The streets of the old town in Prague are a red carpet of imposing medieval beauties. And despite the hordes of selfie sticks and thousands of avid tourists, you’ll find a carefree atmosphere in the air inviting relaxation and free flow wandering.
It’s hard to imagine that this cheerful and vivacious city has gone, in the last hundred years alone, through a declaration of independence, nazi occupation, a repressive communist dictatorship and a pacific transition to democracy!
Everything breaths old history in Prague. The settlement in the margins of the Vltava river started as early as the Palaeolithic, and the imposing Prague Castle goes back to the 9th century, a solid fortification against attacking enemies.
In the 14th century, when Charles IV reigned, Prague was the third largest city in Europe, and saw unparalleled growth. It was a rich commercial city that attracted many merchants, bankers and influent families, with a thriving Jewish community. Testament to that period are the Charles IV bridge – uniting both margins of the Vltava – the Charles University and the St. Vitus Cathedral, all symbolising the desire for knowledge (or for fervent religious inspiration).
After a period of intense turmoil, the 16th century saw Prague emerging again as a city of lights and knowledge, under the rule of the Habsburg. Astronomers and mathematicians like Johannes Kepler and John Dee lived here, sharing their knowledge with painters and writers. It was a time of poets and quants!
In the following two centuries the city endured wars, plagues and major fires, but reached the 18th century as an important European hub, fuelled by the advent of the industrial revolution and the rich coal mines nearby.
The end of the First World War and the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led to the creation of Czechoslovakia, with Prague as the capital and the Prague Castle as the seat of the president. By then Prague was a multi ethnic city, with large Czech, German and Jew populations fuelling a melting pot of traditions. This would change dramatically with Hitler’s invasion in 1939, when the majority of the Jewish population was deported or killed.
Liberation came by the hands of the Russian Red Army. But the liberators soon became oppressors, puppeteering a communist dictatorship that ended only in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin wall. The velvet revolution invaded the streets of Prague, celebrating Czechoslovakia’s newborn freedom.
Czechoslovakia lasted till 1993, when Czechs and Slovaks amicably decided to split the country. In 2004 both Czech Republic and Slovakia entered the European Union, together with several other Eastern European countries.
I’ll leave you with a final interesting bit of trivia (who knows, it might be the winning play in your next game of Trivial Pursuit): most countries have two names, a short one and a formal one (for instance, my home country is commonly known as ‘Portugal’, but its formal name is ‘Portuguese Republic’). Until very recently, Czech Republic had no short name, but one was just approved: ‘Czechia’. Dating back to the 17th century, the name never caught real traction, despite being freely used by some international press. Choosing it for the country’s official short name was not an uneventful decision, with many Czechs arguing against the “weirdness of the name”, “similarities with Chechnya”, “similarities with Tschechei, a derogatory name given by the nazis to the region”, and the fact that “it excludes from the name part of the Czech Republic territories – Moravia and Silesia”, among others.
See you soon!