Wednesday, September 7th 2016
This is the first of our two full days in Prague and we mean to make the most of it exploring the city. When we left London, it was in the midst of an unseasonal hot spell or ‘Indian Summer’. We arrived in Prague to find the temperature here several degrees hotter still. While sunny weather is better for our purposes than rain and cold, it does lead to a tendency to walk on the shady side of the street and to make frequent stops for iced tea!
Before starting out this morning, however, there was the important matter of seeing the manager about our multiple reservations. Accordingly, we had breakfast and then settled down in the lobby to wait. The manager turned out to be a friendly and pleasant gentleman. He confirmed that there had indeed been multiple bookings (three rooms for six people instead of one room for two people) but that we need not worry: there was no question of us being charged for more than one room. The management was, he said, ‘in negotiation with BA about the other reservations’. That was a relief and we set out on the day’s explorations in cheerful mood.
Prague turned out to be a picturesque and beautiful city. Fine buildings and elegant squares abound. One risks becoming overwhelmed with it all and using one’s camera like a machine gun. Really, to do a good job of conveying the city’s appearance and character, one would need to make a systematic plan and spend time, probably weeks, carrying it out. We, though, had only two days, not weeks, and no plan. So, as we usually do, we rambled as fancy took us and photographed whatever took our fancy along the way. We did, however, have some definite destinations in mind.
We spotted this old pump. I don’t know how old it is or even whether it still works. Affixed to it was a notice:
VODA NENÍ PITNÁ
DO NOT DRINK
The Czech means, literally, ‘water not drinkable’ but I was impressed by the fact that this was accompanied by an equivalent phrase in English. We were to discover that many notices throughout the city were expressed in both Czech and English.
The great river that runs through Prague is called the Vltava. (The stress falls on the first ‘a’ – vltAva – and the word is pronounced as though there is a neutral vowel between the ‘v’ and the ‘l’. Listen here.)
The Karlův most or Charles Bridge was built between 1357 and 1410 and is a famous and much visited Prague landmark. We’ll take a look at it tomorrow.
I was happy to spot cormorants beside the river, with one of them drying its wings, indicating that it had recently been diving for fish. This shows that the river is clean and biologically active.
Beside the river, there is a park or garden, called Smetanovo nábreží (Smetana Embankment), named in honour of the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-84). In it, stands the imposing Gothic-style monument to Franz Joseph (1830-1916), Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia from 1848 to 1916.
It was designed by architect Josef Kranner (and is also known as the Kranner Fountain) with sculptures by Josef Max. It was unveiled in 1850 and restored in 2003.
Some of Prague’s historic buildings are quite ancient as, for example, the Church of St Martin in the Wall, which dates from the 12th century.
In the 13th century, the church building adjoined the town wall, hence its name.
Situated in the old Coal Market, Uhelném Trhu, in the Old Town, is the Wimmerova kašna or Wimmer’s Fountain, created by sculptor František Xaver Lederer (1758-1811) in 1797. It shows a couple of allegorical figures representing viticulture and agriculture. The fountain was the gift of Jakub Wimmer, a rich merchant of Prague, who donated much money to improving and beautifying the city. The name of the area derives from the fact that from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century, this was the market for charcoal.
Sitting on a bench in front of the Modrá Růže Hotel (the name means ‘Blue Roses Hotel’), we found this engaging figure. It is a lifelike sculpture of a man, apparently cheerful and relaxed, perhaps resting from his labours. His left leg is crossed over his right but the foot is missing. This must be recent damage as there are photos showing the sculpture complete. I have not been able to find out the name of the sculptor or any other information on the piece.
Thus we arrived at the Old Town Hall. In Czech its name is Staroměstská radnice which means Old-Town Hall, that is, the Town Hall of Prague Old Town. It is an impressive structure and one of Prague’s oldest. It is difficult to date because it has evolved over time rather than being built in one single act. Its history began in 1338 when a set of houses was bought and adapted to the town council’s needs. This process of adaptation and expansion continued over the centuries. A Gothic Revival eastern wing was added but this was destroyed in the Prague Uprising (May 1945) and was never rebuilt. The Town Hall can be visited though we did not do so on this occasion. Something to add to the list on a possible return.
