What do Big Ben, the Pyramids at Giza, Christ the Redeemer, Tokyo Tower, and the Sydney Opera House in common? These landmarks are most likely when establishing a location in all forms of media. You see Big Ben, you know the story is set in London.
One of Prague’s ubiquitous landmarks would be Old Town Square. No other area of the city has such a condensed area of identifiable monuments. Yet, most tourists are unaware of its secret past beyond its gleaming fairytale exterior.
Narrow alleyways thread through the district of Prague 1 before opening up to a sweeping expanse of cobblestone and various architectural wonders. A glittering jewel in the crown of Staré Město, this square is the beating heart of historical Prague. Its mix of churches, former palaces, and one world famous astronomical clock is overwhelming at first. Located between Wenceslas Square and the Charles Bridge,
Winding slowly around the perimeter there is the Kinsey Palace, the Church of Our Lady before Týn, Old New Synagogue, St Nicolas Church, and the Old Town Hall. A monument to the martyr Jan Hus gazing at Týn lays in the heart of the square.
Considered the first church reformer (before even Luther or Calvin), Hus was tried for heresy and burnt at the stake in 1415.
In darker times, the square was the host to the execution of twenty-seven leaders of the Bohemian Revolt after the Battle of White Mountain. Basically the Catholic Hasburgs defeated the Protestant Bohemians soundly and condemned various nobles, knights, and burghers to death by beheading in the square. White crosses dot the cobblestones as a memorial and also a reminder of three hundred years of decisive Catholic domination over the Bohemian estates.
Interestingly enough, the current square and the surrounding buildings are built on top of the original site of Prague. Flooding from the nearby Vltava River was a common occurrence in the old town. This was solved in the 14th century when the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles IV, declared a new city to be constructed across the river. The move was twofold, as dirt from the excavation of this New Town was hauled over to the former stronghold. By raising the street level several metres, the local dwellings became basements. There are a few entry points; one is inside the City Hall.
As this square is the “new” one, this charming pedestrian locality hides a dark underground past beneath its foundations. With so many executions and bones underfoot, it’s no wonder there are ghost tours offered after sunset in Old Town Square.