Historic Center of Prague: A Treasure in Central Europe

Name: Historic Center of Prague (Czech Republic).
Location: in the center of the country, in Central Bohemia.

The remains of prehistoric settlements in Prague, which have been preserved up to these days, barely provide us any information. The first people about whom we have enough data is the Boii, a Celtic people that made this region be known as Bohiobaemun, term from which comes the word Bohemia, the name of this European region.

In the 9th century, the Slavic tribe of the Czech settled near the banks of river Moldava (currently Vltava), and they fortified a hill, at the same place where it stands the spectacular Prague Castle nowadays; soon they dominated Bohemia and converted this into their new capital.

Old Town Square, Prague

From that moment on, some Catholic missionaries started to pass by and they eventually managed to spread efficiently their religion, thanks to the help of some nobles and, especially, the one of prince St. Wenceslas (Vaclav, in Czech). This ecclesiastical influence affected the architecture of multiple buildings during the 11th-12th centuries, gradually giving Prague a big-city-like feeling; but the main event that enhances its ultimate grandeur was the rise to the throne of Charles IV, king of Germany and Bohemia and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. A man passionate about arts and culture, he gathered in Prague the best intellectuals and artists of the epoch; he founded in 1348 the first university in Central Europe and he also promoted fantastic artworks, among which stands out the Charles Bridge.

The situation changed radically when the monarch passed away and the Hussite revolution broke out, a time when Prague lost a large part of its splendor. Things worsened even more in 1541 when a fire destroyed almost completely the buildings near the left bank of the Moldava.

From here, Prague revived like a phoenix from its ashes and the city started a new era of renewal that achieved its zenith at the end of the 16th century when emperor Rudolph II was crowned. A great art and culture lover like his predecessor Charles IV, but also interested in astronomy and alchemy. This new golden age, despite its initial force, lasted for a short period of time. After the abdication of Rudolph II, the court was moved to Vienna, starting a terrible phase of conflicts between Bohemia and Austria which didn't conclude until 1620, with the defeat of the Czechs in the Battle of White Mountain. Then, Prague entered a phase of Austrian domination from which it couldn't escape until 1918, the moment when the country recovered its independence after three long centuries. The 20th-century history collects very well-known events: the Second World War, the establishment of communism, failure of Alexander Dubcek and the Prague Spring, fall of the Communist party, appointment in 1989 of Václav Havel as president, and immediate disaggregation of the Czech and Slavic republics into two independent countries. Prague, the beautiful Prague, became the capital of the new Czech Republic.

4 Towns United by a Bridge

The historic core of Prague is constituted by three different cities; Staré Mesto (the old town) and Nové Mesto (the new town), spread along the right bank of the Vltava river, whereas in the left bank, it is found Malá Strana (the lesser town), as well as the Castle zone, known as Hradcany.

A series of bridges unite both banks of the Vltava but among all of them, the most popular and the one who puts in contact the different historic zones of the city is the famous Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), an authentic symbol of the city.

This bridge owes its name to monarch Charles IV, who ordered its construction in the 14th century to not only join the Old Town and Malá Strana together but also as a strategical access to the Castle. The construction, lead by architect Peter Parler, began in 1357. The bridge, which is more than 1,600 feet long, was entirely built in sandstone and to its two ends, gothic-style defensive towers were added. The tower, through which a visitor can access the Charles Bridge from the Old Town, is also a work of the same architect (Peter Parler), although it couldn't be finished until the end of the 14th century. On the other end of the bridge, giving way to Malá Strana borough, two towers are found: the minor, one of the oldest monuments in Prague, was erected at the end of the 12th century and it was originally located in Judith Bridge, bridge that was carried away by the waters in 1342 and where the current Charles Bridge is now found. The other tower dates back to 1464 and it was constructed to match with the one of the opposite end. During the 17th century, about thirty sculptural works were placed along the Bridge.

The Old Town

The best starting point for a tourist is the Old Town Square (Staromestské Námesti), the neuralgic center of Prague, embellished by houses with valuable bas-reliefs and attractive colors. Just behind them, but rising above the height of the houses, you can see the two twin towers of the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, gothic church in whose spectacular interior is found the tomb of the great astronomer Tycho Brahé. Dominating the vast space of the square, it is located the Old Town Hall (Staromsetská Radnice), founded in 1388 and actually made up of the union of different houses. Its attractiveness is centered in the popular astronomical clock that since 1410 ornaments its tower and hour after hour congregates thousands of people. This masterwork from the medieval automatism is composed of different figures that are activated every time the gong vibrates: the death with its scythe, a Turkish prince, a vain person who looks himself in the mirror and a greedy with his bag of coins, all of these surrounding the enormous clock. This clock moves its golden hands to control the hours, the days, the months, the seasons and even the movements of the sun and the moon. Above this and through two windows, Jesus and the twelve apostles pass by, while a rooster that crowns the complex sings flapping its wings. Beneath the clock, a much more modern calendar (from the 19th century), completes the entire monument with its zodiac signs.

