St. Nicholas Church, Prague

When I began thinking about a trip that would take me to central Europe, Prague was at the top of my list of destinations. What little I knew of the city conjured up romantic visions. Though unfamiliar with all but the broadest outlines, I knew Prague had a long history and had played an important part in regional history and development. I had seen beautiful photos of the city, many of which seemed to be focused on the Vltava River that runs through the heart of old Prague.

I am not a fan of travel guides, I don’t carry a copy of Lonely Planet or Frommer’s in my bag, nor do I spend much time with online travel guides. I am, however, very interested in the history of the places I visit. I read a decent, though definitely not world-class, account of the Hapsburgs, which consisted mostly of a series of portraits and anecdotes of Hapsburg rulers over the years. Rigorous historical analysis of the societies the Hapsburgs ruled and molded, and the influence this pivotal family had over hundreds of years on the drama of European history were largely missing. I started and put down after 50 or so pages a history of Venice. Because the book contained blatant factual errors that a non-expert like me could identify, I assumed that the large parts of the story with which I was not familiar were also riddled with factual errors and misinformation. Seemed pointless to continue reading.

Finding information on the history of Prague proved difficult. There are a number of books tracing the 20th century history of Czechoslovakia, established at the end of WWI after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Freed of Soviet domination with the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, the Czech and Slovak areas of Czechoslovakia agreed on a friendly separation and on the first day of 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia came into existence.

That is all well and good, but there is simply not much written in English about the Czech people and the Czech lands before 1918 when Czechoslovakia was born. For hundreds of years Prague was the social, economic and political center of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Many of the city’s best known historical sites and tourist attractions had their origins during the Bohemian years. Bohemia was a key part of the Holy Roman Empire for much of its 1000 year history. Beginning early in the 1500s, Bohemia became one of the lands ruled by a Hapsburg monarch, and it remained a Hapsburg dominion until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. Complex, convoluted history, the stuff I find fascinating – I will continue looking for reading material that provides more about Prague, Bohemia, and central Europe more generally.

I stayed in a hotel within easy walking distance of Prague’s Old Town, originally a walled enclosure that formed the center of the medieval city, the origins of which date back to the 9th century CE. My walk to the Old Town took me through a part of the New Town, a latecomer to Prague’s development founded in 1348, an area of some paved avenues with considerable traffic, public and private, and quiet cobblestone streets lined with buildings displaying a medley of architectural styles. Walking west past the Old Town brought me to the famous Charles Bridge, and after crossing that I found myself in the Lesser Town, a walk through which takes one to Prague Castle, perched on a hilltop and visible from many parts of the city. Honestly, trying to figure out how the various old districts have been put together into what makes Prague today is material for a world-class headache. Suffice it to say, Prague is a beautiful city. On all of my walks, I was treated to alluring mixes of very old to merely old to relatively modern structures – Baroque churches, art-deco public buildings, medieval gothic towers, and the occasional contemporary low-rise hotel or office building.

The St. Nicholas Church pictured here is one of the landmarks of the Lesser Town. The baroque church and the buildings around it are an example of the stylistic medley that makes up much of Prague.