Feature: Old Town Origins

The origins of Staré Město (Old Town) date back to the 10th century, when a marketplace and settlement grew up on the east bank of the river. In the 12th century this was linked to the castle district by Judith Bridge, the forerunner of Charles Bridge, and in 1231 Wenceslas I honoured it with a town charter and the beginnings of a fortification.

The town walls are long gone, but their line can still be traced along the streets of Národní třída, Na příkopě (which means ‘on the moat’) and Revoluční, and the Old Town’s main gate – the Powder Gate – still survives.

Feature: The Royal Way

The Royal Way (Královská cesta) was the ancient processional route followed by Czech kings on their way to St Vitus Cathedral for coronation. The route leads from the Powder Gate along Celetná, through Old Town Sq and Little Square (Malé náměstí), along Karlova (Charles St) and across Charles Bridge to Malá Strana Sq (Malostranské náměstí), before climbing up Nerudova to the castle. The only procession that makes its way along these streets today is the daily crush of tourists shouldering their way past a gauntlet of souvenir shops and leaflet touts.

Celetná, leading from the Powder Gate to Old Town Square, is an open-air museum of pastel-painted baroque facades covering Gothic frames resting on Romanesque foundations, deliberately buried to raise Staré Město above the floods of the Vltava River. But the most interesting building – Josef Gočár’s delightful House of the Black Madonna (dům U černé Matky Boží) – dates only from 1912.

Little Square, the southwestern extension of Old Town Square, has a Renaissance fountain with a 16th-century wrought-iron grill. Here, several fine baroque and neo-Renaissance exteriors adorn some of Staré Město’s oldest structures. The most colourful is the 1890 VJ Rott Building, decorated with wall paintings by Mikuláš Aleš, which now houses the Prague incarnation of the Hard Rock Cafe.

A dog-leg from the southwestern corner of the square leads to narrow, cobbled Karlova, which continues as far as Charles Bridge – this section is often choked with tourist crowds. On the corner of Liliová is the house called At the Golden Snake, the site of Prague’s first coffee house, opened in 1708 by an Armenian named Deomatus Damajan.

Karlova sidles along the massive southern wall of the Klementinum before emerging at the riverside on Křížovnické náměstí. On the northern side of the square is the 17th-century Church of St Francis Seraphinus, its dome decorated with a fresco of the Last Judgment. It belongs to the Order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, the only Bohemian order of Crusaders still in existence.

Just south of Charles Bridge, at the site of the former Old Town mill, is Novotného lávka, a riverside terrace full of sunny, overpriced vinárny (wine bars) with great views of the bridge and castle. Its far end is dominated by a statue of composer Bedřich Smetana.

Feature: The Missing Monuments

Prague witnessed several profound changes of political regime during the 20th century: from Habsburg empire to independent Czechoslovak Republic in 1918; to Nazi Protectorate from 1938 to 1945; to communist state in 1948; and back to democratic republic in 1989.

Each change was accompanied by widespread renaming of city streets and squares to reflect the heroes of the new regime. The square in front of the Rudolfinum, for example, has been known variously as Smetanovo náměstí (Smetana Square; 1919–42 and 1945–52); Mozartplatz (Mozart Square; 1942–45); náměstí Krasnoarmějců (Red Army Square; 1952–90); and náměstí Jana Palacha (Jan Palach Square; 1990–present).

This renaming was often followed by the removal of monuments erected by the previous regime. Here are three of Prague’s most prominent ‘missing monuments’.

The Missing Virgin

If you look at the ground in the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) about 50m south of the Jan Hus statue, you’ll see a circular stone slab set among the cobblestones at the far end of the brass strip marking the Prague Meridian. This was the site of a Marian column (a pillar bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary), erected in 1650 in celebration of the Habsburg victory over the Swedes in 1648. It was surrounded by figures of angels crushing and beating down demons – a rather unsubtle symbol of a resurgent Catholic Church defeating the Protestant Reformation.

The column was toppled by a mob – who saw it as a symbol of Habsburg repression – on 3 November 1918, five days after the declaration of Czechoslovak independence. Its remains can be seen in the Lapidárium.

The Missing Dictator

If you stand in the northwest corner of Old Town Square and look north along the arrow-straight avenue of Pařížská you will see, on a huge terrace at the far side of Čechův most, a giant metronome. If the monumental setting seems out of scale that’s because the terrace was designed to accommodate the world’s biggest statue of Stalin. Unveiled in 1955 – two years after Stalin’s death – the 30m-high, 14,000-tonne colossus showed Uncle Joe at the head of two lines of communist heroes, Czech on one side, Soviet on the other. Cynical Praguers accustomed to constant food shortages quickly nicknamed it fronta na maso (the queue for meat).

The monument was dynamited in 1962, in deference to Khrushchev’s attempt to airbrush Stalin out of history. The demolition crew was instructed to get rid of it quickly, quietly and without an audience. The Museum of Communism has a superb photo of the monument – and of its destruction.

The Missing Tank

Náměstí Kinských, at the southern edge of Malá Strana, was until 1989 known as náměstí Sovětských tankistů (Soviet Tank Crews Square), named in memory of the Soviet soldiers who ‘liberated’ Prague on 9 May 1945. For many years a Soviet T-34 tank – allegedly the first to enter the city (in fact it was a later Soviet ‘gift’) – squatted menacingly atop a pedestal here.

In 1991 artist David Černý decided that the tank was an inappropriate monument to the Soviet soldiers and painted it bright pink. The authorities had it painted green again, and charged Černý with a crime against the state. This infuriated many parliamentarians, 12 of whom repainted the tank pink. Their parliamentary immunity saved them from arrest and secured Černý’s release.

After complaints from the Soviet Union the tank was removed. Its former setting is now occupied by a circular fountain surrounded by park benches; the vast granite slab in the centre is split by a jagged fracture, perhaps symbolic of a break with the past. The tank still exists, and is still pink – it’s at the Military Museum in Lešany, near Týnec nad Sázavou, 30km south of Prague.