Hradec Kralove lies on the spectacular confluence of the Elbe and Orlice Rivers, about 100 km east of Prague. This extraordinarily pretty town boasts a rich archaeological heritage, especially in its historical quarter where handsome renaissance buildings testify to the wealth and status the town enjoyed thanks to the trade that used to pass through en route to Silesia.
History of Art student Barbora Chmelikova hails from Hradec Kralove where she also works as an occasional tour guide:
"Hradec Kralove was a royal town and ranks among the oldest cities in Bohemia. The first reference to the town was made in a decree by King Otakar Premysl I in 1225. At the beginning of the 14th century, together with other towns in east Bohemia, the city became a dowry town for the queens of Bohemia. There was a castle here where widowed queens resided. The face of the town changed significantly during the time of Queen Eliska Rejcka, the wife if Wenceslas II. During this period the city's gothic Cathedral of the Holy Ghost was built."
The use of the town as a dowry gift for Bohemian queens is where Hradec Kralove gets its name from, which roughly translates as "Queen's Castle". Not surprisingly, besides Eliska Rejcka, a number of other important female monarchs also resided in the town. Barbora Chmelikova again:
"Later, other queens stayed in the castle of Hradec Kralove, including Eliska Premyslovna, the wife of John of Luxembourg and mother of Charles IV. Zofie, the wife of George of Podebrady, also stayed here in the 15th century. The castle was then completely destroyed during the Hussite Wars."
The fact that the castle in Hradec Kralove was destroyed during the Hussite Wars is hardly surprising. As the town was the first Bohemian municipality to side with Jan Zizka who led the protestant revolution inspired by Jan Hus, it was often a focal point for the conflagration. Zizka himself stayed in Hradec Kralove during the conflict and Barbora Chmelikova says it's possible that the town even became the great military leader's final resting place:
"According to some historical references, Jan Zizka was buried in Hradec Kralove. Maybe it's more a legend than anything, but in the 1970s some relics were found in the town although nobody is really sure if they are really his relics or not."
After the hiatus of the Hussite Wars, Hradec Kralove began to prosper once more and this is reflected in its historical architecture. Besides the aforementioned gothic Cathedral of the Holy Ghost, the town's main square also boasts the spectacular sandstone White Tower (Bila vez) and some renaissance arcade housing, most of which was paid for from the profits of Bohemian-Silesian trade.
Cathedral of the Holy Ghost and White Tower
The town's importance increased even further after it was made a bishopric in 1664 and it also benefited when the industrial revolution firmly established itself in Europe in the late nineteenth century.
The manufacture of musical instruments is one industry that emerged in Hradec Kralove during this period and is still associated with the town to this day. Local inventor Vaclav Frantisek Cerveny made a name for himself with his innovations in brass woodwind instruments, which eventually led to the development of the Wagner tuba and the alto trumpet. There are some who say that Cerveny's achievements are comparable to those of Alfred Sax who invented the saxophone.
Unfortunately, the Cerveny workshop no longer exists as it succumbed to the mass "nationalisation" of industry that occurred after the communist coup in 1948. Nevertheless, the famous Petrof piano company is another important instrument-manufacturing business, which is still a going concern in the town.
Petrof pianos are now considered to be of the finest quality and are the piano of choice for many conservatories, theatres and other musical institutions. The first Petrof instrument was made by Hradec Kralove native Antonin Petrof, who was the son of a local carpenter. Like many great success stories, Barbora Chmelikova says the company had some fairly humble beginnings in the town:
"The Petrof firm was founded by Antonin Petrof. He began constructing his first piano in 1864 in his father's joinery. One decade later, he had to establish a larger workshop outside the walls of Hradec Kralove. In the following decades, the Petrof brand won a good name for itself abroad and the Antonin Petrof company became the largest producer of pianos in Austria-Hungary. After the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic, the company expanded its activities to countries outside Europe and in 1935 Petrof's grand piano won the World Expo in Brussels."
The Petrof factory at the beginning of 20th century
The fact that Petrof had to build a factory outside the walls of Hradec Kralove was symptomatic of a situation that persisted in the town up to that time. Hradec Kralove had long been considered strategically vital to Bohemia's defences, and had been required to maintain fortress-like barracks walls, which had slowed down the town's development. Nevertheless, this state of affairs came to an abrupt end in after the Battle of Kooniggratz in 1866.
Battle of Koniggratz
With nearly half-a-million men on the battlefield, the Battle of Koniggratz (as Hradec Kralove is called in German) was the biggest battle in the history of mankind up to that time. It was also the decisive battle in the Austro-Prussian war and paved the way for Bismarck's unification of Germany. For Hradec Kralove itself, the routing of the Austrian Empire's forces made it obvious that the town's fortifications were useless for modern warfare and the barracks walls were eventually removed.
Regional museum by Jan Kotera
This development paved the way for the construction of Hradec Kralove's New Town. In the early twentieth century, renowned modern architects such as Jan Kotera and Josef Gocar (who designed Prague's House of the Black Madonna) were brought in to help with the town's expansion. An architectural master plan was formulated in 1911, which gave rise to many extraordinary modern constructions over the next few decades, including Kotera's dome-topped regional museum and Gocar's imposing housing complex on Masaryk Square (Masarykove namesti)
'Gymnasium' by Josef Gocar
Another important building designed by Gocar was the beautiful red-brick riverside construction used to house the town's "gymnasium" or grammar school; an institution which had been in Hradec Kralove since the 14th century.
Appropriately for a town that has a reputation for educational excellence, with its own university and a medical faculty affiliated with Prague's Charles University, many leading Czech intellectuals and scholars attended this grammar school. Barbora Chmelikova again:
"Karel Capek went to this grammar school at the beginning of the 20th century. There were other students of this grammar school - mainly in the 19th century - who were important figures in the Czech national revival such as the writer Alois Jirasek and the composer Frantisel Skroup, who wrote the music for the Czech National Anthem."
Other famous members of the Czech Revival who lived in Hradec Kralove are the writer Josef Kajetan Tyl and the dramatist Vaclav Kliment Klicpera, whom the town's main theatre is now named after.
Confluence of the Elbe and Orlice Rivers
It is fitting that so many members of the Czech renaissance are associated with Hradec Kralove, because many of the architectural changes that occurred in the town in the early 1900s are thought by some to reflect the ambition and optimism of the First Republic.
Whether you agree with this or not, Kotera and Gocar's spectacular early-twentieth century buildings certainly give the town a unique and expansive atmosphere not to mention an architectural heritage whose fame Barbora Chmelikova says has spread far beyond the borders of the Czech Republic.
"The modern part of the city, with its large streets and squares with a number of monumental buildings as well as a lot of greenery was a really fitting counterpart for the Old Town. As a result, this city's urban planning, great works of architecture and high-quality services attracted a number of domestic and foreign admirers and earned the city a reputation as the 'Salon of the Republic'. Consequently, the unique twentieth century architecture of Hradec Kralove is known not only in the Czech Republic but also abroad."