The events of the 1960s are simply history for many of us today, but a visit to Prague (September 2008) provides a reminder that for some, the memory of those events is still very much alive. The Czech Republic is now a vital, thriving and democratic country as a part of main-stream Europe, thanks to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Yet there are plenty of Czech citizens who recall the trauma of those times as integral to their personal ‘lived experience’.
These thoughts became very focused for me today, when we took a walk around Prague with a citizen of that city, our good friend Dada. Our exploration began with a look at the gardens of the Czech Senate, which lie above the commercial centre of the city, simply designed yet formal and splendidly impressive all at once:
But as we wandered it became apparent that these were not just gardens; they were host also to an exhibition with more than token impact. For here before us was a real military tank….
And here too were notices about the objects on show, telling us (Dada explained) about the tragic events of forty years ago, in 1968: the failure of the Prague Spring which would have relaxed the grip of Communism, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia – as it then was – by Russia.
The reality of this invasion had hitherto been rather personally academic for most of us as individuals in (what was then) Western Europe; but here was a Czech citizen who had lived through it, explaining what it had meant to her, her family and her friends… and telling us how, later, these same people had been part of the extraordinary Velvet Revolution which was the basis of the transformation of the then-repressive Czechoslovakia into the present democratic state of the Czech Republic.
Mindful of these sobering thoughts, we left the graceful gardens and returned down towards the River Vltava, to the Dvorak Concert Hall (Rudolfinum) which had brought us to Prague, travelling with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for their performances at the Prague Festival.
Outside the Hall was another exhibition of posters and photographs, relating the happenings of the invasion and its long aftermath.
In a way this felt surreal. Here we all were, discussing the events as history, but they had happened right where we stood, involving in critically personal ways people whom we knew as friends. For a while they had had no choice but to bear the crushing burdens of occupation stoically…
…. but eventually the protests grew to a great clamour, and after many long years, in 1989 the Velvet Revolution came about, mercifully without a huge toll of human life.
And amongst those leading this Revolution had been many writers and artists, including Vaclav Havel who was later to become the President of the Czech Republic, and his friend the musician Libor Pesek – a renown conductor who has had a long and close relationship with the RLPO, the Orchestra with which we were now visiting Prague.
Thus did the tale round upon itself. We stood there, in the heart of the Prague, testimony by our presence to the history and vibrancy of that great city, talking between ourselves as citizens of Europe and the world, and free to read, say and do as we wished.
No longer were the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution merely events on a timeline. They were instead vital elements of the spirit and understandings of real people, standing right next to us.
And that was something we pondered as we spent the evening in the Rudolfinum, hearing the RLPO concert which was the reason for our visit.
The concert, as we’d hoped, was a triumph; but, enjoying the music, we mused too that so much more so was the human spirit which had made it possible – the determination of a fiercely brave and proud people who, as we carried on our mundane existence in the democracies of Western Europe, had had to summon every ounce of endurance and strength to let the light of self-determination shine in their culturally blessed, historic city and homeland.
Controversy has arisen about how much of a contemporary style Prague’s Old Town (Stare Mesto) should have. Modern commercial pressures inevitably vie with the demands of centuries of architectural tradition. Brilliant sunshine here blends these features into a whole.
Prague is much more than a ‘great city’; it is testament to a people who have within easy living memory overcome enormous odds. When this is combined with the depth of history and the spectacular cultural vistas of the city, Prague becomes irresistible. Yet, to thrive in the twenty-first century Prague must also take in its stride challenges of a very contemporary kind – the influx of a myriad visitors and of modern investment capital. Perhaps lessons might be learnt from experience elsewhere.
I’ve been to Prague quite a few times in the past decade or so.
My first few visits were in the company of musicians in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who have a very real relationship with that city – the Orchestra’s Conductor Laureate is Libor Pesek KBE, the feted international maestro who over the years has done such great things with his Liverpool colleagues. The RLPO, with Pesek, was the first-ever non-Czech orchestra to open the famous Prague Spring Festival.
