Old Town Bridge Tower

You have already explored Prague through and through, gone to most Prague city tours, seen all the main historical sites including the mesmerizing view from Prague Castle, experienced the touching atmosphere of the St. Vitus Cathedral and strolled through the romantic narrow streets of Prague Venice and the Old Town… Do you still maintain the foolish view the media have been claiming for so long – namely that Paris that is the most romantic city?

Then you must have missed the sunrise or sunset from the top of one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval Gothic buildings – the Old Town Bridge Tower!

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The Old Town Bridge Tower dates back to the reign of the famous king Charles IV in the 14th century (who allegedly designed a part of the tower himself). In my opinion, it belongs to the 10 top things to do in Prague. After a nice breakfast or dinner in one of Old Town’s pleasant restaurants or cafes (please try to be moderate with the beer this time!) and a lovely walk towards Charles Bridge, with the warm spring breeze blowing away all the smog while bringing the nice river smell and the dim light gradually giving way to the sunset, take the hand of your loved one, forget about the improper comment they made about your hair the day before and simply say a couple of nice words to create the right atmosphere. Arriving at the entrance to Charles Bridge, don’t blindly follow the unknowing crowd hurrying towards the bridge but instead, turn left to the monumental Old Town Bridge Tower. Climb to the first floor to watch an amusing cartoon about the history of Charles Bridge and then continue to the very top (for a small of fee of about 90 crowns).

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If there is anything you have been long afraid to ask your better half, now is the right time! If not, just enjoy the romance and the panoramic view of practically the whole historical heart of Prague. But also remember the 21 protesters against the Catholic Church beheaded on the Old Town Square in 1621. There are 21 white crosses on the pavement in front of the Old Town Hall in memory of the tragedy. Twelve of them had the unique opportunity to enjoy the view of Charles Bridge from the Old Town Bridge Tower for almost 10 years (imagine the smell!). If this is still not romantic enough, remember all the “criminals” (who committed petty thefts or simply had a bad face expression when in the company of a wealthy person, which was a crime serious enough) and “witches” subjected to proving their innocence in this place. Just opposite the Jesus Christ statue right below, those people were put into a small tub and thrown into the water. The tub was lifted out after ten minutes and if the person survived, they were vindicated. Indeed, life in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, just like in most medieval societies, was harmonious and the rule was just.

View of the Powder Tower. Prague. Czech Republic, Western Europe. October 23, 2012

But do not get carried away! Disregarding the magical view and the fascinating history of this place, keep in mind the opening hours (from 10 am till 10 pm in the summer season). So don’t miss on one of the best tourist attractions in Prague!

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We wish you a nice stay in Prague full of romance!

Prague From Stalin’s Viewpoint

You may have come across a beautiful postcard or an amazing Photoshopped picture of Prague that made you wonder where the heck the picture could have been taken?! You comfort yourself with the idea that the photographer must have suffered a lot and surely walked miles before getting to this distant secret place, or even worse, must have gone on some kind of dreary walking tour of Prague! 

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photo credits: http://poprve.blogspot.cz

However, things that seem distant and unreachable are often closer and more accessible than we think. In fact, one of the most beautiful and popular parks in Prague – Letná – is only a short ride from the city centre! You can take tram no. 15 from “Náměstí republiky” (the square with two shopping centres, the Municipal House and the Powder Tower) or tram no. 17 from “Právnická fakulta” (Faculty of Law at the riverbank at the end of the famous “Pařížská ulice” (Paris Street) full of luxury boutiques). Either way, you will get to the stop “Čechův most” in no time and then you just have to climb up the stairs.

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Still having trouble finding this place? Don’t worry, the people of Prague have gone to great lengths to make it clearly visible from far away… Just look for a huge ticking triangular thing right next to the Vltava River. By now, some of you might be asking yourselves who in their right mind would build a giant metronome in the middle of a city? To satisfy your curiosity, we must look back at a chapter of Czech history, which is not a particularly happy one to recall for most Czechs.