The baroque St. Nicholas Church, destined in the present to the Protestant religion, Kafka's House, St. James Church with its magnificent baroque sepulcher of Chancellor Mitrovice, the Gunpowder Tower (Prasná Brána), one of the oldest towers from the primitive fortification and which served later (in the 17th century) as an ammunition depot, or the Karolinum which is now the seat of Charles University. These are some of the monuments that can be found while walking throughout the Old Town; but this is not everything. Staré Mesto also offers a big surprise for us: the Old Jewish Quarter, even after the demolishment of a large part of the primitive ghetto in the 19th century. Consequently, today's visitors can only contemplate the Town Hall, the synagogues and the cemetery.

The Old New Synagogue (Staronová Synagóga), which dates back to 1270, is the oldest one in Europe and deserves a visit. The Maisel Synagogue shows in its inside an exceptional collection of 6,000 pieces of gold, silver, and bronze used in ceremonies. The Spanish Synagogue, with its collection of fabrics, stands out for its decoration with stuccos that imitate the style in La Alhambra (Spain) and which were made by Jewish who arrived from Spain after the expulsion ordered by the Catholic Kings. Nevertheless, the most surprising place in the entire Jewish borough is the old cemetery, where 2,000 tombs can be found, piled at different levels due to the lack of space.

Malá Strana

Otakar II founded in 1257 this "lesser town", which later was enlarged and walled by Charles IV. Unfortunately, two consecutive fires reduced the borough to ashes, so its posterior reconstruction gave place to a very different citadel, dominated by a baroque style, in which palaces and houses with escalated gardens and beautiful backyards flourished.

The visit to St. Nicholas Church is a must. This building can be described as a fascinating architecture masterwork, both inside and outside, where baroque achieves its highest expression, like in the interior where a giant fresco of more than 16,000 square feet (1,500 square meters), designed by Jan Kracker in the 18th century evokes the life of St. Nicholas. In each column of the Church, the statue of a saint or bishop highlights the main altar, whereas the pulpit with no visible stairs, seems to float in the air. Another interesting church is the Church of Our Lady Victorious, the oldest in Malá Strana and in which it can be seen the work of Karek Skretá in the major altar which represents the Battle of Lepanto (1571). A good way of recovering from the tiredness is going to Kampa Island to read the "Malá Strana Tales" from Jan Neruda, an important Czech writer whose last name was taken by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. After crossing the Charles Bridge, Neruda Street leads us directly to the Castle zone.

Hradschin, the royal castle, is actually a miniature city that dominates the rest of the city of Prague, perched above a steep hill. Its beginnings date back to the 9th century but the enlargements, refurbishments, partial demolishments and posterior reconstructions have made of this zone a weird mixture of grandeur styles, whose beauty has been praised by artists through the ages. Among all worthwhile works can be mentioned: the Church of the Holy Cross, located in the southern wing of the castle, where it is also found the treasure of the St. Vitus Cathedral (Katedrála Svatého Víta), built by order of Charles IV above the placement of the old romanesque basilica; the Golden Gate with its mosaics of vivid colors, the clocktower with a height of 328 feet, the St. Wenceslas Church with its 1,345 fine stones embedded in the golden plaster of its walls, or the crypt where Charles IV's remains rest, are just a small part of what can be admired in this great cathedral. Regarding the Old Royal Palace - traditional headquarters of the Bohemian Monarchs and currently occupied by the president of the Czech government - deserves special attention the Vladislav Hall (Vladislavsky sál) with its blazing gothic style but with Renaissance-like windows through which a beautiful landscape can be contemplated. In the small St. George's Square, it is located its homologous basilica, a beautiful building thanks to the magnificent and careful restoration that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. Attached to the basilica, it is found the oldest monastery in Bohemia, founded in 973, in which visitors can enjoy a large museum of paintings. Just before leaving the square, one arrives at the Golden Lane, with its 16 tiny colored houses where, according to a legend, lived the alchemists who tried to transform the elements in gold.

The New Town (Nové Mesto) is not so new, despite its name, as it is more than 600 years old, but what is true is that it is here where Prague has suffered more changes, given the fact that a lot of original buildings have been gradually substituted by newer and more functional ones. Its vital center is Wenceslas Square (Václavské Námestí), where the main banks, hotels, and supermarkets are found. In this square, the 1989 demonstrations that ended up with the communist government took place. It doesn't seem a bad idea, as a symbol of respect, to conclude this walkthrough in the same place where the new Prague was born.

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