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The Silk Route - World Travel: Prague, Czech Republic
americas asia & far east africa & middle east europe

Czech Republic: Prague at Christmas
2004

Old Town Square The River Vltava and Charles Bridge Prague Castle The Castle District The Assassination of Heydrich
The Jewish QuarterWenceslas Square and the OperaA rainy day in Prague...
Prague at night

This was the first of our Christmas Market trips and we had a wonderful time exploring this medieval city and enjoying the traditional Christmas offerings, plus a great night at the opera.

The Café Louvre has the best-ever hot chocolate - not to be missed!

Old Town Square

Prague
Looking toward the Old Town Square from the south west, Tyn Church behind and Old Town Hall Clock Tower on the left

Prague
The Gothic Tyn Church
Prague The Astronomical Clock
Prague
Prague

This beautiful square, a market place in the 11th century, is surrounded by a diverse array of attractive buildings, some as old as the square itself, many with later facades. Rising above the eastern end of the square, behind a row of elegant houses, is the Gothic pinnacled Church of Our Lady before Tyn. Originally it was a Romanesque building but the present church was begun in 1365 to replace it.

The square has witnessed many historic events, not least the ending of the "Prague Spring", a period of liberal rule, instigated by Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. In January 1968 he attempted to give more freedoms to the people including the abolition of censorship. This "socialism with a human face" experiment came to an abrupt end on the night of August 20th of the same year  when Warsaw Pact troops invaded and tanks rolled into the Old Town Square.

Prague
The Figure of Death on the Astronomical Clock, below
Prague

We stayed at the wonderful Černý Slon - the Black Elephant, right in the middle of town next to the Tyn Church and only a few steps from the Old Town Square with its Christmas Market stalls.

The house is a Unesco World Heritage site, built in the early fourteenth century. We had a room right under the eaves - very atmospheric and so warm we slept with a window open, even though it was December and rather cold outside!

Prague

At the south west corner of the square is the Old Town Hall. Originally dating to the early fourteenth century, it gradually incorporated several buildings over the years. The tower was added in 1364 and the famous astronomical clock was added in 1410. The clock tells the time according to three conventions: Central European, Old Bohemian and Babylonian, and gives the position of the sun and moon in relation to the zodiac thus enabling the date to be calculated. On the hour a figure of death, a skeleton, raises an hour glass and rings a bell; windows above open and a parade of apostles makes its away around, each bowing to the onlookers as they pass.

"Franz Kafka"

 

 

Also on the square is the site of the house where Franz Kafka was born and also a house where his family lived.

Prague
Prague
Prague
Church of St Nicholas

The Church of St Nicholas on the north east corner of the square is an eighteenth century neo-Baroque building gleaming in the sunlight. For a baroque building the exterior is quite restrained. Before the Tyn Church was built the original thirteenth century Church of St Nicholas was the parish church of the old town.

Prague

 

Now, at Christmas time, the square is filled with colourful stalls and is one of the nicest places to stroll. Andrew bought me a lovely elephant pendant from a metal worker here.

 

The River Vltava and Charles Bridge

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Looking south east from the Charles Bridge over the River Vltava

Prague
Looking north west to the Charles Bridge and the Castle District
Prague

The River Vltava is the longest river in the Czech Republic at 435km. It was on its east bank that Prague was first founded after settlers arrived in the 6th century. Rising in the south west of the country, it first flows south east then turns north and eventually merges with the Elba.

The Charles Bridge spans the river connecting the Old Town with the Castle District. The earliest bridge here was a wooden structure which was destroyed by flood in 1157.

The subsequent stone bridge also collapsed after flooding in 1342. In 1357 Charles IV had the current bridge built.  Though itself damaged by floods over  the centuries, it essentially remains the same today as when built. It forms part of the processional route of the Bohemian Kings which stretched from the north of the city via the Old Town Square to the castle.

Prague

The bridge was also a place where commerce took place, duties were collected, criminals executed and punishments meted out, including being dipped in the river in a wicker basket.

Lined with statues and colonised by street sellers, notably artists, it is the lynchpin of the city and, being closed to traffic, a pleasant place to linger. We bought a lovely small black and white photograph of the Charles Bridge and Prague skyline.

