Alexandra Leads the Way: Understanding Prague

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Monday Morning bright and early we met Alexandra, our personal tour guide for the day. In four short hours she made Prague come alive with personal anecdotes about the architecture, history, and events that created this city.

The construction of a large expansive city began under King Charles IV, who desired to have one of the largest cities enclosed by a wall.  All of the previous towns incorporated into the mega-city kept their original squares, creating a lot of empty space throughout the city. These spaces were later utilized during the building revolution, where instead of building up they built in, enclosing each of the squares. So much so, that when you walk along the streets today, it appears as if there is only one building, one store facade, but in reality they are whole shopping complexes filled with many stores with different commodities to buy or use.

As Alexandra explained from the beginning, we were not going to start our tour at the dawn of the city and move forward, but rather move backwards. This statue, “Saint Wenceslas” by David Černy. Here the traditional leader on top of a majestic horse is foiled. The rotting corpse of the horse hangs from the rafters with Saint Wenceslas marching forward. Many believe it is a commentary on the effects of Communism on the city.

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Walk just a few meters onto the main boulevard and in front of the National Museum (featured at the back) is the original St. Wenceslas statue that was a source of pride even during the Communist Regime. Černy does not openly speak about the meaning of his works, allowing the viewer to create his/her own interpretations, but there is obviously a direct correlation to this subject matter and its placement so close to the original.

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It was in this square that we learned about the Velvet Revolution (November 1989) and Prague Spring. I will not do justice to recount all of the stories that Alexandra told us here, but will try to evoke the basic history of this “square”. This was the focal point of the Velvet Revolution, where thousands came together nonviolently to oppose the Soviets. In the building called Marks and Spencer she joked that one Marks has overthrown the other. It was on this balcony that major leaders such as Vaclav Havel spoke with earnest about the necessity for change.

It is not just known for its importance during the Velvet Revolution. It has retained its original sense serving the good of the people since its construction. Under Charles IV it was used as the main open air market, providing a space for all people to come together, voice opinions and buy goods. After the first World War it was here that Czechoslovakia proclaimed its independence. Nazi forces used this long street for mass demonstrations, one that resulted in the death of many students. (If I am not mistaken this is where the Soviet forces drove their tanks symbolizing their capture of the city.)

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Upon leaving this historical square, we passed through another secretly enclosed space, which has a large stain glassed window devoted to TESLA. TESLA had a monopoly in Czechoslovakia providing the country with nearly all electric products, not just radios. With the fall of Communism and introduction of competition the company fell into decline. This is one of the few displays of the company logo that you can find in the country.

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On the other side of this pathway is a beautiful Franciscan garden giving a glimpse of the church, St. Mary of the Snow, built by Charles IV. Due to the Hussite Wars this church was never fully completed. Ideally, it was to serve as a second Cathedral to the city, accommodating more people than St. George’s Basilica in Prague Castle. In 1606 the Franciscans adopted the unfinished church, where they held mass in the rain, snow or sunshine, depite the lack of a ceiling.  Even with their additions, the nave still remains unbuilt.

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This church stood at the cross roads of Old Town and New Town. Originally, they were invited to be live under the main wall of the city; however, that came with a price, erecting the wall. They declined the initial offer. Later when the New Town was being built, it was hard to refuse such an offer as they were right in the middle. However, the original wall between the two towns can be felt in this church as it incorporated the back wall, so that each parishioner had to seek permission to visit his/her church.

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If you are not very careful, you may just miss the man hanging from the sky. This is another sculpture by David Černy that depicts a man precariously hanging off the side of a building. Some say his features are similar to those of Freud.

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In this neighborhood we spoke of the operas written and preformed by Mozart during his stay in Prague. In his collaborative efforts to produce one of his masterpieces (I cannot remember the name of the piece). As Alexandra explained, the whole quarter was involved in this production, with actors yelling out their preferred lines, and the constant changes made to the plot and final production. It was such chaos that he was whisked out of the city and then only finished the music the day of the first recital and so the musicians had to play the music for the first time with a packed audience. These were the ways in which Alexandra made the city come alive, by connecting a physical place to a vivid story of its past inhabitants.

