The two days that we spent in Prague were beautiful, overwhelming in their information, and did quite a bit to set my assumptions straight. Thesis: the Slavic people weren’t totally into the German population that my ancestors represented. Correllary: Prague is beautiful.
As recently as two years ago, I was still muddling through the confusing fact that the towns in Bohemia from whence we sprang had new, Czech names. As our guides slowly recounted the histories of the sites that we saw, it became clear that renaming these towns with Czech names was actually an act of reclamation rather than complete rebirth. I learned a Czech history of being dominated first by the the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austro Hungarian, brief independence in the early 20th century only to be occupied by the Nazis, then the Communists. The Velvet Revolution brought self-determination in 1989. How did I miss this nuance? I suppose that, before this trip, I was looking at things from a narrow point of view.
A brief review of a few Prague highlights, however, tells a story of nationalistic pride having nothing to do with the identity of any of their former occupying rulers.
St. Vitus Cathedral is located within the so-called Prague Castle complex. The current building is a prime example of Gothic architecture. The altar end was built under the rule of Charles the IV, begun in 1344. Construction paused to address more important issues to the Austro-Hungarians, such as the Protestant / Hussite “threat” and various sundry wars. The Nave end was finally completed in Neo-Gothic Style in the 19th century. The current cathedral is actually the third on the site built to celebrate the arm of St. Vitus that King Vaclav (who we know as Good King Wenceslas) acquired. There are a lot of other popular Slavic saints their too, including Vaclav himself.
Another, in my opinion more beautiful, chapel in the Prague Castle is known as the Old Chapel and is done in traditional Romanesque style. There, the grandmother of Good King Vaclav is buried and venerated a saint and Slavic folk hero as well. She is Saint Ludmila. She is noted for having raised Vaclav and for having been strangled by her daughter in law. They were trying times.
Vaclav is a huge folk hero. There is a statue of him astride a horse at the top of Wenceslas (Vaclav) Square. He was actually a Duke of Bohemia, not a king as the song implies. Also, he was killed by his brother. Again, trying times. Wenceslas Square has been the site of numerous massive demonstrations, especially in the days of communist rule, such as the Prague Spring in 1968.
Another guy we saw in bronze a lot was King Charles the IV. He was considered the greatest of the Bohemian Kings. In addition to initiating the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral, he founded Charles University & built the Charles bridge. Bonus: he had 4 wives, none of whom he killed! Charles University today has over 40,000 students and is free for Czech citizens.
Looking for a new, fun sport? Why not take up defenestration? This is a historically popular way to both demonstrate against and take care of one’s enemies in the Czech Republic. It means, literally, “to throw out a window.” So, the rules of the game are easy. We saw a famous defenestration window in the Prague Castle that Czechs used to defenestrate some Hapsburg clerks during the days of Austro-Hungarian rule.
Outside Prague castle is Golden Lane. This series of pocket-sized homes are built into the castle walls and were the site of craftspeople. In the early 20th century, Number 14 was the residence of a famous fortune teller. When the Gestapo was clearing the place, she foretold their eventual defeat. So, they killed her.
As I mentioned above, St. Vitus Cathedral wasn’t completed until the early 20th century. So, all of the stained glass windows in it are modern. One stands out, the painted window of Czech Art Nouveau artist, Alphonse Mucha. It highlights King / St. Vaclav in the Center–as a young boy in red with Queen Ludmila, and just above being baptised by Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Their lives are highlighted in the side panels.
I was so taken with the window that I made a visit to the Mucha museum. He gained massive popularity through his theatrical advertising posters in France, mostly for Sarah Bernhard. Later, though, he turned his attention to more traditional Slavic themes. The most striking to me was the poster below, nominally advertising a lottery, but really advertising Slavic independence and self-determination. The lottery was used to fund Czech language classes to keep the language alive. A young schoolgirl stares accusingly from the poster, daring the viewer to NOT buy a ticket. In the background is a dejected Slavic woman on a dying tree.
Finally, we stopped at the exuberant John Lennon wall. The wall has been used since communist times as a place of public expression of dissent. It was a spontaneous gathering place after Lennon’s death, after which it earned its current name. It is now the only place in the city where graffiti is legal.
When we were walking to our hotel on our first day in Prague, we passed through a hotel. The statue by David Cerny there was totally confusing. By the end, it became a welcome and understandable site. This modern artist is big into grand public displays. This is his most famous work, a takeoff on the Vaclav square statue, with a Vaclav astride a thoroughly dead horse representing communism.
Good lord, isn’t Prague achingly beautiful? Nevertheless, I ended these two days in Prague a little nervous. How would we be received, Germans showing up in the now-Czech villages of our ancestors? Were we suffering from a bad case of hubris? As we head into the countryside, only time will tell…