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Prague New Town, Exploring the Sights

Having spent twelve days in Prague, Liz and her husband are keen to share their experience and help others planning a visit to the city.

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Nove Mesto, Prague

Contrary to what its name suggests, Nove Mesto (also known as Prague New Town) dates back to 1348, when it was founded by Charles IV. Nove Mesto wraps around the south and east of Stare Mesto and is twice its size.

Originally laid out around three marketplaces, Prague New Town was home to tradesmen and craftsmen. Towards the end of the 1800s, large-scale demolition and redevelopment of the area took place, giving rise to what we see today.

Prague New Town, an architectural mix of old and new, is a commercial and business area. Here you find shops, restaurants, clubs, hotels, and entertainment outlets mixed with tourist sights.

Wenceslas Square, our starting point.

Wenceslas Square, our starting point.

Let's Explore

Join me now for a tour around the sights of Prague New Town. This is the order I will be exploring them in, followed by a few more helpful details.

  1. Wenceslas Square.
  2. Museum of Communism.
  3. St. Henry's Tower.
  4. Jerusalem Synagogue.
  5. Prague main train station.
  6. Charles Square.
  7. Cathedral of St. Cyril and St. Methodius.
  8. The Dancing House.
  9. The National Theatre.
  10. Other sights in Prague New town.

1. Wenceslas Square

If you had asked me to name somewhere in Prague a few years ago, it would have been Wenceslas Square, probably because it has been the location of political, headline-catching protests over the years. So it was interesting that this was our first close up view of Prague as we emerged from the metro at Muzeum.

It is hard to imagine that this was once the Horse Market (one of the three central marketplaces at the heart of the original Nove Mesto plan) or even to describe it as a Square at all. Since redevelopment in the early 1900s, Wenceslas Square resembles a wide boulevard with a paved and grassed area down the middle, lined either side by a row of shops and restaurants in 6–7 floor buildings.

The National Museum

Although closed for extensive renovations while we were in Prague, any description of Wenceslas Square has to include mention of The National Museum, which looms over it at the top. This impressive Neo-Renaissance building dates back to 1890. It focuses on natural history and hosts permanent exhibitions on the prehistory of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, mineralogy, petrology, paleontology, zoology, anthropology, and osteology, along with 19th and 20th-century medals from European countries and a cabinet of book culture.

Now re-opened, this begs a visit for the building alone. The National Museum has an ornate entrance, grand staircase, and glass-domed Pantheon with busts and statues of Czech scholars, writers, and artists. This museum is definitely on our list when we return to Prague.

The Wenceslas Monument

The bronze-cast statue of the country's patron saint, Wenceslas, surrounded by other patron saints standing below him, was set in front of the National Museum in 1912. Visitors come here to look at the simple memorial below the statue to victims of communism. Flowers are laid and there are photos of Jan Palach and Jan Zajic, martyrs protesting against the Soviet invasion in 1969. This unofficial shrine was a rallying point in 1989 for the Velvet Revolution, when 250,000 people gathered in the square, resulting in separation from the Soviet Union.

Grand Hotel Europa

Originally built in 1889, as the "Archduke Stephan", this hotel was remodeled in the art nouveau style 1903–1905. The interior of the hotel has been used in many films, including "Mission Impossible" with Tom Cruise and "Titanic". Although the outside still retains some of its original charm, clearly the inside is in need of updating, as the hotel was closed and fenced off when we were there and sadly shows no signs of re-opening soon.

2. Museum of Communism

Walking along Na Prikope, which runs across the bottom of Wenceslas Square, with its western chain stores, casino, and Hamleys toy store, it all seems a far cry from Prague's austere communist past. But a short distance from here, the Museum of Communism provides an interesting insight into Prague's history.

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Why go here?

Growing up in the Cold War era, the Eastern Bloc, shut off largely from the west had long been a source of fascination for me. What was it like to live behind the Iron Curtain? How did people cope with the austere regime? So the Museum of Communism was on our list to find out more about this relatively recent period of Czech history.

Location

It took a little perseverance, as signs still pointed to the original museum located just off Na Prikope, but when we visited, the museum had relocated to its site in the Old Customs House (Stará Celnice). The entrance to the museum is on the Square of the Republic (náměstí Republiky) between Billa supermarket and Kolkovna restaurant.

The Layout

The exhibition is in three sections:

  1. The dream. The birth of Czechoslovakia, Munich Agreement, Victorious February.
  2. Reality. Nationalization, Communist Propaganda, The Socialist Shop, The Secret Police.
  3. THE NIGHTMARE. Political Trials, Labor Camps, August 1968 – Occupation, The Velvet Revolution

Our Experience

I was left with feelings of regret and embarrassment, as I read how Czechoslovakia was affected by the Munich Agreement/Munich Betrayal of 1938. At this conference to which Czechoslovakia was not invited, France, Great Britain, and Italy agreed to hand over Sudetenland, a mainly German-speaking area of Czechoslovakia containing its border defenses, to Hitler.