The Velvet Revolution began on November 17, 1989.  A student demonstration commemorating the death of students under the Nazi Regime was the premise for the revolution.  The students marched in peace; yet, were trapped by the secret police and brutally beaten for transgressing the traditionally approved route. The Soviet Forces hoped that it would demonstrate their power and might, but instead it fueled the seeds of revolt, as many young adults returned home bloodied and beaten. No longer could people turn a blind eye to the cause. Outside a tavern, next to the royal theater, commemorates this movement with the date 17-11-1989 and hands holding peace signs.  For more information on the events of these days, please read the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velvet_Revolution.

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Our whole tour was not solely devoted to Communism. Instead it was a tour that highlighted the parts of  Prague that the ordinary person would walk by and miss the beauty of the city. One such sight in the art nouveau building here with the upper register of windows spelling out the city’s name.

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From here we crossed the river giving a glimpse of the Charles Bridge in the distance (the one built by Charles IV).

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We ran into a park where the statues on the stairs commemorate the Communist Regime. Technically, there are not that many deaths recorded in the country; however, due to lack of supplies and other hardships, this figure is not particularly accurate. These bodies are each represented in different stages of decomposition, not necessarily dead, but with the absence of vital parts of their beings, demonstrating how Communism lead to different types of deaths, not just the one ending a mortal life.

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While passing through the park alongside the Modern Art Museum we passed an exhibit of “Before I die”. It is a public interactive exhibit where everyone is asked to confront the possibility of death and to write down something that they want to accomplish before they die. I had seen a video about this project earlier and was delighted to have a chance to see one of these walls in person. To read more about the project, please visit: http://beforeidie.cc

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We did not go into the Museum of Modern Art, unfortunately there just was not enough time, but these are a few photos of the sculptures outside of the museum.

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One thing that you will notice is that Prague is built upon and around the river. This lead to problems in 2002. Much of the city was inundated and many were evacuated from there homes. Another flood filled the streets of Prague this past June, but it was not to the same degree of severity as the previous flood.

Of course with a last name of Mills, I had to take a photo of the mill located on one side of the river. These following two images are of the exact same place. The former was taken with the lens through the grates of the fence, whereas the latter leaves the grates in place. In the latter you can see all of the accumulated padlocks of lovers professing their commitment and love for one another. The tradition started with a movie in France, if I am not mistaken, and has made its way to all of the major cities of Europe. I have even seen them in Madrid.

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Continuing on our journey we stopped at the Lennon wall. As it was explained to us, it began as a normal wall. It was used by youngsters as a place to air their grievances, many of which dedicated their thoughts to John Lennon.This wall is under constant transformation as tourists and locals continue to leave Lennon inspired messages.

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From here we visited yet another unfinished church, demonstrating the impact that the Hussite Wars had on the city. The outer part was completed in the 19th century based on what they thought it would have looked like, but they never completely inclosed the structure to make one church. IMG_3521 IMG_3522 IMG_3524IMG_3523

 

We passed by the Spanish Church, Our Lady of the Victorious, which houses an infant baby Jesus that presumably once belonged to Teresa of Avila. Regardless of whom originally owned the statue, many believe that it holds miraculous powers. We did not stop inside to see the infant Jesus, which means we are miraculous-less.

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We walked through to another district, where we found a delightful pub for lunch. We were fortunate to have Alexandra join us and she continued to impart many different stories and anecdotes about Prague, as well as recommending different restaurants for later meals.  IMG_3531

Our lunch marked the end of our time with Alexandra. Each member of my family would probably highlight something different from the tour, but I think we all came away with the understanding of city as more than a mixture of beautiful buildings, but rather the seat of major historical changes and beginnings. It was this understanding that we were able to explore and truly appreciate all that Prague has to offer on our subsequent days in the city.

 

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