Prague´s Old Town (Staré město)
By Tracy A. Burns
Dating back to the 11th century, Prague’s Old Town gushes with history and architectural wonders. Styles from Romanesque to Art Nouveau sparkle through the labyrinthine streets, alleys and passageways that seem to jump right of out Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial.
The Jan Hus Memorial
The Jan Hus Memorial dominates Old Town Square. A tribute to the former priest and professor executed there for heresy, it was erected in 1915, 500 years after Hus’ death. The martyr is honored as a champion of freedom and of the Czech language. Imagine the monument draped in black during August of 1968 when the Warsaw Pact tanks rumbled in. Imagine Jan Hus preaching to thousands from 1402 to 1412 in Old Town’s Bethlehem Chapel.
Now housing the National Gallery’s Art of Asia and the Ancient Mediterranean, the Kinský Palace’s façade flaunts the Rococo style. The architectural gem is where Kafka attended a German high school and where his father ran a shop. Imagine it is February of 1948, and Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald is on the palace’s balcony, announcing that a Communist government has taken over.
Old Town Hall
The impressive Old Town Hall, with a 60-meter tower at one end, was built in 1338. On its earthy orange façade stand out a Renaissance window from 1520, the inscription Praga Caput Regni and the Old Town coat-of-arms. Imagine it is 1458, and Jiří z Poděbrad is being elected King of Bohemia here.
Crowds gather on the hour to watch the 15th century astronomical clock, as Death tips an hour glass and rings a bell before the 12 apostles march by, the cock crows and another bell rings. Notice Apostle Paul’s sword and book. The complex works also show the time of sunrise and sunset, the position of the moon and the distance of the Earth from the Sun. Legend has it that the clockmaker, Master Hanuš, was blinded so he could never build another. He got revenge by breaking the clock.
Týn Church looms over the square, a gold effigy of the Virgin Mary prominently placed between its spires. Inside, black Baroque altars abound, and paintings by master Karel Škréta amaze. Behind the church, a taste of the Middle Ages is offered by the Ungelt courtyard, where merchants paid customs tax. Opposite the courtyard, the Church of Saint James glitters in gold Baroque decor. The Baroque Church of Saint Nicholas nearby is adorned with stunning frescoes. Kafka was born next door on July 3, 1883. The wide, elegant Paris Street, decked with Art Nouveau facades, branches out from the Square. Step onto nearby Celetná, and imagine the coronation processions of Bohemian Kings on the way to Prague Castle. At the end of the street looms the neo-Gothic, 65-meter tall Powder Tower.
Built in the 1770s, the Classicist Theatre of the Estates on Ovocný trh features majestic, Corinthian columns. Within these green and white walls, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered during 1787. It was here that his opera La Clemenza di Tito celebrated Emperor Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia in 1791. The first Czech opera graced this stage.
The Gothic Karolinum, opposite the Estates Theatre, is part of Charles University, the first university in Central Europe, established by Emperor Charles IV in 1348.
House at the Black Madonna
Prague’s first Cubist building, The House at the Black Madonna (Dům u Černé Matky Boží), dating from 1911-1912, features the Museum of Czech Cubism. Don’t overlook the art work of Josef Čapek and Emil Filla.
House of the Golden Ring
The Renaissance House of the Golden Ring (U Zlatého prstenu), with sgraffiti on its walls, is home to a 20th century Czech art museum.
Old Town Square’s Gothic At the Stone Bell (U Kamenného zvonu) is an intriguing museum hosting temporary art exhibitions.
The National Library of the Klementinum, with its elegant Rococo halls, is the third largest historic complex in Prague, built as a Jesuit college in the 1600s. The Chapel of Mirrors, where concerts are held, boasts a richly stucco décor.
The Golden Tiger pub
Don’t overlook the Golden Tiger (U Zlatého tygra) pub at Husova 17, where legendary Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal used to sit and where, in January of 1994, President Bill Clinton, President Václav Havel and Hrabal downed beers together.
The Theatre on the Balustrades
Don’t forget to take a peek at The Theatre on the Balustrades (Divadlo Na zábradlí) at Anenské Square 5, the place where Havel worked and where his first plays were produced in the 1960s.
Secret Police prison
Now a pension, the former Secret Police prison on Bartolomějská street houses a cell once occupied by Havel.
Feel the magic of the Old Town while getting lost on its meandering, medieval streets and feel history come alive.