Historical, whimsical, hedonistic and cynical, Prague bewilders its visitors and charms them. Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, tourism and investment has poured in, turning the previously ramshackle Communist capital into a buzzing Western metropolis.
Flowing from the east towards Germany, the Vltava divides Prague in the centre. Hradčany and Malá Strana, once home to the Austro-Hungarian elite, sit primly on the left bank, faced by the noisier commercial quarters, Staré Město, Josefov and Nové Město. Hradčany, which houses the castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral, tumbles into Malá Strana (Little Quarter), a maze of cobbles, carved doorhandles and stickleback roofs. Over the river is Staré Město (Old Town), a delicate web of alleys and passages running towards Staroměstské náměstí, the old market square. Within Staré Město is the old Jewish quarter, Josefov, which now encloses a luxury shopping district. Nové Město (New Town), the most central part of the modern city, spans the largest area of old Prague, with blocks stretching south and east of the old town in long strides.
Prince Bořivoj, an early Christian, founded the first Czech dynasty in 870, and his grandson, Prince Václav (the Good King Wenceslas of the song), became the Czech patron saint before being offed by his younger brother Boleslav I. Prague experienced a golden age under the urbane emperor, Charles IV, a polylingual patron of the arts whose court was the heart of fourteenth-century Europe. Charles founded the university and as well as an entire new quarter, Nové Město, built the Charles Bridge and St Vitus’ Cathedral. A long period of Austro-Hungarian rule gave Prague its Teutonic facades and high-minded coffeehouses, while the National Revival reasserted the Slavic identity of the city and the onion dome rose again. The short-lived First Republic, modelled on American democracy, crashed when Nazi troops marched into Czechoslovakia, and President Beneš’s decision to accept German “protection” was a dark moment in the nation‘s history, but saved the city from decimation. In 1948 Communism arrived in a wave of stained concrete, bringing a few architectural pearls along with the swine. The period since ’89 has seen rapid construction, but with a few exceptions, such as Jean Nouvel’s Golden Angel mall and the playful Dancing House, it’s been conservative and timid. Not so the restaurants, hotels, bars and clubs, which have re-awoken Prague’s slumbering decadence.