Not only is Prague a great food city, it also exudes a romantic feel, inspired by historic, well preserved buildings, mellow lighting, serene views over the Vltava River and more than 500 spires.
Everywhere you look in downtown Prague you will see tourists. Walking across the Charles bridge it is crammed with thousands of tourists. The Old Town Square is packed with tourists gazing heavenward at the ancient Astronomical Clock. Across the Vltava River the Mala Strana district is choked with tourists. Up at Prague Castle and St Vitus Cathedral you are discouraged by long lines of tourists. The reason for near 9 million tourists per year is the total charm of Prague. History and people sized spaces are found everywhere. It is the fourth most visited city in Europe (after London, Paris and Rome) and ranks no 20 for tourism globally.
Prague’s popularity is evident: the historic Old Town has remained relatively intact for hundreds of years, and its people sized spaces invite visitors to tour on foot and explore. In addition Prague treasures a notable history and culture.
Strategically positioned on the Vltava River, Prague has been a center for trade and communication by land and river for seven thousand years — islands lie in the middle of the river both north and west of Old Town, making it a convenient crossing place, even prior to the Celts in 6,000 BCE. The Slavs, now the dominant race, settled here in 600 AD, and the Mala Strana — the city area on its western side — was begun in 800 AD.
Not only was Good King Wenceslas a Prague resident but Jan Hus, the reformer who inspired Martin Luther, ministered in Prague. Hus came to the city from the Bohemian countryside, studying at the University of Prague and supporting himself by singing and serving in churches. He earned his master's degree in 1396 and was ordained in 1400.
Focused on learning and enlightenment, Hus was a popular pastor and teacher, appointed rector of the University of Prague in 1402–1403 and preached against the abuses of the Medieval Church. Pope John XXIII in Rome declared a holy war against the King of Naples (who supported John XXIII’s rival to the papacy), and authorized the selling of indulgences to finance the crusade. Hus asserted that no religious leader had the authority to take up the sword in the name of the Church — instead pray for one’s enemies; further, the forgiveness of sins comes by true repentance, not purchasing indulgences. King Wenceslas IV sided with Hus but, to prevent Rome from attacking Prague, Hus and a thousand followers (mainly students at the University) returned to the Bohemian countryside where they preached and wrote tracts in Czech for the village priests. The Hussite movement swelled, spreading into Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Austria.
Sigismund of Hungary, half brother to King Wenceslas, wanted to end the dissent between the church hierarchy and the populist Jan Hus, to curry favor with Pope John and fulfill his eventual ambition of becoming Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He summoned Hus to a Council at Konstanz (on the border of present day Germany and Switzerland) purportedly to reconcile the differences between the Hussites and the Papacy. In the 2,000 years of the Church there have only been 22 such councils — the first was the Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, held in 50 AD.
After three weeks travel Hus arrived in Konstanz and all seemed to go well at first. Hus was free to teach, celebrate mass and prepare for his debate with Michal Brodu. But Hus’s opponents imprisoned him on a pretext and he was chained and almost starved for 73 days in the dungeon of the Bishop of Konstanz’ castle.
Hus was put on trial in Konstanz, many miles away from his supporters, from 5th June to 6th July, 1415. Hus said he would recant if his teachings could be shown by Scripture to be false or inaccurate. Under the leadership of Sigismund, but at the hands of priests and bishops, Hus was falsely accused of saying things that he did not believe and sentenced to death. As Hus was led to the stake to which they tied him he prayed for his persecutors. As they lit the fire to burn him a parched and emaciated Hus declared aloud: ‘God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.’
They burned Jan Hus at the stake and scattered his ashes in the Rhine River - to prevent his followers from venerating his burial place - 100 years before Luther penned his 95 theses. Death was not the end of Hus; instead it was the beginning of the Hussite Rebellion in central Europe and of the Great Reformation that changed the world, that would be led by Martin Luther from 1517-1525, and the subsequent founding of the Protestant Church.
Around the same time, in 1410, the astronomical clock which sits on one corner of Old Town Square was built. This clock is the oldest functioning astronomical clock in the world. Crowds wait every hour for the clock to chime and the apostles to move. The clock tells the time by Medieval Czech reckoning, and shows the positions of the sun and moon, and the date within the year. The skeleton of death tolls the hour reminding onlookers of the brevity of life.
More recently and harmoniously Prague hosted Antonin Dvorak, one of the greatest classical composers. As a music student Dvorak played part time in orchestras, lived in a flat with five other musicians, and received a grant as a starving artist. Dvorak’s most famous work is the ‘New World Symphony,’ written in 1893 after he shot to fame and while he was director of the New York National Conservatory of Music (Dvorak’s ninth).
Post his three year American sojourn, the homesick Dvorak returned to Prague where he spent the majority of his active life, retreating with his family each summer to a country home, where Dvorak daily walked in the Czech countryside, usually with a friend, in total meditative silence.
Prague, the city of King Wenceslas, Jan Hus, Antonin Dvorak and the Astronomical Clock amongst many other attractions is well worth visiting. Yet affordable tourism in Prague is only possible through the toil of many service workers. They do not live in prestigious buildings nor dine daily in upscale restaurants. These workers do not dream of romance at the Vltava River. The million folks who make the city their home live drabber lives, eking out a living, paying the bills to vacation elsewhere and raise the next generation of Czechs.
Prague serves wholesome, affordable food, appears romantic to the visitor and possesses a notable and chequered history. Because the majority of America’s cultural inheritance is European, to understand what has made America we must appreciate the old world, through cities such as Prague, and harnessing that history we are empowered to live the future promise of the New World just like Dvorak rendered it in his greatest symphony. Our future is as much about the past that made Silicon Valley possible as it is about the technology that rules the planet today.