She speaks to us of castles and kings of the medieval period and the audacious grandeur of royal excess in later centuries. Prague, the Golden City of a thousand spires, tells yet more about the millenium plus history of the country’s oft-repeated wealth and importance throughout Europe.
It is a spectacularly gorgeous country. Prague, at its centre, is arguably Europe’s most beautiful city and certainly one of its best preserved.
Originally peopled by the Celts, the Czech lands became a Slav nation before the end of the first millenium. The fortifications of the original rulers still stand in Vysehrad, a highland vista ominously over-looking the Vltava river, which winds on through the centre of Prague.
The Czech lands were turbulent throughout their history both due to war and shifting economic and religious tides. The history here is the history of Europe in many ways as the faces and families surely attest.
Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Moravia and Bohemia, the two distinct regions of Czech, enjoyed a long and mystically recalled reign in the 14th century, leaving his unique gothic stamp throughout Prague. He set Czech on an extraordinary period of growth.
The 15th century brought the devastating Hussite Wars in which the Holy Roman Empire fought to subdue the independent and Protestant minded Czech noblemen. Eventually defeated on the outskirts of Prague in 1620 at the Battle of White Mountain (Bílá Hora), the Czechs were to be ruled by the Habsburgs from Vienna for the next 300 years. The Austrians imposed German language with its administrative activities, which pushed much Czech culture out to the countryside.
Again so vital to European political phenomena, Prague was often the financial center of the Austrian Empire and therefore displays stunning Renaissance and Baroque architecture indicative of the wealth it brought.
The Czech countryside is littered with the castles of the great European families and many well-preserved, red clay tile roofed villages that sprang up around them still exist today.
The Czech Republic, for its small geographic size and population of just over 10 million boasts an inordinate number of UNESCO designated historically significant sites. One short trip from Prague is the Karlstejn castle, built to house the royal jewels and as a hunting lodge curiously for men only by Charles IV.
Making for wonderful overnight or longer excursions are Ceský Krumlov with its oft-transformed castle overlooking a beautiful river bend town and Kutná Hora, an extraordinarily productive silver mining town that once rivaled Prague for the royal residence.
As western Bohemia became the playground for Europe’s rich and famous, spa towns such as Karlovy vary (Karlsbad), home to an internationally recognized film festival, Mariánské Lázne (Marienbad) and Frantiskovy Lázne (Franzensbad) grew. Once the resorts of kings and notables such as Goethe, Beethoven and Marx, these are wonderful destinations for short and easy ventures from Prague.
The rule of the Habsburgs vanished with the end of World War I and the creation of the First Republic within the union of Czechoslovakia began an extremely optimistic and productive Czech era.
Unfortunately this was to be short-lived with the emergence of the Nazis. Though occupation of Czech by the Germans was relatively bloodless and the country’s architectural treasures were preserved, but the scars are still deep.
It’s hard not to sense this tragic moment in the country’s past as you walk Prague’s streets or travel the countryside where sites like Terezín, the horrible show camp, remind you of the experience of a few generations ago.
Juxtaposed against this dramatic backdrop are the 40 plus years of Soviet Communis imposed until the 1989 Velvet revolution when the country’s poet-president Vaclav Havel first came to international attention.
All of this history is well recorded in so much of the art to be found here. The country and in particular Prague’s National Gallery system have some wonderful exhibitions.
Anyone planning a visit to Prague should brush up on Kafka to create the paranoid claustrophobic mood that lets the spirits run before your eyes on the cobblestone streets. Milan Kundera, although a dissident in self-imposed exile, paints well the pre-1989 Prague scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
To get a hint of the Czech personality under Habsburg rule, a highly recommended and very sarcastically fun read is Jaromír Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. The Czech Republic and Prague, once home to Beethoven and Mozart, have ample first-rate music as well. Any visit must include a performance at one of the many truly grand music rooms that are as beautiful aesthetically as the music to be heard within.
My last personal recommendation is a trip down to a small Moravian town called Moravský Krumlov. This little town at great personal risk hid Alfons Mucha’s lifetime masterwork, The Slav Epic, from both Nazi theft and Soviet destruction. Finally on display after the 1989 revolution, these enormous canvasses are an as yet undiscovered historically relevant masterpiece.
Prague and the Czech Republic are emerging as a post-Soviet success story. With EU membership all but secured for 2004, the country is vibrant, energized, and focused on looking west.
Prague in particular is quickly moving from metropolitan to cosmopolitan. But this has not stolen the Czech personality. Very much a pub culture, Czech boasts the most beer consumed per capita among its superlatives.
After a day of walking Prague streets, there’s nothing better that a glass of arguably the world’s best beer at less than a dollar for a half litre. As sharing tables is the protocol, a sneer often turns into stories and friendship after a couple of glasses.
Czech sports, particularly football and of course hockey, are very high quality, accessible and as inexpensive as the beer. For the right meat potatoes and salad, Czech food will surely satisfy especially when beer drinking is on the agenda as they were truly made for each other. There are many unique customs and manners here and patience will reveal their sources. Much of Prague is quite restored, but the adventurer need only get off the beaten track to explore what is just beneath the surface.
© Brian Reagan, Prague, January 2003
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