Category Archives: Prague

Prague’s Astronomical clock

Prague's Astronomical Clock
Prague’s Astronomical Clock

Literally one of Prague’s most striking attractions, the astronomical clock or orloj in the Old Town Square is also one of the world’s most unusual timepieces.

It was built in 1410 by clockmaker Mikulas of Kadan and Charles University’s professor of Mathematics and Astronomy, Jan Ondrejuv Sindel. The face of their orloj features contemporary 15th century Astronomy. It shows the movement of the sun around the earth, the phases of the moon, the equinoxes, the seasons, the days of the week and the signs of the zodiac. On either side are figures representing mediaeval Prague society. On the left Vanity admires himself in a mirror while a Miser clutches a bag of gold. On the right Death rings a bell while a piper shakes his head.

The timepiece was remodeled in 1490 by master clockmaker Hanus. Legend has it that on completion, the City Councillors blinded him to prevent him from creating another as great as, or greater than, Prague’s Orloj. In revenge, Hanus sabotaged the clock, so that thereafter it was impossible to tell the time. To add insult to injury, he cursed it so that death or insanity would befall anyone who tried to repair it.

In 1805 Joseph Manes painted a Calendar underneath the clock. The one which is scanned by thousands of eyes these days is a replica. The original is on display beside the stairway in the Prague Museum of History. On the left hand side of the calendar are the figures of a chronicler and an angel. On the right are an astronomer and a philosopher.

Between 1865 and 1866, the Orloj underwent major repairs. The figures of 12 apostles and a rooster were added. When the hour strikes the apostles give a blessing and when they have finished, the rooster crows.

The coats of arms and royal symbols of successive Kings and Emperors were added to the clock tower over the years.

At the end World War II when the centre of old Prague came under fire from Nazi artillery, the Old Town Hall burnt down and the astronomical clock was destroyed. Along with the Town Hall, the clock was re-constructed and the twelve original apostles were replaced by figures created by the woodcarver Vojtech Sucharda.

The Astronomical clock, is no less a source of wonder today than when it was first created. The sound of its chime brings people running from the narrow streets around the Old Town Square and there is always a delighted ring of upturned faces beneath it every hour on the hour.

Prague’s Charles Bridge

Great cityscapes are distinguished as much by the might and majesty of their Bridges as by the grandeur of their buildings. What is London without Tower Bridge, Paris without the Pont Neuf, San Francisco without the Golden Gate or Sydney without the Harbour Bridge?  And what is Prague with out the Charles Bridge?

Prague's Charles Bridge
Prague’s Charles Bridge

In Prague’s early days here had been several attempts to link the little townships that lay on either side of the Vltava River. The first was wooden bridge, which was swept away by floods in the 11th century. In 1172, King Wenceslas I commissioned the first stone bridge which he named after his wife Judith. But the Judith Bridge too succumbed to a Vltava flood and collapsed in 1342. Then, in 1357, Charles IV of the Luxembourg Dynasty, King of Bohemia and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, set about building the bridge which would stand for over six centuries, through flood, fire and numerous wars, as a monument to the magnificence and might of his reign.

Construction began under the engineer Master Otto and continued under architect Peter Parler, designer of the Wenceslas Chapel in St Vitus Cathedral and the Old Town Hall Tower. The foundations were laid at 5.31 a.m. on the 9th of July, 1357, a time, according to legend, of great numerological significance. Legend also has it that the bridge’s mortar was reinforced with egg yolk. While this can’t be proved conclusively, modern tests have established that it does contain organic elements.

The Stone Bridge (Kammeny Most) or Prague Bridge (Prazsky Most) as it was first known, opened in 1402. At 516 metres long and nearly 10metres wide with three fortified bridge towers and sitting on a series of stone arches with ice-guards, it was unsurpassed in contemporary Europe. Kammeny Most proved a vital commercial artery between the two banks of the Vlatava and the townships of Prague prospered. Soon merchants and traders set up on the bridge. On holidays and festivals, it was the scene of grand medieval tournaments.

In the 18th century the Hapsburgh Empress Maria Theresa made her mark on the Stone Bridge, with the addition of 30 magnificent Baroque statues.

In 1870, Kammeny or Prazsky Most changed its name to Karlov Most or Charles Bridge, in memory of the great King who had masterminded it. Too precious to risk at the hands of the millions that reach to touch them these days, the original Baroque statues are now stored in Prague Castle’s Lapidary. Those on the bridge are replicas.

Today the Charles Bridge stands as strong as it did over six hundred years ago. It throngs with life and colour. Artists and artisans ply their trade there. Tourists flock to photograph its beauty. Lovers bask in the romance of the place – the towers, the bridge, the castle above on one bank and the ancient facades of the old town buildings on the other.