Concentrating on the time of communist rule (1948–1989), the museum gives visitors a real feel of life for the Czech people, using artifacts, narratives, and mock-ups of scenes from this era. I came away with a heightened sense of the oppression after reading some of the shocking experiences of those who opposed the regime or tried to escape to the west.

3. St. Henry's Tower

There are many towers in Prague, but I first noticed Henry's Tower, Jindrisska Vez, along a side street, as I walked down Wenceslas Square. My inquisitive nature led me to find out more and to take a look.

Often overlooked by tourists and guidebooks, St. Henry's Tower is located in the Hay Market, one of the three original areas around which Nove Mesto was planned. The first wooden bell tower was built in 1475 to go with the Church of Saints Henry and Cunigunde, founded in 1351. The wooden construction was replaced by a stone one in 1599. There were ten bells, but only the earliest (Maria, cast in 1518) has survived.

The inside of the tower was remodeled in 2002. Its unique selling point is that it is now a tower within a tower, as the self-supporting reinforced concrete of the renovation does not impact the original stone masonry. It houses a cafe, select whiskey store, gallery, Prague towers museum, Henry's Tower exhibition, an atmospheric restaurant and it offers views from the tenth floor. For ease of access, there is a lift. Admission is charged, but we found it reasonable for a different view of Prague.

4. Jerusalem Synagogue

Most of the synagogues in Prague are located in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, north of the Old Town. But Jerusalem or Jubilee Synagogue, the biggest synagogue in Prague, located on Jerusalem Street, is worth a visit. Seeking to replace synagogues, which were demolished in Josefov early in the 20th century as part of an urban renewal project, a group bought a house on Jerusalem Street and set about building a new synagogue.

The synagogue was built in 1906 in a mix of Moorish and Art Nouveau styles. The name Jubilee was adopted to commemorate the 60th year of Emperor Franz Josef I's reign in 1908. With the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918 came a change of name to the Jerusalem Synagogue.

The exterior gives a foretaste of the eye-catching and well-maintained interior, which can be accessed for a small charge. Natural light from the skylights helps to illuminate the bright and colorful interior. Used as a place of worship, the synagogue has been open for the public to view since 2008. When we visited there was an interesting exhibition in the women's gallery about the post-war history of the Jewish community in Prague. There was also an exhibition about the preservation of Jewish monuments. As a mark of respect men are required to wear caps, which are provided.

5. Prague's Main Train Station

We had seen Praha Hlavni Nadrazi mentioned on a TV program, so we were interested to see the international transport hub for ourselves. It did not disappoint. The original exterior with its towers stands beside a busy main road. It is necessary to go inside to appreciate the full majesty of the art nouveau parts of the building. The station building and hall were opened in 1909 as the Franz-Josefs Bahnhof, towards the end of the Habsburg Empire.

There was a large-scale expansion, with a new terminal building and a metro station built in the 1970s and a road above it, but the best views are at ground level of the former entrance hall. A look inside reveals a restored dome surrounded by crests with stained glass windows.

Interesting Facts

For a time during the First Republic and from 1945–to 1948, it was called Wilson Station after the American president Woodrow Wilson, because of the part, the Czech people felt he had played in the formation of Czechoslovakia after World War I. His statue stood outside the station until it was torn down by the Germans in 1941 after America entered the war. A replacement statue was set in the park near the station in 2011. The road by the station is called Wilsonova.

It was from Prague's main railway station that Jewish children rescued by Nicholas Winton before the outbreak of World War II started their rail journey to England. A statue commemorating this was placed on platform 1 in 2009.

6. Charles Square

Karlovo Namesti was designed by Charles IV as the cattle market in Nove Mesto and is the third square around which Nove Mesto was planned. Like Wenceslas Square, its shape is far from square. Charles Square is rectangular with a park area, since the mid 19th Century, down the middle and a major road cutting across it. The University owns some of the buildings around the square and there are statues of writers and scientists in the park.

Church of St. Ignatius

On the corner of Resslova/Jecna, a major road dissecting Charles Square, stands the Baroque Church of St. Ignatius. In 1665 work started here on a Jesuit church. A Jesuit college was next to it. In 1773 the Jesuit Order was suppressed in Prague. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to look inside, which from all accounts of its gilding and stucco decoration, sounds to be worth a look.

