After breakfast we went on a guided walking tour of Prague, or Praha as the city is known to the Czechs, with a local guide. The city has 10 districts, and each has quarters within it. Prague 1, for example, contains Old Town, the Castle Area, and Lesser Town. The city is on the Vltava (Moldau) River. We started in part of the Lesser Town then crossed the Charles Bridge to Old Town. The guide gave us some of the history of the city and the country that we had heard the day before including the fact that the fate of the country during 1938 and 1939 was decided “about us but without us” by discussions between Britain, France and Hitler resulting in the Munich Agreement, known by Czechs as the Munich Betrayal. She showed us a memorial that was erected in 2014 in memory of the 2,500 Czech pilots who served in the British Air Force during the war. The Lion is the symbol of Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic). Winston Churchill’s grandson attended the unveiling. Over half of the pilots returned to the Czech Republic after the war, but when the communists took over they were persecuted and many were sent to labor camps.
There is another second World War monument in the same park.
Prague was only bombed once during the war, and that was by mistake. It was in February 1945 and it was very foggy and the Allies were supposed to bomb Dresden and mistook Prague for it. The new town area was the only part of Prague to be damaged.
We walked to Vojanovy Park, a very pretty park that was once the garden of the bishop’s court in medieval times and became part of a Carmelite convent. The nuns planted many fruit trees and they are still here long after the convent was abolished by the communists. We met a woman who had participated in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and she told us her personal story and shared some photos from that time.
She told us that her parents were a doctor and a biologist who were not dissidents but also not members of the party. They taught her to follow certain rules about discussing the family. If you or your parents were openly against the regime you could not go to high school or university and only got a menial opb. Children were encouraged to report on their parents’ activities and conversations. She was a teenager in the 1980s when communist central control started to weaken. It started in Poland and the perestroika movement occupied the attention of USSR leaders was diverted to their problems and less focused on what was happening in Czechoslovakia. When the Berlin Wall fell, they all thought everything in this country would also change. A week after the fall of the wall she and her friends attended the International Day of Students – there were thousands of students and others there. After the official speeches, the crowd started spontaneous chanting of anti-communist slogans. They were going to Wenceslas Square and the Police seemed to be letting them but then blocked their way and told them to go home. The police then started pushing the crowd together and pressing them against walls and windows Several shop windows cracked and some broke and she had trouble breathing at one point. A very narrow arcade opened up and people started to run towards it but the police were there with wooden clubs beating them on their heads and limbs. She and her friend made it out and ran up to a house. The door opened quickly and they were pulled into the house and the door closed again. There were about 50-60 other people in the house with them. The Police shouted for the owners to open the door but everyone was completely quiet and they left. After a couple of hours, they left quietly in small groups, went to the nearest pub and got very drunk! There was no internet then but the news spread very fast and people started occupying schools and other buildings. Their supporters grew to about 800,000 people in Wenceslas Square. The communists realized that would not be able to suppress these demonstration and agreed to allow free elections. Václav Havel had been one of the leaders and became the first President of the new democratic republic. She was 19 years old and, for her, the most important change was that she could travel to Paris, London and Italy where she could see the art she had always wanted to see. Many people were badly injured during the demonstrations, but luckily no one was killed – hence the term “Velvet Revolution”.
We walked to the Vltava (Moldau) river and our guide pointed out the high water markings along the side of a building: The lower one was in 1890 and the much higher one marks the level of water in August 2002 when the Czech Republic was hit by devastating floods, in what was the biggest natural disaster in modern Czech history. Since then a flood defense system has been installed along the river to protect the central part of the city, and it worked when the city was again hit with even worse flooding in June 2013.
We walked down to the edge of the river and saw all the swans there. We could see the old town across the Charles Bridge.
We walked through the courtyard at the Kafka Museum where we saw David Černý‘s “men peeing” statue. Černý is a very controversial Czech sculptor. This particular piece reflects what he thinks about the EU. It shows two EU politicians peeing on a map if the Czech Republic. Their hip sections swivel and the penises go up and down.
The guide told us of some of Černý’s other controversial work. During 2009 when the Czech Republic had the 6-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, he created Entropa to be displayed outside the EU parliament that depicted each country as a stereotype. Bulgaria was so incensed at being depicted as a series of Turkish toilets that that part of the sculpture was covered up during the time it was on display in Brussels. The UK is missing altogether! We later saw a couple of his other works as we walked through more of Prague.
As we walked toward the Charles Bridge we came across some cars being removed from illegal parking spots. Apparently the parking problem results in some wealthy people just dealing with regular tows.
The Škoda is the most common car in the Czech Republic as it is a Czech company.
We walked across the Charles Bridge across the Vlatava. It was started in the mid-14th century by King Charles IV of Bohemia who was also a Holy Roman Emperor. The bridge has 30 statues along the sides all of the which have been systematically replaced by replicas, and the originals have been exhibited in the National Museum.
