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After 50 Years: Returning to Prague

CZECH REPUBLIC | Wednesday, 27 July 2022 | Views [139]

Spire in front of Our Lady of Tyn

Spire in front of Our Lady of Tyn

After 50 Years: Returning to Prague

 The last time I was in Prague, in August 1972, I was greeted at the border by guards with guns who tore the seats out of my VW beetle looking for contraband, which they promptly found. My girlfriend and Olympic Village roommate, Andrea, and I were going to visit her family in the city of 1,000 spires after the Israeli Massacre that happened in the section of the athletes’ housing we were responsible for cleaning.  As students, (Andrea in a Ph.D. program in Russian Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada, and me in International Relations/Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Salzburg) we were both working as cleaning staff during the Olympics as a summer job. Prior to the attack, this Olympics was known for Mark Spitz proudly walking around the Yogurt Bar with his seven gold medals. The morning of the attack everything changed, and we were told we were no longer needed and to leave the village. The summer job came to an abrupt end. Andrea suggested that we drive to Prague, a city that had been firmly in Soviet hands since the 1968 uprising, so that I could meet her family. She would then stay with them until her husband, Doug, in Halifax, was scheduled to arrive mid-September.  It sounded like a wonderful plan, and we managed to get my visa after a not-so-quick drive to the embassy in Frankfurt, where Andrea worked her magic with the bureaucrats. On the way to Czechoslovakia, we picked up a couple of items for her father, that he couldn’t get due to the restrictions on imports. One was a current edition of Playboy and the other an Austrian schnaps. These were the contraband items that the border guards absconded with prior to leaving us to put the seats back in the car. Luckily, they didn’t even look at the copy of Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, which I had completely forgotten I had left in the car.  I could have been thrown in jail for bringing in censored political material if the guards had been more interested in politics than bunnies and booze. When we came close to the city on the Moldau, we were greeted with soldiers with AK 47s lining the highway. It was a rather terrifying introduction to what proved to be a fabulous visit. While the occupying forces were evident everywhere we went, Andrea’s family and friends welcomed me with open arms and showed me how incredibly friendly the Czech people are.  Over the years, during which I lost my address book, I lost touch with Andrea, but the time with her and her family will stay with me forever.

This trip, 50 years later, was very different.  I was traveling alone just wanting to explore the city and the National Museum. The city was unrecognizable. The dirt, soot and grime that covered the buildings in 1972 are gone replaced with bright colorful paint that highlights the texture and figures on the visibly striking Bohemian Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-gothic, and Art Noveau façades. Many of the former asphalt covered spaces are now green parks with trees and flowers. Even the Golden Road Nr. 22, where Kafka wrote, is now a bright blue rather than dingy grey. It’s still as tiny as it was, but inside is now a souvenir shop, which wasn’t there before.  Actually, the Old Town, New Town and Castle districts are filled with tourist shops. And tourists are back – regardless of the on-going pandemic – in droves. Mass tourism is alive and well in Prague. The highlights of the city can all be seen in a couple of days of solid walking and viewing, although to really understand what one is seeing it is best to go on a city guided tour with a local. As I was specifically interested in the National Museums and some of the churches, I skipped this this time, but intend to come back. Any guidebook can list the main sites in the center of town on both sides of the Moldau, so I’ll just comment on a couple of my favorites. Naturally, the main National Museum ranks at the top.  The main museum is in a beautiful building at the top of Wenceslas Square, which isn’t a square, but a long rectangular area that is partially a park and partially street. It is lined with the typical international concerns, like H&M, Bata Shoes, McDonalds, KFC etc. The main National Museum has a number of buildings, the first one is really in two separate edifices connected by a tunnel that shows video of citizen resistance against lines of police with weapons and shields. Inside the main section, up a magnificent Baroque marble staircase, are exhibitions on the evolution of life on earth, and on geology, including a whole large room dedicated to stones, minerals, and gems.  The genesis for the collection goes back to Rudolf II of Austria who started his “Schatzkammer”, treasury of unusual artifacts. There is also a section dedicated to the History of the Czech lands as well as a section just on the Nazi era. In the second building – they are in the process of moving exhibits from the first to the second and developing new ones – is a section on Czech stars, i.e, artists and prominent figures. Upstairs on the fourth floor, there is a lively interactive exhibit on the 20th C.

The other National Museum that I wanted to visit was the one dedicated to Africa, Asia and America. This was a bit of a disappointment as the collection wasn’t as expansive as I had imagined. It did have a special exhibit on war, however, which demonstrated that war has been part of human experience across eras and cultures since we have existed as a species. It was a sad reminder.

