Letná Park affords the best views of Prague, but the park holds a dark story as well as one of hope
Now, I’m not one for conspiracy theories or superstition but there’s something about the tale of Stalin in Prague’s Letná Park. This is the site of what was the largest statue of the USSR’s Georgian leader, for the brief time that it stood, and of the best views of the city.
The 17,000 tonne, 50-metre high statue was unveiled on Worker’s Day, 1955. It towered over Prague from the top of Letná Hill. Soon enough, Praguers had given it the nickname Fronta na Maso – the meat queue.
Unveiled two years after Stalin had died, the statue very quickly became an embarrassment to Czechoslovakia. Everyone had decided that actually, they really didn’t like Stalin all that much and they’d rather not be reminded of him every day.
So they destroyed the monument in 1962 with 800 kilograms of explosives.
Urban myth from the time says that Stalin was immediately decapitated and his head tumbled down the hill into the Vltava.
Now, here’s the weird bit. The day before the meat queue was unveiled the sculptor, Otakar Švec, killed himself. Before World War II, Švec had created pieces of Tomáš Masaryk, Jan Hus and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and one of the most important futurist works – Sunbeam Motorcycle.
Švec had not expected to win the competition to sculpt Stalin, and presumably could not take the shame.
The man who had been his model for Stalin was a jobbing electrician at one of Prague’s film studios. He picked up the nickname Stalin and couldn’t shake it, so he hit the bottle hard. Within three years he was dead.
Next was the man who drove the truck full of Stalin’s rubble to the dump in 1962. His lorry led cheering crowds through the streets of Prague – and within a year he had been killed in an accident.
So did all these deaths happen by chance, or by design? Was it the StB, the Czechoslovakian equivalent of the KGB and Stasi, cleaning up during de-Stalinisation?
Probably not, but it makes for a spooky story.
In 1991, the pedestal that Stalin had stood on was given a new monument – the Metronom. This 23-metre high, semi-functional, red metronome, designed by Vratislav Novak, now reminds Praguers of the permanent passing of time.
I have a feeling that it is somewhat unloved. The area, still called Stalin, surrounding it affords some of the best views in Prague, but the steps and square are covered in graffiti and in need of repair.
It has become one of the best spots in Prague to skateboard – a small park has been built 50 metres away to ollie and grind through.
Letná Park has it’s own important place in Czech history, other than being the site of Stalin. The large plains were the site of rallies in 1991 in the run-up to the collapse of Czechoslovakian Communism.
Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and soon-to-be president, led hundreds of thousands in shaking their keys to demand that the government opened the doors and let the people be free. The Velvet Revolution was the only bloodless fall of a communist state.
Perhaps less importantly, Letná Park was also where Michael Jackson kicked off his HIStory World Tour in 1996.
On top of it’s amazing views and history, Letná Park holds some of the most interesting buildings in Prague. The first of these is the beautiful art nouveau Hanavský pavilon.
Hanavský was the first cast iron building in Prague, although you wouldn’t know by looking at its domes. It’s now the restaurant with the best view in the city (and prices to match).
Behind a beer garden, and just by an exit, it’s possible to find the oldest carousel in Europe. Unfortunately, it’s not the oldest working carousel in Europe, although it is behind hoardings and under repair.
Of course, the carousel has been under repair since the mid-nineties, when they ran out of money. A new fundraising campaign is under way now, and they hope it will re-open in the next few years.
Past a baroque palace, which holds the beer garden, and towards the Sparta edge of Letná Park, it’s possible to find an excellent example of Czech modernist architecture – the Expo ’58 pavilion. It’s much smaller than the pavilion at the Expo in Astana that we’ve just returned from, but it’s much prettier.
It was actually built for the Expo in Brussels, where it won the award for best pavilion, then disassembled and moved to Prague. The building was designed by František Cubr, Josef Hrubý and Zdeněk Pokorný and became a restaurant.
After the revolution, the pavilion was the centre of a privatisation battle, with the government wanting to keep it as a site of national importance – but it was turned into offices.