Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
The above are the opening verses of a Christmas Carol that is dragged out every year, particularly in shopping centres, determined to get the punters in the mood for spending the cash on Christmas presents. If an Australian family on Christmas night decided to play a happy game of Trivial Pursuit to wile away the summer time, very few family members would be able to answer questions like…
- Who is King Wenceslaus and what country did he rule?
- What is the date of St Stephen’s Feast Day?(26th December!)
- Who was St Stephen?
Unfortunately, the story told by the carol is generally considered to be a legend with little basis in fact. Wenceslaus wasn’t even a King, his highest title was the Duke of Bohemia from 921 to 937. He didn’t live long (28 years) enough for the annals of history to record any great military victories or other diplomatic successes. He was murdered by his brother and for unclear reasons, he became known as a great hero with at least four biographies in circulation celebrating his saintliness. He was canonised as a Saint and a Martyr and is the patron saint of Czech Republic.
A tourist wandering the busy crowded streets of Prague needs to know a little about this local hero of the early middle ages. There is a long formal open space in the centre of the city called Wenceslaus Square that sweeps up the slope towards the grand National Museum on top of the hill. In front of the Museum there is a large statue of St Wenceslaus himself on a horse, clearly alert to deal with any attackers approaching Prague. He is supported by other local saints and the base bears the inscription ‘Saint Wenceslaus, Duke of the Czech land, prince of ours, do not let perish us nor our descendants’.
There is also a local legend of an army of knights sleeping under Kranik mountain waiting to bring support to the motherland in its darkest hour. There is also an associated legend that at a similar moment of peril, the statue of Wenceslaus himself and his horse will return to life and after collecting a legendary sword, he will lead the equally awesome dozen dark horsemen to victory over the kingdom’s enemies. I can only assume that the Munich betrayal of 1938, the resulting takeover of the fortified Sudetenland and the export of Bohemian Jews to Nazi death camps during World War 2 was insufficiently dire to trigger Wenceslaus’s reawakening. One wonders what category the next disaster has to be to ensure Wenceslaus comes to the assistance of his beloved Bohemian citizens. Perhaps the non-appearance so far is because the statue of Wenceslaus was sculpted between 1887–1924 and so its link with Czech tradition isn’t deep enough yet. However despite Wenceslaus’s failings, his equestrian statue was an inspirational focal point for locals in their calls for freedom, particularly during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In the image above of a tank in Wenceslaus Square in 1989, you can see the Equestrian Statue of the Patron Saint in the background; perhaps being a companion on the journey to freedom is just as important as being on the front line.
- The above image on the left is of a short note, written and then not left beside Wenceslaus’s ‘unawakened’ statue, but in front of the newly renovated National Museum at the top of Wenceslaus Square. (The queues to get inside were endless!) It reads, “Freedom, we all deserve it. No more socialism, no more tyranny.” I was interested to hear one of our guides contemplating on the benefits of contemporary freedoms of the Czech Republic. “We are free to express our opinions without worrying about who is listening and what it might mean for our job and our family’s safety. However, under socialism, everyone had a job and a roof over their head. They weren’t free but there were no homeless people begging in the streets of Prague.” He shrugged his shoulders with universal puzzlement.
The other great hero of Bohemian history is King Charles IV (1316-1378). The place that a standard tour of Prague would usually begin is the Charles Bridge, named after this famed local King who also became the Holy Roman Emperor in the mid fourteenth century. This bridge crosses the Vlatava River, the longest river in the Czech Republic running north through Cesky Krumlov and on down through Prague. History has recorded a very specific time and date for the start of construction of this bridge, when Charles laid the first stone…5:31am on 9 July 1357. Charles was a great believer in numerology and decided that a numerical starting time, that was a palindrome (1357 9, 7 5:31), would give extra strength to the masonry of his bridge. This ancient bridge has had the usual checkered career that you would expect of a river-crossing in such a major central European capital. One example of threats to the bridge over the centuries is captured in the photo on the right of the floods of 1872 that brought debris down river causing the bridge to turn into a dam wall. The iconic baroque statues that line the edge of the bridge were relatively late-comers being installed in the 17th century. The only problem in visiting and crossing over this famous pedestrian bridge, particularly on the weekend, is the hordes of European invaders who will be crossing the bridge at the same time as you, stopping to take selfies and gathering in large circles to watch puppet masters urge their stringed companions to play miniature guitars. It is not a comfortable experience, so come at dawn for the view and the photos of this fabulous bridge.
