Prague: Introduction

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'For centuries Prague was an important European city, an intellectual crossroads, a breeding ground for ideas and cultural development' – these were the words used by the former Czech President, Václav Havel, to describe the city where he was born. The fact that after the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 Prague opened itself up again to western Europe and discarded the drab greyness of communism is due in no small part to Václav Havel.

It was especially the complex, sometimes fraught, but also very productive web of relationships between Czechs, Germans and Jews that transformed the Prague of the early 20th century into a cultural crossroads. Writers, such as Franz Kafka, Egon Erwin Kisch and Franz Werfel, epitomise this era. As recently as the 1930s, Prague was a sanctuary for those seeking refuge from the National Socialists, notably German intellectuals, such as Bertolt Brecht and the two brothers, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, as well as opposition Social Democrats, such as Erich Ollenhauer – and that was before flags bearing swastikas started to flutter in Berlin. The fragmentation of Czechoslovakia by Hitler’s army, World War II, the Holocaust and then the forced expulsion of German speakers after 1945 cruelly ended Prague’s reputation as a centre of tolerance and cultural diversity.

Although many Slovaks remained after the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1993 and some moved here to work, the ethnic profile of the capital’s population today is largely homogeneous, with almost all of the 1.2 million residents Czech nationals. But what did the city look like 100 years ago when Jews, Germans and Czechs lived side by side? The full story is told in the city’s archives, but the clues are there as you wander through the old Jewish quarter of Josefov or when you glimpse the German street names on the Old Town facades.

Americans came to Prague in pursuit of the Bohemian lifestyle

In the years after the fall of communism, the emergence of an American community caused quite a stir. A large number of college graduates, artists and adventurers came from the U.S. to what they thought was the world capital of the Bohemian lifestyle, a new version of that 19th-century utopia where like-minded people gathered to indulge their particular literary or artistic tastes. So they came in search of inspiration for their first novel, to make a short film or simply to seek their fortune. It is thought that as many as 50,000 Americans lived in Prague during the early 1990s. Today, the city once renowned for its alternative lifestyle is far too expensive and nowhere near exotic enough for an adventure in the ’wild east’. According to statistics, only about 2,500 U.S. citizens live in Prague today. Ukrainians now form the largest minority (almost 35,000), but they play only a small part in the cultural life of the city.

Most of them, usually young men, come here to earn money, mainly by working on the building sites. In addition to about 10,000 Russians, there is also a largish Vietnamese community of just under 6,000, many of whom earn a living by selling cheap textiles and vegetables in corner shops. But the Vietnamese are aspirational; they send their children to good schools and are constantly seeking to expand their businesses. Sportisimo, one of the Czech Republic’s largest sports goods chains, was founded by two Vietnamese, who came to Prague as students during the communist era.

The majority of the foreigners in Prague today are tourists. On average some 11,000 visitors arrive in the city every day. Backpackers and young people on study tours, coach parties and school groups, families and couples – all lured here by the romantic narrow streets in the Old Town, the pretty corners of the Lesser Town, the majestic Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava and the awe-inspiring juxtaposition of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau and Functionalism. Prague has one of the largest heritage-protected zones in Europe. Almost the whole of the city centre is on UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage sites. And rightly so. The Lesser Town and the Old Town merge together to form the brick-and-stone backdrop for an open-air theatre – and quite magnificent it is too!

The people charged with preserving the city’s past, with its many different eras and styles, faced a huge challenge. Restoration work began immediately after the fall of communism. With only a few districts where the buildings all date from the same era, the planners are constantly having to ask themselves, what is it that they are actually seeking to protect – a moment in history, uniform rows of houses or individual buildings? When, for example, in the early 1990s, the ’Stone Bell House’ on the Old Town Square was renovated, hidden beneath the Baroque facade was the original Gothic stonework. So this beautifully-restored edifice now stands between a splendid Rococo palace and a Renaissance market hall. The renovation work was judged to be exemplary, demonstrating clearly that we must view each building in Prague on its own merits, not necessarily as part of a whole. Now, nearly everything that glitters in the ’Golden City’ is once again gold.

