Three days in Prague may not suffice. At least not if you want to partake in that tourist time-honoured tradition, the watching of people. The lure of communism vs capitalism, wars, and revolutions… the raw material out of which was born an endless stream of stories. I was born over 30 years after the end of WW2. The James Bond/spy subculture has been infused heavily with the ideas of the Cold War. “Velvet revolution”, we always come up with such innovative names for these political shifts. We decided to immerse ourselves into Prague’s history for yet another day. Freezing our toes off and sipping mulled wine, we were on our way to hear more tales of the second Great War, the Cold War, and the Velvet Revolution…
We were enjoying the experience of places, people and food. Very inspiring. Between this and the cold Eastern European air, our senses were certainly awake!
Apparently, the Czech nation had a solid democratic foundation, until the mid 30’s when it found itself in the middle of an East/West tug of war. A 6 year Nazi occupation ensued. Prague feels like a city with an aura of good fortune. Enter the 5th of May 1945, the “Prague Uprising”. We’re told the retreating Germans identified better surrender consequences could be found on the American front than the Russian. The Czechs felt strongly the Germans should wait for justice to arrive (from the East). The Germans felt the Czechs should be encouraged to let them exit West so they blew up two wings of the Old Town Hall. Promises to discontinue further detonations inspired the Prague authorities to let them go “gracefully”. The destroyed building was never restored.
Relatively very few buildings were damaged in wars here. There is a notable exception, an American air raid in February 1945 during which the Americans mistaking Prague for Dresden dropped bombs. The weapons of destruction took down a few notable structures, one of which we’ll investigate later.
The Communists Party seized power in 1948 following a coup. The interesting thing about history being written and rewritten by those in charge is that it appears across the ages around the world. Newly (un)elected President Gottwald addressed the people on a balcony, surrounded by his comrades. Commemorative pictures were taken. Some 4 years later, comrade Vladimir Clementis (Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs) was charged with treason and hanged. The authorities felt he’d never been in the picture after all, an update of the balcony address where Communist Bohemia’s history was republished. After 1948, Communist ideology dictated life in Czechoslovakia. Read more [here]
From 1955 – 1962 the world’s largest statue of Stalin loomed over the capital. The Communist regime that outlasted it, ended with the Velvet Revolution (non-violent revolution) in 1989. 7 years later a massive statue of pop icon Michael Jackson would stand in its place. Prague was graced with the King of Pop’s presence for a concert. Today a monumental metronome stands motionless, in defiance to its intended purposes. Prior to this, a proposal for the development of a new National Library was disputed, the designer died before resolution. Seems some places are not fortunate.
Back in town, it’s hard to believe this vibrant city with its Christmas markets, international foods, fashion stores, and positive vibes was once dominated by grey undertones and bland uniformity. Where today culinary options abound, once the good people of Prague stood for hours in the hope of accessing meager foodstuffs as allocated by their fellow communists.
Equally surreal is the innovation of building Prague’s Jalta Hotel from the dugout remains of an American bombing exercise. Unbeknown to everyone, the Americans created enough of an excavation to construct a concealed nuclear fallout shelter, beneath the hotel. Built in the 1950s, the fancy hotel was the primary destination for all manner of dignitaries, high-ranking communist party officials and foreign diplomats. In the basement, spies were listening… oh this we had to see.
Part of our tour was to visit a nuclear bunker. At the Jalta Boutique Hotel, there are no signs or clues at all suggesting the existence of a bunker. Our guides Teressa and Klara assure us we are in the right place. They go on to explain that the bunker and hotel were built in the 1950s to disguise the bunker and both were previously owned by the Ministry of Defence. The bunker’s purpose was to be used in case of war. It had a capacity for 150 people and intended for important communist officials.
Over time, the bunker was used by the Secret Police to spy on important “guests”. Amongst the many wonders of this hideout is a special reserved room equipped with telephone exchanges, room maps, recording, and transmission equipment. These were used to eavesdrop on guests’ conversations and identify any misguided party members. A “listening” shoe brush caught our attention, sometimes the shoe brushes found in the rooms were unsuitable for guests and these “fresh” ones would be offered in exchange. Find out more information [here]
One of the escape tunnels from the bunker leads away from fully equipped medical rooms, war rooms and armouries through secret passages back to the street of the buzzing Wenceslas Square.
The Velvet Revolution, a brief period from the 17th of November to the 29th of December 1989, marked the end of a 41-year one-party government, a nonviolent transition promising a better future.
Tonight we board a train bound for Hungary.
Pro tip – ditch airlines and hotels. Try something different, take an overnight train. Next stop: Keleti pályaudvar (Budapest railway station).