An index to the Prague series appears on the first post.
A walk in Staré Město, the Old Town, of Prague is essential for anyone enjoying the city for the first time. The Gothic rooftops, narrow passageways, and hidden churches are all delights for the tourist. The twenty-three years that have passed since my 1994 visit, though, have transformed this district to fill it with swanky restaurants and souvenir shops and boutiques catering to both well-heeled tourists and backpackers. Knowing just a little bit of history helps to bring this city back to life!
The image above shows the northeast side of the Old Town Square. I tell the part of the story of Jan Hus below; his statue forms a substantial island in the square, and the Church of our Lady before Týn is one of the images that has lingered in my mind for the twenty years since I last saw Prague. A great cluster of tourists, however, may frequently be found at the south corner of the square, especially as the top of the hour draws near. They come in order to see the mechanical show from the Horologe, a beautiful clock that was first constructed in 1410 by a collaboration between clockmaker Nicholas of Kadaň and astronomer Jan Šindel. A local legend tells the story that the town council was concerned that the clockmaker would build such a clock for another city. The legend relates that one of the council members sent men to the maker’s home and blinded him! He apparently had his revenge, however, by crushing part of its mechanism.
Old Town sits inside a bend in the Vltava River, opposite Prague Castle. The oldest construction has been dated to the ninth century. The Town was once surrounded by a moat, but this ditch has been covered by an arc of major streets: Revoluční, Na Příkopě, and Národní (Revolutionary, “On the Moat,” and National). Starting in the tenth century, the Old Town became home to a substantial Jewish community. Eventually, their district became a ghetto in the northwestern part of the old town.
As I mentioned in the prior post, Charles IV (1316-1378) transformed Prague. The Charles Bridge (Karlův most) was built to connect Old Town to the castle district across the Vltava, replacing the twelfth century Judith Bridge. Since the bridge connects the castle and city, it has played a key role in combat in this area. The Swedes were defeated on this bridge at the close of the Thirty Years’ War, and the Prussians were defeated there in 1744. The bridge was hardly the only addition, though. A greatly expanded city area was surveyed for construction, quadrupling the city’s area. By the fifteenth century, it was the third most expansive city in Europe.
The New Town gained a new city hall (Novoměstská radnice) in the 15th century. This city hall played a strange role in the drama playing out among the king (Wenceslas IV, who drowned John of Nepomuk), the Pope (Alexander V), and Master Jan Hus, a preacher at Bethlehem Chapel in Prague. Jan Hus had encountered the writings of John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian who argued that scripture was the key source of authority for Christians. The resulting Hus sermons led to complaints from German scholars at Prague University to the Pope, but the king sided with Hus. The German scholars left Prague for other countries. When Alexander V became Pope, he announced an interdict against Prague while Hus lived there, but the city shrugged it off. When he railed against the sale of indulgences, though, the king stopped supporting him (since the king received some of the funds). Hus was eventually drawn to the Council of Constance under a safe passage, but he was immediately arrested and eventually sentenced to a fiery death at the stake. Since he was a much-beloved figure throughout Bohemia, many rose in rebellion. The Hussite Wars were the result. In 1419, Hussite radicals threw the seven members of the town council from the high window of the New Town Hall, to die atop Hussite pikes. This became known as the “First Defenstration” of Prague (the first of three).
These wars led to the ascension of George of Poděbrady as king of Bohemia. He had some rather forward ideas for the time, such as the unity of Europe. I appreciate him most for his celebration of the Church of our Lady before Týn, making it the principal church of Prague rather than St. Vitus (sequestered inside the castle). I simply love the building, and for me it is the symbol of Prague. I was very unhappy to discover that it had been closed to visitors, due to the cold. I came back to the Old Town Square at 9PM to catch its Sunday night service because I wanted to see its insides so badly! The church interior is dominated by black and gold. A sixteenth century carving of the baptism of Jesus was close to my seat, and I gave it a closer inspection after the service. While I could not take photographs, I have captured some memories that I hope to retain until my next visit.
Certainly, Prague has enough towers and statues to go for days. I enjoyed the ghost of Don Giovanni outside the opera house where Mozart premiered this piece. The eleventh century Powder Gate once protected one of the entrances to the city of Prague. Now it stands astride the main road leading from the original moat to the Old Town square. In the “City of a Thousand Spires,” one can hardly walk any distance without finding a new marvel.