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.

i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

    salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

    Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower