Prague – Czech Republic

Prague was one of those places I had heard a lot of people talk about but never really knew much about. Prior to arriving I did some reading and was intrigued by the history – it was one of those lightbulb moments when you start piecing bits of history together that have wafted vaguely on your horizon over the years. The history goes back thousands of years but the history that I am referring to happened in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when I was of an age to be aware of world events. I have included some information on the Czech Republic below which outlines some more information on the history of the country.

Prague is the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic, the 14th largest city in the European Union and the historical capital of Bohemia. Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava river, the city is home to about 1.3 million people, while its larger urban zone is estimated to have a population of 2.6 million. The city has a temperate climate, with warm summers and chilly winters.

Prague is home to a number of famous cultural attractions, many of which survived the violence and destruction of 20th-century Europe. Main attractions include the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, Old Town Square with the Prague astronomical clock, the Jewish Quarter, Petřín hill and Vyšehrad. Since 1992, the extensive historic centre of Prague has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

The city has more than ten major museums, along with numerous theatres, galleries, cinemas and other historical exhibits. An extensive modern public transportation system connects the city. Also, it is home to a wide range of public and private schools, including Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in Central Europe.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prague has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Prague suffered considerably less damage during World War II than some other major cities in the region, allowing most of its historic architecture to stay true to form. It contains one of the world’s most pristine and varied collections of architecture, from Romanesque, to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, Cubist, Neo-Classical and ultra-modern.

As of 2017, the city receives more than 8.4 million international visitors annually. Prague is the fifth most visited European city after London, Paris, Istanbul and Rome.

The Czech name for Prague is Praha which is derived from an old Slavic word, práh, which means “ford” or “rapid”, referring to the city’s origin at a crossing point of the Vltava river. The same etymology is associated with the Praga district of Warsaw.

The English spelling of the city’s name is borrowed from the French. Prague is also called the “City of a Hundred Spires”, based on a count by 19th century mathematician Bernard Bolzano, today’s count is estimated by the Prague Information Service at 500. Nicknames for Prague have also included: the Golden City, the Mother of Cities and the Heart of Europe.

The Vltava river is 430.3 kilometres (267.4 mi) long and drains an area 28,090 square kilometres (10,850 sq mi) in size, over half of Bohemia and about a third of the Czech Republic’s entire territory. As it runs through Prague, the river is crossed by 18 bridges (including the Charles Bridge) and covers 31 kilometres (19 mi) within the city.

After a full days travel we finally got to Prague about 10.30pm – we hadn’t had dinner and although we weren’t super hungry we thought we better have something so we didn’t wake up at 3am ravenous! Most of the restaurants were closing so ham and cheese from the local minimarket did nicely.

We had booked a Segway tour for Thursday morning. We had read that the locals did not like Segways and they were banned from the inner city. Our driver the night before had also expressed his dislike for Segways in no uncertain terms. Apparently they used to just be hired out without guides and with the number of stag parties that frequent the city you can imagine the carnage they caused. We knew our tour was a more panoramic one from the outskirts of the city and we were happy with that.

Our guide Martin was a university student on his holidays – he was very well travelled and was off to do a six month stint at the university in Granada, Spain next.

First stop was the Great Strahov Stadium which was built for displays of synchronised gymnastics on a massive scale with a field three times as long as and three times as wide as the standard Association football pitch. When it was an active sports venue, it had a capacity of around 220,000 spectators, making it the largest stadium and the fourth largest sports venue ever built. Today, it is no longer in use for competitive sports events; it is a training centre for Sparta Prague, and is used to host pop concerts.

The stands are all in varying states of disrepair. It was let go because it was not practical given it’s size. The building of this stadium was an example of how the Russians flexed their muscles to show their dominance back in the communist days. Another example we saw was the TV tower which blights the skyline – it is big and ugly!

We rode through some residential neighbourhoods – there are some grand old houses. The architecture is detailed and the houses solid.

Martin pointed various things out that we could see over the city and gave us some good information as well as tips as to what to and what not to visit. He also wrote down the names of some restaurants for us to try.

We visited the park where the Petřín Lookout Tower (Czech: Petřínská rozhledna) is located. I opted to climb the 299 steps to the top to get a view over the city. Steve & Martin went off to sample the local beer. It appears that it is very common to drink on the job – the guy in the ticket office took a swig of his beer just before he served me. See below some information about the Czech’s and their love affair with beer.

