We arrived in Prague after a 15-hour bus ride from Serbia, through Hungary, cutting through Slovakia, and finally up north through the Czech Republic. By the time we left the bus station it was midnight and the metro line had closed. So we took a cab. Usually this is highly discouraged in Prague (even though drivers use meters, they cheat). Thankfully, this time we weren’t cheated, and the driver took us quickly and directly to our hostel on Wenceslas Square.
In the morning, we were up and at ’em at the wee hour of 11 am. We strolled toward the Old Town Square, stopping for a tredelnik, which was so delicious I wanted two. Then we stumbled down the cobblestone path and onto the square, right in front of the astronomical clock.
Prague, nestled in the heart of Bohemian Czech Republic, is one of the oldest and most beautiful cities of Central Europe. About 1.3 million people live here now, and the city area was settled over two thousand years ago by Celts. Germans, then Slavs, roamed the area, making the land by the Vltava river. Modern Czechs, although now a distinct ethnic group, are descended from those western Slavs. The first fortress that would be eventually known as Prague Castle was already built around 800 AD. At the time, most of these people considered themselves Bohemes, hence the name Bohemia.
The city continued to grow, and by the 1300s had a prominent Jewish population, German population, several bridges, and churches. Unfortunately, the medieval dynasty pretty much died out. Only a princess, Elisabeth, was left. She married John of Luxembourg because he was very, very rich (and old and blind in one eye). They had a son in 1316 who became Charles IV. He became King of Bohemia and even the Holy Roman Emperor. Under him, Prague flourished. He founded the Carolina University, built the famous Charles Bridge, expanded St. Vitus Cathedral, and more.
The famous Powder Tower was one of the original 13 city gates between Old Town and New Town, something Charles IV helped renovate. It was finished, however, until about 100 years after his death, when another king finished the decorations. It’s called the Powder Tower because in the 17th century they stored gunpowder there.
Anyway, the Old Town Square used to be the marketplace in the 1400 and 1500s. Now a riotous clash of architecture with several spires towering over the cobblestones, the square is the iconic image of medieval Prague.
The old city hall, as seen at night. It used to be a lot bigger, until Nazis accidentally blew up the right half of the church (thankfully, not where the clock is). It was also the site of Prague’s one-and-a-half defenestration in 1483 when rioters/protesters, fed up with the municipal government, threw seven aldermen and a portreeve out the window to their deaths. (Yes, I learned the word defenestration from this. Apparently when Czechs get really angry they throw people out of windows).
If you’re wondering where I’m getting all my information, it’s from a free walking tour and some of my own research.
And, finally, we came to the astronomical clock. The third oldest in the world and the only one still functioning, the Prague orloj was finished in 1410. Legend has it that the city councilors were so proud of the clock and so jealous that no one else create their own that they took the clockmaker out, got him drunk, and blinded him. In revenge, the clockmaker climbed the tower and jumped into the cogs, committing suicide and ensuring that they couldn’t have his precious invention. The clock didn’t work for another 100 years.
The 26-second show is often rated the Second Most Disappointing Site in Europe (Mona Lisa being first), and according to 21st century expectations I suppose that’s true. But back in the 15th century, moving figures must’ve been amazing! The four figures on the bottom represent the four most respected trades during that period: ruler, soldier, historian, or astronomer. Up above are the four things most despised in the 15th century: vanity (which, our guide pointed out, is ironic considering the number of selfies taken with this clock today), greed (helpfully depicted as a Jew), death as the skeleton, and lust/earthly pleasures (also helpfully depicted as a Turk). 15th century ain’t got nothing on stereotypes and cultural sensitivity.
Across the square is Church of Our Lady before Tyn,with its uneven gothic towers. Although a church had stood there since the 11th century, this later Gothic style wasn’t built until the 14th century.
In the middle of the square is a statue to Jan Huss, commemorating the work he did in ushering in Protestantism and also the 25-year-long Hussite Wars, unfortunately. Huss was a pretty amazing guy, actually, a Catholic priest and a staunch critic of the hypocritical excesses of the church. I read some of his sermons in high school. His name, “Huss” means “goose,” and it’s where we get the phrase “his goose is cooked” because he was eventually burned at the stake in 1415, a martyr for the fledgling Protestant Reformation.
Well, his death didn’t go over so well with the Czechs, who were loving this whole Bible-in-Bohemian and greedy-popes-profit-off-your-indulgences thing. There was the First Defenestration of Prague, which tossed several Catholic priests out a window in 1419, and then the wars.
We strolled through what used to be the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov. For hundreds of years it was one of the worst parts of the city–poor, flooding in spring from the river, and cramped. But finally, when Jews were allowed to move outside the walls in the late 1800s, they did. Only the poorest stayed, and soon the criminal elements of the city moved in. The city government spent a lot of time and money cleaning up the area, building new stores and apartments around the turn of the 20th century, pushing the riffraff out. Now it’s the most expensive real estate in the country.
Okay, so ignore the stupid grin on my face. This is the Rudolfinum, one of the countless concert halls in Prague and is home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (since 1946). You may have noticed that a lot of these buildings are old. And hardly damaged. That’s because Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia first, in 1938 (even before Poland). There’s a long, bitter history there, but the upside is that because the government surrendered, very little fighting or bombing happened. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world due to that.
Which is where this great little story comes in. The Nazis, of course, took over all the big, beautiful buildings as military headquarters, including the Rudolfinum. The third in command, right after Himmler, was Reinard Heydrich (the guy who finalized the Final Solution). When he moved into the Rudolfinum, though, there was a problem. The building is lined with the statues of famous composers. It’s great, especially for art-loving Nazis, except that Felix Mendelssohn is up there, who was ethnically Jewish. Well, that just wouldn’t do, not on a Nazi building! So Heydrich ordered two soldiers to go up there and take down Mendelssohn.
That night, they dutifully climbed up there, when they realized a problem: they didn’t know what Mendelssohn looked like! But, being problem-solving Germans who paid attention in Nazi history class, they found a solution. They measured every single nose up on that roof, knowing that the biggest nose had to be the Jewish composer. They found him, knocked him off, and were so proud of themselves that they arrived early the next morning to show off their success.
Heydrich took one look at the broken statue on the ground and flew into a rage. “What have you done to Wagner?” he demanded.
Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. He was a strong anti-Semite during his day, and plenty of musicians hate him because he designed the modern orchestra pit they all despise.
That evening we went to watch The Magic Flute in the Estates Theatre. Our guide mentioned that if possible, we needed to go to a classical music event because they happen every night. The government apparently subsidizes the cost of tickets, so it’s pretty cheap to attend. We had to choose between Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons playing at the Klementinum and Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the last surviving theater he actually performed in. It’s just crazy to me that there’s so much music and culture in this city that amazing events only happen for one night.
We picked The Magic Flute, my favorite opera. The Estates Theatre was the world premiere of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s most famous opera, in 1787. So obviously we had to go. We bought tickets day-of, so had some of the worst seats in the theater.
The theater is rather small (though the stage is incredibly deep), and there’s the orchestra, two balconies, and three galleries. We sat in the top gallery, and yes, we had to lean forward and rest our chins on the railing to see the stage. I got a crick in my neck.
See Jordan all the way at the top, near the chandelier, in blue? Yep.
BUT we got student pricing, so we watched the whole opera in Prague at a historic theater that Mozart himself enjoyed for a grand total of 250 Czech crowns, or $13.81 USD. For the two of us! I KNOW! So those smiles on our faces are genuine.
And the soprano as Queen of the Night was amazing, and the overture made me feel like my heart would burst, and we’re still humming the arias days afterward. It was perfect.