One of the few places vital to every NYU in Prague student’s life is the Old Town Square. I’ve made brief mentions of this place before, but have largely avoided it for two reasons. First, it is the place of my everyday life, more so than any other save my dorm. Second, it is always full of tourists and, much like walking on 7th Avenue between 28th and 48th Streets, is usually very hard to get through at speed. Currently there is a huge Christmas tree and market decorating the square, which makes it even more irritating and impossible to navigate. Yet, as I said, it has become the place where most of us NYU in Prague students spend out days in one respect or another, and so my grudging and growing affection for it deserves description and explanation.
The Old Town grew out of the merging of the merchant’s quarter and the Jewish quarter. Old Town Square started out as the biggest marketplace in Prague. Though across the river from the castle, and so home to mostly untitled people, it was also the home of the vast majority of the money in Prague. Thus, huge, beautiful palaces grew up packed tightly against one another on the square, and the rest of Old Town is riddled with small passages through former courtyards and underneath arms of these buildings, leading their twisting way to the square. As the centuries passed and the Jewish Quarter was no longer regularly ransacked, the rich Christian merchants acquired titles, and political intrigue forced the King to move across the river several times, Old Town and its Square became the focal point of the entire city.
Today, this remains true. Old Town Square is the tourist center of Prague, indicated by several factors including the widespread English, the first Starbucks to exist in the Czech Republic, the country’s Hard Rock Café, the Astronomical Clock (an underwhelming event to be sure), the most important Hussite Church in the world, and the presence of hokey horse-drawn carriages and old-style motorcars that you can pay exorbitant amounts to ride around in for half an hour. Despite the blatant Disney-fication of the place, and the steep difference in prices between it and most of the rest of the city, it remains beautiful. The first time I saw the Christmas market and tree, lit up against a clear midnight blue sky, with the ancient but preserved buildings and churches lit in soft white light and Jan Hus’s dramatically bright statue, I was struck again by how strange and beautiful the place I’ve been living is. The emotional impact was so similar to another, New York-induced feeling I’ve had that it took me a couple days to figure out what it was, and when I finally cracked it, I was stunned. The sight of Old Town Square decked out for Christmas reminded me of nothing so much as Rockefeller Center at this time of year. They look nothing alike, and yet, the touristy, bustling, “this is my home and not yours you fucking tourists” feeling of Old Town Square right now is exactly how I feel standing between 5th and 6th between 48th and 50th between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I’ve never felt more at home in Prague.