great bars like U-Sudo, an underground cave-like bar, Karlovy lázně the biggest nightclub in Europe, Zlý časy a bar that specializes in beer with twenty-four taps to pour beers. There are so many more great bars to try some great beers and excellent cuisine as well. Contemporary Czech cuisine is more meat-based, like Goulash, Roast Pork and Dumplings, Karbanátek and Schnitzel. The Czech are also renowned for their vast selection of cakes and pastries like Buchty, Braided bread, Bábovka, Livance, Vdolky and Pernik. I better stop there as I am making myself hungry. Pilsners are the Czech’s type of pale lager. They take the name from the city of Pilsen, and was first produced in 1842 by brewer Josef Groll. Today everyone seems to be brewing their own take on Pilsners, Germany, America, Europe and are all stunningly good beer.
The Old Town Square is the main square in Prague and I was surrounded by Gothic and Baroque styled buildings towering over me. The square was surrounded by places to eat and drink, all at exorbitant prices for the great atmosphere. As you walk around below your feet marks twenty-seven white crosses that are in honour of the 27 martyrs that were beheaded on that spot during the Old Town Square execution after the Thirty Years War Habsburg (the victor) took their revenge and executed some of the key leaders of the uprising. The square features the ‘Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn’ the city’s main church since the 14th century, The Baroque St Nicholas church, the Czech National Gallery and Prague Orloj, a medieval astronomical clock from 1410 (the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world). The clock does everything, it tells the time, provides the date, shows astronomical and zodiacal information and provides the theatre for viewers every hour, who needs a smartwatch when your old city astronomical clock can do all that! I feel I will have to visit Prague in December one day as they have a fantastic Medieval Christmas market which I have read is supposed to be amazing.
Wenceslas Square is one of the main squares in the New Town of Prague. Many historical events occurred here, and it is a traditional setting for demonstrations, celebrations and other public gatherings. As we walked, both sides of the square were bustling full of people all out shopping. As we got to the other end of the square, there was a statue of the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas, who the square was named after. Behind Saint Wenceslas is the National Museum of the Czech Republic, a magnificent neo-renaissance building built in 1891 that dominates the whole square’s skyline. As we got closer, we could see bullet holes in the building from the horrors of the past. On 9th May 1945, Soviet Red Army troops entered Prague, and they became occupied once again but under a different flag. This brought on almost 45 years of occupation and suffering, which resulted in a lack of freedom for citizens. For the first twenty years, Czechoslovakia was a stable state within the Soviet sphere of influence. In the 1960s, after a leadership change, the Czech government went through a series of reforms to humanize communist doctrines within Czechoslovakia. The Dubcek government ended censorship in 1968, which caused concern with Soviet leaders who were concerned about future rebellions and other soviet states demanding their own reforms. After much debate, Moscow decided to intervene, and on August 20 – 21, 1968, 200,000 men and 2000 tanks invaded the country and took Czechoslovakia. A total of 72 people died, and 702 were injured. The government was toppled and replaced, and the reforms were reversed, and the country went backwards, but people got a taste of freedom that couldn’t be forgotten. Author Václav Havel also took part in the uprising after which his literature was blacklisted. After this, he became more politically active (More about him shortly). Throughout the city, there are many points of reference to the Soviet occupation. One of which is the Lennon Wall, a wall where young Czechs wrote their grievances on the wall, leading to a clash between the police and protesters.
Few cities can claim to have such a picturesque river as the Vltava. The Vltava River flows through Prague with over thirty bridges and footbridges that go over the river. To get to the other side and visit Prague Castle, you would need to cross one of these bridges however Charles Bridge is one of the most impressive. The bridge at times looks too small for the mass crowds and tourists stalls, but tolerating the cringy tourism is worth it for the beautiful views of Prague Castle staring down on miles of well constructed Bohemian buildings with their quirky red-tiled roofs and gothic-style architecture. As you walk along the bridge, on both sides are well-crafted sculptures of saints from the past. The bridge is named after King Charles IV, who was the first King of Bohemia. Charles IV was an important figure to Prague, he chose Prague as the capital of his Empire. He started significant development in the city he constructed St. Vitus Cathedral, Church of our Lady of Snow, Emmaus Monastery, the beginnings of New Town (just outside the city walls) and Charles Bridge.
As you cross the bridge, you make your way up to Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world, an area of almost 70,000 square metres and the castle has plenty to offer. The castle was built in the 9th century and was a seat of power for the kings of Bohemia and is now a seat for the head of state. There is so much to see in the castle grounds, the royal palace, St Vitus Cathedral, the Basilica of St. George (the oldest religious structure), Royal gardens, Imperial Stables and Queen Ann’s Summer Palace. The Golden Lane is an original lane of old goldsmiths shops that once served Prague Castle which is one of the most stunning traditionally medieval buildings in the whole country. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept within the castle in a hidden room.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is a long and complicated affair, but it was a series of events that saw the Eastern European countries break away in 1989 then followed by other states throughout the Soviet Union like Georgia, Ukraine and many more. It started in Poland and continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Revolution is Czechoslovakia’s non-violent revolution that went on for over a month. Demonstrations against the one-party Soviet government took place and resulted in the end of Soviet influence over Czechoslovakia. In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic election since 1946. The main threat to Czechoslovakia’s shift to democracy came from the conflict between the Czechs and the Slovaks. In January 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two countries, The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Since the breakup, both nations remain close allies, both countries cooperate with Hungary and Poland in the Visegrád Group, both part of NATO and the EU.
After the Prague Spring in 1968, Václav Havel was under surveillance by the secret police for his political activities and was sent to prison many times, the longest being for 4 years in 1979. He played a big part in the Velvet Revolution and was made president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. He was so popular he went on to win another two terms as president of the Czech Republic, even the city’s airport, Václav Havel Airport Prague, was named after him.
Our time was up in Prague, and it was time to head to my next destination. As our train left, we got a final glance at such a magnificent city. I love Prague. It is a small city but is so beautiful and has so much to learn and discover. As the train sped through the country, I felt like every trip I have ever been on, I felt there was so much more I would love to explore. I’d love to get to Bohemian Paradise one day. An area of outstanding beauty famous for its massive rock formations that have been formed by tens of thousands of years of erosion. I’d love to explore more towns and cities like Karlsbad, Český Krumlov or Bruno. I would love to explore the country’s vast number of castles and palaces like Konopiste Chateau, Strahov Monastery, Hluboká Castle or maybe visit Prague’s vast range of crypts and tombs dedicated to preserving the remains of those slain in war or killed by diseases. These undiscovered aspects of this fascinating country will almost guarantee I will be back another day to explore more beauty in the Czech Republic.
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