Czech point: On the trail of Wenceslaus

For most of us, the name Wenceslaus evokes the popular Christmas carol. But who was he, and why is he still so beloved by his countrymen? Simon Calder follows in the Good King's footsteps

Snow upon snow? No, row upon row - of tenement blocks, through which a man with the stocky build of a steelworker, wearing an imitation-leather coat and a brown corduroy hat, is leading me, silently. Our sole verbal communication so far has comprised one word. I enquired, "Vaclav?" He nodded, and beckoned me to follow him through the scruffy Czech town of Stochov.

My first few footsteps on the trail of Wenceslaus are proving unrewarding - about as appealing as a midwinter sojourn in the now-familiar marquees at Heathrow. The idea had been to find out more about the man who gets a Christmas carol, and a square, of his own - and to explore the landscapes of central Bohemia where he ruled. But the wooded plains that sprawl west from Prague are scarred with dereliction. Skeletal birch and pine trees do their best to conceal the wreckage of 40 godless years of state communism, but give up the unequal struggle when faced with a kilometre-long obsolete steelworks. An implausible location for the birthplace of a legend.

After a 10-minute trudge through hilltop shabbiness, we round a corner. Suddenly, I have escaped from a shoddy version of Crawley into a Bohemian landscape, dappled with an Impressionistic haze. The view has shifted to widescreen, as a broad valley unravels beneath us - or beneath me, since my guide has vanished without a word.

In the foreground, an oak that has the haggard look of a Christmas Eve shopper at his wits' end. The fact that it is still a tree (just), rather than firewood, is thanks to the steel struts that lend crucial support. After 11 centuries, a tree needs all the help it can get - even if it is blessed with supernatural resilience.

The location is prime fortress territory, with a clear view across the ruffled countryside. Indeed, early in the 10th century, when central Europe was in some turmoil, the Duke of Bohemia did have a castle in this strategic position. And his first son, Vaclav (rendered as Wenceslaus in English), was born here in the year 907. Ludmilla, the grandmother of Wenceslaus, is said to have planted the oak to mark the birth. Its survival, so say the Czechs, is because Wenceslaus's nanny watered the sapling with the baby's bathwater, which gave the tree strength.

In front of the gnarled oak stands, appropriately, a statue of Wenceslaus. Facially, he looks like the depictions of Christ that were contemporary to him. Yet he is clearly of the nobility: a standard in his right hand, a shield in his left, and - a giveaway - the plump crown, familiar from Advent calendars, on his head. Unusually for a man who grew to be a political leader, the inscription beneath his feet shows him to have been canonised.

Wenceslaus was born into the Premyslid dynasty, which had risen to hegemony in this part of central Europe a couple of generations earlier. His father was Duke Bratislav, his mother from a tribe from further north in the Czech lands. But his greatest influence was his grandmother, Ludmilla, who also picked up a sainthood after introducing Christianity to the Czech people.

Ludmilla organised the education of young Wenceslaus, at an another hilltop location that, thankfully, is infinitely more rewarding. Budec is not the easiest of places to reach: it barely registers even on large-scale maps of the area north-west of the Czech capital. Perhaps that explains its glorious isolation, even though the centre of Prague is only 15 miles away as the robin flies. All that remains of the village here is a few flinty foundations - plus a Romanesque rotunda that happens to be the oldest surviving structure in the Czech lands. It was built in 875, shortly after Ludmilla introduced Christianity. Within a couple of decades, Wenceslaus was attending school here - to good effect. "Most of the rulers couldn't read, couldn't write," says Jan Stodola of Charles University in Prague. "Wenceslaus was the exception."

What you see today of his campus is a meadow that ripples almost to the horizon, punctuated now and again by wistful, naked trees. An excellent place for an heir - and a spare. This is where Wenceslaus and his younger brother Boleslav grew up. It was also where he learnt, aged 13, that his father had died. While Wenceslaus inherited the title of duke, his mother took power as regent - and began to return Bohemia to paganism. When Wenceslaus came of age, he and Boleslav promptly dispatched her into exile and reaffirmed the Christianity that prevails in the Czech Republic.

