Prior to its role as the capital of the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia, Prague was the capital city of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the main residence of several Holy Roman Emperors. It was founded around 880 AD when construction of what is now known as Prague Castle was started (although a settlement existed there from at least 800 AD).
Our trip to Prague was the most straight-forward trip we’d had in about two weeks (bus to Ostrava, train to Prague), although we were slightly unnerved by how deserted the train was (I think by now we had started being suspicious about anything that could go wrong!). But we got in and found our hotel just fine (walking distance from the train station). Our room was quite comfortable, if quite spartan and a bit dusty.
As with many other places we’ve visited, we took a Sandeman’s free walking tour of Prague, led by (again!) an Australian who had married a local. She took us on a trip through Prague and the Czech Republic’s history as we walked the streets of central Prague. 16 months later I’m going to admit I can’t remember a lot of it, except that the poor Czech Republic has been divided and occupied by neighbouring empires for centuries. Oh, and the fact that when you have a baby you can only select a name off Prague’s list of approved names (of which there are only about 200). Each name corresponds with a day of the year, too, known as a Name Day, and on your name day everyone with the same name goes out to celebrate with their friends. (NB: Having looked up the details of Name Days, I’ve discovered now that it’s no longer law to name your baby off the approved list. It was still the case, though, when our guide’s son was born, and he was only a few years old at that time). Oh, and the fact that Hugo Boss designed the Nazi uniforms (a fact we learnt when we came across a Hugo Boss shop in, ironically, the Jewish Quarter).
We also visited the Museum of the City of Prague (pretty much exactly what it says!), in which we found an incredible miniature model of the old city.
After learning much about the experience of Prague’s Jews during the war, we were keen to visit some of the local Jewish synagogues or museums. We found most of them charged an extortionate amount though, so decided to skip that idea, having already visited a synagogue in Budapest. We did walk past one of the largest Jewish cemeteries though which, as you’ll see from the picture below, is now several metres deep. This gives a vivid picture of how many people are buried there – forced to be buried on top of each other as the Jews were not permitted any extra land to bury their dead during the war (you can see the heads of people shopping in the markets at the bottom).
It is rumoured that this cemetery, with its undulations (caused by the ground settling around the graves over the years) was the inspiration behind the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Of course, one cannot visit Prague and not visit the Prague Castle which is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest coherent castle complex in the world. You can buy entry tickets to for different ‘circuits’ of the castle, which permit you entry into different buildings. If I remember correctly, we bought tickets for Circuit B, which included entry to St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica and Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower (we didn’t visit Daliborka Tower, which is elsewhere in the city, though).
Interestingly enough, Prague Castle is still actually the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic, and so there are buildings which are off-limits to the public as they are his private residence. And although construction started around 870AD, it was not officially completed until 1929!
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert – commonly known as St Vitus Cathedral (as, up until 1997, it was only dedicated to St Vitus) – is the seat of the Archbishop of Prague, and contains the tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors. The main tower is nearly 100m tall and gives an excellent view of the castle grounds and surrounding city.
We also returned to the Prague Astronomical Clock that we saw on our walking tour, as you are able to go up the tower on which it is mounted. The tower is part of the Old Town Hall, which was bought by city councillors in 1338. The building is actually made up of several houses and expansions cobbled together, part of which was destroyed during the Prague Uprising towards the end of WWII.