After checking into the 3-star Hotel Beranek, the students took one of the ubiquitous trams across the River Vltava, and via funicular to the top of Petrin Hill, where they climbed the three hundred steps of the Petrin Tower, to marvel at the panoramic views over the entire city. The nearby Hall of Mirrors, a small exhibition of fun mirrors offered the students much hilarity, after which the group descended Petrin Hill to the half-way point, to visit the “Magic Cave” an extraordinary exhibition venue, bathed in candlelight, new-age music and spiralling staircases, displaying the many original paintings of Reon Argondian, a painter of mystical/new age and spiritual paintings.
The town of Terezin, with the former concentration camp, the Small Fortress, was an integral part of the visit to the Czech Republic, and the students learnt much of the fascinating history of this centuries’ old prison, where the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand, seventeen-year-old Gavrilo Princip, was held for two years, chained in a tiny cell. The students learnt of its history as a fortress, and its brief time as a prison and concentration camp when the Nazis turned the town of Theresienstadt (Terezin) into a holding pen for Czech Jews before sending them to Auschwitz. This was a time of serious Nazi propaganda for they showed the world films of happy women and children in a pretty town, eating fresh fruit, playing and dancing in the streets. Even the Red Cross was fooled. The reality was very different!!
By way of contrast, Prague Zoo offered the young students time to relax and have fun in what is one of the finest zoological gardens in Europe with a very extensive inventory of animals. There were additional recreational activities during the week, including ten-pin bowling and go-karting.
The students visited the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, made famous because of the shoot-out between the Gestapo and the Czech Resistance fighters who hid in
the church’s crypt after they assassinated one of Hitler’s right-hand men, Reinhard Heydrich, Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. The group visited the crypt
itself, now a shrine, which the Nazis flooded with water in order to flush the men out of their hiding place. Firmly established as Czech national heroes, the men shot
themselves rather than surrender to the Nazis.
No visit to Prague would be complete without a visit to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, where our guide told the students many fascinating stories in the history of the castle and of the Czech People. A number of Czech kings are buried within the cathedral, including King Wenceslas. Eager to visit the area of Malá Strana, (the little quarter) much favoured by film and television directors, due to the area’s atmospheric streets and lanes the group descended the hill upon which the castle rests to find themselves deep inside the ‘Little Quarter’. The group crossed the famous Charles Bridge with its centuries-old religious statues, artists and street musicians, to rendezvous with their cruiser for a boat trip along the River Vltava (made famous in music by the Czech composer Smetana.)
The Black Light Theatre, in Old Town Square, has become a great favourite of those who participate in this trip each year, and our front row seats this year afforded a great view of a show that relies heavily on special lighting effects, gymnastics, music and ultra violet light to create a unique theatrical experience.
The most poignant and memorable visit during the week was to Lidice, the small Czech town razed to the ground and grassed over by the Nazis in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. This is a most interesting memorial, and one that focused the mind. After viewing the exhibits inside the museum, We ventured outside into the surrounding countryside to visit the spot where once a thriving, happy village went about its work until the 10th June 1942! The children spent some time at the famous sculpture from the 1990s created by Marie Uchytilová that stands today overlooking the site of the former village, now completely grassed over. Entitled “The Memorial to the Children, Victims of the War” it is formed of eighty-two bronze statues of children (42 girls and 40 boys) aged from one to sixteen, to honour the children who were murdered at Chełmno in the summer of 1942 after being torn from their parents and forcibly removed from Lidice.
The trip was unanimously declared a huge success by the students, who have learnt much about Prague and its fascinating history.