And then, more recently, I have visited Prague on my own as part of my work with European Renaissance, which of course brought a whole new perspective to my experience. So I’ve now seen a little of Prague through the eyes both of artists and of business people. What good fortune.
So much to see and learn
This is a city I could never tire of. As I’ve learned to navigate Prague’s historic heart I’ve realised you could explore forever – always the mark of a great capital city. First, one finds the physical place, where things lie; and then the depth of history and culture starts slowly to unfold. Why is that statue there? Why did that building survive, but not the one next to it? What’s the story behind this type of trade or that kind of cultural offering?
There are things which will always stay in one’s mind: The enormity of Staromestske Nam, the beautiful cobbled old town square, which has seen such extrordinary events over the centruries. The dramatic beauty of adjoining Tynsky Chram, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, backed by its intimate piazza cafes and boutiques. The fact that Vaclavske Namesti, Wencelas Square, scene of the Velvet Revolution, is in reality a central shopping boulevard with Narodni Muzeum, the striking National Museum, towering above that boulevard at its furthest point from the river.
Then there’s the majesty of Katedrala Sv. Vita, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, and the attached area of Prazsky Hrad, the Castle, approached from the old town via the Vltava River (Moldau) over Karlov Most, Charles Bridge. How could one not be
eternally taken with all this?
All these splendours unfold before you even get to the ancient Josafov (Jewish Quarter), huddled, heart-achingly small, down near the river and the Rudulfinum with its Dvorakova Sin, the Dvorak Concert Hall, home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Nor, on this ‘virtual tour’, have you yet seen the great triangular Obecni Dum (Municipal House, with its concert halls, including the Smetana Hall, home of the Prague Symphony Orchestra), at the other end of the historic quarter.
Nor indeed, until you have crossed back across Charles Bridge with its painters and jewellers, then travelling on high up to the Castle once more, have you viewed the contrast from the mighty symphonic halls which is found in the tiny, ancient, craft workshops of Zlata Ulicka (Golden Lane).
All these venues are alive with artists and artisans exercising their skills much as they might have done some centuries ago.
Prague is nonetheless a modern city, changing all the time. It has lost its grey, concrete sadness, imposed for so long by the Soviet authorities, in favour of a cosmopolitan , almost festive, demeanour. Now the city centre is bedecked by art works of all sorts, some of them huge and eye-catching if not always demure.
Nothing illustrates these changes better than Duta Hlava, the Architects’ Club situated by Betlemska Kaple in Betlemska Nam (Bethlehem Chapel and Square) in the Stare Mesto, the Old Town. The first time I encountered this underground cafe-restaurant was a decade or more ago; the best way to descibe it then would have been ‘bohemian’.
When we last dined there, fairly recently, it could have been described, instead, as suffering from its own success: it was much smarter, heaving with well-heeled people (the students seemed to have migrated elsewehere) and the serving staff were stretched to the limit.
Commercial vs. nostalgia?
And much the same applies to the commecial and retail centre of Prague, based around Wenceslas Square. More cyncially savvy commentators may deplore the arrival in the Czech Republic of Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and Tesco, but these surely are seen by others as indicators of the business coming-of-age of this extraordinary country.
To compete and develop in the international market Prague needs these stores, as indeed they need Prague. There is no doubt that the citizens of Prague will need to keep their wits about them as they emerge even more into the gaze of international capital and all that comes with it. But the costs of not doing so, especially in a state where until so recently the autonomy of the market did not (officially) exist, would be unthinkable to most.
Here is a city on the move but with its heritage very largely still intact. Long may it stay so.
Challenges and opportunities
Much of what Prague offers is priceless. With care, even more of it could be. As in other cities – Liverpool in the U.K. amongst them – there are opportunities which as yet have not been fully grasped. These include a reliably consistent level of delivery, especially in some public services.
But Prague has the huge advantage of having seen how other European cities have dealt (or not) with such challenges. No two situations are identical, but there is enough commonality in the scenarios to learn the lessons, one city from another.
The uniqueness of Prague lies elsewhere, in the very heart of this capital city. That is what Prague must defend and develop for itself.
This article is also published (as ‘Prague: The Must-See Western European City’) on the European Renaissance website.
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