Hradec Králové: city where history meets modernity

Hradec Králové - Great Square with the Gothic Cathedral of Holy Spirit, Renaissance White Tower and Baroque Old Town Hall

Hradec Králové, which lies on the confluence of the Labe (Elbe) and Orlice rivers in north-east Bohemia, is one of the oldest and historically most significant Czech cities. For centuries, it was one of the dowry towns of Czech queens. At the turn of the 20th century, Hradec Králové was remodelled by the pioneering Czechoslovak architects Jan Kotěra and Josef Gočár, who turned it into a modern and progressive city, which became known as the Salon of the Republic.

Lucie Nováková | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

The first written evidence of Hradec Hrálové comes from 1225, when the settlement of Hradec was mentioned in the deed of the Bohemian King Přemysl Otakar I. In 1306, Hradec became a dowry town ruled by Bohemian queens. Hence its name Hradec Králové, which literally means “the castle of the queen”, explains local tourist guide Lucie Nováková:

“The local royal castle was therefore home to queens, namely Elizabeth Richeza of Poland and later Elizabeth of Pomerania, the last wife of Charles IV. During the reign of George of Poděbrady, the town was one of the most important and beautiful Renaissance seats, but this happy period was brought to an end by frequent fires, plague epidemics and the Thirty Years’ War.”

A view from the White tower on to the triangle square | Photo: Markéta Kachlíková,  Radio Prague International

The historical heart of Hradec Králové is Velké Náměstí or Large Square, although its shape resembles a triangle rather than a square. It is dominated on the west side by two prominent landmarks, the Gothic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and the White Tower, built at the end of the 15th century, says Ms. Nováková:

“The White Tower was built as the town’s bell tower and watchtower. The bell was rung in warning of impending danger and was also used to call town council meetings and to open and close the town fairs.

“With its height of 72 metres, it is the tallest building in the Old Town. It was originally called the New Tower but eventually it was named after the material it was made of, which is sandstone.”

Augustin,  the bell | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

The bell in the White Tower is called Augustin and it is in fact the third largest bell in Czechia. Lucie Nováková explains how it came to be there:

“At the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries there were several fires in the neighbouring Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and one of them destroyed all its bells. In 1509, new bells were cast, including Augustin.

“At that time, only the foundation stone of the White Tower had been laid, so the bell hung for several decades on a temporary bell tower behind the cathedral. It was only placed in the tower during its construction in 1581.”

Many other interesting historical buildings can be found on the city’s Large Square, including the late Baroque Town Hall, the Church of the Assumption with the adjacent Jesuit College, the Episcopal Residence and a number of beautiful townhouses.

View from the White Tower of the Holy Spirit Church | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

From the 1760s until the late 19th century, Hradec Králové was a baroque fortress. The remnants of the fortifications can still be found in the embankment wall of the Elbe and Orlice rivers or in the city’s barracks.

What makes Hradec Králové truly unique, though, is not just its countless historical monuments and buildings, but the fascinating mix of history and modernity. At the turn of the last century, the town was completely remodelled by two pioneering Czechoslovak architects, Jan Kotěra and Josef Gočár, who made it a modern and progressive city, says Lucie Nováková:

“The fact that architects were invited here, whether it was Jan Kotěra, Josef Gočár, Oldřich Liska and others, was mainly thanks to the then mayor František Ulrich. He invited the famous architects here and participated in the creation of the most important buildings.”

Museum of East Bohemia | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

One of the most beautiful buildings designed in the pre-war era was the Museum of East Bohemia. The Art Nouveau building, made of pressed and partially glazed bricks, was designed by Jan Kotěra:

“What is striking about the building are the two statues of seated women on the façade by sculptor Stanislav Sucharda. The statues are meant to remind us of the queens who were present at the founding of the town, Elizabeth Richeza of Poland and Elizabeth of Pomerania. Another interesting feature are the mosaics by František Kysela and the dome on top.”

Prague Bridge across the River Elbe in Hradec Králové | Photo: Markéta Kachlíková,  Radio Prague International

Another famous structure designed by Jan Kotěra is the Prague Bridge across the River Elbe, built in 1910. The single-arch iron bridge is equipped with lighting columns and arches above the road, says Lucie Nováková:

“Jan Kotěra did not design the bridge itself, but he designed the kiosks, railings and other parts of the bridge. What makes the Prague Bridge interesting is that it was the only bridge across which trams were supposed to run. The extensive tram network was part of an urban plan designed by Josef Gočár, but the idea was later abandoned and in the 1930s the rails were removed from the bridge.”

Another famous building on the Elbe River is the hydroelectric plant known as Hučák, located in an Art Nouveau structure designed by architect František Sander.

Hydroelectric plant known as Hučák | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“It was built between 1909 and 1912 according to the design of architect František Sander. The hydroelectric power station is a technical monument and is still in operation. The building also houses an information centre dedicated to renewable energy, with an interactive exhibit for children. The public can also take a peek inside the engine room, which is still being used today.”

When the military fortress still existed in Hradec Králové, a so-called Officers’ Park was established on a triangular area formed by the confluence of the Elbe and Orlice rivers.

Called Jirásek’s Gardens today, the park features a music pavilion, the remains of the fortress ramparts and the wooden church of St. Nicholas dating from the beginning of the 16th century. At the tip of the park, you can see a famous sculpture of lovers by Josef Škoda.

Famous sculpture of lovers by Josef Škoda in Jirásek’s Gardens | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

“The sculpture depicts the Elbe and the Orlice rivers as a pair of lovers, with the Orlice portrayed as a woman giving herself to the male, represented by the Elbe. The sculpture was created in 1934 by the sculptor Josef Škoda and it was met with a great wave of criticism after it was unveiled. Some residents found it offensive because it portrayed naked bodies.”

Located just an hour’s drive from Prague and even closer to the Krkonoše Mountains, Hradec Králové is not just a city for architecture lovers but first and foremost a great place to live.

Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

The city, which has its own university, regularly wins nationwide polls regarding the quality of life, thanks to transport accessibility, a low unemployment rate, lots of greenery, and quality healthcare. It is also famous for Petrof pianos, which have been manufactured there since 1864.

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