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In 1948, the Soviet Union decided that the freedom celebration party in Czechoslovakia after the Second World War had been going on for far too long, so we became a communist country. As peoples’ hearts were being injected with communist ideals, the park in Letná suddenly started feeling too empty. The Czechs were forced to show their gratitude to their Soviet liberators (just like we are grateful to our boss for letting us work overtime, thus liberating us from the chains of laziness…) and the empty Letná Park was the perfect place. As a result, since 1955 no tourists (if there were any), however bad their sense of direction was and even without a tourist map of Prague, could have possibly missed this place. There was a huge statue of Stalin, enjoying a beautiful view of Prague from the top of the Letná Park (while everyone else worked in factories). It was the biggest statue in the whole of Europe at the time (no wonder the architects committed suicide before it was officially revealed, probably due to exhaustion). What is interesting (and a bit upsetting for some) is that some of the stone used for the statue was taken from sites playing a significant role in the history of our nation (e.g. the Old Town Hall, our national hill Říp or from village Ležáky, annihilated by the Nazis along with Lidice).

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Fortunately (for us), Stalin’s supporters didn’t enjoy this magnificent statue for long (those who miss it can buy Chinese Pu-erh tea with a picture of Stalin and Mao Zedong in one of the many Prague tea shops).  When Khrushchev took power, he openly criticized Stalin’s cult of personality and the statue was taken down (narcissism never gets fully appreciated…). After the fall of communism in 1989, when the hearts of people were being filled with money for a change, the Letná Park seemed a bit empty again.  The Metronome Monument was built at exactly the same spot where Stalin’s statue used to stand. The rationale was to remind us that times can change and to warn us against repeating the mistakes of the past (anyway, there is no need for that today, since dry river beds, infertile soil and climate change can do the job very well on their own).

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So come and enjoy the view Stalin once had and see our beautiful city of Prague from a different angle. Since there are several playgrounds in the park, it is one of the things to do in Prague with kids. And don’t forget to learn from your past mistakes (especially don’t make the mistake of not having an awesome once-in-a-lifetime Prague holiday)!

For Mucha Lovers From Prague With Love

The end of 2016 meant not only the end of the year but also the end of one whole chapter – the exhibition of the Slavic Epic by Alphonse Mucha in the Prague National Gallery, which was launched in 2012. Large size paintings are making their journey to the far away Japan right now. They will be available for visitors in Tokio between March and June 2017. During the whole time of the exhibition in Prague, a total of 380 000 people paid a visit to the Slavic Epic. 

For people like me, who like to boast about any world-known artist with a feeling, as if the genius belonged to our own child, the temporary removal of Slavic Epic exhibition is a highly tragic event. However it is important to keep in mind, that for Mucha lovers, Prague has still plenty to offer!

If you want to admire Mucha’s works, there are several places which are a must visit in Prague for you!

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While being immersed in deep prayers in the St. Vitus Cathedral of the Prague Castle, one of the major Prague tourist attractions, your spiritual experience (somewhat obscured by a huge portion of duck with dumplings and sauerkraut accompanied by Pilsner bier which you consumed just now in one of the many local pubs) can be deepened by the very look at the glass window designed by Alphonse Mucha between the years 1928-1930, depicting the dawn of Christianity in Czech lands. The window became one of the most popular artifacts in the Cathedral. But don´t let your spiritual experience to get spoiled by the potential tour guides in your surroundings having a Prague castle tour, telling people something about murders- that is probably only our first baptized duchess Ludmila killing her daughter Drahomíra, or maybe Ludmila’s grandson king Václav being killed by his younger brother. We all have our little faults!

