City break? Czech out Prague

Engrossing and beguiling, the Czech capital offers visitors a glimpse of its rich and glorious past

 

With its reputation for stag and hen parties and a stop-off point for Interrailing students, I wondered if we were foolish to opt for a long weekend in the Czech capital. But I need not have worried because Prague is ready and willing to accommodate all types of travellers without fear or favour. Even in a few days, you can quickly soak up its very particular atmosphere.

An intense, engrossing and beguiling place, this central European city seems to have shrugged off its 40 years of communist history – instead feeding 21st-century tourists with its rich and glorious past as one-time capital of the Habsburg Empire.

Prague is an easy city to navigate – not least because of the gloriously wide Vltava river upon which it was built. Over a weekend, we found ourselves getting our bearings from the river as we explored the streets around Prague Castle, the Old Town, the New Town, the Jewish Quarter and the Mala Strana district on the west bank of the river.

Watching the river cruises bring batches of sightseers under the famous Charles Bridge, or intrepid paddle boaters further downstream, became a meditative exercise in itself – best enjoyed with a beer in a riverside bar or river boat.

As with all historic cities, the best way to explore it is on foot, although there are options to join city tours by bicycle and, better still, in stylish vintage cars that make the passengers look like distance relatives of the royals.

The most talked about – and walked over – feature of the entire city is the Charles Bridge. It symbolised the first of two “Golden Ages” of Prague and was built by Charles IV (1346-78). The Bohemian king also founded Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral and established Charles University in 1348, making it the oldest university in central Europe.

Crossing the Charles Bridge from east to west, one is drawn upwards towards Prague Castle, which is the biggest castle complex in the world. Dominated by the spire of the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral, the castle is the seat of Czech power, both politically and symbolically – as it houses both the president’s office and the ancient Bohemian crown jewels. Just outside the castle compound, art lovers can visit Prague Castle gallery with its collection of European Baroque art. We decided not to go inside the castle complex and instead wandered the medieval streets, stumbling upon the Senate buildings and gardens. Formerly the Wallenstein Palace and gardens, it is a perfect place to take a rest.

Back on our feet, we decided to climb Petrin Hill to see the city from on high. It’s a steep climb to the Petrin Tower (like a mini Eiffel Tower) but is well worth the effort. The views down to the Vltava are spectacular.

Joseph Stalin

If you’ve any energy left, you can continue northwards towards Velna park – with its modern sculpture of a metronome – where you’ll get arguably better views across the city. Walk back down the monumental steps to the Vltava river and look back up to see the metronome ticking in the exact spot where the world’s largest statue of the Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin, towered over the city from 1955-1962.

There are many museums and churches to visit in Prague. Literature lovers may choose the Franz Kafka museum. Music lovers may opt for a concert in the Baroque church of St Nicholas or the Child of Prague church – both in the Mala Strana district. And, of course, the National Gallery holds collections of art from Baroque to modern periods.

I opted to go to the Museum of Communism, a few minutes’ walk from the shopping streets in the Old Town of Prague. The descriptions of life under communism, and particularly the recorded interviews with dissidents who fled during this repressive era, are fascinating.

And if you’re hungry after all that history, you can take a 10-minute walk to the Manifesto Market, a quirky outdoor food market with tasty international and Czech food and drink served from repurposed shipping containers. Bars, cafes and restaurants are plentiful in Prague but you’ll remember this one more than most.

A trip to Prague is not complete without visiting the Jewish Quarter. The famous Pink Synagogue is now a Holocaust museum, with the names of the 70,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis inscribed on its interior walls. We notice sombre tour groups visiting the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Old-New Synagogue and the Prague Jewish Museum. But we opt instead to take refuge in the peaceful gardens of St Agnes Convent (the convent also houses the National Gallery’s collection of Bohemian and central European medieval art). It’s a perfect respite for jaded tourists who have walked so much of Prague in three days.

A rich and bloody history

It’s impossible to visit Prague without thinking about its history, and particularly in 2018 – 100 years since Czechoslovakia became a state and 50 years since the famous Prague Spring. Its central European location left it open to invasion by the Habsburgs, the Nazis and the Soviets. Some Czechs even see EU membership in 2004 as another form of invasion.

Czechoslovakia became a state in 1918, with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire after the first World War. However, this was a short-lived independence. Twenty years later, under the Munich Pact of 1938, Britain and France accepted the annexation of the Sudetenland (a German-speaking region in Czechoslovakia) by Nazi Germany. And in March, 1939, the Germans occupied the rest of the country. The rapid occupation meant the country’s historic buildings survived without much damage, but many of the Czech intelligentsia and more than 70,000 Jews died at the hands of the Nazis.

After the second World War, the Czechoslovak government expelled 2.5 million Sudeten Germans and confiscated their property. In 1947, a power struggle between democratic and communist forces resulted in a Soviet-backed coup d’état in 1948.

The 1950s were repressive years when thousands of non-communists fled the country. Many were imprisoned and hundreds were executed or died in labour camps. In April 1968, the so-called Prague Spring saw the new first secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, introduce reforms. Moscow, however, was not happy with his form of socialism. The Soviet dictatorship was re-established and Czechoslovakia was subsequently occupied by 20,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact soldiers.

In 1977, the human-rights group, Charter 77 – whose membership included the playwright/philosopher, Vaclav Havel – was founded and continued its underground activities throughout the 1980s. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall were the catalyst for change. Dissidents led by Havel formed the anti-Communist Civic Forum and negotiated the resignation of the Communist government in a period which became known as the Velvet Revolution.

Three years later, opposing political forces brought about the split between the Czech Republic and more left-leaning Slovakia. In January 1993, Prague became capital of the new Czech Republic, with Vaclav Havel as its first president. The Czech Republic became a member of the EU in 2004 but the country has never adopted the euro as its currency. The fall-out from the communist era continues to influence Czech politics to this day.

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