Prague – Kingdom of Bohemia – Hidden history of Prague – Old Town Square – P6

Many of the merchants, brewers and tanners built houses for themselves near the square. Very soon after the houses started to appear, however, the inhabitants of the fledgling Old Town realised they had a problem. They were very close to the River Vltava, which provided them with a valuable trade route and means of carrying goods and stone for construction up to the city, but was also a constant threat, thanks to its tendency to flood on a regular basis. Prior to the construction of the embankments in the nineteenth century, which now mean that only a very severe flood poses a danger to the city, if the river broke its banks there was a real possibility that the waters would reach as far inland as the Old Town Square, and so the ground floor rooms of these new houses were periodically waterlogged. After a while, when it was obvious this was a regular problem and not just a freak event, they townspeople decided to do something about it.

Anything that could be salvaged from the ground floor was moved up a storey, and the street level of the Old Town was gradually raised, initially by about 4m. That entire level of Prague became the cellars, and that’s the reason these clubs and restaurants have such vast and beautiful chambers underneath their main buildings, because those rooms were not intended to be underground and in the dark. It was really interesting to know about the history and details connected to it . I would recommend not to miss this place, as it will be worth a visit .

It’s difficult to say with any certainty exactly when the raising of the street level took place, as records generally in Prague are scant, thanks to various wars and regime changes throughout history, and particularly after the destruction of a large part of the Old Town Hall and its records in the Prague Uprising of May 1945, but there are a few clues as to when this might have taken place.

Up until 1784, Prague wasn’t really a city as such, but rather a group of four towns. That’s why you’ll find areas called the OId Town, New Town, and Lesser Town (Malá Strana), and the fourth town was Hradčany, which is the area surrounding Prague Castle. Each of these was treated separately in terms of legislation, governance, parish churches etc up until 1784 when the Emperor Joseph II combined all four and made the Old Town Hall responsible for the whole of Prague’s administration. Each town had its own defences until then, but these were torn down during the amalgamation. You can still see remnants of them, however. For instance, the Malá Strana tower of Charles Bridge was part of that town’s wall and ramparts, and the Powder Gate (Prašná Brána) on Náměstí Republiky was one of thirteen gates set into the walls of the Old Town, (although the current version was actually built in 1475, replacing the original gate, and then was extensively remodelled between 1875 and 1886).

The street that runs past the Powder Gate and connects Wenceslas Square with Náměstí Republiky is called Na Přikopě, which in English means ‘On the Moat’, and lies along the line of the original ditch that was dug out alongside the wall to give added protection. Parts of this ditch still exist in the sewer system beneath Na Přikopě and Náměstí Republiky. The current theory is that the earth used to raise the streets of the Old Town came from the excavation work that produced this moat, that the people of Prague basically solved two problems with the one piece of construction work.

Most sources say the construction of the town’s walls and gates began around 1235, during the reign of Wenceslaus I, but later the construction work moved to the Malá Strana, under Přemysl Ottakar II, in around 1257. There were originally two walls, one of quartzite and an inner wall constructed using slate. The moat certainly existed during the latter half of the thirteenth century and so was probably built around the same time as these first walls.

We know this from archaeological work carried out between 1997 and 2000 on Na Přikopě, during which parts of the moat were excavated and examined. The original ditch was around eight metres deep, and was a dry moat. Since it was dry, however, the Old Town had a constant problem keeping the moat free of rubbish, so that it would continue to be a defensive structure, and eventually a decree was passed in 1347 forbidding any dumping of rubbish in the moat, although deposits of garbage have been found in the drainage ditch built to keep the moat free of rainwater, dating to around the early fourteenth century and continuing throughout its existance.

It’s most likely therefore that the street level was raised shortly after the construction of the walls and moat in the 1230s, though it was a gradual process and took decades to complete. Initially the level was raised by 4m but in some places this was inadequate and the level had to be raised again to around 6-7m.

The Wolfin House, the building that became the Old Town Hall and now houses the astronomical clock, was built around about the same time, the mid 1200s, but as you can see if you take one of the tours to the underground, its basements still have some remnants of their original purpose as kitchens, ordinary rooms etc. So the Wolfin House must have been built just before the street level was raised.

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