The Streets That Made The Century: 15: Wenceslas Square, Prague

MORE A wide boulevard than a civic space - despite its name - Wenceslas Square is long and thin: a strip of land, described by one modern Czech writer as a "long, precarious noodle". It slopes gently uphill from the streets that form the boundary of the old town, Narodny, Na Prikope and Revolucni, to the National Museum, built in the early 19th century on the site of the Horse Gate, once part of Prague's fortifications.

For hundreds of years, it has been the focus for events in the city, both ordinary and extraordinary. The square played an important role in Emperor Charles IV's grand design for Prague in 1348, linking the old town with the new. In medieval times it was the Horse Market, where horses and other goods were traded. The equine legacy is still at the top end of the square in the statue of Saint Wenceslas on horseback.

In 1848, as revolution swept across Europe, the name Horse Market was deemed unsuitable. At a meeting in March of that year, it was proposed that it be changed to Wenceslas Square, apparently because the meeting itself was held in the public baths called after the saint.

The man for whom the square is named is better known to non-Czech citizens for his title role in a well-known Christmas carol: generous to peasants, and fearless in the face of adverse weather conditions. The real Wenceslas predates this 19th century version by nearly a thousand years. He was a Christian prince of Bohemiawhose grandmother was a saint. She was murdered by Wenceslas' mother, a scheming woman who became regent until her son was old enough to take over.

Wenceslas gave up his country to the Germans when they invaded in 929, and was murdered by his own brother at the instigation of a dissident noble faction. This was enough to turn him into a martyr, and, eventually, patron saint.

In common with the rest of central Prague, strict planning regulations have prohibited the building of modern high-rise blocks to blight the skyline. Around the square is a mixture of different architectural styles: baroque, Gothic and post-war. But no building is as distinctive as the Hotel Europa. A stunning art nouveau building, it is an indulgent environment for a cup of coffee topped by the traditional middle-European whipped cream mountain.

However, in the consciousness of Prague citizens, the Square is more associated with revolution than relaxation. In this century alone, crowds have gathered there at key moments: in 1918 when the republic of Czechoslovakia was created; in 1948 when Russian tanks occupied the city; during the Prague Spring of 1968 and when the student Jan Palach set fire to himself in protest the following year; and again in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution that ended the Communist era. The beauty of Wenceslas Square is that, in a city that has become a magnet for tourists, the locals still regard it as the focal point of their capital.

The T-shirt salesmen and the hawkers selling cheap CDs; McDonald's and the American Express office; these are undoubtedly for the visitors. But the shops and the restaurants, and above all the spirit of the place, are there for the people who live in Prague.

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