St. Vitus Cathedral
Mary King

With its pristine medieval architecture and flourishing high culture, Prague remains the jewel in the crown of renaissance Europe. Mary King winds her way through castles, cathedrals and classical concertos.

As hawkers and vendors pounce on you with theater tickets or Bohemian cut glass in hand, there is a definite temptation to mourn the fact that the uglier aspects of capitalism seem to have been embraced with such a vengeance in the City of a Hundred Spires. But in spite of such hassles, Prague remains the magical capital of a country dotted with castles, chateaux, manors and museums plucked straight out of a fairy tale.

Prague no doubt deserves its listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, with its old city an almost perfectly preserved remnant of 16th-century Bohemia.

Rare gem
Nestled in a picturesque valley with the Vltava River curling through its heart, this is the city that Goethe called the “prettiest gem in the stone diadem of the world.” Prague no doubt deserves its listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, with its old city an almost perfectly preserved remnant of 16th century Bohemia. Home to 1.2 million people, Prague (Praha in Czech) has been the capital of a Czech state for more than 1000 years. It was the latter part of the 9th century that a castle called Praha was built on a small rise above a ford, about where Manesuv Bridge stands today. That was the century in which the future city rose to prominence under Prince Borivoj, its first Christian ruler and founder of the Premyslid dynasty. His grandson, Prince Vaclav, became the “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame and the country’s patron saint. The city prospered from its position astride the central European trade routes, but it was after the dynasty crumbled in 1306 that Prague entered its golden age. In just 30 years, Prague became one of the most important cities in 14th-century Europe.

Mary King

In more recent history, Prague survived World War II substantially unscathed but afterwards disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. The city briefly reemerged onto the world stage during the Prague Spring of 1968, a cultural blossoming quickly nipped in the bud once Soviet tanks and those of its Warsaw Pact satellites rolled into town. Although for Prague the “Velvet Revolution” some 12 years ago marked a decisive break with the era of neocolonial rule, the “Velvet Divorce” in 1993, which saw the country split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, turned citizens’ initial euphoria to despair.

Walking the streets of this city is certainly the best way of getting to know her secrets. Castles top high hills and 17 bridges span the Vltava, separating Mala Strana (Little Quarter), with its Baroque homes of the nobility, from Stare Mesto (Old Town), the early Gothic city-center. At Hradcany you find the medieval castle district where royalty once resided, while Nove Mesto (New Town) is a Gothic extension of Stare Mesto. Visible from almost anywhere in the city is Prague Castle, rebuilt and extended numerous times in the 1000 years since its founding. The castle, which has always served as the hub of political power, is the official residence of President Vaclav Havel, playwright, philosopher and long-time political dissident.

Strains of Vivaldi, Schubert and Dvorak drift from open windows all around as you walk the cobbled streets of a city that is also famed for its links with Mozart.

Twin-spired St. Vitus Cathedral is one of several buildings within the castle grounds open to the public. It has become a symbol of the Czech nation owing to its stormy history and status as an artistic memorial. It is the third church to have stood in this place; the first was a rotunda built by St Wenceslas in 929. These walls have seen some 30 coronations of Bohemian monarchs, many of whom also found their last resting place within them. About 15 rulers are buried here, and visitors are admitted to the choir and chapels, where they can view the tombs of the Bohemian kings and archbishops, as well as to the great southern tower with its wonderful view of the city.

Prague is famed not only for its architecture but also for its arts. It has long been a European center for classical music and jazz, and has more recently become a melting pot for rock and various alternative music genres. Be it afternoon or evening, one has an endless choice of arias and classical music recitals given in palace courtyards or inside the city’s many churches. Ballet, opera, poetry readings, mime theater, marionette performances of Don Quixote or Don Giovanni: whatever your heart’s desire, this city oozes culture, high and low, from every pore. Strains of Vivaldi, Schubert and Dvorak drift from open windows all around as you walk the cobbled streets of a city that is also famed for its links with Mozart.

Tourists gather around the monumnet of Master John Huss in Old Town Square
Mary King

In 1787 Mozart ended his first visit to Prague, one that proved to be a milestone in the great composer’s life. Mozart had witnessed the triumph of his opera The Marriage of Figaro, which had received a frosty reception in Vienna. Resounding success in Prague led Mozart to compose another work especially for the city. Thus the great opera Don Giovanni was born. In September, 1791, the city played host to the world premiere of yet another Mozart opera, La Clemenza di Tito. Three months later, the maestro was dead.

A street performer on Charles Bridge
Mary King

Another person who is inseparable from any experience of Prague is the writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924). A memorial tablet marks the house near St Nicholas’ Church in the Old Town where Kafka was born. In the hard years of World War I, Kafka found a refuge at 22 Golden Lane within the ramparts of Prague Castle, and his grave, along with those of his parents, who outlived him, can be found at the New Jewish Cemetery in the capital’s Vinohrady district. Although read during his lifetime, it was a long time before Kafka received the recognition he deserved from those in his native land. Mankind had to endure another war, and the raising of a physical and ideological wall dividing the world into different political camps before it could begin to understand the existential anxiety expressed by his words. Many maintain that Kafka was Prague, and Prague was Kafka. Explore the city’s rich history and personalities, and decide for yourself.

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