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Late Summer In Prague

By Susan Claremont-Smith
7th October, 2010


Charles Bridge, Prague

We had been looking forward to August bank holiday, not only as a break from work, but because we were travelling to Prague for four days. The trip, booked with Expedia went without a hitch. In fact we were very impressed at the ease we reached our final destination, from our car - to airport transport with Mushroom Farm, Bristol.  Easy Jet booking in was simple too, although we could have done better with our luggage and saved £18 if the three of us had taken everything as individual hand baggage. It was the first time we had encountered open seating, but this proved to be quicker, we still sat side by side and soon the plane nosed its way through the clouds brightened by the midday sun.

    After just over two hours the roofs of Prague came into view, predominately terracotta, interspersed with turrets, and domes of green and gold sculpturing the city’s skyline. Even from the air the view was spectacular and we knew our stay would be special.

    Our huge suitcase collected, taxi met, forty minutes passed by as the driver pointed out local landmarks, some already earmarked by us as places to visit. In a quiet part of town the Ametyst Hotel hid amongst old buildings on a tree lined road. A friendly porter met us and showed us to our room after the receptionist explained breakfast time’s etcetera. The hotel was bright, clean and comfortable. The room was fairly small for a family and overlooked a back quadrangle with a huge tree in its centre, it was overgrown and not pretty, not ugly either, but it was extremely quiet. A bonus for us village dwellers, as so often go on holidays where the location has been much noisier than we are used to.

       With no time to waste, we headed back to a busier part of town passed on our way in. Trams hummed through a small park, dominated by a church in an area called Namesti Miru. There were traffic lights on every junction which were timed and ticked as we crossed the road looking for the Metro, which we located ready for the next day. For our first night though we decided to investigate on foot.

    There were lots of intriguing small shops along the way with dated window displays which were reminiscent of British shops decades ago. The smell of cigarette smoke cloyed from doorways into the twilight and it was at this point we realised just how accustomed we had become to British no smoking laws. This was a minor detail and was far out weighed by the ambience and architecture that met us on every turn, as we continued on our quest for a restaurant.

    After a few miles we spied the Vltava river and wasn’t sure which way we should head. Our hunger forgotten, we marched across one of the many bridges to the opposite bank. The water gushed over weirs, twinkling like liquid emeralds as it soothed the banks of tiny islands topped with trees.

    At last we found an Italian bistro, where the food was excellent. The Czech beer couldn’t be missed and complemented our meal of chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella cheese and roasted vegetables. We reminded ourselves of the dispute about the name ‘Budweiser’.

      Budweiser being a German word describing someone or something from the city of Ceske in Southern Bohemia, Czech Republic. The beer recipe dates back to the 12th Century, but a few hundred years later two breweries from the city produced the beer. In 1876, Anheuser-Busch, in the United States began making the beer which was also called ‘Budweiser’. 1907 saw the start of another argument between three companies all claiming trademark rights to the name ‘Budweiser’.  Bud, Budweiser, Budweiser Bier and Budweiser Budvar are names used by relative producers today, but the two companies in Budweiser reiterate that the name should refer to beer actually made in the city.

    We queued to purchase our metro tickets the next morning to visit Prazsky hrad, Prague Castle. It was quite long; we needed to understand the ticket machines to save time later. A day ticket was thirty Korunas (£1.00), but we bought eighteen Koruna priced tickets which enabled us to travel up to five stops. Trains were frequent and soon we alighted at the fifth stop, walked passed government buildings and embassies, turned a corner, then uphill, until we saw the castle ahead.  

    It looked spectacular surrounded by palace gardens, a dome with minarets and dramatic turrets worthy of any gothic horror movie reached for the sky. St Vitus’s Cathedral’s façade was black weathered sandstone, which pre-dates the other buildings and bares witness to a turbulent past. It started to drizzle, which added to the moodiness of the scene, but not the atmosphere.

    I hadn’t expected to see century guards on either side of the gate, their uniforms pale blue and braided. Tourists posed beside them, some even tried to make them smile, but stiff lipped the soldiers remained in the archway’s shadows.

     In the main square outside the palace, people waited to see the changing of the guard. More guards stood sternly in place under the watchful eye of clashing Titans and lion sculptures. We weren’t sure what time that would happen so carried on passed historical buildings and cafes towards a quainter part near the barracks. We were in luck as a domino of soldiers marched by towards the palace, allowing us the best view and exclusive photograph shoots.

    After going back to the palace we backtracked and carried on along a narrow street where small independent shops selling gifts, including traditional wooden Czech toys and glass Christmas ornaments intrigued us. Then we looped back to the castle and were hoping to go inside a Baroque style palace, Loreta Shrine, but this was closed on Mondays.

    Back at the square by the castle entrance we wandered inside St Vitus’s Cathedral. The Golden Portal was impressive with its mosaic of the Last Judgement, but the stained glass windows all around were the best we had seen anywhere in the world, not only for their size, but the colours were rich and vibrant. The next day we would discover why they were extra special.

    One of the oldest parts of the building, St Wenceslas Chapel dates back to 1358,  its walls covered by frescoes and sprinkled with inset jewels.

    Before leaving the cathedral though we gazed up at the high vaulted ceiling which was monumental and reminded us of tree branches.

