Tuesday, July 10, 2018

On the Road: Prague

Charles Bridge and the tower from Prague Castle
I spent my first full day in Prague on a self-guided walking tour of the old city, using Prague Self-guided Walks: Old Town (Krysti Brice, 2014), which I found used on the Internet before my trip. It proved its worth. Following the book's suggested route, I got an excellent overview of the old part of Prague while at the same time avoiding some of the most congested areas and also avoiding pickpockets (the book points out the most notorious places for losing a wallet). I had no trouble, nor have I had trouble today (touring the castle), but an older couple from the US at a table near me at breakfast was busy calling credit card companies to cancel cards. They told me he'd had his wallet taken while in line to buy a ticket for the castle and surrounding attractions. Evidently it's worth heeding the warnings about thieves.

The Powder Tower and adjoining Municipal House
The tour began at Republic Square. At one end of the square stands the Powder Tower (15th century). On the site of an earlier gate through the city's walls into the old town, it is now joined with the Municipal House (1910), a beautiful Art Nouveau building with work by Alphonse Mucha, among others. I then had a quick look at the rather pretty Paris Hotel down the street before heading to The House of the Black Madonna, a cubist-inspired building that once housed a museum of Cubism. The building gets its name from a black Madonna set into a second-storey wall, apparently a leftover from a church that once stood on the spot. According to author Brice, Prague is about the only city in the world that has Cubist buildings to be seen, and we'll see another further along the tour.

The tour next went to the Church of St. James, known for its baroque façade, decorated with elaborate scenes of saints, angels, and cavorting cherubs made of stucco, by way of narrow streets that show in places that the old city of Prague was raised long ago because it so often flooded. The result is that here and there you see vestiges of windows or doors or arches from earlier times at foot level. The old town visible today was built on top of Gothic and Romanesque buildings. I didn't think much of the St. James façade, but apparently the church has excellent acoustics. It's often used for concerts as well as for worship. I next headed into the area known as Ungelt (apparently there was once a customs house here). It's an area that preserves the 1560 Granovsky Palace, with a second-story loggia. The date 1560 is inscribed in the stone over the doorway, which today is the entrance to an Irish pub.

Building decorated using sgraffito
Here Brice points out a wall decorated using the sgraffito technique, which I had heard of, and I was aware that our word "graffiti" comes from "sgraffito", but I had never seen an example. The wall was rather plain, with a simple geometric pattern. Elsewhere in the city I saw it used much more elaborately, to depict figures and animals, but it seems most often used in creating geometric decoration. Sgraffito involves putting down two layers of stucco and selectively scraping away the upper layer while still wet to reveal the lower layer of a contrasting color or texture. Later, at the Castle, I saw an entire building done in sgraffito (pictured). From here, the tour enters Old Town Square, from behind, skirting Tyn Church on the left.

The Kinsky Palace, Old Town Square. Prague
The square is surrounded by notable buildings. In its center is a large, dark statue of Jan Hus, burned at the stake in 1415. The statue is by Ladislav Saloun. It was erected in 1915 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Hus's death. The first building the tour notes is the Kinsky Palace dating to the mid-1700s. It is rather attractive with its white walls, salmon pink trim and deep orange roof tiles. There is supposed to be a Franz Kafka bookstore here, so named because Kafka's father once had a shop in the building and because Kafka himself attended a German school the building once housed. I found a bookstore but no particular mention of Kafka. The Palace is now joined to an older Gothic building to its right (when facing the building) with a stone bell set into the corner of one of its walls. I'm not sure what the significance of the bell is supposed to be, but the house was, according to Brice, probably used "as a residence for the royal family, most likely for Elizabeth of Bohemia, mother of Charles."

Towers of Tyn Church, Old Town Square
Prague, statue of Jan Hus in foreground
The 14th century Tyn Church, which dominates the square, is just to the right of this (continuing clockwise). It was built as a Catholic church but taken over by the Hussites for a period before reverting to Catholic hands. According to Brice, there was once a golden chalice in the niche now occupied by a golden Madonna, but the chalice was melted down following the battle that finally ended Protestant rebellions in Bohemia, its gold used to make the Madonna's golden halo. When I saw the church, however, the was a golden chalice in place, below the Madonna's niche (just visible in my photograph here; click on the image for a larger view). It appears a chalice has been added since my little guidebook was published. Apparently, Tycho Brahe is buried in this church. I would have liked to have seen his grave, but wasn't able to go inside.