The Petřín Lookout Tower is a 63.5-metre-tall steel-framework tower which strongly resembles the Eiffel Tower. In 1889, members of the Club of Czech Tourists visited the world exposition in Paris and were inspired by the Eiffel Tower. They collected a sufficient amount of money and in March 1891 the building of the tower started for the General Land Centennial Exhibition. It was finished in only four months.

Petřínská rozhledna is often described as a small version of the Eiffel Tower. In contrast to the Eiffel Tower, Petřínská rozhledna has an octagonal, not square, cross-section. Further, it does not stand, as does the Eiffel Tower, on four columns of lattice steel. The whole area under its legs is covered with the entrance hall. It is also five times smaller.

That evening we tried out one of Martin’s recommendations for dinner – Kozlovna – it was a gastro type pub and served lots of the local dishes like pork knuckle, goulash and dumpling soups. Meat features prominently in the Czech’s diets.

We ventured to the Old Town Square which is full of beautiful architecture – coupled with the history, Prague would have to be one of the most enchanting and fascinating places we have visited.

Old Town Square is a historic square in the Old Town quarter of Prague. The square features various architectural styles including the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, which has been the main church of this part of the city since the 14th century; the church’s towers are 80 metres high. Prague Orloj is a medieval astronomical clock located on the Old Town Hall. The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in operation.

There were street performers and restaurants all around the square along with a lot of tourists.

On Friday morning we walked to Prague Castle which was across the river from where we were staying. I wanted to time our visit with the changing of the guard which we managed to do 😊. Changing the Guard takes place in the first courtyard of Prague Castle at 12pm daily. This is the formal handover carried out with a fanfare and banner exchange. The sentries at the gates of the medieval castle are changed every hour from 7am. I bet they are pleased about that – it must be incredibly boring standing perfectly still while everyone looks at you and takes pictures. Like the Swiss Guards at the Vatican these guards have to be between 178 and 188 centimetres tall too.

Records indicate that Prague Castle is the largest castle area in the world. Its three courtyards and a number of magnificent buildings cover over 7 hectares (18 acres).

The Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) was founded around 880 by prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid dynasty. The first stone building in the castle area was the Church of the Virgin Mary of which only remnants can be seen today. In the 10th century, St. George’s Basilica was founded and the first Czech convent was established there – St. George’s Convent, which now houses a gallery. St. Vitus Rotunda, also from the 10th century, was replaced by St. Vitus Basilica in the 11th century, and it is where St. Vitus Cathedral stands today.

Starting in the 10th century, the Prague Castle served as the seat of Czech princes and later kings, and the seat of the Prague bishop.

The Prague Castle experienced one of its greatest periods during the reign of Charles IV (1346-1378) when it became the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Royal Palace was rebuilt, the fortifications were strengthened, and the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral was initiated, following the style of Gothic French cathedrals of the time.

The expansion of the Castle continued during the reign of Charles’ son Wenceslas IV, but the Hussite wars (1419 – 1437) and the subsequent decades during which the Castle was abandoned lead to its deterioration.

King Wladislaw Jagellon moved into the Castle after 1483 and the complex grew once again. New fortifications and guard towers (the Powder Tower, New White Tower, and Daliborka) were built. The Royal Palace was further remodeled and expanded by the grandiose Wladislaw Hall, one of the first demonstrations of the Renaissance style in the Czech lands.

By the time the Habsburg dynasty took over the Czech throne in 1526, the Renaissance style was in full swing in Europe. The seat of power moved to Vienna and the Prague Castle served mainly for recreational purposes. The Royal Garden was built and entertainment sites such as the Belvedere and Ballgame Hall were added in the 16th century. The Cathedral and Royal Palace were modified. New residential buildings were built to the west of the Old Royal Palace.

The reconstruction of the Castle culminated during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II who became Czech king in 1575 and moved his court back to Prague. He wished to turn the Castle into an elegant center of power that would attract foreign artists, scientists and diplomats. The north wing of the Palace and the Spanish Hall were added to house the emperor’s vast collections of art and science.

The Prague Defenestration of 1618 initiated a long period of wars during which the Prague Castle was damaged and looted, rarely serving as the seat of power.

The last large reconstruction of the Castle took place in the second half of the 18th century when it took on a style of a chateau. However, the seat of power was again in Vienna and the Castle continued to deteriorate.

