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Published: November 10th 2017
Geo: 50.0873, 14.4211
Today I did a walking tour and I learned much more about this beautiful place. We started at the Prague Castle, originally built in the 920's, it was expanded over the next seven centuries to the monstrosity it is today. Because of its size it is recommended that we take a whole day to see it, but today we just walked through the courtyards and took a quick peek inside the Cathedral St Vitus. While the Czech republic has no royal family anymore, the castle is still the residence of the Czech president. Its hard to imagine, but the Czech republic has had five political regimes in the last century
1) they were a absolute monarchy under the Austro Hungarian empire, until WW1
2) after WW1 and the fall if the great empires, Czechoslovakia became a liberal democracy
3) in 1938, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and they were under germane rule until the end of the war in 1945
4) after the war Czechoslovakia returned to a short lived liberal democracy, when the communist party won the election and moved to make it a communist state in the Eastern block
5) finally in 1989, after the collapse of the USSR, Czechoslovakia freed itself from
communist rule and are once again became a liberal democracy - well they're two countries now, Czech republic and Slovakia
Ina, our guide, gave us a brief rundown of the current political situation, and I think its safe to say she is not happy with the current president,Milos Zeman. He won the election by besmirching his opponent because he had a german sounding name (something-berg) and his wife was Austrian and doesn't speak Czech. The fact that Something-Bergs family have lived in the country for several centuries did not matter. After the election, some investigative journalists uncovered that Milos election campaign was funded by a Russian oil company. He's not very popular right now, but they get to vote him out in 5 years time
As we walked past the old churches (and they have quite a few here) Ina talked about the devastating impact Russian control of Czechoslovakia had on religion. While it was not illegal to practice a christian faith, there was no reward in it. Catholic children were not allowed to go to university, they basically left school at 15 and went to work in factories. Their papers were marked and travel to anywhere inside the country was extremely
limited. Some tried to hide their faith by holding mass in their homes, but eventually it became too difficult. Eventually, as an insult to the church, the government started using the beautiful old churches as barns for livestock. They have been restored now but the congregations are so small the church cannot afford their upkeep. They maintain the churches with help from UNESCO and by charging entrance fees to tourists. Of 10 million Czechs, only 20% identify themselves as belonging to a particular faith. Ina proudly claimed to be a part of one of the largest church groups in Prague, they have 125 people in their congregation.
Finally we went to the Jewish quarter. Ina explained that for many years the Jews were not allowed to own property. This excluded them from many commercial enterprises. Hence they became financiers as they didn't need property to be loan sharks, the Czechs were happy to let them do this as money management was "dirty business" Note as Ina made this comment there was a loud crack of thunder and the rain started pouring. One of the Czech kings (I can't remember which one) needed to borrow money from the Jews to fund
one of his wars, and bang, the Jews were given a piece of Prague to call their own. The place became a bit of a ghetto over the years as the population grew (and they weren't allowed to buy property anywhere else) Eventually most of the town was torn down in the early 1900's and rebuilt in the Parisian style. It really does look like a mini Paris. The cemetery, which holds about 120,000 bodies, became very overcrowded. When they ran out of space they had to start burying the dead on top of each other. Some graves are 10 bodies deep. The cemetery is now one of the highest points in the old town.
Ina told us the story of one unsung hero of WW2. A red cross worker by the name of Nicholas Winton. In 1938, when he was supposed to be on skiing holiday in Austria, he came to Prague at the request of a friend who was trying to help the Jewish community. He arranged false papers for over 700 Jewish children and arranged for them to travel through Germany to Britain, where they were fostered by English families for the duration of the war. Unfortunately
during the war many of their parents perished at Auschwitz and they could not return to Czechoslovakia. Which was not such a bad thing considering it became a communist state after the war.
Ina explained the streets of Prague were intentionally built like a labyrinth. They were built this way to confuse an invading army on the myriad of narrow streets. It also made it easier for the locals to corner them. This made me feel much better about getting lost in these old towns. Its not my horrendous sense of direction, they are built to be confusing!
After the tour I went up the tower at the town hall. Yes another tower, but like the last one this had an elevator. The view was spectacular. Prague is such a beautiful place. The only downside, the elevator emerges in a little room an from there we had to walk out onto a terrace. The terrace was really only wide enough for one person. Everyone had to walk in the same direction around the tower, and there were a LOT of tourists up there. It took half an hour to walk what was maybe 40 meters. I only freaked out five or six times, but I think I covered it well. At least I didn't snap at anyone.
After the tower I attempted to see a couple of the churches in the town square. I was too late as they were closed so I meandered back across Charles bridge. I picked a little restaurant just next to the bridge to stop for a glass of wine. As I was enjoying the wine and the return of sunshine, a brass band walked out into the crosswalk of the gatehouse. They proceeded to give the crowd a free concert. It was really entertaining. I could imagine in the old days a royal procession would make their way across the bridge to music like this. I felt very privileged to hear it.
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