Odyssey 2019 - Good King Wenceslas, two Czech martyrs, an upside-down horse and a rose garden


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May 27th 2019
Published: May 28th 2019
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Wenceslas SquareWenceslas SquareWenceslas Square

Viewed from the Czech National Museum, looking northwest.
Today would likely be our final day of sightseeing in Prague, before moving on to Munich, so we decided to visit the area known as Wenceslas Square. Many important historical events have occurred here, and it is a traditional setting for demonstrations, celebrations, and other public gatherings.

The square is named after the legendary and much revered duke of Bohemia who ruled from 921 until his assassination (by his younger brother) in 935. His martyrdom and the popularity of several biographies gave rise to a reputation for heroic virtue and piety that resulted in his elevation to sainthood.

He was posthumously declared to be a king, and eventually came to be recognized as the patron saint of the Czech state. He is also the subject of the well-known "Good King Wenceslas", a carol for Saint Stephen's Day. We had seen his tomb during our visit to the St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle earlier this week.

Less a square than a broad boulevard, Wenceslas Square has the shape of a very long rectangle (~1/2 mile; total area = 10 acres), running in a northwest–southeast direction. The street slopes upward to the southeast side. At that end, which is where we commenced our walk, the street is dominated by the neoclassical Czech National Museum. The northwest end runs up against the border between the New Town and the Old Town.

We reached the National Museum after a 15-minute walk from our apartment along Vinohradska street. After walking around the exterior of the museum, which is a magnificent 19th-century building surrounded by a tiny park with flowers and benches, we crossed the busy boulevard to reach the statue of Wenceslas at the upper end of the square.

Not far from the statue we discovered the monument honoring the memory of two Czech students, Jan Palach (1948–1969) and Jan Zajíc (1950–1969), who became martyrs to the cause of Czech independence during the years of Soviet occupation.

Palach was a Czech student of history and political economy at Charles University in Prague. His self-immolation was a political protest against the end of the Prague Spring following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. The funeral of Palach turned into a major protest against the occupation, and a month later Zajic, another student from Moravia, burned himself to death in the same place.

In a poignant letter the 18-year-old Zajic left behind he wrote:

Mother, father, brother, little sister! When you read this letter, I will already be dead or close to death. I know what a severe blow my act will be to you, but don't be angry at me. Unfortunately, we are not alone in this world. I am not doing this because I would be tired by life, on the contrary, because I cherish it too much. Hopefully my act will make life better. I know the price of life and I know it is the most precious thing.

But I want a lot for you, for everyone, so I have to pay a lot. Do not lose your heart after my sacrifice, tell Jacek to study harder and Marta too. You must never accept injustice, be it in any form, my death will bind you. I am sorry that I will never see you or that, which I loved so much. Please forgive me that I fought with you so much. Do not let them make me a madman. Say hi to the boys, the river and the forest.

During the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when the Soviet Union began to collapse, large demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of people were held in Wenceslas Square. Night after night, as a gesture of defiance against 40 years of Soviet oppression, they would "jangle" their key rings in unison. The rest is history, as the communist regime crumbled, the Czechs regained their independence and the new Czech Republic became a member of the European Union in 2004.

As we neared the landmark Grand Hotel Europa, with its famous Art Nouveau facade, we decided to break for lunch at a tourist trap billing itself as a "Typical Czech Restaurant". The menu was as thick as a library book, with snazzy photographs depicting the many dishes available, but we really did enjoy our meals (along with many other other locals who did not appear to be tourists). I ordered a beef rib roasted in beer, with potato-spinach puree; Dee tried their Greek salad; and we shared an apple strudel dessert (with an espresso chaser for me).

Following our 90-minute lunch break, we took a closer look at the facade of the Hotel Grand Europa before crossing to the other side of the boulevard, where we entered the Lucerna Arcade. About a hundred yards into the arcade, hanging from the rafters, is a most unique sculpture called "Wenceslas Riding an Upside-Down Horse". We soon exited this arcade and entered another one, the Svetozor Mall, to view an Art Deco remnant from the 1930s, a glass window advertising "Tesla" (a long defunct Czech radio manufacturer).

Around the corner from the Svetozor Mall we entered the Franciscan Garden, a tiny Garden of Eden with spreading rosebushes, flowers, herbs, benches and shade trees. The serenity of this little oasis is a most welcome relief from the hustle, bustle and crass commercialism of nearby Wenceslas Square, so we took advantage of the peace and quiet while relaxing on one of the benches.

At this point we arrived at the northwest end of Wenceslas Square, where many cafes, stores and street buskers ply their trades. We made a stop at the Bat'a shoe outlet, a 4-story emporium filled with men's and women's footwear and other accessories, where I purchased a pair of sneakers. We then made a brief pit stop for some cocktails before riding the subway train back to our neighborhood.

Dee's Comments: What a beautiful day! We walked on a boulevard that reminded me of a smaller version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Lots of tourists out today, and some of them are rude and obnoxious. Many interesting sights to see, so I took lots of pictures. Stopped for lunch at what seemed like a traditional Czech restaurant; the food we've eaten in Prague has been wonderful (again like Paris), and prices seem much more reasonable than in Copenhagen, for example.

When we had finished our lunch, the waiter brought us each a complimentary shot glass full of something he jokingly referred to as "Czech water", but which had quite a kick to it. After doing some internet searching, I believe it was "Becherovka", a traditional Czech herbal liqueur with an alcohol content of 38%, which was originally sold as stomach drops. Becherovka is made from Carlsbad water, quality alcohol and a secret mixture of herbs and spices. It tasted pretty good to me! We walked some more, rested awhile in a cute little rose garden, then bought Mitch a pair of nice looking sneakers before having drinks and pretzels (at a rip-off tourist place).

Tomorrow is our last day in Prague, and I will miss it. The Czech people we've encountered seem to have a sincere love of their country and their heritage. I will miss our young driver friend, Karel, who is such a sweet person. Meeting new people like him gives us memories that last a lifetime!


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Art Nouveau facadeArt Nouveau facade
Art Nouveau facade

Grand Hotel Europa
Facade detailFacade detail
Facade detail

Grand Hotel Europa
Wall of rosesWall of roses
Wall of roses

Franciscan Garden
St. Mary of the Snows churchSt. Mary of the Snows church
St. Mary of the Snows church

Viewed from Franciscan Garden


28th May 2019
Grand Hotel Europa

Nice
Beautiful
28th May 2019

What a Day!
Fun filled day! Enjoyed all the pics and history lesson. Mitch you are filled with such good information love it. On to the next adventure. Miss you both and see you soon.
29th May 2019

You all made the last day in Prague a great one. Zajic’s letter was poignant and hit me, 😞. Off to the next journey, safe travels.
19th June 2019

lovely final day in Prague
Mitch you never cease to amaze me with the wealth of knowledge shared. I appreciated the depth involved in the letter written. Again, glad this turned out to be such a day for you both... continue with safe travels.

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