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Stained-glass Window by Mucha at St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

For those of you who would rather prefer traveling to the past instead of prayers, there is Alphonse Mucha museum in the city centre. You can even book a guided tour there (at least a week ahead). You can find there most importantly the exhibition of Mucha’s works from his Paris period. This period was the one, when Alfonse Mucha became famous artist for the first time. It was for his posters painted for a theater star Sarah Bernhardt. While admiring the works of “the king of art nouveau” there is one important detail to keep in mind. Mucha wasn´t one of those who would create their art works under the motivation in form of golden coins in their pockets and would blindly follow the customs or trends of that time.  High art was available only for the richest people and therefore the highest esthetic experience of an average citizen at that time was probably the entrance sign of the factory gate, where he or she worked. Commercial posters were conventionally without any taste and kitschy (from my own experience I must admit, that for attention drawing it really works well). Mucha however, as one of the first people created posters as artistic works and the time he spent with creating them was also no different from a real painting. In this way he gave the opportunity for common people to enjoy art on the street, the kind of art for which you had to spend astronomical sums of money in that time. Some people might call this casting pearls before swine, but I am on the opposite delighted that thanks to people like Mucha, I can visit my favourite exhibition in the 21. century, because even the world leading authorities have realized, that even though a human being is only a mere workforce for them, catalyzing economic growth, in order to boost their productivity and ensure their compliance, it is necessary to fulfill their psychological needs, which were scientifically proven to exist.

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Back to Mucha though. Another aspect of this extraordinary artist was his nationalism. The proof for his love of motherland is not only the Slavic Epic (he created it for 24 years), but also the decoration of the Mayor room in the Municipal house. The Municipal house was built in the year 1912. It was one of the most important buildings for the Czech nationalist movement. For the decoration of the Mayor room Mucha didn´t accept any monetary reward, as a sign of solidarity with Czech artists. In that time in most of the public places in Czech the only language was German as we were part of Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The Czech language started to fade. The Municipal house was therefore intended as a gathering place for Czech artists and all performances were conducted only in Czech language. The Municipal house played also an important role in our independence. In the year 1918 the independent Czechosklovakia was announced by our first president Tomáš Garrique Masaryk from the balcony of the Municipal house and with that event, Czech became an independent state after almost 400 years.

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The Slav Epic by Alfons Mucha

It was no coincidence that it was the Municipal house where our independent state was announced. In the place of the house used to stand the Royal palace, where the last king of Czech origin- Jiří z Poděbrad use to rule in the 15th century, not long before Czech lands became part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In the Municipal house decorated wholly in art nouveau style, you can enjoy the magic atmosphere of local restaurant or visit the most prominent classical music concerts in the Smetana hall of the first floor.

Smetana Hall, at the Municipal House, Prague
Smetana Hall, at the Municipal House, Prague

However even the missing Slavic Epic doesn´t leave the womb of Prague for too long. Already now the city authorities are searching for a place to exhibit Slavic Epic after its return form world tour. After all Mucha also returned to Prague in the end after his stay in France and America. It is in the human nature to thrive for exploring new worlds and broadening horizons during long journeys to tropical lands with the feeling of courageous missionary gaining spiritual knowledge. However it is only after I return home and see hundreds of cute towers under the curtain of tender mist that I realize that no matter what adventure I experience, no matter what place I go, there will always be plenty of fun things to do in Prague!

Touch enlightened official and get your wish come true before Christmas!

There are countless mysterious, romantic and culturally enlightening places in Prague an adventurous tourist would probably be eager to know about. Yet as we all know the darkest place is under the candle, and inspired by this knowledge I will lead your steps along hundreds of other visitors to the good old Charles Bridge.

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The Charles Bridge is the oldest bridge in town (the foundation stone being laid in 1357) and another proof that Czech people just can´t stop thinking about carnal pleasures even during bridge building. As a result of this it is said that the bridge contains also eggs and milk. The naive expectation of having a peaceful walk on the Charles Bridge, enjoying fully the historical atmosphere of a small Eastern European town someone might perhaps hold, will be probably not fulfilled only unless ceaseless crowds are on your ideal romantic experience list. However for those introverted you, who got cold feet just now, please don´t get too dispirited by my heartless remarks.  The magical atmosphere of this place, which feels new and different even during 500th visit, totally overshadows the fear that the almost 700 years old bridge might collapse every second under the attack of eager tourists. But it is exactly the beauty of the place which makes most of the tourists indulge in mindless awe, leaving them often unaware of the most interesting spot of the whole bridge – the tiny statue of John of Nepomuk hiding between a golden grid in the middle of the bridge wall.

