Hradec Králové lies beside the Orlice and Labe Rivers about 100km east of Prague, and is one of the oldest and most important cities in Bohemia.
Early Hradec Králové evolved in the 12th century from a riverside fortress and its heyday lasted from the early 1300’s until the beginning of the Thirty Years War, when it enjoyed special status as a dowry town of the Bohemian Queens.
In the middle ages entire towns and cities were owned either by royals or powerful aristocrats. Queens’ dowry towns were the property of current or former queens and Hradec Králové specifically was bequeathed to Queen Elisabeth (Eliška Rejčka) when her husband King Wenceslas II (Vaclav II) died in 1305.
When Elisabeth arrived in Hradec Králové she arranged for construction of the Church of the Holy Ghost, which remains one of the city’s most prominent buildings. The tall, narrow church is of dark reddish brown brick with a steep roof and twin towers capped with gothic turrets and spires.
Just metres from the church is a five storey free-standing belfry called the White Tower, which visitors can climb for views of the main square, rooftops of the old town and the suburbs and countryside beyond. Below it and facing the square, the pale grey building with the pair of slender clock towers is the town hall, which dates from the renaissance but was later modified and extended in the baroque style. With the renaissance bell tower and Gothic church just steps away, you might be forgiven for thinking this end of the square had been torn from the pages of an architecture textbook.
There’s little complete Gothic architecture left in Hradec Králové, but along the northern, left hand side of the square the two and three storey houses have retained their renaissance appearance. The facades and gables are colourfully painted and on the ground level wide arches protect the covered walkway that runs the length of the square.
On the opposite side most of the buildings date from after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The Bishops’ palace and the Jesuit College are now used as a gallery and university classrooms respectively, but the adjoining Jesuit church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is still used for its original purpose, with services eight times a week.
Because of its position close to the tense border between Austria and Prussia, Hradec Králové spent much of the 18th and 19th centuries as a fortress city, surrounded by a system of massive red brick walls and defensive moats. When the fortress was demolished around the turn of the 20th century, architects had something of a blank canvas on which to work and the far sighted mayor of the time employed the best he could find; Jan Kotěra, who had studied in Vienna at the height of the art nouveau movement, and later Josef Gočár (a former pupil of Kotěra’s).
Between them these two architects are responsible for some of the Czech Republic’s best 20th Century architecture; in Hradec alone there are dozens of graceful buildings and spaces including the Museum of East Bohemia, the Okresní Dum (housing the restaurant of the Hotel Grand) and the old Anglobank building that wraps around on side of Masaryk Square.
With around 100,000 people Hradec is the largest city in the region, and is also the seat of a university, which adds a vibrant student town atmosphere to Hradec’s otherwise considerable list of charms. And where there are students, there are cheap bars and cafes.
One of my favourites is U Knihomola (At the Bookworm's) at the narrow end of the main square. I like the patina of its wooden floorboards and furniture, the bookish atmosphere and the best coffee I could find in town. Restaurant U České Koruny is a lovely place too; it’s too pricey for the everyday haunt category but a good place to keep in mind for an occasional splurge.
Hradec Králové is an excellent place to stop off or base yourself for a few days if you’re travelling the region, and if you’re planning a longer stay it might be worth remembering that Hradec always comes out at or near the top of any polls about the best Czech towns to live in.
Hradec Králové is certainly one of my favourite Czech cities and, if I couldn’t live where I do now, I’d probably want to live there.
Tuesday, 27 January 2009