The Reykjavik Restaurant is near the Charles Bridge - I had good fish and chips here.

Prague Castle

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Climbing to the castle

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The West Gate

Though a castle of some description has occupied this elevated site since the ninth century, most of the current buildings date from the twelfth century. In the fourteenth century Charles IV transformed it into an imperial residence. It was Charles who presided over the city's most brilliant period, turning it into the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It was also the seat of Bohemia's government though Wenceslas IV moved the royal court to the old town late in the fourteenth century. Building continued throughout the centuries and the castle fortunes waxed and waned. In 1617 one of the most momentous events in the country's history took place here when two Habsburg councillors were thrown from one of the palace windows (the so-called defenestration of Prague), precipitating the start of the Thirty Years War - an uprising of the Czech nobility against the ruling Habsburgs, though primarily a manifestation of religious tensions.

The main entrance to the castle is through the west gate, flanked by sculptures of battling giants, though these are copies of the originals by Ignac Platzer (1786).

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St Vitus Cathedral in the grounds of Prague Castle rises high above the Charles Bridge
Prague
Prague
West front of St Vitus Cathedral

During the reign of Charles IV work was begun on the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral but it took several centuries to complete, well-illustrated by the Bell Tower which is mostly fifteenth century topped by a sixteenth century gallery and eighteenth century steeple.

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St Vitus Cathedral and Bell Tower
Prague

The Wenceslas Chapel inside contains the tomb of the tenth century St Wenceslas. The tombs of Charles IV, Wenceslas IV as well as  other monarchs can be found in the Royal Crypt.

Near the cathedral is a fine statue of St George slaying the dragon (another copy) - the castle is also home to the Convent of St George and the Basilica of St George. The convent was dissolved in 1782 and now houses a branch of the National Gallery.

The Basilica is  well-preserved, after fires and much reconstruction and restoration to return original features. It has two representations of St George on its exterior: one on the bright Baroque west facade and one on the south facade - though the latter is a copy of a late Gothic relief now in the National Gallery.

Prague

Prague
Golden Lane
Prague
Prague

Golden Lane - the name derives from the goldsmiths who once lived here - at the eastern end of the complex is a row of tiny houses dating from the late 1500s which have been renovated and turned into shops.

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Leaving the castle at the eastern end there are very good views over Prague at the top of the Old Castle Steps.

Wandering down in the southern Little Quarter is peaceful and far off the usual tourist trail. We came across a small tributary of the Vltava called "The Devil's Stream" which has a number of old water mills. We had lunch in a small café where I tried the famous dumplings - very adventurous as I hate the British variety! These were quite different, though, without suet and full of flavour - I had no trouble finishing them, though they wouldn't be my favourite item of food!

The Castle District

Prague
Prague

Prague

We spent quite a bit of time exploring this area west and south of the castle which was much more peaceful than the busy streets and squares of the Old Town. 

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The Archbishop's Palace
Prague

 

In Hradcanske Square, at the western entrance of the castle, is the imposing Archbishop's Palace, rebuilt at the end of the seventeenth century and given a striking Baroque facade onto the square.

We found the most wonderful bar in our wanderings: U Černého Vola - great beer, no tourists, no music, no TV - wooden tables and bench seating and an excellent lunch of ham and eggs and omelette - a very difficult place to leave!

 

The Assassination of Heydrich

Heydrich was the "Protector" of Romania and Moravia, appointed by Hitler in September 1941. Heydrich had joined the SS in 1932, become head of the Gestapo, and, during the Second World War, had organised the Einsatzgruppen which murdered Jews in occupied Russia. In January 1942 he chaired the Wannsee Conference when the plans for the extermination of European Jewry were finalised (Blue Guide to Prague). His "whip and sugar" policy in Prague quickly earned him the nickname "the Hangman of Prague".