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This is the time when I get superstitious and having thousands of wishes in my head in the time of Christmas, when we should think of our neighbours, I pick up the most useless and selfish one, approach the statue and try to suppress the knowledge of the true identity of the depicted saint into my deepest levels of subconsciousness.  Yet I am prepared to make a journey into my subconscious again in order to shed light on this little tragic comedy story.

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According to the legend, five stars emerged on the surface of Vltava River (the one flowing under your feet while standing on the bridge) in the 17th century. (Hint: it was right after the end of 30 years war, when 85% of people in Czech lands were Protestants and all of them had to either emigrate or convert to Catholicism… what an interesting coincidence!). People saw the emergence as a sign from heaven and dived into the water. To their astonishment, they found the skull and bones of the 14th century priest John of Nepomuk right there! And what more, his tongue was still preserved! (Well it is actually quite difficult for modern capitalist creatures to imagine such an excitement over few bones with no apparent business utility, but just you wait!). John Nepomuk was said to have served as the personal priest of the kings Wenceslaus IV wife Žofie. He enjoyed her full trust and thus she told him all her personal secrets. Unfortunately the king became afraid, that he might have “parohy” (horns, in Czech language having horns means to be cheated on by wife, I am sure she wasn´t the only one for him either though). He wanted John to reveal everything she entrusted to him during confessions. John however being a decent priest refused to break the seal of confession even during torture and was eventually executed by throwing into the Vltava River.  And because this miracle he was canonized and proclaimed a saint. According to the legend when you touch the five stars around his head with your right hand and five stars of the cross below with your left hand, John of Nepomuk being able to return to Prague again after his death (even if in the form of bones) can help you to return to Prague again also. Or just fulfill some of your wishes.

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While being a bit reluctant of destroying the mystical curtain of John of Nepomuk’s holiness and revealing his true identity, I realized that in today’s world we don´t fall victim to the presumption, that a hero or icon must necessary be moral, or even can be moral, since we are all just human beings, having our cute little flaws.

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John of Nepomuk while indeed having lived in the 14th century and served the king Wenceslaus IV, he wasn´t a mere priest but the vicar general of the Prague archbishop. It was because of the fact, that John threatened the power of the king with his intrigues and rising power that the king decided to get rid of him and his bones ended in the depths of Vltava River. After the end of the 30 years war however, there was an urgent need for some catholic saints in Czech lands (how sad) and his newly by chance discovered bones were a great opportunity to trick the people.

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So please, when you make your trip to Prague and see the beautiful scenery of this city from the Charles Bridge for the first time in your life (envy you), spend a thought about Czech history and appreciate the creativity and narrative genius of our ancestors. Touch the statue of John of Nepomuk and make a wish (and at the same time please avoid the unpleasant feeling that the society actually didn’t change that much over the centuries).  I am sure that a vicar general who has made it to a saint is surely powerful enough to make it come true!

Festival of Freedom: an insight into Czech national identity

If you happen to be in the historical centre of the city of Prague on 17 November, you will probably come across all kinds of art performances, crowds of celebrating people, omnipresent street vendors offering refreshments and many different cultural events. And no, this is not one of these festivals you are used to seeing in large European cities. 17 November is an important day for the Czech Republic and this year, it will be commemorated by various celebrations within the Festival of Freedom.

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Before describing the festival itself, let us go back into the complicated past of our country that made this date a national holiday and an inseparable part of Czech national identity. 