On the side wall of the building is a remarkable device. It is called the Staroměstský orloj, which means ‘Old-Town Clock’ but it is better known in the world of tourism as the Astronomical Clock. In the Middle Ages there was a fashion for such devices, no doubt because they added considerably to the prestige of the institutions (usually churches) that could afford to install them. The ingenuity that went into their design and the skill with which the mechanism was put together is still greatly admired today. Astronomical clocks were the advanced technology of their day. The clock was made by Mikulas of Kadan, possibly with the help of a university professor called Jan Sindel, and was installed in 1410. It has been repaired and refurbished a number of times over the centuries as is only to be expected.
The clock was the first of our three destinations mentioned at the beginning. We knew that the clock was supposed to ‘perform’ on the hour and took up position some time before 11 am. Though we were early, quite a crowd had already gathered and there was a certain amount of ducking and weaving to secure a good viewing position.
We were standing with our backs to a cafe terrace and I felt a little sorry for the customers because their view of the clock was obscured by a wall of bodies. If any had come there to watch the clock in comfort, they were disappointed.
The clock did eventually perform. Two windows above the main dial opened allowing us to see Christ and the Twelve Apostles parade past the openings. The show over, the crowd melted quickly away and we sat on the cafe terrace and ordered iced tea!
Horse-drawn carriages are very popular with tourists. We have encountered them in several cities, including Bruges, Vienna and, now, Prague. They are usually pulled by two horses and the driver may or may not be dressed in some sort of uniform or livery. In the Victorian times, London was ankle-deep in horse dung but the inhabitants of the aforementioned modern citied are spared that inconvenience. The problem is averted by the simple expedient of hanging a bag behind each of the horses. This supposedly collects any out-fall and can be emptied when it is convenient to do so.
The carriages shown above were lined up beside the Kostel svatého Mikuláše or Church of St Nicholas, a Baroque style building raised between 1704 and 1755.
Our second destination was the Muchovo Muzeum or Mucha Museum. As the name suggests, this museum collects and celebrates the work of Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphons Maria Mucha (1860-1939). Like Toulouse Lautrec and other artists of the period, Mucha produced advertising as well as works of ‘pure’ art.
(An approximation to the pronunciation his name is MU-ha, though in the Czech pronunciation, the ‘ch’ has a slightly aspirate or fricative sound similar to the ‘ch’ in the Scottish loch.)
Unfortunately, though understandably, photography was not allowed in the museum and so I cannot show you what we saw. Happily, all you need do is type ‘alphonse mucha’ into your search engine and click on Images to see a vivid and colourful display of his works.
Rounding a corner, we came unexpectedly upon this somewhat sinister figure. It stands beside the entrance of the Statovské divadlo or Estates Theatre. It is by Czech-born sculptor Anna Chromy and is entitled Il Commendatore. The English version of the attached plate reads ‘In memory of W.A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, premiered in this theatre 29.10.1797’.
On our way to our third and final destination of the day, we again passed in front of the Church of St Nicholas (Kostel svatého Mikuláše), brightly lit by the afternoon sun.
We were heading for the Obecní dům or Municipal House, a civic building that includes, among other treasures, the Smetana Hall concert theatre. Built on a site once occupied by the palace of the King of Bohemia, construction of this Art Nouveau gem began in 1905 and was completed by 1912. The architects were Osvald Polívka and Antonín Balšánek. You can just see over the main entrance the mosaic Hold Praze or Homage to Prague by Karel Špillar.
We joined a tour of the building and were taken through a long series of rooms, including the Smetana Hall, most beautifully designed and decorated in Art Nouveau style. All were different in conception but unified by the same artistic inspiration. It would take a book – a large book – to describe all the features of this glorious interior in the detail it deserves. I have collected a few of my photographs into the Gif below. This does not do justice to the subject, of course, but may give you a glimpse of it.
The tour guide spoke in English though with my hearing I didn’t manage to understand everything said. We were given booklets containing descriptions of the various rooms and historical notes but we were asked to return them afterwards! When the tour ended, we were free to explore and photograph the public parts of the building as we wished.
The Municipal House possesses a magnificent bar, the Kavárna Obecní dům, resplendent in period décor. We ordered iced tea and enjoyed a rest in beautiful surroundings.
Later, we went looking for somewhere where we could have our evening meal. Finding dishes acceptable to vegetarians is not difficult in Prague, though vegan food might present greater problems. The game is to find a place with vegetarian choices that also offers a pleasant environment.
The Palladium Praha or Prague Palladium is a well known shopping centre or mall. It opened in 2007 but is worth a look for its own sake. In there we found El Emir, a Lebanese restaurant. Lebanese cuisine offers lots of choices for vegetarians and so that’s where de dined. It made a pleasant end to an interesting, if busy, day.