In London the Czech government in exile wished to draw attention to the plight of their people and devised a plan to assassinate Heydrich. Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, two Czech agents, were trained by the SOE and parachuted into Czechoslovakia on 28 December 1941. They, in collaboration with the local resistance movement, watched Heydrich's movements to determine the best time and place to carry out their plot. They finally attempted the assassination at a hairpin bend where Heydrich's car had to slow down - he famously travelled in an open-top car without armour plating. The plan went wrong almost immediately: Gabcik's gun jammed as he tried to fire on Heydrich who then returned fire. Kubis threw a grenade at the car and the rear of the vehicle was destroyed, injuring Heydrich. Although he survived the attack, Heydrich died in hospital some days later from septicemia, possibly from horsehair from the car upholstery driven into his body by the grenade blast.

Recriminations were immediate. Thousands of Czechs were rounded up and shot, and in the village of Lidice many were shot and others burned alive in a barn.

Kubis and Gabcik, along with others of the Resistance, hid in Karel Boromejsky Church, also known as the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. They were betrayed by Karel Čurda who also gave the Gestapo the names of contacts and safe houses for a large monetary reward. The men in the church fought bravely, even attempting to tunnel out, and killing many of the Germans who tried first to smoke them out and then attempted to flood the crypt where they were hiding. Eventually the heroic Czechs turned their guns on themselves rather than be taken alive.

They are commemorated in the crypt of the church where they fought so fiercely for their lives.

The crypt is a very atmospheric place, where the beginnings of their tunnel can be seen, and a small shrine has been set up. It has a real sense of history. Outside the walls are pockmarked by bullets.

The Jewish Quarter

Prague

Jews had begun to settle in Prague from the tenth century. Their area, or ghetto, was later separated from the Christian community by a wall. In the seventeenth century more than 7000 people lived in the ghetto. In 1781 the law separating the Jews from the rest of the Prague community was abolished and non-Jewish citizens began to settle here. The ghetto was practically completely destroyed in 1895, apart from historically important buildings, and these survived the Nazi era only because they planned to make a Jewish Museum of the area.

Prague

We wandered around the Jewish quarter with our multi-ticket allowing access to the synagogues, cemetery and Ceremonial Hall. The floods of 2002 seriously damaged the buildings, including the important early-medieval Old-New Synagogue (originally the New Synagogue until others were buikt in the sixteenth century) and destroying the inscriptions on the Pinkas Synagogue which detailed the names and homes of the 77, 297 Jews killed by the Nazis in Bohemia and Moravia. The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest working synagogue in Europe

It was fascnating but rather melancholy when we visited, perhaps not only due to the dull weather.

Wenceslas Square and the Opera

Prague
Prague

Wenceslas Square is a long wide boulevard and modern (at least on the terms of European history) and not particularly attractive, but it does have a vast Christmas Market so is great to wander around at this time of year. It was originally the Horse Market, and today is lined with stores and businesses. Here we bought lovely rock crystal candle holders.

Prague Poster for the opera showing the interior of the State Opera House

Novometsky Pivovar - a labyrinth of tunnel-like corridors and small rooms,  is a typical Czech pub/restaurant near Wenceslas Square, with large pretzels on the table and its own micro-brewery, quite common here. We enjoyed lunch here. The beers in Prague were very good from real Czech Budweiser to the micro-brewery specials.

Prague beer mats

At the southern end of Wenceslas Square is the National Museum and just to the north of this is the State Opera House. One evening we went to see Rigoletto performed here (we'd bought the tickets online well before our visit) and it was absolutely wonderful The opera house itself is a beautiful building with a stunning interior. We had a box and champagne in the interval and thoroughly enjoyed the opera and the whole experience - highly recommended!

 

A rainy day in Prague...

Prague Cafe Louvre

... windy, and wet and rather cold, but Prague has the perfect answer: The Café Louvre, and more particularly, the hot chocolate at the Café Louvre. Don't let the exterior of the building or the cold entrance and stairway put you off, the café on the first floor is warm and inviting and invariably busy. On this our first visit Andrew had coffee but I enthused so wildly about the hot chocolate that we returned the following day when we both had it. This is real hot chocolate - not cocoa or some powdered substitute. It is streets ahead of anything we have had anywhere else and alone is a good enough reason to visit Prague.

 

Prague skyline at night