On the opposite side of the square is the Old Town Hall, with its famous Astronomical Clock.  The whole thing was invisible, under scaffolding, being renovated, so I missed the main attraction.

I headed next to the St. Nicholas Church, also on the square, which I was able to enter. It has quite an amazing glass chandelier from the 19th century. From the church, the tour next sends you into a little square to its side. This is Franz Kafka Square, so named because Kafka was born at No. 3 on the square. There is a bust of Kafka on the building, but, yet again, I was frustrated because the building was under scaffolding, being renovated. A plywood box had been built over the little bust of Kafka to protect it during the construction.

Bohemian glass chandelier in St. Nicholas Church
Paris Street, which leads out of the area, is what I imagined Unter den Linden in Berlin would look like, a boulevard of high-end shops in buildings of individual character and suggestive of the wealth their builders once commanded, the pavement shaded by rows of lush trees. All the world's major designers seem to have shops here—Hermès, Dior, Fendi, and all the rest. According to Brice, the major brands rushed into the area the moment the Berlin Wall fell.

Prague's Old-New Synagogue
I enjoyed looking in the store windows, looking at the many interesting architectural details, and at the occasional memorial to Nazi victims. These are all over the city, usually a plaque listing the names of a group of men murdered on the spot indicated, sometimes just a small brass plate set into the street with a name and a date, always a date between 1938 and 1945.

Markers noting Nazi deportations
Brice notes that construction of the street was fairly recent. It was created in the 19th century (when it seems so many European cities destroyed neighborhoods and relocated churches and graveyards to build boulevards) by relocating a large part of the Jewish neighborhoods of Prague, and, before long, walking down Paris Street brings you to the old Jewish Quarter where I visited the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe, erected in the 13th century. It is called the "Old-New Synagogue" because when built it was the newest in the city, but it is today the oldest. Next door is the old Jewish Town Hall, which was supposed to have two clocks on it, one with Roman numerals, the other, rotating counter-clockwise, with Hebrew numerals, but I saw only one clock (the one with the Roman numerals).

The Jewish Cemetery, Prague
Beyond the synagogue a block or two lies the Jewish Cemetery, which is strangely poignant. It's like no other I've ever seen. The jumbled tombstones stand five or six deep, as though they were gathered up from somewhere else and deposited here rather than as markers of actual graves—and perhaps at least some of these are markers relocated from the areas cleared out to build Paris Street or elsewhere. Many of the stones were crumbling and barely legible. Fragments of old stones, some going back to the 14th century, were set into the walls surrounding the cemetery.

The Soviet-era Intercontinental Hotel, Prague
 Further along, I came to a view with a bridge in the distance and, beyond that, a hill with a giant metronome atop it. Apparently a huge image of Stalin once stood in in place of the metronome—the largest image of Stalin in the world, until the Czechs blew it up in the 1960s. Brice notes that the sculptor committed suicide after his work was destroyed. Nearby was the Soviet-Era Intercontinental Hotel, which has a quintessentially mid-century modern look to it. Apparently it has a restaurant on its upper floor with excellent sunset views of Prague Castle and exorbitant prices. From the hotel, the tour takes you to Teachers' House, another example of Cubist architecture in the city, built around 1920 as housing for teachers at the law school of Charles University.

Teachers' House, an example of Cubist Architecture in Prague
I next visited the Spanish Synagogue, which stands on the site of Prague's first synagogue. It's rather extraordinary for being elaborately decorated and in moorish style. Again according to the author of the guide book I used, it was built in 1868 by Spanish jews who fled the inquisition in Spain, which explains the choice of decor. It was striking inside. In the delicacy of its decorations and the use of gold stars against a blue ground it reminded me of Saint Chapelle, in Paris. The large  stained glass windows are particularly beautiful. There is a loft-like second storey that gives an excellent view of the whole interior.

Interior of the Spanish Synagogue, Prague
Franz Kafka statue, Prague
From here, it's not far to the Franz Kafka statue, a rather strange sculpture that I overhead one guide call "the vagina." It was unveiled to the public in 2003, the work of one Jaroslav Rona, who is said to have chosen its location between the Spanish Synagogue and the Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit because of the tensions between the two religions, although I don't understand why that is especially important in relation to Kafka. A small figure wearing a hat sits astride a faceless figure with an ovoid gap where its chest and neck ought to be. It has no hands, only holes there. The statue is inscribed simply "Franz Kafka." Is this intended to be a portrait of Kafka? I don't know.