 

Prague Castle

If not its most famous landmark, Prague Castle is certainly the Czech capital’s most eye-catching. Set on a commanding hilltop overlooking the Vltava River, it dominates the city skyline. The castle’s1100 year history is closely linked to the long and fascinating story of the evolution of the Czech Republic. It is also a monument to a thousand years of magnificent European architecture.

A broad mix of buildings at Prague Castle
A broad mix of buildings at Prague Castle

The original castle complex was commissioned by the Premyslid King Borivoj. Constructed entirely from timber and fortified with earthen ramparts, it included a palace, three churches and monastery. Its area, according to archeologists, was equal to today’s castle complex.

As it passed down through the centuries and through successive dynasties, Prague Castle was reconstructed, re-modelled or renovated in the style of the time and with stamp of the current ruler. In the 13th century King Wenceslas rebuilt it in the Romanesque style. Charles IV, of the Luxembourg Dynasty, transformed it into a Gothic castle in the 14th century. Under King Vladislav Jagiellon, in the 15th century it was Neo Gothic. In 1541 it was almost razed by fire. The Hapsburgh Emperor Rudolph II, brought it to life again as a Renaissance castle, a centre of Science and scholarship and a showcase for the arts. In the late 18th century, under the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, it was re-born as the present Baroque castle.

Since 1918, Prague Castle has been the official residence of the Presidents of the Czech Republic, none of whom have been moved, at least not thus far, to take it through another iteration or to mark it with their stamp.

Prague Today

The window of a Prague Absinth shop
The window of a Prague Absinth shop

It is an early summer evening. The sinking sun lights up the ornate facades of the buildings that stand at the edges of the Old Town Square. Towers and spires rise out of the shadows behind them. Restless tribes of young travellers mill around the Staropramen beer tents. From café terraces their richer, staider and more sober elders look on. A giant screen flashes FIFA hype. On a central platform, a brand new Hyundai sits gleaming like a golden calf.  A boy with a Tintin hairdo buzzes around on a scooter emblazoned with “Darling’s” in hot pink letters. A matching stretch limo with tinted windows hovers in a side street nearby. The Astronomical Clock strikes 9. All heads turn. Tour groups crowd underneath and gaze up at the magical workings of its face. There’s a kind of hush. It is filled with a crescendo of classical music from a nearby church. A languid, six foot blonde goddess strolls by, her golden-brown arms hung with shopping bags – Paul Smith, Prada and Agnes B.

This is Prague today, one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world and one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet.

Since the 1990s, Prague has been back, where, historically as well as geographically, it belongs, at the centre of Europe, at the crossroads of old trade and travel routes. It is part of the European Union. Football fever has taken hold. Global businesses and brands have colonised the commercial sector. H&M, M&S and Benetton fly their flags from grand old shop fronts. Tesco’s lurk in their basements. Gucci, Versace and Chanel occupy corners of art nouveau arcades. Consumerism thrives in this new age. Prague and its people, clearly, love to shop.

They love a good time too and Prague night life is legendary. With some of the best and cheapest beer in Europe as well a rich variety of other intoxicants (including the once outlawed Absinth), with an unbelievable number of bars and clubs which seem to be open all hours and with a laissez faire attitude to “fun” and “entertainment”, the city enjoys a reputation as one of Europe’s premier party places.

Because of its multitude of churches and synagogues, Prague is sometimes called the city of spires. Yet, the Czech Republic is one of the most atheistic countries in the world. Considering the religious dissent which had it tied up for centuries this is not surprising. While some churches still fulfill their religious purpose, others have become the stage for the classical music which has earned Prague fame for centuries.

Architecturally, Prague is breathtaking. Dreamed up by a succession of rich, powerful dynasties, with the artistic genius of the known world at their disposal, it is a wonderland of beautiful, historic buildings. Romanesque, Mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Cubist and Modern Functionalist – every age and every architectural expression, with its own unique Czech twist of course, is here. Every building and every landmark adds another fragment to this great city’s long and rich history.

Whether you’re a culture vulture, a history buff, an architecture afficiando or a party animal, 21st century Prague has everything you could desire.

 

A History of Prague, Part 11, A New Era

In November, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Velvet Revolution swept Prague into another new era. In 1993, after the division of Czechoslovakia, the city became the capital of the new Czech Republic, comprising the regions of Prague and Central Bohemia.

