Petřín – or Laurenziberg – the hill of Saint Laurentius, belongs to the panorama of Prague as inseparably as the Charles Bridge or the Prague Castle. It complements the architectural parts of the historical city with its natural green profile and offers visitors a fresh and shadowy refuge during their sightseeing day.
Prague‘s heights along the river
Petřín is not the only hill of Prague worth your attention – in fact, there are, apart from the Prague Castle, other two important hills in Prague – Vyšehrad, the castle of the Přemyslid dynasty (we wrote about Vyšehrad specifically in one of our previous articles) and Vítkov – where a statue of Jan Žižka was erected by the communist régime. Žižka, a „general“ in the Hussite wars was revered by the communists as one of the „first revolutionaries“ – a quite misconstructed picture, given the general was both an aristocrat and a deeply religious man, the two qualities the communists despised. Nonetheless, the controversial general’s imposing statue is still one of the dominants of the city, and remains an interesting place to visit.
You might be asking why such a relatively accessible hill in the very centre of the city, literally next to the Prague Castle, remained undeveloped – and indeed, it is a little mystery. Legends say that it was a spot with magical forces. Those who settled along the river in the prehistoric ages are reported to have made large ceremonial fires on the top of the hill, some historians write even about eternal fires – it was simply a place related to forces, that shall not have been disturbed. And there is a certain logic behind it – the hill was visible from all parts of the settlement, and those standing at its top could overlook a large area on the opposite site of the hill – and as the fire being one of the then scarce distant communication means – it was undoubtedly an emergency watchspot.
The very first written record from Petřín dates to the year 1108, and is related to a frightning event of the power struggle: the last noble rivals of the governing Přemyslid family, the Vršovci dynasty, including children, were executed here and on several different places in Prague… an event described into details in the Kosmas (Cosmos) Chronicle. This act secured the dominance of the Přemyslids till 1306, when their genus died out without a male successor… The hangmen were active on Petřín hill till the times of Charles IV., who moved them behind the gates of the city.
Growing wine, fruits and vegetables
The medieval people who lived close to the hill benefited from the undeveloped area for agriculture and converted it into gardens, vineyards and orchards, belonging mostly to the convents and palaces around. Part of this division applies even today – the gardens of the German and American embassy (Lobkowicz and Schönborn palaces), of the Hospital of the Merciful sisters of St.Carlo Borromeo, or Vrtba garden are witnesses to the form and usage of the Petřín hill area in the past.
The averted side of the hill – from the ‚Hungerwall‘ south and southwest to Smíchov – was cautiously guarded and kept free of vegetation to easily spot all suspicious movements along the slope… Despite its name (related to all the legends about feeding the poor inhabitants in the famine in 1361), the wall has been built by the emperor Charles IV. And its construction started in 1360 as an important defense element of the Lesser Town of Prague and Prague Castle. It had a respectful height and width – 1,8 and 4-4,5 metres, led as far as behind the Strahov monastery and was finished in only two years! The wall served its purpose till the 19th century…
Another significant Petřín´s element is water – there were and still are many natural water sources, and some experts say the hill is filled with water – it has served as a reservoir for the settlement of Malá Strana, being crossed by a system of underground water channels that also help to drain the hill, especially in times of strong rains – a significant part of the hill slided in 1967 and destroyed the restaurant Nebozízek and the route of the funicular, which has been restored only as late as 1986.
Prague´s Eiffel tower and funicular
The second half of the 19th century saw large changes in the life of the city and its inhabitants – the population rose rapidly due to industrialization. All the inhabitants needed a place to relax and spend their Sundays and summer days – and where else then green natual areas, such as Petřín? In 1889, a group Czech toursits visited Paris and saw the brand new Eiffel tower. They came back with an idea of constructing a similar tower in Prague on the Petřín hill. And foolish as it might have seemed, they realised their project and had created a cooperative for the purpose of the constructing the tower and the funicular transporting people to it – and both were set into function in summer 1891.
The watch tower is 5 times smaller then its model in Paris, but thanks to the fact that it stands on the hill, it can serve as a watch tower with a gorgeous view over the city and its vicinity. It was endangered only once – Adolf Hitler wanted to have it pulled down as, as he said, it was spoiling his view from the Prague Castle. Quite luckily, he soon had other troubles than a spoiled view from the Castle.
The funicular was propelled by water – an ingenious system consisted of a water basin filled from one of the sources pulled up the cables of the wagons. The original construction served till 1914…
When visiting the Petřín hill today
If you have more then a day or two for your Prague visit, be sure to go to Petřín! First – it provides views of the whole city that are unrepeatable. Walking among the orchards and baroque gardens is another element of the spot, that is worth your time. Last, but not least, you can take a break here and have a drink or snack – if not a lunch – in one of several restaurants and snackbars that are along the way. Sitting on the terrace and seeing Prague underneath is an experience you will not forget…
For todays´ Prague inhabitants, Petřín is a symbol of love, and if your stay in Prague comes onto May, you will notice many loving couples walking there, and stopping for a kiss under the statue of Karel Hanek Mácha – the Czech romantic poet, whose poem May is a masterpiece of Czech romantism. So do not miss the opportunity and kiss your partner there, too – it will bring happines into your lives!