First, let us go back to 17 November 1989 in the communist Czechoslovakia.  The fall of the Soviet Union seemed inevitable and from 1988 to 1989, several anti-regime demonstrations, which would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, took place in Czechoslovakia. The date 17 November had already been an important date in Czech history. It commemorated the tragic events of 1939, when the Nazis executed nine Czech students who took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations. In 1941, the date was designated as the International Students’ Day, becoming the only date of international importance with Czech roots.

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On 17 November 1989, in the tense atmosphere created by the ruling communist regime, the independent student organization STUHA held a commemoration service on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the closing down of Czech universities by the Nazis. However, the more radical students wanted to express their opposition to the communist rule on the occasion. The whole service was supposed to take place in the Prague quarter Albertov and its organizers got official permission only under the condition that the commemoration march would not head into the city centre. From the very beginning, people chanted anti-communist slogans and after the official programme ended, a part of the march decided to continue to the centre of Prague. About 10,000 protesters were surrounded by two police cordons on Národní třída and viciously beaten. The next day, news of the brutal police crackdown quickly spread all over the country.

photo: svobodnymonitor.cz

The events of 17 November were key in terms of mobilising the Czech people and finally resulted in the transition to a democratic political system. In the following days, a general strike was declared and mass demonstrations took place all over the country. Everything climaxed on 29 December 1989, when Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia at Prague Castle, becoming the first non-communist head of state after 41 years.

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This year, the streets of Prague will host the 2016 Festival of Freedom on this important day. The programme, which includes concerts, discussions, marches and other activities, was put together by several civil society groups. Important Czech personalities will also participate in the festival taking place on sites that witnessed the events of November 1989, such as Národní třída, Albertov, Wenceslas Square or the Charles Bridges. 

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photo: www.festivalsvobody.cz

As the name suggests, the Festival of Freedom is a celebration of freedom as one of the basic values of our national identity. Sadly, we have seen our current president repeatedly trampling on fundamental freedoms in the last couple of days. This is also one of the reasons why I believe it is important to value freedom and celebrate it with dignity. So, if you happen to be walking through Prague on 17 November, do not hesitate to light a candle with us on Národní třída and commemorate our struggle for freedom. It is definitely not a celebration exclusively for Czech nationals but for all people from around the world, who consider freedom to be the cornerstone of civil society.

5 facts you didn’t know about Charles IV

In 2016, the Czech Republic celebrates the 700th anniversary of the most significant personality of Prague’s history – Charles IV. He was the man who ordered the construction of the bridge over the Vltava River known all over the world and founded the renowned Charles University in 1348, the first university in central Europe. The busy quarter New Town or the magnificent castle called Karlštejn were also founded during his reign. In his era, Prague was as a flourishing city and Charles was commonly known as the father of Prague. You can read about his reign and deeds in practically any Prague guidebook you can get your hands on. But you might not find there that Charles IV…

 

got first married at the age of seven

Charles IV was married four times, which makes him the king with the most wives in the history of Bohemian kings. On the day of his wedding with the first one, Blanca, they were both seven years old. Due to their youth, they continued growing up separately and met again when they were around fifteen. Blanca died young, as well as Charles’s next two wives. The four women in his life gave birth to 12 children. Not bad, uh?

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…beat the most popular hockey player of the Czech Republic Jaromír Jágr

As you’ve probably guessed, not personally, but he did beat him! In 2005, the Czech public television broadcaster carried out a national survey, asking a very simple question: Who is the greatest Czech personality ever? More than 68,000 people voted for Charles IV putting him on the top of the list, closely followed by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. Apart from historical personalities, the top 100 included such names as inventor of contact lenses Otto Wichterle, director Forman (e.g. Flight vver the Cuckoo’s Nest), hockey player Jaromír Jágr, athlete Emil Zátopek, writer Franz Kafka (e.g. Metamorphosis) and many more personalities who represent the Czech Republic all over the world. Headed by Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor.

