A drama that unfolded within Bohemia’s royal family and its noble elite, it’s a slice of Czech history that somehow lends a haunting yet captivating quality to the city so palpable, I could touch it.
Posted by Pinky
It’s the 28th of September in the year 935. Wenceslas I, the 28-year-old Catholic prince and duke of Bohemia, proceeded to climb up the steps to the church of St Cosmas and Damian to attend the day’s service when he was suddenly struck by an unknown assailant.
Poor Wenceslas died. And with his death came the end of the reign of a pious and courageous monarch so highly revered that he was elevated to the title of King posthumously by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I.
Wenceslas, or Václav the Good, almost immediately became patron saint of Bohemia (the region that covers the western Czech Republic), attracting pilgrims from all over.
Today, he remains to be the patron saint of all Czech Republic, with 28 September as both his feast day and a public holiday during which the Czech president bestows the St Wenceslas Medal on those who’ve made significant contributions to the nation.
To the rest of the world, however, he is perhaps more widely known as the Good King Wenceslas from the popular Christmas carol.
But why was he killed?
Wenceslas was raised a Christian by his grandmother, Ludmila, who acted as regent until she was murdered supposedly upon the orders of the prince’s own scheming, ambitious and, may I add, pagan mother, Drahomíra, who took over as regent.
Upon coming of age at 18, Wenceslas then claimed his right to the throne and pushed for the Christianisation of Bohemia.
Not everyone was happy about the prince‘s religious leanings, however, including what they thought to be his easy submission to the German king upon the latter’s invasion of Bohemia in 929.
And so, the nobles conspired against Wenceslas, which led to his assassination seemingly at the hands of his very own brother, Boleslav the Bad (naturally).
Just your average medieval family drama.
Wenceslas Square. New Town Prague’s main square with its impressive, wide boulevard stands as a memorial to a much-beloved albeit short-lived ruler whose legend and spiritual significance have contributed to what it means to be Czech.
That’s what welcomed us as we walked from the bus terminal in Prague’s main rail station towards the Old Town where we had booked an apartment for the night.
It’s a great introduction to the city, specially during the winter holidays when the lights and the Christmas markets added even more magic to this already gorgeous city (I’ll talk about this further in another post.)
Walking past the lower end of Wenceslas Square, we found ourselves in the unbelievably charming Old Town with its own Main Square and Astronomical Clock as highlights.
This medieval Tower Clock, set here since 1410, is undergoing repairs as of this writing and will be back in operation in August 2018.
Through the labyrinth of streets in the Old Town, we followed the way towards the River Vltava. And here we found the city’s famous Charles Bridge, named after Charles IV who commissioned its construction in the 14th century. He was actually born Wenceslaus and was the first king of Bohemia to ever become Holy Roman Emperor.
Crossing Charles Bridge is definitely an event in itself. Usually teeming with tourists, sketch artists, buskers and vendors, there are also around 30 statues adorning either side of the bridge. Plus, it offers a great vantage point from which to view the Vltava river with the castle side or city side as backdrop.
Prague’s Crowning Glory
Wenceslas I is now buried at the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Prague within the complex of Prague Castle which, in turn, houses the office of the President of the Czech Republic. That’s why security here is tight and lines for bag inspection can get pretty long. My tip? Get there as soon as it opens.
These houses were eventually opened up to tenants of other professions, one of whom was the writer Franz Kafka.
And speaking of the most celebrated Czech-born writer of all time, German-speaking Jewish Franz Kafka is another complex character that’s deeply woven into Prague’s identity.
He, too, is honoured in the city. One of them by way of the 2014 bust of his likeness, made by Czech sculptor, David Černý. It has 42 tiers that move at an hypnotic pace and is a tribute to Kafka’s famous short story, The Metamorphosis.
I think it’s absolutely brilliant and again, pretty hypnotic to watch.
But I believe you really get to know people by the food they eat and where they like to hang.
Of Roast Pork and Cafés
Veering away from the more obvious (touristy) places, we decided to go where the locals go. Aside from the markets, that is.
Our biggest find: roast pork! But it’s not just any roast pork. It’s succulent, melt-in-your-mouth, flavourful, crispy-skinned roast pork.
The pub our Airbnb host recommended, Hospoda v Lucerna – though located in an interesting Art Deco building – may not have been much in terms of charm or ambience, but man oh man, that roast pork! (No words.)
And where to hang? We found this cozy, little café near our apartment that serves good desserts and fantastic coffee (it’s a café, after all). Run by a group of lovely women, the decor is warm and homey; the service, friendly and efficient.
Alive centuries apart, however, there is a common thread that does bring Wenceslas and Kafka and the new breed of Czechs together. History.
Anchored by this shared rich past, one senses that Prague has always chosen to move forward on its own terms, dancing to the beat of its own music.
And after all that we experienced on this visit, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us next time.
Meanwhile, Prague’s rhapsody continues…
You should allot at least 2 full days to enjoy Central Prague. A 4-hour bus ride from Vienna (yet it actually felt quicker than that), Prague is perfect for that quick weekend getaway from Vienna.
Photo Credits: Wenceslas Square by Jeffrey B. Ferland