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Wenceslas Square (Václavské Námeí)

Wenceslas Square (Václavské Námeí) (47)

The destiny that history has reserved for Wenceslas Square is a long way from that old horse market that was situated in this large expanse of land, no less than 750 metres long and 60 wide. In fact, it has been the political heart of the city, where uprisings and demonstrations have been hatched, as well as being the sounding board of feeling citizenship for centuries.

Wenceslas Square was built by Charles IV as one of the three squares of the New Town. The three are joined by transversal streets that appear to draw a cross. But it was not until the revolution of 1848, with the awakening of Czech nationalism, that it was given the name of Saint Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia.

Once you have walked along the square and your eyes have been delighted by the spectacular façade of the National Museum, you may find it hard to imagine that until 1890, in its place stood the Doorway of the Horses, which formed part of the city wall.

All the important chapters in the history of the last two centuries have had some key event relating to this square. For example, this was the venue for the demonstrations that took place in 1918 in favour of independence, or those against Nazism in 1938. The Liberation festival that celebrated the end of the Second World War was also held here.

But surely one of the tensest moments ever experienced here was the jeering of the Russian tanks in 1968, when hundreds of Czechs tried to halt their advance during the famous Prague Spring. Confrontations and sit-downs had their tragic culmination in 1969, when the student Jan Palach, 22 years old, immolated himself with petrol at the foot of the statue of Wenceslas in protest at the hard repression. A monument remembers this student and all the victims of communism.

Seeing that Wenceslas Square was the ideal place for demonstrations, the authorities decided to design an intercity motorway that would cross it. It was in vain, since in the eighties the demonstrations would be repeated and would lead to the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism. Despite its large size, the square was too small to make room for the masses that came to hear those who would be the future political leaders.

A slow stroll along the fronts of the houses will reveal to you that this is a place that never goes out of fashion and which concentrates night spots, restaurants, shops and hotels. It also possesses magnificent buildings representative of some of the best moments of 20th-century Czech art, when the area was remodelled.

One of the central points of the square is the equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas, which dates from 1912 and is the work of Václav Mylsbek. Around Wenceslas, other patron saints of Bohemia seem to stand on guard: they are Saint Ludmilla, Saint Procopius, Saint Adalbert and Saint Agnes. Beneath the statue, a small spontaneous memorial of candles always lit preserves the memory of Jan Palach and the victims of communism.

The Koruna Palace, from 1914, is the work of Antonín Pfeiffer and is highly representative of the taste for oriental architecture that was so much the vogue at the end of the 19th century. Today it houses shops and offices but you can still see at the top of the tower a stone crown that gave the building its name.

Alongside the Moruna Palace, the building of the Assicurazioni Generali has the honour of having been the workplace of Franz Kafka.

The Hotel Europa, the most famous in the city, conserves all its art nouveau flavour both on the façade and inside, built in 1906.

On one of the corners stands the State Opera House, which despite having been reformed in the eighties, maintains the rich interior decorating that made it famous in the 19th century. 

The leading place within the square is, without the slightest doubt, for the National Museum, built in 1890 at the top of a fabulous stairway.

Wiehl House bears the name of the person who was its architect in 1896, Antonín Wiehl. He gave it a neo-Renaissance air and on its façade there is plenty of sgraffito work and frescos with episodes from national history and art nouveau figures by Mikulás Ales.

In the nearby Jungmann Square stands the Adria Palace, which hosted the famous meetings held by the Civic Forum of the future president Václav Havel in the period of the Velvet Revolution.

In Wenceslas Square you will also come across a religious centre, the church of Our Lady of the Snows. It stands over an old Gothic temple, of which a part is conserved.

If, after so much walking, you are a bit thirsty, then don’t worry, because we have saved the popular U Pinkasu beer hall for the end. At is tables were served, for the first time, the first Pilsner Urquell beer, with a success that has lasted until today.

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