The Allure of Prague
Prague … it’s said to be the city of 100 spires.
In fact there are more than 400 spires in this bewitching city. And surprises at every turn.
One of the most beautiful cities in the world, Prague as the capital of the Czech Republic has witnessed the tramp of history, especially through the struggle for self-determination and nationhood.
And while fellow travellers return with wonderful accounts it is so much better to see it for yourself, in your own time.
It’s more hilly than expected and road tunnels are used in the city to good effect.
But don’t even think of driving in the old city – the streets are narrow and the temperament of fellow road users an unknown factor.
Besides, it is a city made for walking. And it has a cheap and efficient public transport system
The River Vltava, that reflects so much of the city’s beauty, is wider than you think it will be.
Each of Prague’s districts has its own characteristic atmosphere and unique charm.
It presents as a changeable city, one that likes to alternate styles: it is romantic and successful, ancient and modern. It is also the historical capital of Bohemia.
Situated in the north-west of the country, the city is home to about 1.26million people while its larger urban zone is estimated to have a population of nearly two million. This is in a country of about 10million.
The city has warm summers and chilly winters. Indeed, the river is known to ice up.
Prague has been a political, cultural, and economic centre of central Europe with waxing and waning fortunes during its 1100-year existence.
Founded during the Romanesque and flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, Prague was an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After World War I it became the capital of the newly-created Czechoslovakia.
The city played major roles in the Bohemian and Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and in 20th-century history, during both World Wars and the post-war Communist era.
Prague is home to a number of famous cultural attractions, many of which survived the violence and destruction of 20th-century Europe.
These include the gothic Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square with the Prague astronomical clock and the Church of St Nicholas in the Lesser Town, the most beautiful Baroque church in Prague.
Then there are the winding lanes of the Jewish Quarter, made famous by the novels of Franz Kafka.
Closed to road traffic, the 621metre-long Charles Bridge was started in 1357 under King Charles IV and made Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.
Among the sculptures found on the bridge is that of Saint John of Nepomuk, the patron saint of bridges.
He refused to divulge the secrets of the confessional with the confessor of the queen of Bohemia, and at the behest of King Wenceslaus was thrown from the bridge and drowned.
In modern times it has become traditional to touch the bridge here; this is held to bring good fortune and to ensure that the visitor will return to the city of Prague.
Installed in the year 1410, the 600-year-old astronomical clock is the world’s oldest still in operation.
Mounted on the southern wall of Old Town Hall in the Old Town Square, the clock mechanism has three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; statues of various Catholic saints stand on either side of the clock; The Walk of the Apostles, a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures — notably a figure of Death, represented by a skeleton, striking the time; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months.
Legend has it the the city will suffer if the clock is neglected and its good operation is placed in jeopardy. Accordingly, it is undergoing maintenance at the moment but is expected to be started again in June 2018.
The thing about Prague is you can wander and stumble upon absolute treasures. Whether it be the intercontinental train station or a café off Wenceslas Square.
The city boasts more than 10 major museums, along with numerous theatres, galleries, cinemas, and other historical exhibits.
Yet the most memorable was a about a 12cent tram ride to Prague 7 where there is a huge gem of a building, the Veletrzni Palace.
Constructed in the years 1925-1929, this massive building was used for trade fairs until 1951 after which it was home to several international companies. Heartbreakingly, a fire destroyed it in 1974.
A meticulous restoration happened in 1995 and ever since it has been the seat of National Gallery for the centre of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Getting off the tram and asking directions, a lady pointed out what she thought was the building but then hurried after us to correct herself.
It showed a helpful nature, one that has had to endure so much through wartime and occupation by foreign forces.
The gallery as a building displays that resilience. Four vast floors that house a wonderfully impressive collection of 19th to 21st century European and Czech art.
A full day can easily be spent wandering around this museum but on the third floor is where you will find 19th to 20th century French art (some Rodin, Gauguin, and Van Gogh) and Czech art from 1900 to 1930 – most notably Frantisek Kupka.
The fourth floor showcases the works of various intriguing Czech artists such as Josef Myslbek, Josef Manes, and Julius Marak, including Art Nouveau sculptures, beaming portraits and lush landscapes, while the first floor displays Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Picasso.
Yet on this day the ground floor featured the Slav Epic, an exhibition of works by Czech painter Alfons Mucha depicting the struggle of the Slav people through history.
It was an artistic experience. Some 20 monumental works, many of them measuring six metres by four metres.
The emotion depicted by Mucha is breathtaking. Inspired by Slavic mythology and the history of the Czech nation, he worked on the Slav Epic for almost 20 years and first unveiled it to the public in 1928 to celebrate 10 years of the independence of Czechoslovakia.
That was in the Great Hall of the just completed Veletržní Palace.
A featured work on our visit was US artists Joseph Pennell’s 1908 work, Hail America. It was a stark impression, an allegory of America with the Statue of Liberty backlit by the sun breaking through clouds, and Manhatten’s skyline in the distance.
Striking, certainly. Yet there was nothing joyous about it. Very dark, deep and thoughtful.
It resonated with the work, fatigue, struggle, battle, death and destruction suffered by the Czech people over centuries. That was there for all to see in the art work during the Communist occupation.
Contrast that with Jindrich Aprucha and his uplifting early 1900s series of landscapes, portraits and rural scenes.
There is time to reflect on both the art and the history of the Czech people in the ground-floor café.
In a way that part of the building says a lot about the present-day Prague. Large windows open to the street displaying the transparency and a confidence for the next millennium.