'Where in other cities groundwater flows, in Prague it's blood'

Prague was largely spared the bombing of World War II, so slowly but surely the past is coming back to life. A Czech travel guide from the 1960s stated without exaggeration that a visit to Prague is ’the quickest way to understand ten centuries of central European history’. Possibly true, but it has been a long road stained by bloodshed, tragedy and barbarity. One historian summarised the city’s past as follows: ’Where in other cities groundwater flows, in Prague it’s blood’. One particularly violent ’speciality’ here was defenestration. The first Prague defenestration took place in 1419. Angry Hussites despatched several Catholic councillors and burghers out of a window in the New Town Hall, an event which was a prelude to the Hussite Wars. The second defenestration of Prague was also an expression of the tensions between the two faiths. Angry Protestants threw two Catholic noblemen out of a window in Prague castle. They survived the 16m (50ft) drop because they landed in a medieval dung heap. But this incident marked the start of the Thirty Years’ War, a religious war which proved very costly in Czech lives. When in 1648 the Peace of Westphalia was agreed, Bohemia’s towns had been destroyed and about half of the inhabitants were dead. Nearly three centuries later, in March 1939, Hitler’s troops marched into Prague – World War II with all its atrocities followed shortly after. In August 1968, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into the city and quelled the ’Prague Spring’, thereby destroying any hopes of the ’socialism with a human face’ that the Czechs and Slovaks under Alexander Dubček so desperately wanted.

But some positive things did emerge from Prague. In 1348 Charles IV founded the first university in central Europe. By 1600 the court of Rudolf II, which was employing the two astronomers, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, was a leading centre of learning for the natural sciences. Finally, in November 1989, bloodless mass demonstrations ushered in the Velvet Revolution, leading to the end of communist rule and paving the way for radical social and economic change. Poet president Vaclav Hável was not the only one to dream about Prague once again becoming an ’intellectual crossroads’.

International companies have located to Prague and environs

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the lure of the city has increased dramatically – and that means to the business world too. After 1989 foreign investors started looking closely at the ’Golden City’. Practically every international corporation wanted a branch in Prague. A central location in Europe and a reputation for industry and enterprise dating from the early 20th century meant that the Greater Prague region was a highly attractive location – not least for the automotive industry. Today, on the outskirts of Prague, Toyota, Peugeot and Citroen are working together to make a small car, and the famous Škoda brand, now part of the Volkswagen group, has its headquarters near the capital. The IT sector is looking to Prague, the logistics company DHL masterminds its operations from the Czech capital and the German stock market has moved hundreds of jobs to the city. It’s true that the average salary in Prague of approx. £900 is still relatively low, but unemployment is close to zero. The economic recovery is continuing, the capital’s inhabitants are doing just fine, Prague is booming.

But the boom does bring problems, e.g. every day thousands of cars try to navigate through narrow streets laid out in the Middle Ages for horse-drawn carriages. The mayor of Prague once wearily remarked: ’Other European capitals had decades to solve this sort of problem. We’ve only had a few years.’ According to the latest statistics, almost half the population has a car. Then there are all the commuters who drive into the city from the outskirts. The excellent suburban transport network is mockingly dismissed by many as ’socka’, i.e. a mass transit system for the poor. The result: throughout Prague, contractors are digging underground car-parks, excavating tunnels and building bypasses with junctions that eat up the land. So within a period of only a few years, the Prague planners have made precisely the same mistakes as their counterparts in Western Europe. Residents’ groups set up to oppose these developments are making only slow progress.

For some years now, hypermarkets and shopping malls have been the norm

The change from communism to capitalism has happened at a breathtaking pace. Where yesterday there was a corner shop selling groceries, today there’s a sushi bar, the down-to-earth pub next door is now an ultra-cool lounge bar, and the old-fashioned café in the Lesser Town is now a Starbucks. Supermarkets no longer suffice. For some years now, hypermarkets and shopping malls have been the norm. Prague continues to expand far beyond the hills beside the Vltava. The urban area covers about 550sq km (210sq mi). More and more satellite towns with smart, detached houses are springing up in Prague’s commuter belt. But the estates of dismal, high-rise apartments, which many believed the new regime would want to demolish, live on. They have been modernised and are now resplendent in bright colours.

Fortunately, the prosperity of recent years has not destroyed the city’s mystery and magic. When swathes of mist shroud the lanes and alleys of the Old Town, the past seems to overshadow the present. The Czech film director and a native of Prague, Miloš Forman, once called the city a ’seductress with a thousand veils’. It has certainly not lost any of its charms. Prague is a vibrant, modern city where the past is never far away.

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