Prague´s New Town (Nové Město)

 

By Tracy A. Burns

Origin

Prague’s Nové město (New Town) offers a plethora of sights and monuments to the tourist who strays from the more popular Staré město (Old Town) or Malá strana (Lesser Town). History seeps through the New Town, as many of the country’s most significant events happened in this district that was almost three times as big as the Old Town at its creation, then measuring about 620 acres in area. Founded by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, the New Town was supposed to be the Jerusalem of Eastern Europe. From north to south it encompassed 3.1 miles, from east to west ½ to ¾ of a mile. Czech fishermen, carpenters, tanners, brickmakers, coppersmiths and cabinetmakers were among those selling their wares in this part of Prague while most of the Germans and Jews did business in the Old Town. Out of the five boroughs of Prague that make up the center of the city, the New Town is the youngest and the largest.

Wenceslas Square and its sights

Perhaps the most famous sight is the 820-yard long Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square), which now flaunts businesses, shops and hotels. Established as a horse market in the 14th century, the square crosses the total width of the New Town and boasts Classicist, Art Nouveau and Neo-Gothic facades, to name a few of the many styles represented there.

Karlovy Vary Tours from Prague

National Museum

At the top of the square is the Neo-Renaissance National Museum, built from 1885 to 1890 and bullet-riddled during the Warsaw Pact armies’ invasion of Prague that put a halt to the 1968 Prague Spring of liberal reforms. In front of the building is the dominating statue of the Czech patron and 10th century duke Saint Václav (Wenceslas) triumphantly riding a horse. Renowned Czech sculptor Josef Václav Myslbek created it. Flanking Saint Wenceslas are saints Ludmila, Anežka, Vojtěch and Prokop. About 30 yards from the statue is a modest monument to those who suffered under totalitarian rule. Also on the square, the Grand Hotel Evropa impresses with its Art Nouveau façade.

Revolutions at Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square has been the site of many significant events in Czech history. Imagine philosophy student Jan Palach setting fire to himself in January of 1969 on the steps of the National Museum. Listen to the rumble of the Soviet tanks passing through the square as the Soviets crush the Prague Spring in August of 1968. Try to envision the crowds that gathered here during the large demonstration on the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death. Go back in time, when the square was bursting with 300,000 demonstrators every evening during the November 1989 Velvet Revolution.  Look up at the former Melantrich balcony and imagine Václav Havel addressing the anxious crowds and hear the jubilation when he announces that the Communist government has resigned. Listen to the demonstrators jiggling their keys in victory.

Charles Square and its sights

Yet Wenceslas Square was not the largest or the most important market square in Prague during the 14th century. Karlovo náměstí (Charles Square), about 550 meters by 150 meters, used to be the largest square in Europe, a place where cattle, fish, wood and coal were sold.  Charles IV intended the cattle market there to be the center of the New Town.

Town Hall

Built in 1377, the Renaissance New Town Hall, an architectural masterpiece, was no stranger to historical events. It was here that the 15th century Hussite revolution began when the Catholics would not let the imprisoned Hussites in the building go free. In response, an angry crowd stormed the town hall. In 1419 the first of three defenestrations in Prague took place here courtesy of the Hussites.

Etalon

Look for the Etalon unit of measurement on the town hall’s façade. Created during the reign of King Přemysl Otakar II in 1268, the Etalon measured 59.38 centimeters. Here customers could make sure they had not been cheated by merchants. Elbows, palms and fingers were used as units of measurement. Fore example, one palm equaled four fingers. If it turned out that the merchants had cheated the buyers, the sellers were placed in wooden caskets and dipped into the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge.

Church of Saint Ignatius

Other significant buildings on Charles Square include the Church of Saint Ignatius, built during the 17th century. About 900 victims of the 1945 bombing were carried to this church.

The Faust House

The Faust House is where English alchemist Edward Kelly, who worked for Emperor Rudolf II, lived in the 16th century. Though it is connected with a Faust legend, Faust never lived there.

During the 19th century, Charles Square was made into a park, featuring statues of Czech personalities, woody plants and a Baroque fountain hailing from the 17th century. Look for the statues of 19th century Czech writers Eliška Krásnohorská and Karolína Světlá.

Nonexistant Chapel of Holy Blood or Corpus Christi

The New Town also used to be a site of one of the most significant pilgrimages in Europe. The now nonexistent wooden tower next to the Chapel of Holy Blood or Corpus Christi stood on Ječna (Barley) street off Charles Square. In 1354 Charles IV transferred the crown jewels and reliquaries here and displayed them to the public for one day after Easter. Tens of thousands came to see the holy objects on this holiday. The chapel was destroyed in 1791. The relics were placed in various churches in the New Town, and these churches formed a huge cross from an aerial perspective.

Other important sights in the New Town

Senovážné Square, now a noisy intersection of streets, was once a hay and straw market. At Můstek on lower Wenceslas Square, there used to be a stone bridge that divided the Old Town from the New Town. (Hence the name “small bridge.”) Don’t miss the statue of Jungmann near Můstek in honor of the man who created literary Czech and added many words to his mother tongue. On Panská Street there was a piarists’ school that Czech personalities such as linguist Josef Jungmann, poet Karel Hynek Mácha and Franz Kafka attended. The not-to-be missed Mucha Museum shows off the paintings, posters and banknotes by Mucha on the ground floor of a palace on the same street.

