Of all the good things to see in Prague that are on hills, I like to take new guests to the monument on Vítkov instead of, say, Prague Castle. For one thing there are fewer steps.For another, a friend who was here for three days found a WWII coin on the ground and I’ve been hoping in vain to find one too for 10 years now.
Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Of all the good things to see in Prague that are on hills, I like to take new guests to the monument on Vítkov instead of, say, Prague Castle. For one thing there are fewer steps. For another, a friend who was here for three days found a WWII coin on the ground and I’ve been hoping in vain to find one too for 10 years now. And, lastly, if I am in the vicinity of Vítkov then I have probably come directly from another Prague monument, Hospoda U vystřelenýho oka, or the Pub at the Shot-Out Eye. This is on the Žižkov side of Vítkov – the one with the dingy 19th century buildings and casino bars – at the end of a short, dead-end street big enough for some 15 Hussite soldiers called “At the Warriors of God”. It’s tucked under the railway track at the foot of the hill, so all conversation in the beer garden stops every 10 minutes or so as the train goes by. Inside is a motley collection of students, Bohemians, scientists, artists, madmen and alcoholics that call the place home. Non-standard orders such as water or coffee must be strongly emphasised as no orders are generally given here, and taking a seat means you are here for a beer.
The grotesque style of the one-eyed pub, conceived by the one-handed painter Martin Velíšek, is a tribute to all that happened on the hill above. It was there in 1420 that a momentous event in the history of “Czechs against the world” played out. It was the first anti-Hussite crusade, when all of Christendom coalesced beneath the hill to slay the heathen Czech, and the Hussites armed with reapers and thrashers under master tactician Jan Žižka fought off a colossal force of knights in shining armour. Now the hill is the venue for the National Liberation Monument, a white hulk of 1930’s functionalism that had been mulled over for 50 years but that no one had gotten around to until 1932, when the mausoleum-eque block we see today was finished. Maybe it was because it looks like a mausoleum that they took the opportunity, on the death of the country’s first communist president Klement Gottwald, to make it one in 1953. Gottwald the mummy could be seen here for about a decade, but in the end he proved he simply lacked Lenin’s shelf-life. It wasn’t for lack of trying: Gottwald’s defiance of mummification was combated for years by the best Soviet embalmers, who replaced him bit by bit, legs, arms, trunk, until the 1960’s when his kin implored the state to leave the fellow to rot in peace, and at last had him incinerated. And that was the end of Klement Gottwald.
The statue of Žižka is what really fascinates me here though, the third largest equestrian statue in the world. You would think that if you’ve seen one “guy on a horse statue” you’ve seen them all – some grand-looking fellow with a suave beard in full regalia, trotting out of battle into history on his stately steed. Žižka however is poised in a moment of murderous discretion, a deadly Slav glaring down some poor crusader with his one good eye as he brings his mace to bear. His horse has been there before, probably a few seconds earlier. It is standing still, but war-weary, with veins jolting out of its muzzle and its legs, and gasping before its next rabid onslaught. The monument is so kinetic and realistic that you almost find yourself waiting for its 17 tonnes of bronze to go unpaused and take a breath, and start tearing down the hill to massacre the heathens in the bus station below. That’s never happened, but I find waiting for it a little more exciting than Prague Castle’s changing of the guard.