Tony’s Alternative Guide to Prague » Old Town (Staré Město)

Old Town (Staré Město)

The Old Town of Prague has always been considered the first among all the cities of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the “head of all cities” (the Latin “Praga caput regni” – “Prague, the Head of the Kingdom” – was common in medieval heraldry). Its history differs somewhat from the Lesser and New Towns, both of which were planned “greenfield” construction; the Old Town arose organically from settlements at the intersection of major trade routes.

In early Medieval times, the Old Town consisted of near-continuous settlement between Prague Castle and Vyšehrad (which is the original urban core, predating the construction of Prague Castle by several hundred years). A key location was the Vltava River ford (where the trade routes crossed the river), located approximately where Charles Bridge now stands. The settlement became a city when it was walled in between 1232 and 1234; it gained the right to its own City Council from King John I (John of Luxembourg) in 1338.

John’s son, King Charles IV of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperor, initiated massive construction projects to bring Prague up to the standards of Western European capitals. Among them, in 1348 he founded the New Town, which was set to enclose the Old Town on all sides. As a result, Old Town residents feared the subsumption of the Old Town within the New Town and, consequently, the loss of their ancestral privileges of a royal city. To avoid discontent, Charles affirmed Old Town’s rights and expanded them to include control over the two main gates to New Town, which effectively improved Old Town’s position within the new conurbation (they were legally separate cities at the time).

Charles’ vision for the city included the formation of a unified, powerful city by joining Old and New Town under a single administration, which he ordered in 1367. This, however, led to major disputes among the influential townspeople on both sides, and Charles finally annulled the unification edict some ten years later. The cities stayed separate until 1784; by then, the Czech Lands were part of the Habsburg monarchy and Prague was no longer the capital of a sovereign nation; the Emperor Joseph II ordered the unification of the four historical Cities of Prague – the Old, New, and Lesser Towns and Hradčany (Castle District) – into a single city, administered from the Old Town Hall in Old Town Square. He did not, however, see fit to include in the unification the Jewish Quarter (Josefov), which remained an independent enclave fully enclosed by the Old Town.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a large part of the Old Town underwent the controversial Reconstruction, which demolished a great many historically valuable buildings. Prague followed the example of major European capitals – Paris, Vienna, and others – which demolished historical quarters and replaced them with modern wide boulevards.

Perhaps fortunately, Prague’s funding was limited, and only the north-eastern part of Old Town was demolished as a result. This amounted to about one-quarter of the original Reconstruction design, which had called for a wide boulevard starting on Letná Plain, continuing through the Old Town Square, and finally connecting to Wenceslas Square on the opposite side of downtown Prague. The only visible remnant of the project is Pařížská Avenue (“Paris Avenue”). Had the Reconstruction been completed, there would have been very little left of Prague’s medieval core today. Thus, because Prague at the beginning of the 20th century was only a secondary-importance provincial capital, it managed to keep, unlike virtually all other European capitals, a nearly-complete, intact medieval center.

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