National Theatre

The New Renaissance style National Theatre, designed by well-renowned architect Josef Zítek and symbolizing the Czech national revival movement as well as the rebirth of the nation, is a must for sightseers in Prague.  Try to take in an opera or ballet. Only weeks after its opening performance of Bedřich Smetana’s opera Libuše in 1881, the impressive structure burned down. Public donations collected during a mere 47 days financed its reconstruction, which took two years.  The interior is breathtaking as its main lobby boasts the Má Vlast cycle of frescoes by well-reputed artist Mikuláš Aleš. The allegorical ceiling painting in the auditorium amazes as does the curtain with its allegorical figures. The façade is fascinating, too. Notice the bronze statues of winged goddesses and the three horses. The golden roof looks like a crown. The modern glass structure of the Laterna Magica’s New Stage is an eyesore, though, constructed in 1983 to the tune of totalitarian rule.

Národní třída (National Avenue)

It was on Národní třída (National Avenue) which branches out from the National Theatre, that the “Red Hats” police force, on November 17, 1989, attacked the 30,000 student demonstrators gathered there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Nazi brutality against protesting students. The police’s violent behavior sparked the Velvet Revolution that led to the end of Communism.  In an arcade on the street, there is a modest monument to the students who dreamed of freedom. Also, stop for a moment at the Reduta jazz club and take a look at the photo showing Bill Clinton playing the saxophone there during his January 1994 visit to Prague.

Art Nouveau Obecní dům (Municipal House)

Make an effort to tour the awe-inspiring Art Nouveau Obecní dům (Municipal House) on Náměsti republiky (Republic Square), where you can see the creations of world-renowned artist Alfons Mucha on a tour in English. Take a seat in the Dvořák concert hall, the largest of its kind in Prague and a venue of the Prague Spring Music Festival. Built from 1905 to 1911, the Municipal House made history on October 28, 1918, when the creation of the democratic Czechoslovak republic was announced there. The building screams Art Nouveau. The mosaic “Homage to Prague” on the façade fascinates; it is the work of renowned artist Karel Špillar. Statues on the façade also are created in Art Nouveau style.

Powder Tower

Next to the Municipal House is Powder Tower, which got its name from its use as a gunpowder depository during the 17th century. Built in 1475 in Late Gothic style and renovated in New Gothic rendition during the late 19th century, the tower was on the “Royal Way” of emperors’ coronation processions to the Old Town. Make sure you look up at the 15th century breathtaking statues of kings Vladislav II and Jiří of Poděbrady on its façade.

The Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius

The Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius on Resslova Street is best known as the last hiding place of seven Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated the SS Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, on May 27, 1942 in Operation Anthropoid. The parachutists were betrayed by Karel Čurda, and the church was surrounded by the Gestapo. Three died in the prayer loft. The other four died in the crypt after the Nazis tried to flood the underground hiding place. Now there is a stirring exhibition in the crypt.

The Emause Monastery

The Emause Monastery, built by Charles IV in 1347, houses a vast collection of frescoes and was bombed during a February 1945 air raid.

Panna Marie Snežna Cathedral

The Panna Marie Snežna Cathedral was also erected during Charles IV’s reign and is in the hands of the Franciscan Order. The emperor had high hopes for this holy site: He aspired for it to become the largest church in Prague. Jan Želivksý, a radical Hussite priest who led the first Prague defenestration that triggered the 15th century Hussite Revolution, is buried there. The cathedral’s spectacular Franciscan garden is now a park open to the public.

State Opera

Other New Town buildings that amaze include the State Opera, a New Rococo structure originally used as a German theatre in contrast to the National Theatre’s performances in Czech. Na Příkopě Street, now lined with luxury shops and offices, was once a moat that divided the Old Town and New Town and is the oldest boulevard in Prague, created in 1760. Take a look at the former Živnostenská Bank, built in Neo-Renaissance style. The Empire style Church of Saint Cross stands conspicuously on this street. The Museum of Communism, which traces the 40 years of totalitarian rule in the Czech lands, is housed in a palace on Na Příkopě.

The Dancing House

The Dancing House, nicknamed Fred and Ginger and created by architects Vlado Milunič and Frank Gehry, appears to show two dancing figures in this nontraditional glass structure on Rašínovo nábřeží (Rašín Embankment). Designed in 1992, the intriguing structure was finished in 1996. On the roof is a French restaurant offering fine views of Prague. In 1945 this spot was bombed by the Americans, and for a long time only an empty lot reminiscent of the war was located there.

The Žofín Palace

The Žofín Palace on Slovanský Island in 1848 was the venue for the Slavic convention when its participants debated about creating a confederation of Slavic nations. Since the 19th century, classical music concerts have been held there. Smetana’s Má Vlast received its first nighttime performance at the palace. Czechs have been getting their drinking water from the New Mill Water Tower since 1877. A 12th century rotunda still stands in the district, too. A Jewish Cemetery called the Jews’ Garden, from the 13th century, used to be situated in this area of Prague. It was demolished in the 15th century, however, and buildings were constructed over it. A large monument to historian and writer František Palacký looms large on the square named after him. Charles University has its enchanting botanical gardens on Na Slupi Street.

Instead of spending all your time in the vicinity of the Castle, Charles Bridge and Old Town, make a trip to the nearby New Town in order to get another taste of Prague in a district that has been so significant in Czech history. Feel the history of Wenceslas Square, Charles Square and National Avenue. Admire the National Theatre and the Municipal House. It is definitely worth spending a day in this dazzling borough of Prague.


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