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25 Things You Should Know About Prague

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Imagine a storybook town—with hilltop castles, ornate bridges, and enchanting clock towers. Prague is exactly that idyllic picture come to life. It's one of the reasons the capital of Czechia has become a booming tourist destination, setting a record with more than 7 million visitors in 2016 [PDF]. And the city of more than 1.2 million residents continues to grow, mixing its historical roots with modern charm, as illustrated in these 25 alluring facts.

1. Although proof of hunters in the area has been tracked back to the last Ice Age about 25,000 years ago, clues of human life in the Prague valley reach as far back as 600,000 BCE.

2. Still the centerpiece of the city, Prague Castle (or Pražský Hrad) was built in the late 880s as a wooden fortress. Development came and went, but at the end of World War I, there was a major overhaul, followed by even more significant ones after the Iron Curtain fell. With an area of about 17.3 acres, it holds the world record for being the largest ancient castle in the world.

3. The most precious items at the castle are the Bohemian Crown Jewels, which consist of the St. Wenceslas Crown, Royal Sceptre, Royal Apple, Coronation Cloak, belt, maniple, stole, and collar. They’re guarded in an iron safe with seven locks, with the keys held by seven different people, who must all gather to open the vault—a tradition set in 1791 by King Leopold II. The chosen seven? President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the Prague Archbishop, the Chairman of the House of Deputies, the Chairman of the Senate, the Dean of the Metropolitan Chapter of St. Vitus Cathedral, and the Lord Mayor of Prague.

4. The majestic St. Vitus Cathedral’s first foundation stone was laid by Emperor Charles IV in 1344, but the newest sections were completed as recently as 1953, after the church was consecrated in 1929. The first architect, Matthias of Arras, started the choir in 1344 using French Gothic style, but died eight years later. Famed architect Peter Parler took over and used late-Gothic style, until he passed away in 1399. Influences of Baroque and Renaissance stylings continued to be added until mid-19th century, when there was finally a push to finish the cathedral.

5. The cobblestone road lined with shops in tiny houses by the Castle is now named Golden Lane, but used to be Goldsmith Lane back in the 16th century because it housed castle defenders, marksmen, and, of course, goldsmiths. Writer Franz Kafka lived in the home numbered 22 from 1916 to 1917.

6. Before that, from 1896 to 1907, Franz Kafka lived at Celetná 3, next to the Church Of Our Lady Before Týn—an Old Town standout, which is gothic on the outside and Baroque on the inside, built predominately in the 14th and 15th centuries with later interior work.

7. A trademark of Prague’s architecture is the 1700-foot cobblestone Charles Bridge lined with 30 mostly Baroque statues stretching over the Vltava River with 16 arches. The structure was commissioned back in 1357 by King Charles IV. For 460 years, it was the only way to cross the river by foot.

8. One of the Charles Bridge’s statues is a patron saint of the Czech Republic, St. John of Nepomuk, who was killed by being thrown into the river’s cold waters in 1393 after an altercation with Charles IV’s son, King Wenceslas. But legend has it that if you touch the plaque on the statue, it’ll be good luck—and mean a return trip to Prague.

9. The entrance of the Coronation or Royal Route into Old Town Prague is at the Powder Tower. Completed in 1475, it was one of the original entrances to the city. Today, its 144-foot-high viewing gallery offers a sky high view of Old Town.

10. Covering almost five acres, the Klementinum is one of Europe’s largest building complexes. Originally founded in 1556 by the Jesuits, the premises started expanding in 1653 and continued for more than 170 years. Now, it’s home to the Baroque library, astronomical tower, Meridian Hall, and Mirror Chapel, in which classical concerts are often held.

11. On May 23, 1618, the Second Defenestration (the act of throwing someone out the window) of Prague took place. Two imperial regents and their secretary were thrown out of a council room window at Prague Castle for stopping construction of Protestant churches, going against the religious freedoms outlined in 1609’s Letter of Majesty. The trio survived the 70 foot fall, supposedly thanks to a soft landing on horse manure. But the situation still stunk: It helped lead to the start of the Thirty Years’ War. Although the most notable, this wasn’t the first defenestration in Prague’s history: A 1419 incident led to the Hussite Wars.

12. František Křižík, who has been nicknamed the Czech Edison, built an electrically lit fountain for the World Exhibition in 1891. Today, Křižík’s Fountain has been decked out with 1300 multicolored reflectors, almost 3000 nozzles, and 49 water pumps, making extravagant dancing water and light shows possible. Nightly shows range from classic themes like Mozart and the Three Tenors, pop ones featuring music from Katy Perry, John Legend, and One Direction, to cinematic shows, including music from Titanic, Mamma Mia… and even a stripped-down soundtrack from Fifty Shades of Grey.

