The Bethlehem Square (Betlémské náměstí) is the heart of the best preserved part of the Old Town. It lies outside the main tourist routes and in a labyrinth of streets and side streets, such that usually, only those who are really looking for it are able to find it. The Square was founded in a most peculiar way, albeit typical for a historical town: the demolition of the Church of Saints Philip and James with the adjoining cemetery, whose area determined both the space and size of today’s Square.
The dominant feature of the Square is the Betlémská Chapel, a stark reminder of the figure of the preacher and Rector of Prague University, Master Jan Hus, who was burned in 1415 at the stake for his radical ideas on reformation, following the Council of Constance. This is also the place where the foundations of revolt by his followers were laid, and it became the epicentre of the violent response to his martyrdom, culminating in what came to be known in European history as the Hussite wars. During these wars, the Czech rebels were able to repeatedly and successfully repel the crusaders.
The legend of the Hussites, who fought valiantly for their rights, was an important component in the emergence of Czech national self-confidence in the 19th century. Its “moment of glory” came, unfortunately, at the height of Stalinism, when the Hussites were usurped as the direct predecessors of the Communists and their victory was quoted as further proof that Communists were historically predestined to rule over the rest. Evidence of this sad abuse of history is the state of today’s Betlémská Chapel, which was almost entirely rebuilt in the 1950s, under the watchful eye of the Communist Party as a “historical reconstruction” on top of the remains of the extinct Hussite shrine.
Today’s Square, though, represents first and foremost the centre of cultural life in the city. In the vicinity of the chapel lies the Fragner Gallery, specializing in exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture. The western side of the square ends with U Halánků House, which houses fascinating exotic collections of the Náprstek Museum. There are several pubs and cafés on the square and the surrounding streets. They are unlike your average tourist place and often, represent the last bastion of normal social life in the Old Town.