Pristine building in Prague's Old Town Square
Pristine building in Prague’s Old Town Square

In this new era, Prague’s architecture began to blossom again. Historic buildings were restored and a programme of meticulous and continuous maintenance began. The city’s conversion to electric heating ensured Prague a future free from the devastations of coal pollution. The old town became a Unesco heritage listed site, preserved forever for posterity. World-famous architects, too, like Frank O. Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Eva Jiricna, and Ricardo Bofill added modern masterpieces to the cityscape.

By the turn of the century, Prague had fulfilled the promise of the first Premyslid Princess Libuse “It will honoured, favoured with great repute and praise will be bestowed upon it by the entire world”

A History of Prague, Part 10, Communist Prague

After World War II, Prague became the capital of Czechoslovakia once again but it was very different city from pre-war Prague.

Sculpures on a Prague building
Sculptures  on a Prague building

The Jewish community had been decimated. The ethnic German population had all but vanished. Many had fled with fall of Nazism. Unknown numbers and been killed in local massacres. The rest had been deported. A strong pro-Russian sentiment prevailed. Although the Red Army had withdrawn soon after the war, Czechoslovakia felt deeply indebted to its liberators and the country remained under strong Soviet influence. In February, 1948, Prague became the centre of a Communist coup.

Following the coup and the establishment of the totalitarian Communist regime, new settlers surged into Prague. Huge, utilitarian residential complexes sprang up at the edges of the city, encircling the beautiful Romanesque, renaissance and baroque architecture of the ancient towns like dark, grim sentinels. The coal burnt to fuel the swelling metropolis and its industries corroded and blackened the facades of the old buildings and turned Prague into a dark, forbidding place. Nothing was done to arrest the pollution of the city and efforts to repair and maintain its buildings were slow and ineffectual.

Discontent festered in Czechoslovakia, particularly among the intellectual community of Prague. The 4th Czechoslovakian Writers’ Congress in 1967 gave voice to their dissatisfaction. This led to Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek, the Secretary of the Communist Party, announced a new phase in the life of Czechoslovakia; the democratic reform of its institutions and the beginning of “socialism with a human face”.

In August 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslavakia and crushed the movement. A period of communist normalisation followed. Prague stagnated and as magnificent, historic architecture crumbled from pollution and neglect, cheap, shoddy, modern buildings invaded the cityscape.

A history of Prague, Part 9, World War II

Prague’s glorious years, as the capital of an independent Czechoslovakia, came to a sudden and sorry halt in 1939.

Jewish Prague
Jewish Prague

In a misguided attempt to avert World War II, the powers of Europe and Great Britain, without Czech consultation, ceded Czechoslovakia to Germany. The British Prime Minister proclaimed the move “Peace with honour” while the Czechs dubbed the decision “about us without us”. Germany, which had laid claim to Czechoslovakia because of its strong German associations, occupied Prague on March 15, 1939 and the country became a corridor for the Nazis’ relentless march through Eastern Europe.

During the occupation, Czech citizens suffered abominably. Prime Minister Alois Elias was murdered, along with many other politicians and academics. Thousands were incarcerated. Prague’s Jewish community was decimated. Those who had not already fled the city were sent to the infamous Theresianstadt labour camp or death camps in Germany. Josefov became a ghost town, carefully preserved by the Germans as an example of how Jewish people had once lived. When all fighting finally ceased on May 12, 1945, 270,000 Czech citizens were dead, including 77, 297Jews whose names are inscribed on the walls of Prague’s Pinkas Synogue.

Although the German occupation had spared Prague the devastations of a blitzkrieg, the bombardments during the liberation destroyed parts of the city. A vast square of lawn, with an oddly out of place modern sculpture, at the foot of Prague Castle Hill, marks the site where and American bomb landed on February 14, 1945, killing 700 people and injuring 1200.

Mercifully, however, most of Prague’s beautiful cityscape survived the war intact.

A History of Prague, Part 8, The Capital of an Independent State

The end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century were a time of great growth and prosperity for Prague.

Belle Epoque Buildings in Prague
Belle Epoque Buildings in Prague

As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the city was transforming into a large modern European metropolis. The peaceful co-existence of Jews, Germans and Czechs contributed to an environment where both industry and culture flourished. Businesses and factories sprang up, along with grand streets, beautiful shops and elegant hotels. The suburbs burgeoned.

The Fine Arts blossomed and artists like pre-Raphaelite painter Mucha, became leaders in a world-wide movement. While many of the new buildings followed the Art Nouveau style of the Parisian Belle Epoque which was colonising European cities, an original Czech Cubist architecture was emerging too.