In 1848, emperor Ferdinand V moved to the Prague Castle. The Chapel of the Holy Cross on the Second Courtyard was rebuilt and the Spanish Hall and Rudolf’s Gallery were remodeled.

With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, the Prague Castle welcomed the first president of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Some needed remodeling was commissioned to the Slovenian architect Josip Plečnik. The construction of St. Vitus Cathedral was finished in 1929.

After 1989, many areas of the Castle were made accessible to the public for the first time in history, including the Royal Garden, Ballgame Hall, the south gardens, or the Imperial Stables. Today, the Prague Castle is the seat of the Czech president and the most important National Cultural Monument of the Czech Republic. A number of priceless art relics, historical documents, as well as the Czech Crown Jewels are stored there.

We wandered back along the river and enjoyed some soup with dumplings at Marina Ristorante which is moored on the Vltava river. This was another of Martin’s recommendations and although a bit pricier than other places we had seen, was very pleasant and a nice setting. There are a lot of boats on the river offering scenic cruises, jazz and meals.

After lunch I spent some more time exploring the old town square – I wanted to find the seven foot tall Sigmund Freud who was hanging from a building somewhere.

This unique sculpture, situated in Prague’s Old Town, is not easily noticeable, as it requires passers-by to look up to the tops of the houses around them. It depicts the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hanging by a hand, pondering whether to hold on or to let go. It is an unexpected and eye-catching sight, though quite disturbing at the same time. ‘Man Hanging Out’ has often been mistaken for a real suicide attempt and has prompted calls to the Czech fire station and police. Sigmund Freud was born in Freiberg, which is now part of the Czech Republic. During his life Freud suffered from a number of phobias, including the fear of his own death. Artist David Cerny chose to depict the psychoanalyst in his constant struggle with this trepidation.

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We also did some people watching and were highly entertained by the groups of guys who had rolled into town for weekend long stag parties. We saw a couple of groups of hens but the stags are more prevalent. The cheap beer is the big pull and it is a party city at night. Apparently lots of hotels have banned groups of guys booking rooms due to the carnage they cause 🍻 🍻 🍻 😡.

That night we went to a traditional Czech restaurant and shared the pork knee – it was really tender and very tasty. A traditional Czech accompaniment is sauerkraut which is incredibly good for you. Steve took a liking to it too so that will be going on the menu when we get home 👍🏻.

On Saturday morning there is a Farmers Market near Vysehrad alongside the river so we walked down to check that out. It was great with many local delicacies on offer from cheese, meat, cakes, bread, honey, fruit, veges, coffee and of course beer. There were a number of people, including women, walking around with their glasses of beer as they perused the market and this was before 11am. I said to Steve, wow you must be in heaven here and he said “I have my standards – not before 12pm”. Well, who knew 😂 .

We then wandered up to Vysehrad. Vyšehrad (Czech for “upper castle”) is a historic fort.

The history of Vyšehrad is closely connected with the evolution of Prague districts and the history of the Czech nation. The massive rock looming high over the Vltava river was a tempting location for settlements since the most ancient times and became a subject of many legends. However, the first reliable documents of the existence of a hill fort at Vyšehrad only date back to the mid-10th century as the site where denarii (coins) of Boleslaus II were minted. Since then, Vyšehrad has changed its function and appearance several times. It was a royal castle, even the seat of a monarch for a short period of time. It became a city and later, a Baroque fortress the appearance of which it has retained to these days. At the end of the 1800s, Vyšehrad became a national symbol and the cemetery of the most famous Czechs. Today, Vyšehrad is a popular destination for walks with breath-taking views of the city and a number of major monuments.

We were there to witness a bride being escorted into the Basilica of St Paul and St Peter.

I then dragged Steve back up the river to have a look at The Lennon Wall or John Lennon Wall. Once a normal wall, since the 1980s it has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs.

In 1988, the wall was a source of irritation for the communist regime of Gustáv Husák. Young Czechs wrote grievances on the wall and in a report of the time this led to a clash between hundreds of students and security police on the nearby Charles Bridge. The movement these students followed was described as “Lennonism” and Czech authorities described these people variously as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism.

The wall continuously undergoes change and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of new paint. Even when the wall was repainted by some authorities, by the next day it was again full of poems and flowers. Today, the wall represents a symbol of global ideals such as love and peace.

