Prague: National Memorial on the Vitkov Hill

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A few weeks ago, I went on a VERY spur of the moment trip to Prague (as in, we found a really good deal late on a Monday night, and left on a Wednesday morning).  Therefore, I didn’t have quite as much time to plan things out as I normally would, but with a little help from Atlas Obscura and my trusty (albeit outdated) Weird Europe book, I think I found enough off-the-beaten-path stuff to do.  Actually, I discovered a special death themed series of exhibitions taking place throughout the city thanks to an article that appeared in The Times a couple weeks before we were even thinking of booking the trip (which might have helped tip things in Prague’s favour, though frankly the flight + hotel prices were enough to do the trick).  The National Memorial on Vitkov Hill was one of the locations hosting this exhibition.

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Truthfully, the whole reason I wanted to go to this part of town at all (because it’s quite far from the centre) was because I had to try the strudel from Susta Strudl, and getting strudel AND going to a museum seemed marginally less ridiculous than going half an hour out of the way just for dessert (well, breakfast, technically).  Before I’d ever been to Europe, Passport to Europe with Samantha Brown was one of my favourite shows, and I remembered that she visited this little hole-in-the-wall (literally) strudel shop on one of the episodes, and walked off with this massive pastry for a stupidly low price.  I knew that if I ever went to Prague, I’d have to do the same, even though I’m not that big of a strudel fan normally (because why have fruit when you can have cake?).  Fortunately, there’s a tram that runs nearby (and you probably should take the trams whilst in Prague: they’re cheap, an easy way to see a lot of the city, and they really bez it along those tracks, which is pretty fun), at least, nearby if you don’t accidentally miss the stop and get out four stops later like we did.  So we (eventually) procured a good foot of still-warm apple strudel for something like 42 CZK (about £1.15), and I can safely say it lives up to the hype.  It was probably lucky we ate a huge quantity of pastry, as we needed the energy to walk up the massive Vitkov Hill.

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Upon reaching the top, we were greeted with the sight of a rather bleak Soviet-era structure complete with a gargantuan man-on-horseback statue.  Admission to everything inside the monument is 120 CZK (just over 3 quid, I loved the exchange rate), including the current temporary exhibition, Famous Funerals (part of the SMRT Death series), which runs through March 2016.

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Getting around the National Memorial is slightly confusing, as it involves a lot of back-tracking and it wasn’t immediately clear how we got to the roof-top viewing area (more on that later), but almost everything was translated into English, so at least we could read the posters and labels.  The main room on the ground floor contained a brief history of communism in the Czech Republic (here’s a tip, you can save yourself the climb up the stairs hidden on the sides of the main display, because there’s nothing up there), and led into a number of ante-chambers, one of which was a WWI memorial.  At the other end, we found a mausoleum that was intended to hold some high ranking Communist officials, though I’m not sure how many people actually ended up being interred there.

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The Famous Funerals exhibit was also on the ground floor, and was devoted solely to famous Czech funerals (obviously, I guess), so I’d never heard of any of the people mentioned in it, but it was still interesting.  There were some fabulous death masks, and a mourning brooch made from Bozena Nemcova’s hair (I’m still not entirely sure who she was (Wikipedia just says she was a writer during the Czech National Revival movement), but I noticed she was on the 500 CZK note, so she must have been important).  I also learned about the sad case of Jan Palach, a Czech student who immolated himself to protest the crushing of the Prague Spring movement.

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The next room was also a mausoleum of sorts, and it contained some gorgeous mosaics that I think were meant to honour various Soviet professions (sorry the pictures haven’t come out better; the lighting wasn’t great).  Really, the mosaics throughout the entire building were just fantastic; there’s something I really like about the style of a lot of communist propaganda…it manages to be wholesome and sinister at the same time.  I believe this room originally held the corpse of Klement Gottwald, leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the 1940s and ’50s, who was preserved Lenin-style and put on display until the decision was made to cremate and bury him in 1962.  I think he currently lies under a memorial in a corner of the mausoleum basement, but I’m not 100% sure about that.

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We’d been encouraged to go up to the roof-top viewing area by the admissions desk lady, but initially had some trouble finding it as the stairs only led up to the second floor and then kind of petered out.  We did find a small lift at the end of some hall, and a woman working there noticed us lingering, came over and gestured “up,” so we realised she would take us upstairs in the lift.  There were stairs that we took to go back down, although they came out in some different part of the building we hadn’t seen before, so I’m not sure if you can actually walk up that way, or you have to take the lift, but I’d probably recommend taking it up anyway, because there were a lot of stairs.

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At any rate, we were well rewarded when we reached the roof, because there was absolutely no one else up there, and the views were incredible.  Vitkov Hill is quite high, which came in handy here as we were able to see the whole of the city spread all around us. And you do pretty much have a 360 view, thanks to the lack of safety fences (just be careful around the edges, though they are quite high so you can’t really accidentally fall off).

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On our way out, we encountered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (which I believe is free to visit without museum admission), and got a view of that horse statue from the front (since we’d approached the monument from the back when we arrived).  I loved how overblown everything in this memorial was.  I also appreciated the excellent views, and the complete lack of the tourists that plague the rest of the city (perhaps because it’s not in the centre, and does involve climbing that hill).  Though I think I maybe didn’t pick up on all the nuances about the communist era the exhibits were trying to get across, I did very much enjoy myself, and recommend it if you like Soviet art and want to get away from all the tourist traps.  Just bear in mind that aside from the exhibits on the ground floor, it is pretty much a big empty building, which I normally might not have dug so much, but something about those mosaics made the whole thing work.  And you should definitely get yourself a strudel if you’re visiting on a weekday (oh, and the Army Museum is at the bottom of the hill, and it’s free, so that might be worth a visit as well)!  4/5.

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