The Estates Theater, Prague
Mozart premiered Don Giovanni here in 1787
From the Kafka statue, the tour next leads to the Estates Theater, a fairly elaborately decorated green building in the Neo-Classical style (although it seems half of Europe is Neo-Classical). Few people seemed to notice it, but this building, originally called the Nostitz Theater (it was a private theater catering only to the nobility built between 1780 and 1785 by a Count Nostitz) is where Mozart conducted the house orchestra in 1787 to premiere his Don Giovanni—and performances of that opera were on the bill the week I was in Prague, but not on a day that would have allowed me to attend. You can see the interior only by attending a concert. I believe the Viennese opera scenes in Amadeus were filmed inside.

Sleeping man, in front of the
Česká Spořitelna Bank, Prague 
The building immediately to the left of the Estates Theater is the Carolinium, which has a gothic oriel that dates to the 14th century, the most obvious feature of an otherwise fairly bland building. I stopped to have a look. Apparently, this is the original location of the Charles University, which is the oldest in central Europe, having been established in 1348 by King Charles IV. The tour next pointed out a bank building with an interesting interior, but it was closed when I was there, although the large carved wooden doors were impressive. A man, apparently drunk, was asleep in the doorway. Another man was busy scolding him (though the drunken man remained unresponsive). I didn't understand what the scolding man was saying, but got the impression he was accusing the drunk of giving tourists the wrong impression about Prague.

Ice cream seller, near Charles Bridge, Prague
If I had had another day in Prague, I would have come back to the open-air market that was around the next corner, Havel's Marketplace. It was just closing down when I arrived. A long, comparatively broad street is full of stalls selling just about everything, from fruits and vegetables to cheap tourist trash. Laughing witch dolls are a popular item, it seems. I don't know why. As Brice points out, it's pretty clear that this strip of land was built as a market. It is flat and open in the center and flanked by gothic arches with dwellings built on top of them. She mentions that this is the oldest part of Gothic-era Prague still visible and notes that a market has been held at this place virtually every day since 1232. After a few twists and turns, you end up back at the Old Town Square, near the Astronomical Clock, after passing a large store selling Bohemian crystal on one side of the street and, oddly,  a museum of sex machines on the other. I stopped into the latter, which was mildly interesting for its displays of all kinds of contraptions designed both to enhance sexual pleasure and to deny it, the latter often rather cruelly. There was a great deal of electrical gagdetry from the early post-WWII era on display. Although marketed as beauty or health aids, they must have been easily understood as intended for other purposes as well.

Johannes Kepler lived here from 1607 to 1612
The tour next landed me in a small square to the side of the main square called Little Square, ringed with pretty buildings and with a fountain in the center enclosed in a delicate iron cage. The most prominent building is emblazoned with the name V. J. Rott, which is today the home of Prague's Hard Rock Café. Brice says it was in the Communist era a large hardware store that survived the fall of Communism for a while before eventually succumbing to rising real estate prices, causing it to move to a less prestigious nearby side street. I happened to walk by the latter incarnation later in the day. From this area, the tour took a back street to avoid crowds on Karlova Street, which is the main street leading to the famous Charles Bridge. It was near this place that I saw the house with the mention of Johannes Kepler (who lived there from 1607 to 1612, according to the inscription) and from this back street I eventually ended up on the bridge. The last major building the tour introduces (aside from the bridge itself) is the Clam-Gallus Palace, an 18th century building built by Fischer von Erlach in the Viennese Baroque style for a Count Gallus. The front of the building has some impressive statues, but I didn't linger as I was now in view of the bridge and the massive tower at its foot, a busy intersection that, according to Brice, is another favorite haunt of pickpockets because hordes of tourists get packed together, stopped there to make the crossing to the bridge.

Posing for friends on the Charles Bridge
I strolled across the bridge, watching the people and looking at the many sculptures along the length of the span, some easy to interpret, others less so. The bridge itself, designed by Petr Parker, is Gothic (completed in 1380). The sculptures are of a later style, having been added over a couple of hundred years in the 16th to 18th centuries. The original bridge here was washed away in a flood. This one seems in danger of wilting under the weight of all the tourists. If I were a pickpocket, this would be my haunt. It was hard to walk in places for all the people, some strolling, looking at the views and the statues, but just as many stopped along the sides posing for photographs with friends or taking selfies. I crossed the bridge and decided to turn back on the far side, knowing I hadn't the time or the energy to look at the castle above, which occupied most of the following day, my last day in Prague.

A Czech beauty with her scooter

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