Given the upland aspect to the footsteps of Wenceslaus, you may not be amazed to learn that his power-base in Prague occupied the prime vantage point in the capital. Today, the hill is known as Prague Castle. This wedge of history is the crowning glory of the capital, though it has none of the forbidding fortress quality and instead contains a mélange of delights: a succession of minor and major palaces, interspersed with churches and cottages. The biggest threat in the 21st century is that the sheer weight of tourists could wear down this historic clutter. But in the bleak midwinter, the only footsteps echoing on the cobbles belong to me and my academic friend, Jan Stodola. So, I ask, just how good was Wenceslaus?

"He was credited with all possible good deeds from that time: buying out the slaves and giving them freedom, supporting poor people, building churches and bringing the country to order. According to the legends, he was a very successful peacekeeper, both internationally and internally."

Sounds like just the man our modern age needs. In fact, he has bolstered the Czechs through their suffering in the 20th century, from Nazi occupation to the Velvet Revolution that broke the shackles of state socialism.

Ask someone to name an address in the Czech Republic, and the chances are that the one they will choose will be Wenceslaus Square. It is a couple of miles from the castle, on the far side of the river Vltava. And even with a giant, luminous Christmas tree at one end, it lacks the grace * * found elsewhere in Prague. "Square" it most certainly isn't: more of a broad avenue running from the edge of the Old Town to the National Museum. This is an ugly, stuffy institution of the kind that gives national museums a bad name. But in front of it stands an early 20th-century equestrian statue of Wenceslaus, surrounded by some lesser Czech saints - including his gran, Ludmilla.

Beside it, a small squadron of schoolchildren is hovering reverentially as their teachers explain just how good Wenceslaus was.

Another, much smaller, memorial stands a short way down the "square". A pair of tablets commemorate two Czech students. When the Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed by Soviet tanks into a winter of disillusion, they came to the feet of Wenceslaus and set themselves on fire.

Jan Palach, the first to die, is remembered in a square of his own - which happens to be where the Arts Faculty of Charles University, and my guide Jan Stodola, are based. From his office, you can see the castle on the hill from which Wenceslaus is said to have looked out on the Feast of Stephen. A cautionary note about the lyrics of the much-loved carol "Good King Wenceslas": these clunky verses ("fuuu-well" ... "cruu-well") are partly figments of the imagination of a 19th-century British cleric, John Mason Neale. But the giving of alms was part of the Wenceslaus regime. Where, I wonder, would he have ended up if he had travelled "a good league hence, underneath the mountain, right against the forest fence"?

Jan hands me a map of Prague and points to Ladvi. Newly connected to the metro system, this turns out to be another Soviet housing mistake, sorry, estate. Yet, a short walk north from the station takes you through a forest fence to the closest Prague has to a mountain. Climb through the carpet of fallen leaves (snow has yet to appear this winter) on a crisp, clear winter's day, and you may begin to rhapsodise about Bohemia. The western half of the Czech Republic is as blessed by nature as it is by medieval townscapes, and the sense of freedom transcends even the "rude wind's wild lament".

To bring you back to earth with a bump, and to experience life more as it was before the Velvet Revolution, travel out on the Soviet-designed metro to Cerny Most and board a grimy bus to Stara Boleslav. It is an attractive little town, with a triangular main square ("square" obviously has flexible connotations in the Czech Republic), on which you find the regulation statue of Wenceslaus. But a short walk away, just down the road from the Wenceslaus Pharmacy, through a medieval gateway, you find the Basilica of St Vaclav: a picture-book Bohemian church with a tragic story attached.

By the time Wenceslaus was about 30, he had been ruling magnanimously over his country for more than a decade. But then he visited his brother in his castle in Boleslav. (The location has since acquired the prefix "Stara", meaning "Old".) Wenceslaus walked to this location to attend Mass. But as he approached the church, he was attacked. Jan Stodola takes up the story. "Wenceslaus, besides being good and religious and so on, was a good soldier as well, so he protected himself. But when he tried to enter the church to seek asylum at the altar, he was killed while grabbing the handle of the church gate. He was stabbed in the back. Some say that it was his brother who actually stabbed him."

