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About Prague

’The City of One Hundred Towers and Spires’ and ’Golden Prague’ are names that evoke the many aspects of this fascinating Czechoslovakian city. Its rich architectural heritage largely results from centuries of escaping the worst ravages of war and, more recently, nature. Maintenance, especially of the painted stucco exteriors, is a constant process. Under the Communists, Prague was the showplace of the Warsaw Pact, although in a muted fashion. Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the capital has thrown off decades of oppression and is now returning to its former glory.

Prague recently has suffered some setback, however, with devastating floods in August 2002 causing much damage to the carefully preserved city. It is difficult to realise the extent of the damage caused by the floods of 28 August 2002. As of October 2002, water levels on Kampa Island were between eight and nine feet but now many of the residents have returned and at least one hotel and a couple of cafés have reopened. There are still tourist areas where the streets have been torn up but one could assume that this was part of the normal upkeep of roads. The army did much of the work of clearing up and they did a superb job. The tourist areas were the first to be restored and much work remains to be done, especially in areas like the Eighth District. Large parts of the metro are closed (See Getting Around) and some tourist attractions have been shut down, either through water damage or the need to clean cellars and ground floors after their being exposed to polluted water. Many basements of concert halls, such as the Rudolfinum, were affected, often with the loss of all recording equipment. However, many of these are back in action, at least as concert venues. It will be at least six months to a year before Prague is (almost) completely back to normal. But in the meantime, both the residents and the tourists are coping well with the difficulties that remain.

Situated in the valley of the Vltava (Moldau) River, Prague is dominated by the castle perched on the Western bluffs. Visitors are drawn to the ’fairy tale’ aspect of the city but this is only part of its vibrant mixture of styles. Prague is unquestionably a city that is best explored on foot – the entire centre has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gothic churches rub shoulders with Cubist, Functionalist and ultra-modern buildings, classical music intermingles with jazz and rock, while monumental statues sit next to abstract works and even a Cubist lamppost. Prague’s present form was established by the Premyslid King Otakar II (1253-78), when the town was re-organised into three administrative districts – the Castle precincts (Hradcany), the Lesser Town below the Castle (Mála Strana) and Old Town (Staré Mesto). Across the river, the Jewish community was moved from Lesser Town to the Josefov ghetto, to provide room for German traders.

The city’s golden age commenced when Charles IV of Bohemia was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1346. The ambitious Gothic building programme –including St Vitus Cathedral, the Charles Bridge, the University, and the New Town (Nové Mesto) centred on Wenceslas Square – transformed the city into one of the greatest and most powerful in Europe. In reaction to Hapsburg rule, Czech nationalism re-asserted itself in the late 18th century. Throughout the 19th century, the development of a nationalistic architectural style brought further changes. Later still, the Jewish ghetto was razed to make way for Art Nouveau buildings. At the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia gained its independence. Freed from the censorship and constraints of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prague blossomed as new artistic styles were embraced and developed – Cubism, Art Deco and Functionalism found a niche in its arts and architecture. Strong influences came from America as Prague was ripe for the importation of Jazz Age popular culture. Parallels with the 1990s are inescapable – in both cases, Prague took what it wanted, while retaining its unique identity. Not even decades of Nazi and Communist suppression successfully stifled the Czech spirit. Prague dramatically threw off stark social realism and, in the 1990s, reclaimed its reputation for cultural excellence.

Prague remains one of the most popular destinations for backpackers, still being relatively cheap, although the gap between European prices grows less each year. Recent changes to the laws regarding foreign workers have made it difficult for non-Czechs to find work but, although the ’great days’ as a centre for expatriates may have passed, a substantial number still remain, the majority of who are generally serious about work and the arts.

The best times to visit Prague are in the early spring and the late autumn ’ after the majority of tourists have left. If the cold isn’t a problem, the winter months are the quietest time. Prague has a generally mild climate, although very high and low temperatures can be encountered. Autumn is the season with the highest rainfall. As one of the European cities of culture for the year 2000, Prague chose the theme of urban transformation – an idea that will continue for a number of years, as it looks forward to its exciting role in the new century.


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