Prague Vltava

Fifteen little-known facts about Prague

in Travel

A list of things you may not have known about the Czech capital

The Golden City has seen kings and queens, and it has gone from monarchy, empire and independence to occupation, totalitarianism and liberation. The City of a Hundred Spires, with its shining castle on a hill and its river that inspired a work of art from one of its most beloved composers, has long enchanted those who call it home and those who admire it from afar.

With a history that stretches back at least a millennium, the city has myriad skeletons that it is in no hurry to reveal. This article takes a quick look at a few of the lesser-known facts about this city whose Latin motto, Praga caput regni, affirms its function as the “head of the kingdom.” To many longtime residents, these points may not exactly be a revelation, but they sure beat the continuous drumbeat of stories about Petřín Tower being as high above sea level as the Eiffel Tower (although the one is on top of a giant hill), or the original plan of the metro to be a subterranean tramway system, or the infamous Stalin statue on Letná Hill that was dynamited to smithereens in 1962.

In the near future, The Prague Post will be publishing more points of interest relating to the city’s history and its present.

1. Since 1997, the full name of the St. Vitus Cathedral is the “Cathedral of Sts. Vitus, Václav and Vojtěch.”

2. Prague was the first European city in which a book about Mozart was published. In 1798, just seven years after the musician’s death, František Xaver Němeček published his full-length biography, Leben des K. K. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, using the German “Gottlieb” instead of the Latin “Amadeus” by which the composer would later be better known. The book’s publisher was Johann Herrl.

3. Prague was the last major city in the world to use a pneumatic postal system. Installed in 1889 and extended over time, eventually to a network of 26 lines covering some 55 kilometers, the system was posting a loss by the time it was all but irreparably damaged in the floods of 2002. It has been acquired by businessman Zdeněk Dražil, but there is no word yet on when it will be operational once more, or in what form.

Prague's pneumatic post system
Prague’s pneumatic post system was in use for more than 100 years before it was damaged in the floods of 2002. Photo: Walter Novak.

4. The voices of the Prague metro belong to Czech Radio (ČRo) presenter Světlana Lavičková (line A), former presenter on TV Nova and recent European Parliament candidate for the Republic Party Eva Jurinová (line B), and Tomáš Černý (line C), another ČRo presenter. The voice on all trams and buses is that of Dagmar Hazdrová, formerly a ČRo presenter.

5. Prague was the first country in the post-communist Eastern bloc in which a restaurant was awarded a Michelin star. The Allegro restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel, headed by chef Andrea Accordi, received its star in 2008.

6. Two of the last three remaining descendants of the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (TGM), call Prague home. They are two boys, born in 2005 and 2006. Their grandmother, United States–based art historian Charlotte Kotik, is TGM’s great-granddaughter and the only other living descendant.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of an independent Czechoslovakia (1918–35), has three living descendants, two of whom live in Prague. Courtesy photo.

7. It was in Prague that Pluto was taken down a peg. The general assembly of the International Astronomical Union, which gathered Aug. 14–25, 2006 in the Czech capital, voted to redefine Pluto as a “dwarf planet” rather than a full-fledged planet, thereby decreasing the number of official planets in the solar system from nine to eight.

8. In the foyer of the U.S. ambassador’s residence (the Petschek villa), the bottom of a Baroque table is stamped with an eagle clutching a swastika — a reminder from the time the Nazis occupied Prague 1939–45 and used the residence for General Rudolf Toussaint, commissioner of the German army in the office of the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia.

9. With a diameter of 7.6 meters, the clock on the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord — the church on Jiřího z Poděbrad square — not only has the largest clock face in Prague, but also one of the largest in Central Europe. It was designed by Slovenian architect Josip Plečnik and built between 1928 and 1932.

The Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord
The Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, located on Prague’s Jiřího z Poděbrad square, has the largest clock face in the city. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

10. Next to Charles Bridge, in the stone embankment under the Square of the Knights of the Cross beside the Church of St. Francis, is a bas-relief of a man’s head called Bradáč, translated as either “Bearded Man” or “Chin Man.” According to legend, it depicts the architect of the Judith Bridge, the predecessor of the Charles Bridge, and if the water of the Vltava River rises to the figure’s beard, it means flooding is imminent, and it is time to start evacuating the riverside quarters. As a matter of fact, right next to the Bradáč, a ruler rises up out of the water to indicate the current and record heights of the water level.

11. The Church of St. Francis is also where the oldest paving stones in the city can be found. These reddish stones, which were part of the Judith Bridge before it was mostly destroyed by a flood in the mid-14th century, have been placed at the foot of a column at the corner of the church, next to Křižovnická Street. On top of the column is a statue of St. Wenceslas by J.J. Bendl dating from 1676.

12. On the summer solstice ever year, around June 20 or 21, something magical happens when you observe the sunset from the gate of the bridge tower on the Old Town end of Charles Bridge. As the sun inches toward the horizon and disappears behind St. Vitus Cathedral on the hill, the last rays appear precisely at the spot where the remains of St. Vitus are buried.

vitus solstice
If looked at from the Charles Bridge on the summer solstice, the last rays of the sun appear from where St. Vitus is buried inside Prague Castle. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

13. Thomas Edison, credited with playing a crucial role in the development of the cinema in the United States, visited the first movie house in Prague. Located at the corner of Karlova and Lilová streets in Old Town, the Dům U Modré štiky (House at the Blue Pike) was opened by Dismas Šlampor, also known as Viktor Ponrepo, in September 1907. Edison, visiting fellow electrotechnician and inventor Emil Kolben in 1911, reportedly liked what he saw and told the owner of the cinema, “It is small but very good. It’s what a movie house should look like.”

14. Anděl metro stop used to be called Moskevská, after Moscow. Designed by Soviet architects, the metro station symbolized the partnership between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. A metro stop called “Prague” (Prazhskaya), designed by a consortium of Czechoslovak architects, opened four days later on the Moscow transit network in November 1985. Moskevská was renamed in 1990, but Prazhskaya stop on Moscow’s Gray Line retains its name to this day.

15. The only president of Czechoslovakia whose name does not appear on his gravestone is that of Antonín Novotný, the hardline communist who led the country from 1957 until shortly before the Prague Spring, in March 1968. Novotný is buried in Prague’s Malvazinky cemetery, but the only indication of his presence is his signature, which is engraved on top of his gravestone.

Antonín Novotný grave
The gravestone of Antonín Novotný, a communist former president of Czechoslovakia, gives no indication of the identity of the body below, save for a signature. Photo: André Crous.

 

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