We crossed the river on the Charles Bridge which was heaving with people and artists.

Prague flourished during the 14th-century reign (1346–1378) of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Bohemia of the new Luxembourg dynasty. As King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, he transformed Prague into an imperial capital and it was at that time by the area the third-largest city in Europe (after Rome and Constantinople).

The Charles Bridge, replacing the Judith Bridge destroyed in the flood just prior to his reign, was erected to connect the east bank districts to the Malá Strana and castle area. On 9 July 1357 at 5:31 am, Charles IV personally laid the first foundation stone for the Charles Bridge. The exact time of laying the first foundation stone is known because the palindromic number 135797531 was carved into the Old Town bridge tower having been chosen by the royal astrologists and numerologists as the best time for starting the bridge construction. In 1347, he founded Charles University, which remains the oldest university in Central Europe.

It was back to the Old Town Square for some lunch and people watching – it had actually been a chilly day (one of the first we have had for some months 😲) but the sun was starting to appear again. We had lunch at Mincovna – goulash and cauliflower fritters 😋. Mincovna means coin mint and the restaurant is the site of coin minting back in the 18th century.

We had thoroughly enjoyed our time in Prague and I had learnt a lot. My curiosity had also been piqued on a few other bits and pieces…….

Skoda

Škoda Auto more commonly known as Škoda, is a Czech automobile manufacturer founded in 1895 as Laurin & Klement. Its headquarters are in Mladá Boleslav, Czech Republic.

In 1925 Laurin & Klement was acquired by the industrial conglomerate Škoda Works, which itself became state owned in 1948. After 1991 it was gradually privatized and in 2000 Škoda became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group.

Škoda automobiles are sold in over 100 countries and in 2017, total global sales reached 1.21 million units, an increase of 6.6% from the previous year, and the operating profit was €1.6 billion, an increase of 34.6% over the previous year. As of 2017, Škoda’s profit margin was the second highest of all VW Group brands after Porsche.

The perception of Škoda in Western Europe has completely changed since the takeover by VW, in stark comparison with the reputation of the cars throughout the 1980s described by some as “the laughing stock” of the automotive world.

Škoda cars are now made in factories in the Czech Republic, China, Russia, India and Slovakia. A smaller number of Škoda models are additionally manufactured in Öskemen, Kazakhstan and Solomonovo, Ukraine through local partners.

Škoda also produce trams and won the contract to supply the Prague Transport Company with 250 new trams between 2011 and 2018.

Beer

Beer or pivo in Czech has a long history in what is now the Czech Republic, with brewing taking place in Břevnov Monastery in 993. The city of Brno had the right to brew beer from the 12th century while Plzeň and České Budějovice (Pilsen and Budweis in German), had breweries in the 13th century.

The most common Czech beers are pale lagers of pilsner type, with characteristic transparent golden colour, high foaminess and lighter flavour. The Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world at 142.6 litres per person per annum (2014 data). NZ’s consumption for the same year was a measly 62 litres per person apart from Steve Thomas who I believe far exceeds this number 😂.

The history of beer in the modern Czech Republic, historically Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, goes back further than the creation of Pilsner Urquell in 1842. Beer was made in the Czech lands even before the Slavic migration in the 6th century, although the ingredients used often differed from what we are used to today.

Hops have been grown in the region for a long time, and were used in beer making and exported from here since the twelfth century. Most towns had at least one brewery, the most famous brewing cities in Bohemia were Budweis, Plzeň, and Prague. Other towns with notable breweries are Rakovník, Žatec, and Třeboň.

Much of the early brewing history of Bohemia is centred on various monasteries, although today there are very few Czech monasteries brewing and selling beer to the public.

Pilsner Urquell was the first “pilsner” type beer in the world. In 1842, a brewery in Plzeň employed Josef Groll, a German brewer who was experienced in the Bavarian lager method of making beer. Beer in Pilsen at the time was not of very good quality and they needed to compete. Groll developed a golden Pilsner beer, the first light coloured beer ever brewed. It became an immediate success, and was exported all over the Austrian Empire. A special train of beer travelled from Plzeň to Vienna every morning. Exports of Czech beer reached Paris and the United States by 1874.

Castles

The Czech Republic is the castle capital of the world. Given its location in the center of Europe, there were armies from all sides who always wanted to come through what is today the Czech Republic. As such, they built a lot of castles. Over 2,000 of them are in the country today which is the highest density of castles in the world. As mentioned above, Prague castle is the largest castle in the world.