His brother Boleslav had at least ordered his assassination - and duly inherited the title and lands. He went on to rule Bohemia for a further three decades. But soon after the murder, Boleslav repented and ordered that his brother's body be moved back to the church on Castle Hill in Prague. The original structure has been smothered beneath the Gothic weight of St Vitus's Cathedral (which, incidentally, was 600 years in the building, and was finally completed only in 1929). Wenceslaus is still in residence, though; to find his tomb, follow the crowds, to the roped-off chapel draped in tapestries illustrating his life and many good deeds.

According to Jan Stodola, the Premyslid dynasty created a cult around Wenceslaus, as "someone who is protecting and helping the people who are on the edge, struggling with real problems". The patron saint of Heathrow, perhaps?

The 21st-century Czechs certainly keep their watch of wondering love for their national hero. To fully appreciate just how important Wenceslaus was, and still is, to the Czech people, just wander down Havelska, one of the main arteries in the Old Town of Prague. At the eastern end of the street stands the rose-coloured main building of Charles University, founded by Charles IV. He was, arguably, the greatest ruler that Bohemia ever had, taking the reins of the Holy Roman Empire and thus ruling over much of central Europe. He also founded the university that now bears his name. And its emblem - as shown on a tablet beneath the building's top row of windows - is Charles himself, kneeling at the feet of St Wenceslaus, and asking permission to found a place of learning.

Many Czech people still believe that Wenceslaus may live to fight another day. He is, they say, currently enjoying a deep and dreamless sleep beneath the mountain of Blanik - about 35 miles from Prague. "When the worst time comes to this country," says Jan Stodola, "he will ride out of the mountain and will free the country. Then there will be peace in this country for ever."

Additional research by Rima Brihi

Simon Calder presents 'In the Footsteps of Wenceslaus' on Classic FM on Boxing Day

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Simon Calder paid £129 to fly from Heathrow to Prague on Czech Airlines (0870 444 3747; www.czechairlines.co.uk), and £53 to fly back with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).

Prague airport is six miles west of the city centre. The cheapest way to to reach the city centre requires you to buy a ticket in advance from a tobacconist at the airport - either 20 crowns (50p) for a single journey (including transfers within 90 minutes), or 80 crowns (£2) for a 24-hour ticket valid on all public transport in Prague.

Take bus 119 to its terminus at Dejvicka metro station; from here the metro can take you to the city centre.

Alternatively, a fixed-rate taxi from the airport costs around 600 crowns (£15) to city-centre hotels.

GETTING AROUND

Some of the places on the Wenceslaus map are tricky to reach as public transport is thin on the ground. Stochov is most easily reached by cab from Prague airport for around 1,000 crowns (£25); it is on the right side of the city. Alternatively, travel by train or bus from central Prague to the town of Kladno, and take a taxi from there (around 400 crowns/£10).

Budec is marked on few Czech maps: it stands on a hill just above the village of Kovary, a brisk 10-minute uphill hike, which you can avoid only by taking a taxi.

To reach Kovary, take bus A23 (which strangely also goes by the very long number of 220023) from Dejvicka metro station in Prague; the bus passes Prague airport, in case you want to visit Budec at the start or end of your trip. You could instead take a train to Kovary station (about 1km from Kovary itself).

Stara Boleslav is served by a wide range of buses from stations on the Yellow Line of the Prague metro.

You can take bus 375 from Ceskamoravska station, but more frequent departures are available at Cerny Most station at the end of the line; take any bus from stop 11 at the adjacent bus terminal.

STAYING THERE

In Prague, I stayed at the four-star (although this rating is pushing it a bit) Astoria Hotel, very centrally located at Rybna 10. Through www.laterooms.com, rooms are available at €85 (£60) single or double, including breakfast.

For Stochov, the best hotel option is the Hotel Slovanka (00 420 312 651 321), which has a room rate of 700 crowns (£17), including breakfast.

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