When you walk across the Charles Bridge and you stop in the middle, look around. Prague offers quite a peculiar view. One side is embellished by the silhouette of the Old Town and the New Town, underlined by a stone riverbank with representative buildings which are surmounted by the dome and slender towers of dozens of churches. On the other side, the Lesser Town is surrounded by the green hillsides of Petřín and Letná, and slowly rises from the natural bank to Hradčany. A unique image linking the architecture with natural framework is completed by a dramatic silhouette of Prague Castle. As if you were looking at two entirely different towns, connected by stone arches of the Charles Bridge and guarded by the bridge towers. You are not far from the truth! Prague is in fact an administratively united city only since 1784. Until then, there were several previously separate towns, each of which originated in other circumstances and according to a different plan. The result was a conurbation of which individual parts were distinctively distinguished by its significance, population and housing development. Several examples of medieval towns, conjoined in one standing built-up area, could be found in Europe (e.g. Budapest). However, Prague is unique in its number and size of these towns, as well as in its complicated development of its names.
How was the name of Prague?
Regarding the origin of the name Prague (in Czech Praha) itself, there are several theories. According to the first theory, the name derives from the river thresholds (in Czech práh), thus fords, around which the city began to form. According to the second, it is derived from the sun-parched (in Czech sluncem vyprahlý) rocky promontory, on which a fort and later a royal castle have been established. Of course, there is a third mythical theory according to which Princess Libuše had a city established in the area where a settler was building a threshold (in Czech práh) of his log cabin in the woods. Either way, it is certain that the name originally referred to today’s Prague Castle. Therefore, the medieval towns, established beneath the castle on the left and the right bank of the Vltava River, are referred to as those “of Prague”.
The Old Town is the oldest settlement which was officially established in the 30s of the 13th century and it was initially referred to as simply the Town of Prague. The epithet “old” or “larger” has been attributed to the town after 1257, when the New Town beneath the Prague Castle, today’s Lesser Town, was founded, on the left bank of the Vltava River. However, it was not the first “new” town, since the New Town around St. Havel, also called Havel Town, was founded within the Old Town’s walls in 1235. A town within a town which was legally separate for only a few decades. A similar fate befell the Jewish Quarter, today’s Josefov, which had the status of the Jewish ghetto. The third consecutive New Town of Prague, was founded by Charles IV in 1348. It was a truly spectacular urban act due to which Prague became a four-city league and at the same time the third largest European city after Rome and Constantinople. Around this time, in order to draw a distinction, the town beneath the Prague Castle began to be called the Lesser Town of Prague which resulted in today’s abbreviated name Lesser Quarter. The Old Town was at that time called the Larger Town of Prague. For the sake of completeness, it is essential to supplement the list of historical Prague towns by Hradčany, founded as a liege town in 1306 and administered by the Highest Prague Burgrave’s aristocrats. Nevertheless, few people are aware that once there existed a nowadays forgotten town referred to as the Town at Vyšehrad Mount. It was founded in 1452 in the eastern part of Vyšehrad and the area around it. In the same way as the New Town, the Town at Vyšehrad Mount was divided into “upper” and “lower”. The Upper Town had disappeared during the construction of Vyšehrad fort after 1649 and the Lower Town was the last to be annexed to Prague in 1884. Regarding its historical walls, the Royal Capital of Prague merged into one city. What is interesting is that the towns of Prague named its Castle as an afterthought, which became known as “Prague Castle”. And so the circle was full.
(published 7. 4. 2015 on CityBee.cz and 21. 9. 2016 on Blesk.cz)