Thursday, September 8th 2016
This is the second of our two full days in Prague and in fact the last as we return to London tomorrow. The weather continues sunny and hot so we can wander at will though with occasional stops for rest and refreshment.
Our hotel (Cloister Inn, should you be interested) resides in a street called Konviktská and on a corner of this with another street, Karoliny Světlé, stands a curious little building which we notice each time we go past. So today we photographed it.
It was not open so we could not look inside. The building is ancient, dating back to the 11th century. Its name indicates that it is a religious institution of some sort but of which flavour? Apparently, it belongs to the Starokatolická Církev v České Republice which, being interpreted, means the Old Catholic Church of the Czech Republic. The Old Catholic Church is one of a number of so called Breakaway, or Independent, Catholic Churches, and it split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s over the issue of papal infallibility which its members do not accept. It’s a pretty little building and one of Prague’s three rotundas, the others being those of St Longin and St Martin.
We went to visit the Karlův most or Charles Bridge. In the above photo we are approaching the bridge’s eastern gate. (The photo is not quite as it seems: I manipulated it to remove unwanted clutter encroaching on the left. The gate itself, however, is pukka.) This magnificent and useful construction was begun in 1357 on the orders of Charles IV and completed in 1402.
Near the eastern end of the bridge stands a monument to Charles (Karel) IV. Charles (1316-78) was chosen Holy Roman Emperor and was also King of Bohemia (Bohemia is now the western part of the Czech Republic). The monument, designed by Dresden sculptor Arnost J. Hähnel, was made in 1848 to mark the 500th anniversary of Charles University (Universzita Karlova).
The bridge is lined with sculptures representing saints. There are 30 in all and they were carved from 1683 to 1928.
The bridge, happily, is pedestrian only and, while it serves the important purpose of crossing the river, it also provides a pleasant environment in which to stroll on a sunny day.
There are, of course, good views of the Vltava. The bridge you see is the Mánesův most or Mánes Bridge. Completed in 1914, the modernist style bridge is named in honour of the Czech Romantic painter Josef Mánes (1820 – 1871).
From here too you can observe and admire the colonies of swans that live on the river.
The Vltava flows roughly north through Prague and the Charles Bridge runs east-west across it. The bridge carries you from the Old Town on the east side to the Malá Strana (literally, ‘Little Side’ but usually called Lesser Town in English) on the west.
We left the bridge by the western arch or gate and entered Malá Strana.
This is a view back towards the Charles Bridge along Mostecká, which I am guessing means something like ‘Bridge Street’.
Prague, I’m happy to say, has a well developed tram network and we decided to take a tram ride from where we were in Malá Strana to… well, wherever it would take us. A tram ride is enjoyable in itself and is a good way to see the city.
In common with other European cities, you buy public transport tickets in advance of travel and frank them on the vehicle. Visitors to Prague can buy travel cards from tourist information offices or machines at tram stops. A convenient ticket for tourists is the Prague City Card which comes in 2-day, 3-day and 4-day variants. The card gives you unlimited access to all public transport. You can buy it at any time because the period of validity starts only when you frank it for the first time on a vehicle. It’s a little expensive but it gives you discounts on many tours and admission fees.
And here is a bonus for the older traveller: if you are 75 or over, you do not pay at all to use public transport. You do not even need an exemption ticket: it is sufficient to produce, if asked, a document such as a driving licence or passport that shows your date of birth. In any case, you will need this only on the rare occasions when ticket inspectors board the bus or tram. You don’t have to be a resident of Prague or a Czech national as the concession applies to anyone over 75.
This is where the tram brought us and where we disembarked because we were overdue for refreshments! This place is called Výstaviště Praha or Prague Exhibition Grounds. I have to admit that we did not know this at the time or what the buildings were.
The one on the left is the Průmyslový palác or Industrial Palace. A magnificent Art Nouveau building, it was designed and built for the Jubilee Exhibition in Prague in 1891 and hosts exhibitions and trade fairs. Unfortunately the left wing was destroyed by fire in 2008.
On the right is the Lapidárium Národního muzea or Lapidarium of the National Museum. I am uncertain as to the origins of this handsome building as the sources I have seen are vague or contradictory. I believe it was once a summer palace but have no ides when it was built. From 1905, however, it has served as the National Museum’s lapidarium, that is, a collection of sculptures of historical as well as aesthetic value.
We didn’t explore these buildings but were content to sit in the sun and enjoy a cooling drink. There was a mobile drinks stall and I asked for iced tea. The man said he didn’t have any in bottles but could make one up. I was a bit dubious about this but he insisted and proceeded to mix ingredients from various bottles like a cocktail waiter out of an American comedy. I have no idea what went into the drink but it seemed all right (though not much like iced tea) and we suffered no ill effects.
