Prague

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The Czech Republic lies at the heart of Central Europe and at its centre is the beautiful and historic city of Prague. With a population of some 1.3 million residents, the city lies on either side of the Vltava River in the middle of Bohemia which is one of the three historic Czech territories - the others being Moravia and Silesia. The city has seven 'Chapter Divisions' or districts.

North and Western Suburbs

This is mainly an area of residential buildings and parkland, containing Prague's largest park - Stromovka. The park was originally a hunting ground and is now home to many attractions including the Vystaviste Exhibition Grounds, the Prumyslovy Palace, the Planetarium, the Lapidarium and 'Detsky Svet' a large funfair.

A walk to the west of the park, brings the visitor to the Summer Palace - a neo-Gothic building (begun in 1805) where the National Museum stores some of its treasures.

To the south of Stromovka lies the Letna parkland. A walk south brings one to a plateau overlooking the main city and river. Here you will see a large metronome which replaced the monument to Stalin - the largest in the world which was destroyed on the orders of Krushchev in 1962. Other places of interest are the Technical Museum and Museum of Modern Art, whilst walks through the residential areas will expose you to many styles of architecture.

Hradcany

Situated on the hill overlooking Prague, Hradcany is made up of Prague Castle, St Vitus' Cathedral and the Strahov Monastery ' places which are all steeped in history. The Museum of Military History, the Royal Gardens and the Toy Museum are also nearby.

St Vitus' Cathedral was commissioned by Charles IV (1316-1378) and its foundation was laid in 1344. However, work on it went on for 600 years before being finalised in 1929, meaning the architecture is from many different periods and in different styles. Attractions inside include the Crown Jewels, the crypt and the South Tower. The Strahov Monastery was founded in 1140 by the Premonstratensian Order although its present day baroque appearance dates from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Mala Strana

Covering the area just below Hradcany and bordering the river, Mala Strana is just across Charles Bridge from the main city. Now home to many foreign embassies occupying a number of buildings built by the Catholic nobility, the area is full of palaces, gardens and baroque churches, including the Church of St Nicholas (Sv Mikulas). Open daily, this is an example of Prague baroque architecture - it was built between 1702 and 1753 by Christoph Dientzenhofer and later also by his son. Frequent concerts and recitals (both at lunchtime and in the evenings) are held here, featuring the works of Mozart.

Other buildings of interest include the Czech National Assembly, the Lichtenstein Palace, the Smiricky Palace and Petrin Hill to the west.

Josefov

Prague's Jewish Quarter can be reached by a short walk from Wenceslas Square or by taking the metro to Staromestska, Line A.

Dating back to at least the thirteenth century, the area is rich in history. Places to visit include the Jewish Cemetery, its five synagogoues, the Jewish State Museum and the Jewish Town Hall with its Hebrew clock dating from the fifteenth century. The narrow cobbled streets lend the area a unique atmosphere, especially at night. The Kafka Museum is located on the border of Josefov and Stare Mesto.

Stare Mesto

Prague's Old Town is centred around Old Town Square, the Huss monument and the Old Town clocktower featuring its astronomical clock dating back to the fifteenth century. The Old Town Hall is open daily. It is only a short walk away from Wenceslas Square.

There are several churches here including the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, as well as courtyards and numerous caf├ęs, bars and restaurants catering for every taste.

Nove Mesto

This is Prague's main commercial and business district. It is based around Wenceslas Square at the top of which is the National Museum and the two main commercial streets - Na Prikope and Narodni. Running from these streets are many smaller streets and courtyards - some of which are being transformed into modern shopping malls - and hotels, bars and restaurants abound.

Walking along Legerova or Ke Karlovu (where you will find the Dvorak Museum) will bring you to the Police Museum from where you could take a walk along the top of the Botic Valley towards the river.