Religious structures are often not just for their intended worship purpose, but are also testaments to the history of the place they are located.  This is certainly true with many of the churches in Prague.  The Church of Our Lady of Tyn is a striking Gothic construction, with very Baroque elements inside.  I attended a concert in the church and was struck by one particular bulbous gold and silver cloud formation above a side altar.  From where I was sitting, it looked like a figure was holding the head of a devil.  Looked at from the front, it was clearly an image of the Virgin with Baby Jesus, which rays radiating from his head.  Those rays, from the other angle, looked like horns.  Perspective is everything…. Something Tyche de Brache, who is interred here would understand. The concert by the Prague Chamber Orchestra was wonderful and soprano Anda-Louise Bogza’s “Ave Maria” and “Largo” from Handel’s “Xerxes”, were breath-taking.

I was quite fortunate to happen across a mass in English while I was visiting the Church of Our Lady Victorious (named after the Catholic victory over the Protestants during the Battle of White Mountain in 1620), which is home to the Infant Jesus of Prague.  This figure was brought from Spain to Prague by the Duchess Marie Manriquez de Lara, who married Vratislav of Pernstein in 1556. Later she gave the statue to her daughter Polyxena of Lobkovitz as a wedding gift.  After the death of her husband, she donated it to the monastery of Discalced Carmelites at the church of Our Lady Victorious in 1628. It is now the object of pilgrimages.  The museum in the church showcases the different dresses, from Maria Theresa’s time until the present, that clothe the babe for different church ceremonies. According to the church brochure: “The church was built between 1611-1613 in Renaissance and early Baroque styles.  It was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and was used by German speaking Lutherans. After the Battle of White Mountain, which resulted in the victory of the imperial and catholic side in the Czech lands, Emperor Ferdinand II bestowed the church on the Order of Descalced Carmelites. The church was then consecrated to Our Lady Victorious and a large monastery of Discalced Carmelites was built on the Southern part of the church. … By decree of Emperor Joseph II the monastery was dissolved in 1784. The Carmelites were forced to leave and the parish of the Church of Our Lady in Chain was transferred here. At the request of Prague Archbishop Miroslav Vlk, the Discalced Carmelites returned to the church after 200 years on 2 July 1993.” Since then, this pilgrimage place has been revived, and even Pope Benedict XVI brought a crown to the Infant Jesus as a gift when he visited in 2009.

 There are two churches named after St. Nicholas in Prague, one on either side of the river and both are baroque structures from the 18th C. The one in Malá Strana just below the castle and near Our Lady Victorious is a prime example of early Bohemian Baroque. The one on the main square in Old Town, i.e, Staré Mesto, is also quite impressive.

 On Hradčany, the hill above the church, towers Prague Castle.  This large complex includes structures, which were started in the 10th C, but destroyed and rebuilt in the 12th and mid-14th, then renovated again and again up to the present day. The complex has two main churches, St. Vitus, a large Gothic structure and the smaller ornate St. George that shows elements from the 13th, 14th & 17th centuries. The castle complex also has a fabulous garden with views over the entire city and a few birds of prey and a peacock on display.

As one walks down the hill, there is the Lobkowitz (also spelled Lobkowicz) house museum. I was going to simply walk by it, but had an hour before it closed, so I thought it might be interesting to just see what the Prague side of the Viennese family had on display. Normally, house museums are not of much interest to me as I always feel like I am prying into someone else’s private life. This was very different.  The excellent audio guide was done by members of the family, who introduced their forefathers and mothers to the visitors as if we were guests in their home, which in a sense we were. The tour went through a number of rooms with family portraits and the audio guide explained who they were and their importance to the history of the city. In one room, there was also a painting of a scene from the Prague Defenestration with Polyxena Pernstein holding the rebels at bay as she protected the town officials. There were two so-called Defenestration events in Prague.  The first was brought about by the murder by the inquisition of Church reformer, Jan Hus, in 1414. They had labeled him a heretic as they dis about a year later with his compatriot the Rector of the University of Prague. Over the next couple of years, the followers of Hus, who were called Hussites, became increasingly more radicalized with the clamp down by the priests and the excesses of the Church. The Hussites advocated for worship in the local language, pushed against the idolization of images and demanded the abolishment of the Church’s material wealth – all things that Luther a century later would expound. Then in 1419, wanting the release of the their imprisoned co-religionists, they stormed the Town Hall on Charles Square and threw seven members of the Town Council, including the mayor, from a window. They all died. King Wenceslaw IV passed away shortly afterwards, perhaps due to his shock at the occurrence. The religious conflicts did not stop there. According to Corney in a brief history of Czech lands:

The centralizing measure of Ferdinand I and his successors came into conflict with the determined efforts of the Bohemian, Moravian and Silesian Estates to maintain their crucial political influence. This conflict found expression both on the political level in 1547 Ferdinand I suppressed a rebellion of the Bohemian nobles and townspeople), and on the religious level, as the Estates tried to extract a confirmation of confessional freedoms from the Habsburgs.  The Austrian Habsburgs with their rich Catholic relations in Spain hesitated, but in 1575 Maximilian II gave verbal consent to the text of what was known as the Bohemian Confession.  This was not confirmed in written form until 1609, in the Letter of Majesty of Emperor and King Rudolf II.  In this document a piously Catholic and eccentric monarch acting against his own conscience, legalized in the Bohemian Kingdom a degree of religious freedom unparalleled elsewhere in Europe at the time. 