It was an age of visionary rule too. Francis Ferdinand d’Este who was a descendent of the Jagellon, Luxembourg and Premyslovic Dynasties, had succeeded the Emperor Francis Josef. He was married to Czech aristocrat Sophie Von Chotek and the couple lived at Konopiste Castle near Prague. Francis Ferdinand was a proponent of the expansion of the Dual Monarchy into an Austrian-Hungarian-Czech triple Monarchy. However his plans were cut short when he and Queen Sophie were assassinated by Hungarian student, Gabriel Princeps in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. This incident was the catalyst for the commencement of World War I.

At the end of the War the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and Czechoslovakia was created with Prague as its capital. Prague Castle became the seat of the first president, Thomas Garrigue Masaryk.

The transformation into a big, modern, industrial city continued. In 1920 the Law of Greater Prague of 1920 expanded the city and in 1922 it incorporated several neighbouring towns and citizens. By 1930, the population had reached 850,000.

Prague’s prosperity endured, even through the Great Depression of the 1930s. The development of Czech Cubist Architecture, interrupted by the War, resumed and soon the cityscape featured the unique and impressive Functionalist buildings which were to distinguish it. Prague’s architecture had earned its place among the European greats and the city itself was one of the most beautiful and prosperous in Europe.

A History of Prague, Part 7, The Nineteenth Century

The19th century brought sweeping changes to Bohemia. In 1806 Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and the Emperor Francis II abdicated his title, becoming Francis I Emperor of Austria.

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The Industrial Revolution began. Its effect on Prague was enormous. Profiting from the proximity to coal mines and ironworks, factories proliferated outside the fortified city. People flooded in from the countryside and suburbs mushroomed on the city’s outskirts. By 1837, the population had reached 100,000. In 1845 the first railway connection between Vienna and Prague was established, opening the floodgates for products and people. In 1850, the Jewish town of Joseph was finally added to Prague’s historical centre.  The fortifications between the Old and New Towns were demolished, the fortress moat was filled and a new promenade road snaked around the city. An embankment with Neo-Renaissance style public buildings was established alongside the Vltava River. In 1874 most of the Baroque fortifications and their bastions were dismantled.

The National Revival continued. Czech institutions were established to celebrate the Czech history and culture: the National Theatre opened in 1868 and the National Museum in 1890.In the following years the Czech Nationalist movement began to rise until it gained the majority in the town council in 1861.

In 1867 the Emperor Francis Josef I established the Austro Hungarian Dual Monarchy of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. Once again Bohemia was part of a larger, stronger entity. Despite this, Czech Nationalism was strong. It continued to grow and to ready itself for its time.

A History of Prague, Part 6, The Eighteenth Century

The aftermath of the Thirty years war was a troubled time for Prague. Although the Peace of Westphalia had officially ended the Thirty Years War, the Holy Roman Empire was weakened and the power of the Habsburghs diminished. Foreign interference dogged Bohemia until the end of the 17th century and well into the 18th. In 1689, a fire, said to have been started by French agents, raged through Prague and destroyed much of it.

The gates of Prague Castle
The gates of Prague Castle

Still, in time, Bohemia began to recover. In Prague, rebuilding and restoration, in the Baroque style, commenced. By the 18th century, merchants and businessmen, attracted by a promising economic climate, flooded into the city..

But still the shadow of war lingered. European Powers vied to gain a foothold in this strategically important territory. From 1741 to 1757 Prague was torn variously  between the French, the Prussians and the Habsburghs. A climate of distrust infected its citizens. The Jewish community was accused of collaboration with the Prussians and 1745 the Empress Maria Theresa banished them from the city.

By 1770 the Habsbughs had triumphed and peace had finally returned to Bohemia. New Baroque gates were installed at Prague Castle. Depicting the battle of the Titans from classical mythology, they symbolised the triumph of the Habsburghs over their enemies.

Despite a century of upheaval, the country prospered and the steady stream of immigrants continued apace. By 1771, the population numbered 80, 000. It included a wealthy business and merchant class, as well as aristocrats, who enriched the city with palaces, churches and gardens in the new style and Prague’s unique Baroque architecture became known throughout the world.

In 1781, the new Emperor, Joseph II, issued the Edict of Tolerance, granting political and religious rights to minorities. The population rose again as many of the descendants of those who had fled or been banished, during the past stormy century, returned. In 1784 Joseph II united the four independent urban areas of Old Town, Malá Strana, Hradčany and New Town into the great city of Prague.

Most importantly, in the same year, the National revival (národní obrození) a Czech Nationalist Movement began. After centuries in the shadow, Czech language, culture and national identity were revived and Czech literature blossomed.

Explore Baroque Prague at the castle, around the old and new towns and in the Jewish Quarter.