Vysehrad and the Eastern Suburbs

Centred upon the ancient rocky fortress of Vysehrad (the Republic's most revered landmark) and containing the Vysehrad Cemetery, a Romanesque rotunda and the Gothic church of St Peter and Paul, this area stretches to the working class suburbs of Zizkov. It is home to the TV Tower (from which you can enjoy panoramic views of Prague) and the ancient Zizkov Hill atop which stands a statue of Jan Zizka (a fifteenth-century army general) and the mausoleum in which the remains of the three Communist presidents of the Republic and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier can be found. The suburb of Vinohrady contains Prague's most modern church - the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord - which was built in 1928.

History of Prague

The Czech Republic is a Central European country (consisting of the historical regions of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia), which has been inhabited since the earliest days of human settlement in Europe.

It was in the fifth century AD that the forefathers of its present inhabitants settled in the region and around the year 868 AD that Prince Borivoj of the Premyslid family became ruler - his dynasty laying the foundation of the Czech state. In around 870 AD, Prague Castle was built atop a hill overlooking the Vltava river.

Perhaps the most famous early ruler was the Catholic Duke Wenceslas I (c903-935 AD), who became the Patron Saint of Bohemia but who is more well known today as the subject of a Christmas carol.

With the death of Wenceslas III in 1306, the Premyslid dynasty was succeeded in 1310 by the House of Luxemburg and in 1346, Charles IV became the Czech King. Being Holy Roman Emperor, Charles made Prague his capital, building many great buildings including St Vitus Cathedral and Hradcany Castle, as well as establishing Charles University - the first University in Central Europe. After Charles' death, came the Hussite Wars which meant 15 years of religious conflict.

In 1526, the Hapsburg dynasty succeeded to the throne but this only resulted in further conflicts such as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) with the result that an estimated third of the country's population died and there was a decline in the usage and spread of the Czech language.

However, in the period 1784-1848, there was - despite the efforts of the Hapsburgs - a revival of the Czech nation: the language was standardised, the Industrial Revolution arrived and many great Czech leaders emerged including Frantisek Palacky.

After the Great War in Europe in 1918, the Allies were persuaded to declare a new state of Czechoslovakia comprising Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia. However, under the Munich Agreement in 1938, the British and other European powers agreed to the annexation of Czech territories by the Germans under Adolf Hitler. After the Nazi domination during the Second World War (1939-1945), the Czechs then found themselves under Communist control as Soviet troops swept into the country in May 1945.

Elections were held in 1946 with the communists winning 38% of the vote, and in 1948 they seized power under Klement Gottwald with the support of the Soviet Union, virtually eliminating all opposition. All land and industry was nationalised with the aim of making Czechoslovakia a supplier of heavy industrial equipment and arms to the Eastern Bloc.

Unhappy with the depressed state of the country, a new Communist party was formed under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek who tried to establish 'socialism with a human face' in what is now known as the 'Prague Spring'. In August 1968 however, the Soviet Union and its allies invaded the country resulting in an even more depressed state which lasted for a further 21 years - economic reforms were reversed and over 1/2 million Party members were expelled.

After the momentous events of late 1989 within the Soviet Bloc, police violence against a legal student demonstration in Prague in November that year (the masakr, as it became known) heralded the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia. On 28th December, Mr Dubcek became Chairman of the Federal Assembly, and the next day, Vaclav Havel, a leading Czech writer and playwright, became President. A coalition government was formed in June 1990 and, after three years of debate and argument with the main Slovak parties, Parliament gave the required 3/5 majority to terminate the Federation. On the 1st January 1993, the Czech and Slovak Republics went their separate ways.

Serious difficulties were encountered by the new state of the Czech Republic, highlighted by political and financial corruption and economic insecurity, resulting in the resignation of Vaclav Klaus as Prime Minister in November 1997.

A parliamentary election in June 1998 was inconclusive but under the current Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who brokered a deal with opposition parties, the Czech Republic acceded to NATO in March 1999, and is undertaking negotiations with the European Union with the aim of becoming a Full Member in 2003 when it is expected that all conditions for membership will have been met. The country is also a member of other major international organisations including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.

Despite a decline in his popularity from the heady days of the early 1990's, (due in some measure to his marriage to a younger woman and his amnesty decisions), Vaclav Havel continues as President having been re-elected by one vote for a further 5-year term in January 1998.

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