new country with a glorious past'
of One Hundred Towers and Spires’ and ‘Golden
Prague’ are names that conjure up the many aspects
of this fascinating city, the capital of the Czech Republic. Its
rich architectural heritage, results from centuries of escaping
the worst ravages of war and recently, nature with the floods in
August 2002. Maintenance of the painted stucco exteriors, is a constant
process. Under Communism, Prague was the showplace of the Warsaw
Pact, although in a muted fashion. Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution,
the city has thrown off years of oppression and is now returning
to its former glory.
Located in the valley of the Vltava (Moldau) River,
Prague is dominated by the castle perched on the Western bluffs.
Visitors are attracted to the ‘fairy tale’ aspect of
the city but this is only part of its vibrant mixture of styles.
Prague is best explored on foot and the entire centre has been designated
a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gothic churches can
be found alonside Cubist, Functionalist and ultra-modern buildings,
classical music intermingles with jazz and rock, while statues sit
next to abstract works and even a Cubist lamppost. Prague’s
was established by the Pøemyslid King Otakar II
(1253–78), when the town was organised into three administrative
districts – the Castle precincts (Hradèany), the Lesser
Town below the Castle (Malá Strana) and Old Town (Staré
Mìsto). Across the river, the Jewish community moved from
Lesser Town to the Josefov ghetto, to make room for German traders.
The city’s golden age began when Charles IV of Bohemia
was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1346. The ambitious Gothic building
programme, including St Vitus Cathedral, the Charles
Bridge, the University, and the New
Town (Nové Mìsto), centred on Wenceslas
Square and transformed Prague into one of the greatest
and most powerful cities in Europe. In reaction to Hapsburg rule,
nationalism reasserted itself in the late 18th century. Throughout
the 19th century, the creation of a nationalistic architectural
style brought further changes. Later, the Jewish ghetto was razed
to make way for Art Nouveau buildings. With the end of World War
I, Czechoslovakia gained its independence. Freed from the constraints
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prague blossomed as new artistic
styles were developed – Cubism, Art Deco and Functionalism
found a niche in its architecture and arts. Strong influences arrived
from America as Prague was ripe for the importation of popular culture
from the Jazz Age. Prague took what it wanted, while keeping its
unique identity. Not even years of Nazi and Communist suppression
successfully stifled the Czech spirit – as the city reclaimed
its reputation for cultural excellence when it threw off stark social
realism in the 1990s.
The best times to visit Prague are in the early spring and the late
autumn – after most of tourists have left. If the cold weather
isn’t a problem, the winter months are the quietest time.
Prague has a mild climate, although very high and low temperatures
can be encountered. Autumn is the season with the most rainfall.
As one of the European cities of culture for
the year 2000, Prague picked the theme of urban transformation
– an idea that will continue for a number of years, as it
moves forward to its exciting role in the new century.