One of the statues is bronze (as opposed to sandstone) and has two shiny spots where people have rubbed it. It is the Statue of St John Nepomuk who was a priest in Prague under King Wenceslaus. The Queen made a confession to John of Nepomuk who was then accused of intimacy with her and executed by being thrown into the Vltava River from the bridge and drowned. Tradition says that if you rub the bronze plaque on the right side you will have good luck and if you touch it on the left side you will come back to Prague one day. Of course, we rubbed both sides!
There are a lot of vendors selling various items on the bridge and we were told that the Program Directors always buy earrings there. I do not need any and didn’t know what would appeal to the various people I would give them to as gifts, so I didn’t spend much time browsing (Katie came back later when we had more time and got some very pretty earrings).
The bridge is a popular place for wedding photos!
We walked across the bridge to the Old Town with the guide going through the Old Town Bridge Tower.
Then we walked through a lot of the Old Town admiring many interesting buildings on our way to the main square.
We went to see the famous astronomical clock which dates back to 1410. It is amazing how such complex mechanisms were made more than 6 centuries ago, and how they reflected the 15th-century interest in astronomy. The guide described all the things we would see, then we waited for a few minutes along with many other tourists for the hourly “performance”. YouTube has a good description.
The guide left us in Franz Kafka Square and recommended a number of good places to eat lunch.
Katie, Linda and I chose one of them and had an enjoyable lunch there in the garden. Contrary to what our Program Directors had told us about Czech’s generally not smiling, the waiters and waitresses were very pleasant.
After lunch we explored that part of town and went back to the Starbucks Katie had spied near the town square, had a coffee and bought a thermal mug with Prague on it (to go with the identical mugs from New Zealand bought earlier in the year). I was also intrigued by a small cafe selling absinthe, but was not tempted to try it (there seemed to be something appropriate about that skeleton in the doorway)!
We got back to Franz Kafka Square to meet up with the Program Director Lukas for an optional walk to Wenceslaus Square. Since Prague is Lukas’ home, I particularly wanted to go on his walks. So did a lot of others and he was surprised at how many of us were following him. It is times like that that make the “whisperers” very helpful as you can hear what the guide is saying even when quite a way behind.
Lukas pointed out the building that used to house Radio Free Europe which broadcast to countries behind the iron curtain. After the Velvet Revolution, it was moved from Germany to Prague.
In front of the National Museum we stopped to look at the monument to Jan Palach at the spot where he set himself alight in 1969 to protest the end of the Prague Spring when the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia. The monument is also dedicated to Jan Zajic, another student who also burnt himself to death on the same spot a month later.
We then stood by the statue of St. Wencelaus and looked down the famous long avenue known as Wenceslaus Square that featured so much in the stories of all the protests through the years.
We walked down the street and at one point went into a hotel where Lukas had worked as a bellboy when he first moved to Prague to attend university. He showed us the Andy Warhol painting of Franz Kafka that hangs in the lobby.
Lukas pointed out many more interesting buildings and also showed us the mix of communist style architecture and earlier Czech buildings.
There is a sizable Russian population in Prague. According to a blog on the subject the community which has settled here in the last two decades is very diverse. Broadly speaking, Russian people have come to the Czech Republic for two reasons – they have been forced from their homeland because of the political situation, or they have come to pursue business, find a job, travel, or study. The post-revolutionary period represents a new era of Russian immigration. From 1994 to 2010, the number of Russian people in the Czech Republic has grown from about 3,000 to just over 32,000. From this total, about 18,000 have permanent or long-term residency. The majority of Russian people, approximately 22,000 according to the last census, live in the capital. While these absolute figures represent an approximately nine-fold increase, relative to the number of immigrants, the proportion has only doubled from 3% to 7% of all foreigners.
Some say that there is a flourishing Russian mafia running the casinos and some hotels etc.
Lukas led us into a small arcade off the square where there is a statue of St. Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse. It is another sculpture by David Cerný, made of foam but resembling bronze.
The sculpture is a mocking reference to the more famous equestrian statue of St Wenceslas at the top of the square and possibly a mocking nod to Czech president Vaclav Kraus.
I liked the stained glass in another shopping arcade we walked through called Svetozor. It has a logo of former Czechoslovakia firm TESLA which was a large, state-owned electrotechnical conglomerate in the former Czechoslovakia and had a state-sponsored monopoly on electronics production in communist Czechoslovakia, and produced nearly all electronic products in the country until 1989.
We walked through the Franciscan Garden, a pretty park with an interesting gate. It is wonderful oasis of calm in the city.
We then went to a restaurant that Lukas highly recommended. It has a historical beer tap from the original cellar (I was trying to remember the history of it and am surprised that it is not mentioned on the restaurant website). I can’t drink beer (unless it’s gluten -free, which would be rather insulting to the Czech beer reputation) and neither Linda nor Katie felt like one, so we left everyone there and made our way back to the hotel by streetcar.