It's been 20 years since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Communist government in power, and for Prague and the Czech Republic it's been quite a ride. Practically overnight, the city went from an obscure capital of a small Warsaw Pact country to one of Europe's top urban destinations, alongside luminaries like Paris, London, Rome, and Amsterdam.
In retrospect, the first years after the revolution were a little rocky. While nothing could detract from the medieval setting of the Old Town, the beauty of the Charles Bridge, and the Disneyesque castle on the hill, Prague was not quite ready for prime time. The city suffered from a chronic shortage of hotel rooms, restaurant food was mediocre, and everything from the quality of the service to the state of the trains was, well, second-rate.
The good news is that Prague has finally arrived. The years 2008 and 2009 saw the opening of no less than three five-star hotels to add to an already impressive list of deluxe properties. Looking over the lodging choices in Malá Strana alone, many in restored Renaissance and baroque palaces, it's hard to find a more stylish bunch anywhere in Europe.
Prague's restaurants have now won two Michelin stars as well as several Michelin bibs gourmand, and while one of those restaurants has since gone belly up (the local branch of Gordon Ramsay's Maze chain collapsed in 2009 with the rest of his empire), the die has been cast. It's hard to imagine local foodies ever going back to the days of canned vegetables and factory-made dumplings.
Prague was always a first-rate cultural destination, as the enduring popularity of the Prague Spring music festival attests. But now, there's even more to see and do. Each month seems to bring another music festival; add to that international jazz and dance fests, four or five film fests, two writers' fests, and the expanding repertoire of icons like the National Theater and State Opera, and you'll be hard-pressed to decide how best to spend your evenings.
All this progress has come at a price -- literally. Prague is no longer that bargain-basement tourist outlet of yesteryear, where a meal on the town would set you back a couple of dollars and a glass of beer 25¢. But that's okay. Those days were the product of a historic anomaly from a time when half of Europe was placed in a deep freeze. They were never going to last, and the country and its citizens are better off for it. Today's city is cleaner, livelier, more fun, and simply better than it was. Prague is worth the splurge.
Did You Know?
- Charles University, central Europe's first postsecondary school, opened in Prague in 1348.
- Albert Einstein was a professor of physics in Prague from 1911 to 1912.
- The word robot was coined by Czech writer Karel Capek and comes from a Slavic root meaning "to work."
- Contact lenses were invented by a Czech scientist.
- Baroness Bertha von Suttner, the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, was born in Prague and lived in the Kinský Palace on Old Town Square.
- Prague was a hotbed of early astronomy. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and the German Johannes Kepler (who first discovered the laws of planetary motion) both worked on the court of Rudolf II. Christian Doppler, of "Doppler Shift" fame, taught in Prague and lived in a house not far from Old Town Square (not open to the public).
- The word dollar came from the Tolar coins used during the Austrian empire; the coins were minted in the western Bohemian town of Jáchymov from silver mined nearby.
Beware of Open Windows: The Czech Tradition of Defenestration
About 600 years before Prague's popular uprising brought down Communism, the Czech people began a long tradition of what might be considered a unique form of political protest -- tossing people out of the window!
In 1402, Jan Hus, a lecturer from Prague University, became the leading voice in a growing condemnation of the Catholic Church. From a pulpit in Old Town's Bethlehem Chapel (later destroyed but reconstructed in the 1950s), Hus gained popular support for his claims that the omnipotent power of the mostly German-dominated clergy had to be contained. In 1414, he was invited to the Catholic ecclesiastical Council of Konstanz to explain his beliefs. Though the emperor had promised Hus safe conduct, on arriving he was promptly arrested, and a year later he was burned at the stake. The Protestant Hussite supporters declared him a martyr and rallied their calls for change around his death.
On July 30, 1419, a group of radical Hussites stormed the New Town Hall on Charles Square and demanded the release of other arrested proreform Hussites. After town councilors rejected the demand, the Hussites tossed them out of third-story windows, killing several. This became known as the First Defenestration, from the Latin for "out of the window." The incident sparked a 15-year battle known as the Hussite Wars, which ended in the defeat of the radical Protestants in 1434.
By the 17th century, the Austrian Catholics who came to power in Prague tolerated little dissent, but as Protestant Czechs became ever more wealthy, they began criticizing the Habsburg monarchy. This bubbled over again on May 23, 1618, when a group of Protestant nobles entered Prague Castle, seized two pro-Habsburg Czechs and their secretary, and tossed them out of the eastern window of the rear room of the Chancellery -- the Second Defenestration. In the Garden on the Ramparts below the Ludwig Wing, two obelisks mark where they landed. This act led, in part, to the conflict known as the Thirty Years' War, which ended again in victory in 1648 for the Catholics. The Habsburgs remained in power for another 270 years, ruling over Prague as a provincial capital until the democratic Czechoslovak state was born at the end of World War I.
A possible third defenestration occurred in 1948, with the tragic death of then-Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk in the wake of the Communist coup d'état that year. Masaryk, the son of the country's first president, either fell to his death or was pushed from a high window at the Foreign Ministry's Cernín Palace (not far from Prague Castle). The mystery has never been cleared up, though Masaryk was fervently anti-Communist and most of the general public firmly believes the second scenario.
Though Prague's 1989 overthrow of the totalitarian Communist regime gained the name the Velvet Revolution for its nonviolent nature, scattered calls for another defenestration (some serious, some joking) were heard. Contemporary Czech politicians surely know to keep away from open windows.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.