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The Old Town and The Jewish Quarter

The Old Town, or Staré Město, is the oldest and richest Prague quarter. Its international market, operating here since the 9th century, earned the admiration of the Jewish merchant and chronicler, Ibrahim Ibn Jakob, in 965. At that time, the centre was most likely located near the river on the site of an old ford, on the edge of the Jewish quarter, where Palackého náměstí (square) is today and by the Mánes Bridge ford. In the 11th century, the centre moved south and it has remained there to this day – on the Old Town Square. Medieval Prague used to be very cosmopolitan. German traders settled to the north and north-east of the square, merchants from Romance countries to the south and south-east, Czechs to the east of the square and Jews to the north-west.

More than seventy of the oldest preserved Romanesque stone houses lie along the streets of the Old Town, a unique feat in central Europe. The Palace of the Lords of Kunštát ranks amongst the most well-known. The foundations have survived to the present thanks to the artificially-raised ground of around 7 m, which were required in the 13th century after the construction of weirs on the Vltava. Rafts transported wood along these waterways from as far away as the Šumava Forest.

Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), photo by: Libor Sváček, archiv Vydavatelství MCU s.r.o.

Mary’s Column, Mariánský sloup, was built on the Old Town Square on the site of the Prague Meridian in 1680. This column also served as a sundial, and suffered damage during the Proclamation of the Czechoslovakian Republic in 1918. The Jan Hus Memorial, created in Art Nouveau style in 1915, depicts the founder of the Czech Reformation. Just around the corner we’ll find the Kinský Palace, one of the most beautiful Prague Rococo buildings built in 1765; it now houses the graphic collections of the National Gallery.

The picturesque Týn School with arcades from the 13th century, and the main Church of our Lady in front of Týn looming behind it stands beside the Romanesque House of the Stone Bell, converted during the Gothic period. Many medieval rulers resided in the Bell House, and in the 14th century, Petr Parléř built the main part of the Church of our Lady. This church became a centre of Bohemian Utraquism, whose doctrine decreed that Man, in order to be saved, must receive Holy Communion when and where he wishes. The church houses perfectly preserved medieval sculptural decorations and the tomb stone of famous astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Old Town City Hall with the Astronomical Clock, photo by: Libor Sváček, archiv Vydavatelství MCU s.r.o.

Standing behind Týn Church, the Ungelt building served as Bohemia’s customs house and business centre in the 11th century. Later, in the 16th century, Ferdinand I gave it to the burgher Jakub Granovský, who had the Ungelt converted into a Renaissance municipal palace around 1560. The remains of the Town Hall with Chapel and Tower date from the 14th century and stand on the western side of Old Town Square. Crosses in the pavement of Old Town Square commemorate the execution of twenty seven leaders during the Rising of the Estates from 1618. The actual building of the Old Town Hall comprises several burgher houses that were eventually connected together to build a town hall in 1338.

The still functional Astronomical clock decorates the southern façade of the town hall. Mikuláš of Kadaň built it in 1410, but Master Hanuš later improved it in 1490. The Astronomical clock has been repaired many times since then. In 1864, Josef Mánes, the most famous artist of the Czech National Revival, created calendar panel for the astronomical clock.

The German army destroyed the Neo- Gothic part of the city hall during the Prague Uprising in May 1945. This opened a view onto the St. Nicholas Church built by K. I. Dienzenhofer in 1735.

Old Jewish cemetery (after 1400 to 1787), photo by: Libor Sváček, archiv Vydavatelství MCU s.r.o.

The remaining structures from the old Jewish Ghetto, demolished in 1896, include the Old-New Synagogue from the 13th century, the oldest preserved synagogue in central Europe, and the exceptional Jewish Cemetery that was in use between the 15th and 18th centuries. Amongst the twenty thousand gravestones, you can find the grave of the celebrated Rabbi Löwe, reputed to have created the legendary Golem – an artificial man – here during the Rudolphine era. The rich collections of the Jewish Museum document the often troubled history of Judaism in Bohemia.

