Velvet Prague: 30 Years After the Revolution

Prague bridge
View on Vltava river and Prague at sunset sborisov/Getty

On November 17, 1989, thousands of students marched in Prague to honor the student Jan Opletal who died protesting the Nazi occupation of his country in 1939. The march was meant to end at Vyšhrad, the ancient castle complex that is also a cemetery for Czech heroes and legends. Instead, the 15,000 students moved toward Wenceslas Square, in the center of the Czech capital. A few blocks away, however, they were met by riot police who beat many of the students.

This marked beginning of the demise of the Communist regime in then-Czechoslovakia. After word of the beatings got out, hundreds—then thousands, then tens of thousands—of Czechs began streaming into Wenceslas Square to protest. After days of protest in the square, the people moved to nearby Letna Park because Wenceslas Square could no longer hold the amount of protesters. And finally, about a week after the protests began, seven days of nonviolence, the government announced it was stepping down. The Velvet Revolution, one of a handful that took place during this time in the Soviet bloc, had toppled a government and was a major steppingstone to the end of the Cold War. Writer and political dissident Vaclav Havel would become president, Czechoslovakia, which would peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 (known as the "Velvet Divorce"), and Prague would become a gleaming, bustling, wealthy Central European metropolis.

Here are some spots to pay homage to the Velvet Revolution. Prague is now celebrating the anniversary with a series of events.

Vyšehrad
The remains of the fort called Vyšehrad on July 14, 2018 in Prague. Urska Batistic/Getty

Albertov

This section of Prague 2, or New Town, is a part of Prague's large historical center. Albertov, located below the former castle complex Vyšehrad, is the original spot where, in November 1989, the students honored the anti-Nazi protests of 1939, the starting point of the Velvet Revolution. At Vyšehrad, you can see Havel's final resting place in the family tomb. If you're hungry, you can go to the gastropub, U Kroka, which has nothing to do with the Velvet Revolution, but its garlic soup is amazing.

Café Slavia

This beautiful café on the bank of the Vltava River didn't play a direct role in the revolution, but it helped. In the 1970s, many political dissidents, including Havel, would gather to discuss the goings on around Prague and within the government. For this reason, government spies were often at tables, nursing cups of coffee, waiting for a dissident to incriminate himself or herself. The café closed after the revolution but reopened to much fanfare in 1997. You won't get the best cup of coffee in Prague here, and the waiters are often so indifferent that you'd think the country was still called Czechoslovakia. But the café's historical significance, plus the view of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle make this a worthy stop.

Letna Park
A glass dome of Hanavsky Pavilon or (Pavilion of Hanau)in Letna Park, Prague, Czech Republic under the sunset. ZZ3701/Getty

Letna Park

This park above Prague is the spot where the biggest demonstrations during the revolution took place. Until 1962, there was a 50-foot statue of Josef Stalin in the park overlooking the city. In 1996, Michael Jackson kicked off his world tour in Prague with a huge concert in Letna Park. To commemorate it, Jackson erected a 35-foot statue of himself clad in a codpiece in the same spot the Stalin statue had existed. In the warm-weather months, visit the lovely beer garden in the park.

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Memorial to the Victims of Communism

Located at the base of Petrin Hill on the Mala Strana side of the river, this moving memorial was designed by Czech artist Olbram Zoubek and honors the many victims of the Communist period from 1948 to 1989. The sculpture is made up of six figures descending a slope, each one is successively more deteriorated than the one ahead of it, perhaps symbolic of the way authoritarianism can rot one's humanity and soul. One strip lists some arresting statistics from the Communist era: 205,486 arrested, 170,938 forced into exile, 4,500 died in prison, 327 shot trying to escape, 248 executed.

Narodni Trida

This bustling street in the center of town, which translates as "National Avenue," is where the students met a legion of police. And where the police went to work on the students, thus widening the protests. A small memorial at Narodni Trida 16 features a small bronze sculpture of outstretched hands with the date 17.11.1989 on it.

Wenceslas Square
The upper part of Wenceslas Square at night, New Town of Prague, Czech Republic. KavalenkavaVolha/Getty

Wenceslas Square

You don't have to go out of your way to visit, Vaclavak, as Wenceslas Square is called in the local parlance. It's pretty much impossible to avoid—not that you'd want to. Wenceslas Square is a lovely, wide space that is flanked by attractive art deco buildings and topped by the recently renovated neoclassical National Museum. In front of the museum sits the statue of Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, mounted on a horse. It was here in January 1969 where student Jan Palach immolated himself to death in protest of Russian/Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in August 1968 to squelch the "Prague Spring" reforms, which the Soviets saw as a threat to Communist rule. It was also here during the 1989 protests that Havel and Alexander Dubček, the leader of the Prague Spring, appeared on the balcony of the Melantrich building (at Wenceslas Square 36) to the adoration of the crowds.

Velvet Prague: 30 Years After the Revolution | Culture