Prague Old Town A Short History
The heart of the city is Prague Old Town (Staré Město) and its central square. In the 11th century the settlements around the Castle spread to the right bank of the Vltava. A marketplace in what is now Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) was mentioned for the first time in 1091. Houses and churches sprang up around the square, determining the random network of streets, many of which survive.
The area gained the privileges of a town in the 13th century, and, in 1338, a Town Hall. This and other great buildings, such as Clam-Gallas Palace and the Municipal House, show the importance of the Old Town.
Church of St. James Prague
The attractive Baroque Church of St. James was originally the Gothic presbytery of a Minorite monastery. The order (a branch of the Franciscans) was invited to Prague by King Wenceslas I in 1232. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style after a fire in 1689, allegedly started by agents of Louis XIV. Over 20 side altars were added, decorated with works by painters such as Jan Jiří Heinsch, Petr Brandl and Václav Vavřinec Reiner.
The tomb of Count Vratislav of Mitrovice, designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and executed by sculptor Ferdinand Brokof, is the most beautiful Baroque tomb in Bohemia. The count is said to have been accidentally buried alive - his corpse was later found sitting up in the tomb. Hanging on the right of the entrance is a mummified forearm.
It has been there for over 400 years, ever since a thief tried to steal the jewels from the Madonna on the high altar. But the virgin grabbed his arm and held on so tightly it has to be cut off. Because of its long nave, the church's acoustics are excellent and many concerts and recitals are given here. There's also a magnificent organ built in 1702.
Municipal House Prague
Prague's most prominent Art Nouveau building stands on the site of the former Royal Court palace, the King's residence between 1383 and 1485. Abandoned for centuries, what remained was used as a seminary and later as a military college. It was demolished in the early 1900's to be replaced by the present cultural center (1905-1911) with its exhibition halls and auditorium, designed by Antonín Balšánek assisted by Osvald Polivka.
The exterior is embellished with stucco and allegorical statuary. Above the main entrance there's a huge semi-circular mosaic entitled Homage to Prague by Karel Špillar. Inside, topped by an impressive glass dome, is Prague's principal concert venue and the core of the entire building, the Smetana Hall, sometimes also used as a ballroom. The interior of the building is decorated with works by leading Czech artists of the first decade of the 20th century, including Alfons Mucha.
There're numerous smaller halls, conference rooms and offices, as well as cafés and restaurants where visitors can relax and enjoy the center's flamboyant Art Nouveau decoration at their leisure. On 28 October 1918, Prague's Municipal House was the scene of the momentous proclamation of the new independent state of Czechoslovakia.
Powder Gate Prague Old Town
There has been a gate here since the 11th century, when it formed one of the 13 entrances of the Old Town. In 1475, King Vladislav II laid the foundation stone of the New Tower, as it was to be known. A coronation gift from the city council, the gate was modelled on Peter Parler's Old Town bridge tower built a century earlier. The gate had little defensive value. Its rich sculptural decoration was intended to add prestige to the nearby palace of the Royal Court.
Building was halted eight years later when the king had to flee because of riots. On his return in 1485 he opted for the safety of the Castle. Kings never again occupied the Royal Court. The gate acquired its present name when it was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century. The sculptural decoration, badly damaged during the Prussian occupation in 1757 and mostly removed soon afterwards, was replaced in 1876.
Church of St. Nicholas Prague Old Town
There has been a church here since the 12th century. It was the Old Town's parish church and meeting place until Týn Church was completed in the 14th century. After the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 the church became part of a Benedictine monastery. The present church by Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer was completed in 1735. Its dramatic white façade is studded with statues by Antonin Braun.
When in 1781 Emperor Joseph II closed all monasteries not engaged in socially useful activities, the church was stripped bare. In World War I the church was used by the troops of Prague's garrison. The colonel in charge took the opportunity to restore the church with the help of artists been send to the front.
The dome has frescoes of the lives of St. Nicholas and St. Benedict by Kosmas Damian Asam. In the nave is a huge crown-shaped chandelier. At the end of the war, the church of St. Nicholas was given to the Czechoslovak Hussite Church. Concerts are given now in the church during the summer.
House at the Two Golden Bears Prague Old Town
If you leave the Old Town Square by the narrow Melantrichova Street, make a point of turning into the first alleyway on the left to see the portal of the house called "At the Two Golden Bears". The present Renaissance building was constructed from two earlier houses in 1567. The portal was added in 1590, when a wealthy merchant, Lorenc Štork, secured the services of court architect Bonifaz Wohlmut, who had designed the spire on the tower of St. Vitus's Cathedral.
His ornate portal with reliefs of two bears is one of the most beautiful Renaissance portals in Prague. Magnificent arcades, also dating from the 16th century, have been preserved in the inner courtyard. In 1885 Egon Erwin Kisch, known as the "Furious Reporter", was born here. He was a German-speaking Jewish writer and journalist, feared for the force of his left-wing rhetoric.