Founded as West Bohemia’s administrative capital in 1295 by Přemysl King Václav II, the fortified, solidly Catholic Plzeň grew quickly, becoming Bohemia’s third-largest town, after Prague and Kutná Hora, by the 14th century.
Among other things, Václav II granted to some 260 Plzeň burghers the exclusive right to brew beer. By the time of the Thirty Years’ War there were 26 separate basement breweries, each with its own beer hall – though many of the products were not particularly drinkable. In 1842 the crafty brewers pooled their experience, installed ‘modern’ technology and founded a single municipal brewery, with spectacular results. Their golden beer, labelled Plzeňský Prazdroj (prazdroj is old Czech for ‘the original source’; Pilsner Urquell in German), is now one of the world’s best – and most imitated – beers.
At the same time, Plzeň began to industrialise. The Škoda Engineering Works was founded in 1869 and prospered as a manufacturer of armaments. Since WWII it has been known mainly for the ubiquitous Škoda car, as well as locomotives and industrial machinery. In the midst of post-1989 euphoria, Volkswagen offered Škoda a staggering US$1 billion development loan, and the German car manufacturer now has a majority share in the company.