Surprisingly, the issue of Rudolf’s Letter of Majesty did not calm the situation.  The militant Catholic party regarded it as a defeat since it diminished hopes for the development of a centrally controlled central European Habsburg state consisting of the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, the Austrian Lands and Hungary, much of which was at that time under the control of the Ottoman Turks.  The tension between the evangelical Estates and the Catholics came to a climax on the 23rd of May 1618, when a group of opposition nobles, dissatisfied with the policy of the Bohemian regents (high officials representing the king), burst into the Prague castle and threw two pro-Habsburg officials from a window.  The victims survived uninjured, but that was irrelevant.  The conflict between the Bohemian non-Catholic Estates and the Habsburgs erupted in full force and, as a result of the entanglement of great power interest with the Protestant and Catholic causes, grew into the long-term European armed conflict known as the Thirty Years War. (Corney, 26-27)

The painting in the Lobkowitz Palace depicts how others, who ran from the Castle to the Lobkowicz Palace were hidden Polyxena hid them, and how she stood up to the rebelling mob, thus preventing more murders.  For that moment at least, as Thirty Years War tore most of Central Europe apart and cost untold lives. The final stop on the audio tour is the Palace’s terrace with a magnificent view of the city.

 Crossing the Moldau/Vltara, are a number of bridges, but the most famous is the Charles Bridge that has towers at either end and large statues along the sides.  It is almost always crowded during the summer, but the statues are well worth taking a moment or two to study.

While crossing, one can see the numerous boats that take tourists up and down the river on cruises as well as the paddle boats that one can rent. There are also three islands with parks and coffee shops that can be visited.

 Back on the side of the river with the Old Town, is the Rudolfinium. It was built in a neo-Renaissance style, reflecting the style of its namesake, in the second half of the 19th C. The building housed the seat of the Czechoslovakian Parliament from 1919-1939 but is now an art center. The building is named after Rudolf II (1576-1611) who was not only the last Habsburg emperor to make his residence in Prague, but was also an art collector and patron of artists and scientists. Both Tyche de Brache and Johannes Kepler were in Prague during his reign.

Two other buildings of special note in Staré Mesto are the Estates Theater, which in 1787, was where Mozart’s Don Giovanni had its premiere. The other building is the renown 15th Astronomical Clock on the side of the 12-13th C Town Hall. A procession of apostles appears on the hour like cuckoos from the clock and is one of the free main attractions on Charles Square.

Near the main square are a few interesting museums that I didn’t have time, or inclination, to visit and they included the House of Illusions and the Museum of Sex Toys.  Shops selling garnets and gemstones, Czech specialty items, line the main squares on either side of the river.  As do shops selling a different kind of Czech specialty, a cinnamon bun that is formed into a cone that holds either ice cream or whipped cream in any kind of flavor one could want from pina colada to pistachio. I don’t even want to think about how many calories this delicious treat includes. On a more serious note, not far from Charles Square, the city’s main square, is the Jewish section of town with interesting synagogues.

 After my brief tour of the major tourist highlights of this city of 1,000 spire, which really doesn’t have quite that many, I was struck at how influential at least four women were to the city’s history:  Libusa, the 9th C prophetess, pagan tribal judge, and foremother of the Premysl dynasty, who proclaimed that a city would be built where Prague Castle currently stands. St. Ludmilla, the wife of Borivoj, who was baptized in the second half of the 9th C, and who was instrumental in bringing Christianity to the Czech lands; her final resting place, a place of pilgrimage, is in St. George’s Church in the Castle.  Elizabeth of Bohemia, the mother of Emperor Charles VI, who had a rather miserable life as the first wife of King John the Blind of Luxembourg, but was instrumental as the last of the Premysl line and the foremother of the Czech Luxembourg dynasty.  The final one of the four is the aforementioned Polyxena of Lobkowitz, who seemed to be a force of nature trying to bridge the disparate forces tearing society and religion apart in the early 1600s. Most of the historical accounts about Prague deal with men in battles or in science and the arts, but at least these four women contributed to the development of the city as much as any of the others.


Čorney, Petr, a brief history of the Czech lands. Prague: Tiskarny Havlickuv, 2004.

The Golden Guides: Prague. Firenze: Casa Editrice Bonechi, ND.

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Tags: cities, history, museums, towns

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