Near where we sat were three metal objects. I’m not sure what they were originally, perhaps water tanks or some such. Now they have found a new destiny as a group sculpture or installation by Čestmír Suška, entitled Tichý rozhovor (‘Silent Talk’).
Returning once more to the eastern side, we continued our explorations and along the way photographed another church dedicated to a local saint and martyr. The Kostel svaté Ludmily or Church of St Ludmila was designed in neo-Classical style by Josef Mocker and built in 1888-92.
The church is dedicated St Ludmila of Bohemia who lived from about 860 to 921 and was the grandmother of that St Wenceslas who is known to carol-singers as ‘Good King Wenceslas’. Ludmila, entrusted with the care of her grandson, the future King Wenceslas of Bohemia, brought him up as a Christian at a time when Bohemia was ruled by pagans. Wenceslas’s pagan mother, Drahomíra, resented Ludmila’s influence over her son and is said to have had her murdered by strangling. The religious background to the murder caused Ludmila to be seen as a saint and martyr.
Our next landmark was also religious but of a different faith. This handsome building is the Jubilejní Synagoga or Jubilee Synagogue. It resides, appropriately enough, in a street called Jeruzalémská and is thus also known as the Jeruzalémská Synagoga (Jerusalem Synagogue). The style of this remarkable construction marries Art Nouveau and Moorish architecture in a beautiful way. It is Prague’s largest synagogue but also its youngest, being built in 1905-6. The name Jubilee comes from its role in the commemorating the 50th year of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I (reigned from 1848 to 1916). The size of the building and the narrowness of the street makes it hard to capture a good complete image.
Possibly the highpoint of today’s adventures came next. This was when Tigger ushered me towards the door of the premises shown above. It is called the Čajový klub Cha Dao which means ‘Cha Dao Tea Club’. We can interpret further and say that Cha Dao in Chinese means ‘the way of tea’ where ‘way’ is a path or progress of spiritual or philosophical development. Yes, this is a tea shop but the name hints at something a little more serious than just a place where they serve a nice cup of PG Tips.
Inside the shop, an entrance of the left leads into the tea room. The low doorway and the subdued lighting induce a feeling that one is entering an esoteric world. It is almost like entering a temple.
You take your place at a table upon which there is a kettle gently singing away. The attendant comes and asks what tea you require. I chose Lapsang Souchong and Tigger Keemun. The attendant returned, not with a pot of tea, as you might expect, but with with leaf tea in a dry vessel and several cups and pots. I have lost count of how many. The tea was then prepared in front of us. I cannot now recall all the steps but it involved several pourings and several decantings from one vessel to another, culminating in tea being poured all over the outside of the tea pot, something I have never seen done before. Then, at last, we were left alone to drink our tea, being told that we could top up the pot, if we wished, from the still singing kettle of the table.
Was this the best tea that I had ever tasted? To be honest, I am not sure it was, but, then I do not posses the taste buds (not to say, patience) of a tea master. I like my tea and enjoy it as long as it is good enough. And this was certainly good enough and a bit more. But what made the occasion worthwhile and would bring me back here if ever we return to Prague, was the elaborate spectacle of the making of the tea, raising it to the level of ritual and performance art.
After tea, Tigger set off with determined mien. Time was getting on and the light was beginning to fade. I was already day-dreaming of supper and going back to the hotel but Tigger was adamant: we had to see this.
‘This’ turned out to be a bust of Franz Kafka by David Černý. Not a static bust, however. No, this is a work of kinetic art in which a representation in shiny metal of Kafka’s head has been divided horizontally into 42 ‘slices’, all capable of rotating in either direction, independently by in concert with all the others. The head continually makes, undoes, and remakes itself in a variety of ‘programs’. The fact that the surfaces of the ‘slices’ reflect the light and images of the surroundings make the work that much more hypnotic. I have created a slide show but static images cannot capture the essence of the thing. For that reason, please take a look at this video which will make better sense of it.
We started to look around for a place where we could have supper. Happily, we did not need to search far before we came upon an eatery called Vegetarian Dhaba. (Dhaba is a Hindi word for roadside diners in India.) We went in and found an easy atmosphere, rather like a student cafe or hostel dining room. Food was laid out as a buffet and you just grab a plate and pile it with whatever items take your fancy. When you have finished selecting, you place your plate on a weighing machine and pay according to how heavy it is. As the name of the restaurant suggests, the food was Indian inspired. It was tasty and rounded off the day nicely.