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The beautiful city of Prague

But for anyone over 50, Prague can offer another face

July 2016


In the summer, the beautiful Old Town Square with its historic clock is so packed that it can be hard to move at all; in winter it can be so cold that no one wants to stand long enough to admire the amazing buildings or listen to the celebrated chimes.

But that is Prague all over, a city of many contrasts, from a beautiful World Heritage site filled with tiny cobbled streets, glorious churches and faded palaces to a loud and energetic modern town with top fashion emporiums and full of celebrating stag and hen nighters.

For anyone over 50, Prague also has one more face...the face of a town and people who in our time have been through unbelievable turmoil, who have suffered, campaigned, kept going against so many odds, and finally come out if not smiling, at least as survivors with modern generations being able to live their lives in freedom.

It doesn’t take much to scratch below the surface. Yes, the old stark apartment blocks of the communist era have been modernised, painted, buildings softened with cars and plants out the front; the city centre, which is the focus of most tourism in the Czech Republic, is clean and welcoming.

But the long and undulating Wenceslas Square is still Wenceslas Square, the scene of shock and unbelief for so many Czechs when they woke up in August 1968 to find Russian tanks rolling in. Today it is still the heart of the town, although the wonderful old buildings and palaces lining each side are slowly being edged into the 21st century with bright shop fronts on the ground floors and some astonishing additions higher up.


Some of the new additions in Wenceslas Square compete with the traditional beauty

The imposing building at the end of the square, the National Museum, is closed for renovations. A lovely lady directing visitors away from the building let us peep through to the stunning staircase. When will it open again? “It was meant to be four years, but then another year, maybe next year, who knows,” she answered.

At this end of the square not all was lost though. There is a lovely McDonald’s which offers very clean toilet facilities to all for a small fee; these are things worth knowing for older travellers! And wander down to one street behind Wenceslas Square, and there is a building that would certainly have resonated with our parents. Today it just looks like a substantial grey office building, similar to many one finds in London and other old cities around the world. It is the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade although there is little signage to indicate its role. We ventured up the wide stone steps and through the smart wooden doors. The young man in the high foyer didn’t really speak English and we were directed to an older grey haired man behind a shiny wooden desk. He nodded ruefully and quietly. Yes, this was the Gestapo Headquarters in the war. This was where Jews and resistance workers were interrogated and tortured.

We said thank you quietly and left.


Old Gestapo headquarters, now the Ministry of Trade

A short walk took us to the Museum of Communism. This again was quietly situated with an entrance that was strangely unmarked. But the museum itself was well done, showing how the totalitarian regime affected every aspect of life. During this time, the authorities arrested more than 200,000 Czechs and shot 327 others when they tried to flee across the border.

The propaganda was clever and frightening; with its echo now being repeated in slightly different forms across the modern world. Along with photographs and explanation boards and various artefacts, the museum had some more unusual but fascinating aspects. In one corner we found a collection of carved heads; some on pedestals; some clearly broken off from big statues. The chipped heads of Stalin and a range of hard liners from the communist era were scattered appropriately without recognition in a haphazard way across the floor.


Heads that rolled when the communist era finally ended

Another area showed a wall of graffiti and it included one brightly scrawled message in English….Let me live my life; enjoy freedom; touch the limit; reach the stars; understand world; that’s what I want.

I wonder if the person who wrote that is still around. It could have been written anytime up to 1989, when finally the communist era ended with the Czech’s Velvet Revolution. If this person was say around 20 when he or she wrote that, probably undercover in darkness before speeding away, then he or she would now be 50 or so. The older people we passed in the streets in centre Prague, maybe they were involved in graffiti, or in another of the many protests and revolutionary activities that took place.

The fascinating Charles Bridge, the glorious hilltop Prague Castle with its Gothic St Vitus Cathedral (around 287 steps to climb to the top but well worth the view), the amazing music concerts that are held most evenings in a range of unique and faded palaces and venues; Prague has something for everyone. But there was one more thing that we thought we ought to see while in the town; the Church of St Cyril and Methodius.

We walked down the other side of the Vitava, the town’s main river, through beautiful and peaceful squares, with well dressed children feeding pigeons and charming restaurants offering hot wine, drinking chocolate, cold beer and views, and then crossed back to find the Church.


St. Cyril and Methodiuis, last hiding place for Czech resistance workers

The white Baroque church, dating from the 1730s, is charming but what makes it stand out from all the other stunning churches and synagogues in Prague (and the town really does have an amazing over supply of these beautiful places of worship), is that this was the final hiding place of members of the Czech resistance in WWII after they had killed the Nazi governor of Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich. The Germans caught them here and there is a small museum with some fascinating information and photographs and you can visit the crypt where the group finally hid before committing suicide.

Talking of Czechoslovakia, at our age it is easy to accidently let the word slip out. “No, no” said one taxi driver in a resigned fashion. “It has been the Czech Republic for over 20 years now.” Clearly this is a common error with older tourists.

There are a few other things to remember:

  • At the moment the Czech Republic uses Koruna, not Euros as many people think.
  • The charming cobbles, or setts as they are officially called, that cover the myriad of winding streets in the old town are uneven and can be uncomfortable to walk on without easy walking shoes.
  • English is the official second language taught in all schools and is spoken surprisingly well almost everywhere.
  • If you want a contrast from history and beauty, then Prague offers lots of great other activities including an exciting bob sleigh run, river trips, and the largest water park in central Europe.

But that is what Prague is…a city of real contrasts and a fascinating town for all age groups.

 

Flights
British Airways, Swiss, Easy Jet, Ryanair and Wiz Air are just some of the numerous flights that offer direct flights to Prague from various locations around the UK.

Visit
Prague’s official tourism site.

Sally stayed at:
Hotel Rott, mid priced heritage building located just off the central Old Town Square

Ministry of Industry and Trade (old Gestapo headquarters)
Politickych veznue, behind Wenceslas Square.

Museum of Communism
Na Príkope 10, 110 00 Pr 1, Prague (420) 224 212 966

Church of St Cyril and St Methodius
Resslova, Prague 9   pravoslavnacirkev.cz

 


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