Petřín Hill

after exploring the rest of the Czech Republic by various modes of public transportation, I returned to Prauge eager to visit sites I hadn’t had time to visit at the outset of my trip. high on the list, right the abandoned castle fort of Vyšehrad down the river, was Petřín hill. the hill stand some 327 meters above sea level, climbs 130 meters from the bank of the Vltava River and is covered almost entirely by parks and recreational trails.

the day I visited (in the middle of a week at the beginning of October) was cool and dreary and the park proved mostly quiet. rather than climb up, I opted for the three-stop funicular that runs between the neighborhood of Malá Strana beside the river and the top of the hill.

the funicular began operation in 1891 using water balance propulsion, but closed at the outset of the First World War. it did not resume operation until 1932, when all the equipment was overhauled or replaced. it ran for about thirty years before shifting earth once again forced the closure of the line. twenty years later operation resumed with new cars and following track reconstruction. it runs every ten minutes from March to November.

a lookout tower stands near the upper station of the funicular and offers views over the city from two observation decks. it was built the same year as the funicular after a group visited the Paris World Expo of 1889 and was inspired by the Eiffel Tower. it took four months to complete and advocates are quick to point out that, while inspired by the Parisian example, it differs significantly in design, with an octagonal base and support structure.

Petřín hill has featured in numerous pieces of Czech literature, including a short story by Franz Kafka (“Description of a Struggle”) and in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. my interest in the hill, however, stemmed from a novel proposed for use in the Muir Writing Program — Mark Slouka’s The Visible World. it is one of the best and most melancholy books I’ve ever read — certainly the best book I read in the year preceding my trip to the Czech Republic. the heart of Visible World revolves around the wartime experiences of the narrator’s mother, whom he has deduced had a great love who died during the Second World War. there’s an intense scene set atop the hill involving gestapo and a firing squad.

despite the verdant, serene recreational area Petřín is now, it has a dark past, whether the executions depicted in Slouka’s novel occurred or not. in the middle of the 14th century, Charles IV ordered the construction of a defensive wall along the top of the hill to protect the Castle from attacks from the west or south. employing locals in construction, the hladová zeď (or hunger wall), helped people fend off the effects of a famine that descended upon the city in 1361. while it helped many, it was a time of acute hardship among the greater populace. today about 1,200 meters remain of the original structure, which stands some 6 meters high and 2 meters wide. while Charles IV later cultivated a reputation for doing good for the poor, the construction of the wall was probably more strategic rather than a public works project. today the phrase hladová zeď is meant to refer to what is considered a useless public works project.