Inventions

The Czech Republic invented contact lenses (1959), sugar cubes and the word robot 😯.

Religion

The Czech Republic is the least religious country in the world – only 19% of Czechs believe in God.

Education

90% of all Czechs have completed secondary school – the highest percentage in the European Union.

Famous Tennis Players

Martina Navratilova & Ivan Lendl come from the Czech Republic 🎾

The Czech Republic

The Czech Republic known alternatively by its short-form name, Czechia is a landlocked country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west, Austria to the south, Slovakia to the east and Poland to the northeast. The Czech Republic covers an area of 78,866 square kilometres (30,450 sq mi) with a mostly temperate continental climate and oceanic climate. It is a unitary parliamentary republic, with 10.6 million inhabitants; its capital and largest city is Prague, with 1.3 million residents. Other major cities are Brno, Ostrava and Pilsen. The Czech Republic is a member of the European Union (EU), NATO, the OECD, the United Nations, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe.

It is a developed country with an advanced, high income export-oriented social market economy based in services, manufacturing and innovation. The Czech Republic is a welfare state with a “continental” European social model, a universal health care system and tuition-free university education. It ranks as the 6th safest or most peaceful country and is one of the most non-religious countries in the world, while achieving strong performance in democratic governance.

The Czech Republic includes the historical territories of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. The Czech state was formed in the late 9th century as the Duchy of Bohemia under the Great Moravian Empire. After the fall of the Empire in 907, the centre of power transferred from Moravia to Bohemia under the Přemyslid dynasty. In 1002, the duchy was formally recognized as part of the Holy Roman Empire, becoming the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1198 and reaching its greatest territorial extent in the 14th century. Besides Bohemia itself, the king of Bohemia ruled the lands of the Bohemian Crown, he had a vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Prague was the imperial seat in periods between the 14th and 17th century. In the Hussite Wars of the 15th century driven by the Protestant Bohemian Reformation, the kingdom faced economic embargoes and defeated five consecutive crusades proclaimed by the leaders of the Catholic Church.

Following the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the whole Crown of Bohemia was gradually integrated into the Habsburg Monarchy alongside the Archduchy of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. The Protestant Bohemian Revolt (1618–20) against the Catholic Habsburgs led to the Thirty Years’ War. After the Battle of the White Mountain, the Habsburgs consolidated their rule, eradicated Protestantism and reimposed Catholicism, and also adopted a policy of gradual Germanization. This contributed to the anti-Habsburg sentiment. A long history of resentment of the Catholic Church followed and still continues. With the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the Bohemian Kingdom became part of the Austrian Empire and the Czech language experienced a revival as a consequence of widespread romantic nationalism. In the 19th century, the Czech lands became the industrial powerhouse of the monarchy and were subsequently the core of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, which was formed in 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I.

Czechoslovakia remained the only democracy in this part of Europe in the interwar period. However, the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany in World War II, while the Slovak region became the Slovak Republic; Czechoslovakia was liberated in 1945 by the armies of the Soviet Union and the United States. The Czech country lost the majority of its German-speaking inhabitants after they were expelled following the war. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia won the 1946 elections and after the 1948 coup d’état, Czechoslovakia became a one-party communist state under Soviet influence. In 1968, increasing dissatisfaction with the regime culminated in a reform movement known as the Prague Spring, which ended in a Soviet-led invasion. Czechoslovakia remained occupied until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the communist regime collapsed and market economy was reintroduced. On 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully dissolved, with its constituent states becoming the independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

Czechoslovakia, or Czecho-Slovakia – Czech and Slovak, was a sovereign state in Central Europe that existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until its peaceful dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 1 January 1993.

The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), and continued until 21 August 1968 when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country to halt the reforms.

The Prague Spring reforms were a strong attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. After national discussion of dividing the country into a federation of three republics, Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia and Slovakia, Dubček oversaw the decision to split into two, the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. This was the only formal change that survived the end of Prague Spring.

The Velvet Revolution or Gentle Revolution was a non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia, occurring from 16 November to 29 December 1989. Popular demonstrations against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia combined students and older dissidents. The result was the end of 41 years of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia, and the subsequent dismantling of the planned economy and conversion to a parliamentary republic.

About SUNGRL

This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
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