Prague’s National Museum

From its lofty seat at the top of the rise, the National Museum looks down like a grand old dame on Prague’s busy Wenceslas Square. Its gold dome and magnificent neo-Renaissance façade dominate the skyline.

The entrance to Prague's National Museum
The entrance to Prague’s National Museum

Although the Museum collection was established in 1818, it did not have a dedicated home until the present National Museum opened on May 18, 1881. Designed by the Czech Technical University’s Professor Josef Schultz, who was also the architect of the Rudolphinum and the National theatre, the National Museum was born of the Czech National Revival movement. It soon became an important symbol of Czech culture, science and learning.

The interior, which was not completed until 1903, is the product of the genius of 19th century Bohemia’s foremost artists and craftsmen. The pillared entrance hall is peopled with sculptor Ludwig Schwanthaler’s statues of Princess Libuse and her ploughman husband Premysl, King Wenceslas and Premysyl Otakar II. Dual staircases, flanked by paintings of Czech Castles and landscapes, lead up to the main gallery. The beautiful glass domed Pantheon displays busts and statues of famous Czech writers, artists and scholars. Its walls are lined with paintings depicting important Czech historical events.

The National Museum collection, which is the Czech Republic’s largest and oldest, is fascinating. It traces the evolution of the country and its people. It also includes a vast collection of minerals, fossils and animals, both skeletal and stuffed.

Today, the building across the road, which was once the seat of Parliament and then home to Radio Free Europe, is part of the museum complex. State-of- the- art exhibition spaces and 21st century displays have replaced the old vast echoing, halls with their polished wood and glass-fronted cabinets where once I lost myself for hours on a quiet, contemplative journey of discovery.

Still, the grand old gold-domed dame, survivor of World War II, when its central staircase was hit by a bomb and of the 1968 Soviet intervention when it was peppered with machine gun fire, will always be the mainstay of the institution, as strong a symbol of Czech culture, science and education as it was over a century ago.

Two Prague Town Squares; The Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square

Staromeske Namesti, Prague’s Old Town Square

The Old Town Square, or Staromestke Namesti, is one of Prague’s busiest, most beautiful and most memorable corners.

Rows of beautiful buildings line the Old Town Square
Rows of beautiful buildings line the Old Town Square

Staromeske Namesti  began life in the 10th century as a market place. Merchants from all over Bohemia and Europe came to buy and sell in the flourishing new city of Prague. In 1338, The Old Town hall was added to house Prague’s first city council and the square became the centre of civic administration and community life.

The Old Town Square has a stunning parade of Czech architecture,  with Romanesque, Mediaeval, Gothic, Baroque and Cubist buildings side by side. The Old Town Hall, the Church of St Nicholas and the old baroque palace which now houses the National Gallery, are three of its stars.

At the centre of Staromeske Namesti stands the monument to the great Czech reformer and nationalist Jan Hus . Hus, who was the first Rector of Charles University, was a vehement critic of the corrupt Catholic Church and the Papacy. His incineration at the stake led to the 14th and 15th century Hussite wars. The statue was erected on July 6th, 1915, to mark the anniversary of Jan Hus’ death.

Today Staromeske Nemesti swarms with sightseers. The market tradition continues, but in a 21st century guise. Souvenir shops and galleries ply their trade to visitors from all over the world. It is fringed with restaurants and cafes where the people of Prague mingle with tourists. Staromeske Namesti is the meeting point for hundreds of different city tours

Wenceslas Square

If the Old Town Square is the hub and heart of historic, touristic Prague, then Wenceslas Square is the centre of the modern, popular city.

Looking down Wenceslas Square from the National Museum
Looking down Wenceslas Square from the National Museum

Originally designed in 1348 by the Emperor Charles IV as a horse market, the 750 by 60 metre square is in fact more of a rectangle. More a Boulevard than a  Square in function, it is lined with shops, hotels, casinos, restaurants, discos, offices and food stands. Traffic rolls continually up one side and down the other and trams cut across its centre. Its pavements and gardens are crowded with people day and night.

At the top end of Wenceslas Square the golden cupola of the National Museum dominates the skyline. From just below the grand old building, St Wenceslas, the legendary father of the Czech nation, surveys the scene through unblinking stone eyes. Interestingly, Wenceslas’ horse, or rather its tail, is a favourite meeting place for the people of Prague.

Just below the Wenceslas statue, a small round flowerbed with a modest memorial remembers the “victims of communism” Nearby a small bronze cross marks the place where 20 year ole philosophy student Jan Palach set fire to himself on January 16, 1969, in protest against the Soviet invasion. One million people attended his funeral which turned into a major demonstration against the communist regime.

Since the death of Jan Palach, Wenceslas Square has become a national symbol and the traditional centre for demonstrations and protests.