Vítkov National Memorial – Prague’s “new” top class attraction

10-01-2010

Prague has a new top class attraction. Well, it’s not actually new new, but it is a mere two months since the Vítkov National Memorial was opened to the public for the first time after a major renovation job. High above the city on the hill between the districts of Žižkov and Karlín, the imposing functionalist structure was completed in 1932. Its main purpose was to honour the memory of the Legions whose bravery in World War I had helped win support for the foundation of independent Czechoslovakia.

It is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as a gigantic statue of the Hussite leader Jan Žižka on a horse; I’ve so frequently heard it described as the biggest equestrian statue in the world that I can only assume that factoid to be actually true.

Following World War II, alterations were made to the memorial and it was extended to also pay tribute to those who had fought the good fight against fascism. After 1948 the Communists began using the building for propaganda purposes, including with the establishment of a mausoleum for Klement Gottwald, whose corpse famously wasn’t embalmed correctly and started going off.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK In the years following the fall of communism, the Vítkov National Memorial was essentially functionless, and was only ever opened for one-off events. Hats off, then, to the Czech National Museum, which took it over in 2001. The museum has invested serious crowns in a very impressive and extensive renovation that took nearly three years.

The centre-piece of the building today is a museum of modern Czechoslovak and Czech history. Its organisers say it is primarily aimed at young people, and there have been criticisms that the content has been simplified somewhat to appeal to school groups. Nevertheless, there are many interesting items and documents on show, and in any case it is the building itself that is to my mind the main attraction, with its scale and style more than balancing out what could be considered its ugliness.

At Vítkov there is currently also an exhibition of photos of Tomáš Masaryk from the collection of Prague Castle. Very impressive it is too, both in terms of the quality of the pictures and just how iconic the founder of Czechoslovakia looks in so many of them.

There is also a café from which you can see for miles and miles across east Prague. And at the opposite end of the huge concrete building is where you will find what for me is not only literally but figuratively its high point: a look-out point with a simply stunning view of the whole of the city. It isn’t as high as the lookout floor at Žižkov TV Tower, about a kilometre away, but by contrast at Vítkov you are outside, which adds a lot to the experience.

10-01-2010