St. Francis Ignatius of Loyola was the founder and patron of the Jesuit order and his statue stands at the top of the facade. The halo surrounding it was considered controversial at the time, as it was thought that only Christ could have a halo, but the Jesuits got away with it because of their strong position at the time.

New Town Hall

The fine Gothic building of the New Town Hall dates back to the 14th century. The tower was added in the mid-15th century. The four towns of Prague were joined up in 1784 and the Town Hall building, no longer required for administration, became a courthouse and a prison. It is now used for cultural and social events.

On July 30, 1419, the Hussite preacher, Jan Zelivsky led a crowd of poverty-stricken people to storm the building, after demands for the release of some prisoners were refused. They threw the Catholic councilors and mayor out of the windows, hence the term defenestration, onto the pikes of the Hussite mob below. Any who survived the fall were clubbed to death. On hearing the news, Vaclav IV suffered a stroke and died in two weeks. So began the Hussite Wars, which continued until 1434.

7. Cathedral of St. Cyril and St. Methodius

Just another Church?

Like many cities, Prague has a large collection of buildings built as places of worship and up until May 1942, the Cathedral of St. Cyril and St. Methodius would have fallen into this category. It was built in the 1730s in a Baroque style and dedicated to St, Charles Borromeo, as the church for a community of retired priests. But this was short-lived, as the church and community were closed in 1783. After restoration in the 1930s, the building was given to the Czechoslovak Orthodox Church and rededicated to St. Cyril and St. Methodius (9th century Apostles to the Slavs).

The interior of the church is interesting to see as an Orthodox place of worship, but it is the crypt below that demands attention. To appreciate the events of 1942 and the relevance of this location we need to go back in time.

World War II Prague

After incorporating Sudetenland (the mainly German-speaking border area of Czechoslovakia) into Germany late in 1938, Hitler went on to occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia the following year. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was formed under German rule. Konstantin von Neurath (former German foreign minister) was appointed as protector. By September 1941, Hitler felt he was too lenient with the Czech population and put Reinhard Heydrich in place as his deputy, but in effect assuming the duties of the protector.

Reinhard Heydrich

Heydrich was second in command to Heinrich Himmler in the SS and a main architect of the Holocaust. His appointment in Prague heralded a reign of terror, with repressive measures and mass executions. Two Czech free agents carried out an assassination attempt on May 27, 1942. They mortally wounded Heydrich in Prague, by throwing a bomb at his open-top car, as it slowed to go round a corner. He died from his wounds several days later on June 4, sparking vicious reprisals by the Germans, who slaughtered thousands of Czechs.

The assassins

Aided by Czech resistance fighters, the two assassins, Sgt, Jan Kubis, and Sgt Josef Gabchik went on the run, eventually finding sanctuary in the Cathedral of St. Cyril and St. Methodius. Their location was betrayed to the Germans, sparking a battle that started in the choir loft on June 18th. They fled to the crypt below. The Germans surrounded the building, attempting to flood the crypt with water. Rather than surrender, the remaining resistance fighters committed suicide in the crypt.

The Memorial Today

There are a few clues outside to the grizzly events of June 1942 that took place here. Upon closer inspection, bullet holes are clear to see on the building and there is a memorial plaque to those killed in the reprisals. It is worth paying the moderate admission charge to go inside, where there is a small museum near the entrance, with interesting information and artifacts about German rule and the assassination. A heavy curved metal door opens into the crypt.

The Crypt

The entrance itself to the crypt is unsettling. I wasn't sure whether to push or pull it and it was off-putting as it slammed behind me. The catacomb-like structure has been left as it was in June 1942 even down to the bloodstains left by those taking their own lives. It was one of the eeriest places I have ever been in. The busts of the fighters, memorial plaques, wreaths, simple memorial crosses, and small flags all combined with the dimmed lighting to add to the eery atmosphere.

While I was taking my time in the museum outside, my husband witnessed the reactions of a group of young German students in the crypt, as a guide recounted the events that took place down there. Many were very moved. When I got in there, we were alone. I am known for lingering to take more photos wherever we go, but the atmosphere and the memories were so intense in the crypt, and the effect of the heavy door slamming made me get out quickly. This is a must-see location, especially for historians, but maybe not for the faint-hearted.

8. The Dancing House.

If you continue down Resslova towards the River Vltava, you will come across the fascinating and unusual modern structure of the Tancici Dum, the Dancing House, which overlooks the river. Built in the 1990s, the Dancing House is a symbol of post-Communism freedom in Prague. It takes its name from the resemblance of the building to two ballroom dancers. Designed by a Czech, Vlado Milunic, and an American, Frank Gehry, the name Fred and Ginger (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) was originally considered but is now only retained in the name of the top floor restaurant. The rest of the building is used for offices and a hotel.