Most of the Jewish quarter made way for Art Nouveau buildings. Pařížská ulice (Paris Street), in particular, holds The Rudolphinum and has been a sanctuary of the arts since 1883, when it was built to honour the visit of Crown Prince Rudolph, son of Emperor Franz Joseph. Josef Zítek and Josef Schulz, chief architects of the Czech National Theatre, built it.

Founded by Agnes Přemyslid in 1234 for Franciscans and Poor Clares, the most famous of the Old Town monasteries, St. Agnes Convent on Na Františku, holds the impressive Collection of Medieval Art of the National Gallery.

The Štorch House, with frescoes by Mikoláš Aleš in a style that links Art Nouveau with the Neo- Renaissance tradition of the National revival, stands on the boundary of Old Town Square and Celetná Street. A jewel of modern architecture made between 1909 and 1911 – the Cubist House at the Black Mother of God by Josef Gočár majestically spreads out in the middle of Celetná Street on the corner of the Fruit Market.

The Classicist building of the Stavovské Theatre dominates the Fruit Market and witnessed the celebrated premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1787.

A diverse complex of university buildings bordering on Celetná Street form the Carolinum. They are mainly clad with facades from the Baroque or 19th century, but many interiors conceal a Gothic core. Charles University, the oldest in central Europe, was founded by Charles IV in 1348.The core of the whole block is the Rothlev Building, which Wenceslas IV gave to the university in 1383. Since 1611, the rectory of the university has remained here.

Powder Gate (1475) and Art Nouveau Municipal House (1906 - 11), photo by: Libor Sváček, archiv Vydavatelství MCU s.r.o.

Celetná Street runs into the Late Gothic Prašná brána (Powder Gate) built in 1475. This structure clearly illustrates how the Jagiellonians wished to compete with the Luxembourg dynasty. The Powder Gate nearly adjoins The Royal Court, which used to be the favourite private residence of Bohemian rulers. Later, it became the Obecní dům (Municipal House). Built in 1911, this is a perfect example of Prague Art Nouveau, and is still a lively cultural centre that features many highly acclaimed exhibits.

The Coronation Path of the Bohemian Kings runs through the western and south-western parts of the Old Town and connects Vyšehrad Castle with Prague. The Romanesque Rotunda of the Holy Cross from the 11th century is one of the many treasures that are to be found along this way.

The Bethlehem Chapel, originally built in 1391, demolished in 1786, and rebuilt in 1953, was where the reformer Jan Hus preached.

Built on Křížovnické Náměstí (Křížovnické Square) in 1556, a Jesuit college, later called the Clementinum in honour of St. Clement Cathedral, grew into an extensive complex following the Thirty Years’ War. The Baroque-styled interiors of the cathedral with its Mirror Chapel or the Library and Mathematical Hall, illustrate the development of Baroque art in Bohemia in the early 19th century. The Clementinum also served as a library. The present-day National Library continues this tradition, containing more than six million volumes and a large collection of precious medieval manuscripts.

Cathedrals of St. František and Salvátor, photo by: Libor Sváček, archiv Vydavatelství MCU s.r.o.

The San Salvador Church, part of the Clementinum, connects to the Italian Chapel. Built from 1590 to 1597, it is the oldest European cathedral built on an elliptical ground plan. Italian architects of the time could only dream of what their Italian colleagues put into practice during the reign of Rudolf II.

Wenceslas I founded Havelské město (Havel’s town) in 1234. Originally designed to be an isolated new market place, its privileges also expanded to cover the older settlement. Havel’s town became the main municipal market place and it still serves this function today. During the reign of Charles IV, a gigantic basilica served as a kind of medieval department store in this area. The remains of its central nave on V Kotcích Street are lined with Gothic arcades, where you will still find a permanent market.