Prague draws a lot of visitors these days, drawn by its picturesque historic center, its cultural elan, its beautiful river setting, its long and varied history...and maybe also just because everyone else is going.
We went there a few years ago (2003, actually) because we were going to Budapest and Vienna, and everyone told us we'd feel incomplete without Prague. No regrets. A charming city, an easy one to walk around and with more to teach our history-wandering church-visiting trying-to-make-the-pieces-fit selves that we anticipated.
For a start, Bohemia (Prague's region) was intermittently a powerful kingdom and a possession of others. It has a Jewish history going back a thousand years, and marked with both great institutions and buildings and a string of expulsions and persecutions. It's a city whose religious population (less than half, by census) leans toward Catholic, but is one of the foundation cities of Protestantism and home of Jan Hus. An important German-speaking city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and an important player in its downfall. Etc.
We spent most of our time there in Stare Mesto, or Old Town, although our vacation apartment was in a modern area a few metro stops away. The central focus of Old Town is Old Town Square, a large open space dominated at its center by a monument to Jan Hus, the Protestant reformer. He was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1415; the monument was erected at the 500th anniversary, even though then and now Hussites are only less than 1% of the population. Sometimes nationalism trumps everything; three years later a monument of the Virgin Mary, also in the square, was torn down because it was considered a reminder of Habsburg rule.
Behind the monument are the iconic towers of the 14th century Church of the Mother of God in Front of Tyn. Really. The church originally served foreign merchants who showed their wares in the neighborhood and square of Tyn.
The other best-known building on Old Town Square is the Town Hall, built in 1338 when King John of Luxembourg (I told you this was a complicated story!) granted Stare Mesto the right to limited self-government. It's in use today for the original purpose, and is the home of the famous Astronomical Clock of Prague, installed in 1410—making it the third oldest in the world, and the oldest still working. Crowds gather there every day to watch the animated figures and see the positions of stars and planets on the upper dial.
Prague's historic town center has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Not very far from Old Town Square is the Charles Bridge, lined with statues, crossing the Vltava (in German, Moldau) River; the Castle is on a hilltop on the other side.
The bridge is thronged with pedestrians, vendors, buskers, and this gentlemen who both plays and repairs antique stringed instruments on the spot.
But a river means boats, and we took advantage of a cruise that left from near the bridge and headed along the river for a general view of the city, including a "Venetian boat" which actually looked more Asian to us, waterside restaurants, the old Toll House and more, including the massive Parliament Building. Thinking about it: that seems to be the place for Parliament: either on the riverbank (London, Budapest, Prague) or an a hilltop (Washington, Ottawa). You may remember the first picture below: It was the puzzle picture for Where in the World is TravelGumbo #49.
Always a moment for knitting
If I hadn't said Prague, you'd have thought Paris, wouldn't you?
As you can see, Prague is not all Gothic styles; there's a mix of many styles, including Baroque, Moorish revival and, from the early part of the 20th century, quite a bit of Art Nouveau, including these, and a reminder that Einstein did more than just theorize about physics...
Plenty of Baroque to be had as well, as in this church interior:
And here and there, there are more than a few bits of pure whimsy, such as these baker's apprentices of a bygone age (upper) and summer pavilion above the river (middle) and the unloved oversized artwork for sale.
Some of the most unusual buildings in Prague are in the Josefov area, adjacent to the Old Town. For many centuries, this was the area to which the Jews of Prague, at times a quarter of the city's population, were restricted. In some regimes they were treated well, even treasured by the rulers; in other centuries they were persecuted or driven out. Over the years, these changes resulted in structures of different kinds, and of different forms of community life.
The gilded Star of David below marks the "Jewish Town Hall," the seat of self-government by the community; the elders of the ghetto were expected to keep order and maintain both justice and services for the community. At times, its representatives were part of the overall City's councils.
The Old New Synagogue lives up to both parts of its name; it is very old (almost 750 years) and when it was built, it was the new synagogue, replacing older smaller structures.
In prosperous times, Jewish merchants of Prague were able to show off their wealth and connections by building new synagogues and other structures; one of these was Mordechai Maisel, who paid for the synagogue that bears his name. It was built about 1590. The original burned in 1689 and was rebuilt in Baroque style, and renovated in 1893-1905. It and the nearby Jewish cemetery escaped Nazi destruction because Hitler picked them to be part of his intended "Museum of the Extinct Race." And today it is a museum, but of Jewish heritage and history.
I was struck by how much more it resembled a Catholic church than the synagogues of my acquaintance.
The Prague Jewish Cemetery, in use from the mid-15th century to the late 18th, has more than 200,000 graves in a very small space; burials are as much as 12 deep to make maximum use of the space.
Prague is the home of the legend of the Golem, a creature made of mud, and animated by having a Hebrew inscription on a tablet placed in its mouth. As in many other similar stories, the Golem turns against its master and must be destroyed...a task that was accomplished only by stealthily removing the tablet. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the man who is said to have brought the Golem to life, is buried here. A few blocks away, a comic statue of his creation offers tour brochures to visitors.
Two last pictures, that didn't fit the narrative but are worth a look. The first is a small castle-like building on the edge of the ghetto; I don't know what its function was. And the second is one of my favorites: a surviving hardware store of the oldest sort.