13. Reaching new heights: Loosely modeled after the Eiffel Tower, the Petřín Tower looks just like a miniature model of Paris’ trademark, due to its location at the top of a hill. The top is 1240 feet above sea level, which is actually higher than the actual one’s height (1184 feet) above sea level. Finished in 1891, the Czech version is two years younger than its inspiration and also has eight sides compared to the French one’s four sides.

14. The Prague National Theatre opened on June 11, 1881, for the visit of the crown prince at the time, Rudolf. But after 11 more shows, it was shut down for finishing touches—during which a fire erupted, destroying the stage, auditorium, and dome. The venue reopened on November 18, 1883, and operated without a hitch until it was closed in 1977 for reconstruction, and opened again on the 100th anniversary of the reopening on November 18, 1983.

15. The three lines of the capital’s metro system cover more than 40 miles with 61 stops, complemented with a tram system, with 948 vehicles, which spans 317 miles.

16. Heights and sites: For an aerial view of the city, hop on the 1673-foot-long funicular up Petřín Hill. The two-wagon ride climbs up a height of 427 feet at a rate of 8.5 miles per hour. The train started running in 1891 utilizing a hydraulic system, but stopped during World War I in 1916. In 1932, it was reopened with an electrical system until the landslides in 1965 destroyed the tracks. The system was finally started up again in 1985.

17. Stands selling the sweet Czech pastry trdelník have long been part of the city’s character, but recently, inventive locals have filled the hollow center of the treat with ice cream to create a made-for-Instagram foodie hybrid favorite, often sold under the name chimney cakes.

18. Raise a glass at one of the 28 breweries and brewpubs in town. The specialty is the pilsner (named after Plzeň, a city in the Czech Republic only 60 miles away from Prague), but beers of many varieties are also brewed in town. There’s even a museum U Fleků, which opened on the 500th anniversary of a brewery located in a former malthouse from the Renaissance. Every day, about 2000 glasses are served at the location. Na zdraví (that’s "cheers" in Czech) to that!

19. The Czech Budweiser, which is known under the name Czechvar in the U.S. because of trademark disputes, has its own network of Budvarka restaurants the country. The original location, Budvarka Dejvice in Prague, opened in 1915, and is still in the original house designed by architect Josef Paroulek, even though the state administration used it as a school cafeteria from the 1940s to the 1990s.

20. On October 9, 2015, when Prague’s Astronomical Clock turned 605 years old, it earned its own Google Doodle. And every single hour, the highlight of Old Town draws visitors to its parade of 12 apostles from two windows. "Despite over a half a millennium of wear and a brush with disaster in WWII, much of its original machinery remains intact, making it the oldest functioning clock of its kind in the world," Google explained at the time.

21. Martina Navratilova was one of the most prominent female tennis stars in the late 1970s and 1980s, and Madeleine Albright was the first female Secretary of State of the United States. Besides having serious girl power in common, both were also born in Prague.

22. The city’s Kampa Island may be fake—so it’s no wonder the views of Prague Castle, the National Theater, and Charles Bridge from there are so surreal. Mixing lush landscapes and an artsy vibe with public installations and a modern art museum, Kampa has been home to Czech actor and playwright Jan Werich, composer Bohuslav Martinu, and poet Vladimir Holan.

23. The narrowest street in Prague is Vinarna Certovka at around one-and-a-half to two feet wide. It’s so narrow that there’s a traffic light installed so that pedestrians don’t block each other’s way.

24. Tucked away in a square by the French Embassy is the John Lennon Wall. After he was killed in December 1980, young locals painted an image of the singer on the wall along with Beatles lyrics and other graffiti. It’s been whitewashed several times, the most shocking being on November 17, 2014—the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution—when it was painted white with the words “Wall Is Over!” on it.

25. One of these things is not like the others: The Dancing House, designed by Czech architect Vlado Milunić and Canadian-American Frank Gehry in 1992 and finished in 1996, stands out as an architectural representation of the Velvet Revolution. Nicknamed the Fred and Ginger building, the male tower serves as a foundation, while the female is curved and wrapped in a dress, making the perfect dance floor couple, twirling along Prague’s busy Rašínovo Nábřeží street.

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Pig Island: Sun, Sand, and Swine Await You in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
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In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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