Charles_IV_kneeling_before_Madonna-Votive_picture_of_archbishop_Jan_Ocko…is actually Wenceslas 

The son of Elisabeth Premyslid and John of Luxembourg was baptized as Wenceslas. He got his name Charles after his confirmation when he was seven. In the Czech Republic, everyone knows him as Karel, which is the Czech version of the name.

 

…could speak Czech, German, French, Italian and Latin

In the old times, most people, monarchs included, did not know how to read or write. In addition to these skills, Charles IV was also fluent in five languages. Such polyglots are rare even today, in the age of online language courses and movies with original sound. But Charles acquired these skills in the 14th century! This is one of the reasons why he is considered as one of the smartest and most educated historical personalities.

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…said “in vino veritas”

Have you ever heard the saying that at there is truth in wine? It means that after a couple of glasses of wine, you will say whatever is on your mind. It actually goes back to Charles IV, who was a true wine lover. He promoted wine production and strived to improve its quality and the wine making process. Cheers!

Does he deserve to be the greatest Czech personality ever? We say yes, if only because the other 99 winners would never walk across his beautiful bridge if it wasn’t for him. ☺

What did the grey communist era bring to the people of Prague?

Today, it is no problem to buy premium food and clothes or to verify information from different sources. However, the situation in the country was very different during the communist era from 1948 to 1989. The truth is that when something is readily available, you do not appreciate it as much as the under-the-counter stuff. On the one hand, we will never experience what our parents felt when they bought the Beatles’ Long Play Album, watched their first movie in the cinema or when they bought their first jeans in TUZEX, which was a chain of stores that sold luxury goods manufactured in the West, otherwise unavailable to Czech customers. On the other hand, luckily enough we will also never know the feeling of being rejected to study at university on the basis of our family’s political opinions. 

Moreover, we also do not need to be close friends with the nearby butcher just to get fresh meat for Saturday lunch. We can set up our own businesses and travel, without having to get permission from the state officials. Thirty years ago, life in Czechoslovakia was completely different. Prague, as the capital city, was the seat of the Communist party, whose political decisions were dictated by the Soviet Union. Freedom would be the last word you could use to describe the then situation. Employment would be much more fitting. Everyone had to have a job. The resulting construction boom left us a number of industrial buildings, factories, and monuments from this period in Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic. Some of them have been reconstructed, other remain as they were.

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Architect Petr Kučera describes the famous Wenceslas Square as a “monument to communism” and for the last five years, he has been working on its revitalization. He thinks that square is a good reflection of today’s Czech society and that change is necessary in order to transform Prague into a West European metropolis. Well, we just have to wait to see what happens.

An example of a successful reconstruction of Soviet architecture and art would be the controversial statue of a big metronome in the park Letenské sady. It replaced Stalin’s statue, for which the place used to be called “meat queue“, referring to the lack of fresh food being brought to local stores.

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003kletna-metronome-prague_54_990x660_201404232224One of the most important venues during the Communist era was the Strahov Stadium. In its time, it was the largest stadium ever built, with the capacity of 220,000 people. Its main purpose was to host the mass synchronized gymnastics shows called Spartakiáda. It now serves as a concert venue and is in desperate need of reconstruction.

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Although the country has gone through massive changes since Czechoslovakia was divided into two independent countries in 1993, you can still see that it is only recovering from the dark totalitarian period. Brutal political trials, prosecution by the secret police and large-scale media censorship are just a few examples of what Czech people will never forget. Despite all of this, members of the Communist party are still represented in the government. Many socialist buildings can also be found in Prague.

With our new guided tour called Retro ŠKODA Cars, you get a chance to discover the most significant monuments of the Soviet times in Prague. As authenticity is the most important element when trying to experience the atmosphere of times long gone, you will sit behind the wheel of a retro ŠKODA automobile, one of the symbols of life under the communist regime. Since this was the most popular Czech car in the 70s, you could hardly look for a better time machine that would take you behind the Iron Curtain and allowed you to make up your own mind about it.

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