A History of Prague, Part 1, Ancient times

With its spectacular architecture, fascinating cultural heritage and vibrant nightlife, Prague is one of the most visited cities in Europe. It is often hailed as the mother of all cities.

Prague, a view across the river
Prague, a view across the river

So, who created this beautiful city? What forces shaped this rich culture? How has it survived for over 1100 years? How has it emerged as one the most exhilarating party places on the planet? The answers lie in its history.

The first known inhabitants of this highly advantageous riverbank site at the heart of Europe were the Celtic Boii, who arrived in around 500 BC. They named the area Bohemia and the river Vltava. Trade routes were established, following the course of the river through the region to connect northern and southern Europe. These opened Bohemia to other influences and, more importantly, to the successive waves of migration which began in the 2nd century AD and continued until the 10th. The first arrivals were the Germanic Marcomanni with their King, Maroboduus. Next came the Lombards. Many of these first settlers assimilated with the Celts and remained here. In the 6th century, the West Slavs invaded. Then, finally, in the 7th century, the Czech Slavs settled in Bohemia and the Czech nation was founded.

Prehistoric and very early Prague can be explored in the National Museum at the top end of Wenceslas Square. There is a wonderful collection of artefacts, including tools, weapons, pots, jewellery and even bones, along with re-constructions of early tribal life.

The museum also houses the nation’s natural history collection with vast rooms full of crystals, fossils, shells, skeletons and stuffed animals.

The building is a grand, neo-classical wonder with gleaming marble halls, majestic pillars and sweeping staircases. It is a dark, heavy, echoing, awe-inspiring place which is worth visiting just for its architecture and its ambience.

Music and Dance at the Duna Palota

Budapest is more than the beautiful blue Danube with its romantic garden island and its spectacular bridges. It is more than its grand castles, fine buildings, impressive monuments and luxurious spas. It is also the epicentre of that rich and diverse Hungarian cultural heritage which draws on everything from Gypsy violins, accordions and folk dance to the sophisticated orchestras and waltzes of the Hapsburg court. No visit to Budapest is complete without experiencing something of that culture.

A Budapest Musician
A Budapest Musician

Had I not stumbled upon a sandwich board and a couple of persuasive young promoters one afternoon outside St Stephen’s Basilica, I might well have missed the brilliant concert featuring the Hungarian Folk Ensemble, the Danube Folk Ensemble and the Rajko Folk Ensemble at Duna Palota. I would definitely have been the poorer.

Formed in the 1950s and each consisting of thirty artists, the three groups are Hungary’s biggest, oldest and best. The performances of the Hungarian Folk Ensemble and the Danube Folk Ensemble consisted of authentic folk dances, many of which come from  remote country villages and date back hundreds of years. Their costumes are a showcase of the Hungarians’ traditional taste for colour as well their craftsmanship with elaborate lace and embroidery.

The Rajko Folk Ensemble’s sensational string orchestra was truly magical, with eloquent violins speaking of the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks, gypsy campfires and wild Hungarian horsemen on remote plains.

To see the performance at the stunning Duna Palota, or Danube Palace was an added bonus. The magnificent neo-baroque palace was built in 1883 and reflects the opulence, extravagance and desire to impress of the Dual Monarchy era. Its murals, completed in 1895 by Lajos Mark, are stunning and it is worth visiting Duna Palota for these alone. In its former life, the palace was the famous Casino of Lipotvaros.

It was a spectacular concert in every sense – brilliant colour, spectacular movement and amazing sound in a simply beautiful setting. It was a wonderful insight into the music dance and costume heritage of Hungary. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

The concert at the Duna Palota formed the finale of my visit to Budapest. It was a fabulous and fitting end to an unforgettable holiday.