Visiting a complex city like Prague with a long history of social, political, architectural and artistic change is not something to be approached with preconceived ideas of seeing everything in a couple of days. We stayed four days and felt like the experience was only an appetizer. Perhaps like those Europeans who get the cheap weekend packages to Prague and regularly visit, you might have a chance to begin to get a closer understanding of the city. However, those of us flying in from Australia with limited time, we just have to be happy that we visited and saw enough to wet our appetite for a return visit. On the map below I have indicated the general routes that we took in Prague, one of which was a commercial tour of the Old Town and the Jewish Town. There were clearly lots of tours that run this trail with experienced, knowledgeable and entertaining guides (we passed them!); it was the luck of the draw that we didn’t get one of those. However, to get the most out of what is a fascinating stroll around these areas, take a risk and book a tour.
We stayed in the ‘U Pava’ hotel on the side of the river known as the ‘Lesser Town’. It was a great place as a base to explore Prague as it was not far from one end of the Charles Bridge. In one direction we could catch a tram up the hill to explore Prague Castle or head over the river to visit the ‘Old Town’ via Charles bridge or the Legion bridge. The Legion bridge was a great alternative to the Charles Bridge (avoid the crush!) as that stretch of the river has fabulous views up and down the Vitava River as well as lots of amazing public sculptures. It is also on this side of the river where you can check-out the complex weirs that control the flow of the river as well as enable boats to go upstream.
But anyone visiting Prague for the first time should head over the Charles Bridge and dive into the alleyways of the Old Town. The first destination is the Old Town Square but the getting there will be part of the fun of the journey. You will not only pass shops of every description, you will also encounter the Havelske Frziste outdoor marketplace that has been here since the 13th century. The Old Town Square is the historic centre of old Prague containing the original town hall of the city. Whilst the town hall is the most visited tourist site in the city, it is the medieval astronomical clock (the Orloj) on the side of this building that appears to be of most interest to visitors, judging by the crowds. It has two dials; the astronomical dial that represents the positions of the sun and moon in the sky and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months of the year. But like so many other medieval city centres in Europe, the Orloj incorporates a fascinating clockwork show where moving figures (eg. Apostles) celebrate the new hour’s arrival.
For those particularly interested in the history of astronomy (after all, the Orloj is an historical icon on the path to modern astronomy that enabled Man to walk on the moon), a walk to the other side of the square to the Tyn Church, Church of Our Lady before Týn, will reward you. You will not only visit a highly ornate example of a fifteenth century Late Gothic church, you will find the grave of that curious 16th century, Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe. He was exiled from his homeland and was granted by the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, the position of official Imperial Astronomer in Prague. He was famous for his accurate celestial observations and his work undermined the view of the heavens that had been handed down from Aristotle. His assistant was Johannes Kepler who, based on Brahe’s work, developed the three laws of planetary motion. He is also famous in history for his artificial bronze nose; he lost the original in a duel with an old friend in the dark. There is a WH&S lesson there for all of us!
Whilst initially built in the tradition of Roman Catholic churches, the Tyn Church represents a timeline of the dramatic and devastating changes that occurred throughout Europe in the 15th & 16th centuries, brought about by the reformation ideas of individuals like Jan Hus and later Martin Luther. Jan Hus was a Catholic priest in Bohemia who took exception to many of the teachings of the Church. His story is a long and complex one but he fell victim in 1415 to the infamous ‘antipope’, John XXIII (not to be confused with the saintly John XXIII of the 1960s) who summoned him to a Council in Constance, Southern Germany, where he was tried for heresy and eventually burnt at the stake (In 1999, John Paul II apologized to the Czech Republic for the death of Hus). Huss’s execution by the Church led to a rebellion in Bohemia where most people had converted to “Hussism”, resulting in four crusades promulgated by the Popes against the Hussites of Bohemia. The Tyn Church was a Hussite Church for two centuries before the Hussites were defeated at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 by the Austrian Hapsburgs. Unveiled in 1915, a huge memorial to Hus’s followers, particularly those who died in the Battle of White Mountain, is situated just to the left of the Tyn Church in the Old Town Square. Unsurprisingly, Jan Hus has become a great symbol for the locals of strength against the oppression of foreign or local regimes that take away their human freedoms.
To make one last point about the striking Tyn Church, visitors should note the golden statue of the Madonna and child set against a halo of sun’s rays, placed on the gable between the two towers. This statue replaced the original statue of George of Podebrady (1453-1471) plus a huge golden chalice (symbol of Hussites) placed there around the mid 15th century. Six years after the conquest of Bohemia, the Catholic Hapsburgs subtly indicated their domination of the city by melting down the Hussite symbols on the front of the church and using the gold to create the Marian symbol that is still on the front of Tyn Church today.
The other beautiful Church in the Old Town Square of Prague is the Church of St Nicholas, built in the 1730s. It has been the major Hussite Church of Prague since 1920 and, in the spirit of ‘Czech dissidence’, it was used in 1945 during the Prague Uprising by Czech partisans to house ‘Radio Prague’. However, the towers of St Nicholas were used by the Government State Security during the Communist era to keep an eye on the American and Yugoslav embassies.
Exploring Prague…Part 2