    Outside the sun shone again and we crossed the courtyard to the Picture Gallery of Prague Castle. We had read about the art collection and knew it shouldn’t be missed. It was a privilege to see minor works by artists we had only heard about before and it gave us an insight of the pleasure enjoyed by people of bygone days when they had seen the pictorial canvases for the first time. Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Cranach and Ruben paintings were fascinating, but the most interesting was a woman’s portrait by Holbein, a Tudor court painter responsible for a painting of Anne of Cleves, which is held in another collection elsewhere in the world.  The latter was painted by Holbein for Henry the V111 and was one of the monarch’s deciding factors in choosing her for his fourth wife. To see this other piece by such a renowned artist was an honour.

    It was late afternoon by now. We walked down tens of steps beside the castle having decided to have our evening meal in Josefov, the Old Town, first inhabited by Jewish people in the 12th century, who were then almost eradicated at end of the 19th century by the Holocaust. There are probably only about a thousand Jews living there today.

    To reach it our map told us we needed to cross over Charles Bridge, which was probably the most touristy part of Prague. Now closed off to traffic, pedestrians wandered freely, enjoying the stalls and artists edging either side of its sandstone walls. Many of the parapets were adorned with statues, thirty in all, but our favourite one was of St John of Nepomuk whose tortured body was thrown into the river in 1393 from this place.  Above his head was a gold starry halo, at his feet a dog and a scene of three people. It was believed to bring good luck to those who rubbed the figures whose patina was polished away showing the glinting of metal. We didn’t want to miss out, so queued for our chance to ask a wish as we stroked the sculpture.

    With buskers music flying in the wind behind us we found a bijou triangular shop as we left the bridge. It was here that we bought the perfect present for our daughter and her partner. They were delighted when we gave them the small delicate angel bell made of pottery on our return home.

    Still looking for the Jewish part of town we found ourselves by the astronomical clock, Prague’s most famous landmark. It not only gives the time of day, but also the months, seasons of the year, zodiac signs, the course of the sun and holidays of the Christian calendar. The hands, numerals and other symbols were gold suspended over a clock face of midnight and pale blue. Every hour the figure of Death rings a bell, twelve disciples appear and a cock crows. Other characters, the Turk, the Miser and Vanity all play their part in the mechanical show fronting the buildings of a chapel and council chambers where Bohemian Kings were chosen in the past.

    After resting at a café – the iced coffee and pastries were delicious - we then carried on exploring. With the clock to our left we noticed signs for a Salvador Dali exhibition ahead of us. Being sceptical we enquired about the arts authenticity before paying to go in. We were assured at Galerie u Bileno jednorozce’s (The Gallery Art White Unicorn) reception desk that everything was okay and headed up a dark stairwell. On the top floor light streamed in and we started on another artistic tour. The graphics, sculptures, limited edition prints and ceramics by the Spanish surrealist artist collected by private collectors were fascinating.

     We were never really certain if we had discovered Josefov, the Old Town. We saw a synagogue and walled cemetery, so must have.  With aching feet we enjoyed what we saw, but this part did not live up to the expectations of our travel guide. Mind you, the whole area was interesting and it was a pleasure looking for it.

    Well this few days was definitely turning out to be an arty time, something all of us appreciate. On our second full day we alighted from the Metro and after a brief walk glimpsed the building we needed, Veletrzny Palace, a large glass modern construction, a stark contrast to the others in Prague. It wasn’t as new as it appeared though, built for the Prague Trade Fair of 1928, but in 1974 a huge fire destroyed it entirely. It was rebuilt and housed the National Gallery’s Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art.  Each floor was vast and winding with so much to absorb. It was astounding to see so many famous artists work we had only heard of and admired before, including Klimt, Schiele, Rousseau, Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Rodin, Degas all complementing artists of Czech Republic. Three favourites were ones we hadn’t heard of before, Kupka, Mucha and Svabinsky. Most outstanding was Alphonse Mucha, innovator of a new artistic style in 1895 known as Mucha Art, but later called Art Nouveau. His art usually featured beautiful young women wearing long flowing Neoclassical clothes surrounded in flowers of pale pastel hues. Later he declared his frustration with being most famous for commercial art and wanted to focus his energies more seriously, ennobling him and his birthplace, Moravia (Czech Republic). Further research revealed he was also responsible for the fantastic stained glass windows of St Vitus’s Cathedral we had been so enchanted with the day before.

    Mid afternoon - St Wenceslas Square was next after a brisk walk. The National Museum, an impressive palatial building headed it, a broad road full of designer shops that can be found in all capital cities. Crystal was on our list of ‘must have’ purchases, but these seemed to be no different to those sold in Britain and at similar prices too so there didn’t seem any point in buying them.

    We did come across a large craft tent along the way and another small craft market in one of the side turnings where we listened to live music. It was here that we bought a Christmas decoration for ourselves. Every year we have something new and this lovely pottery string would be a lovely reminder of our short break in Prague.

    It started to rain hard, but there was an inviting restaurant nearby so it seemed like a good idea to have dinner. It was close to a walkway with a large window where we could watch people huddling under umbrellas whilst we enjoyed another Italian meal. The local cuisine didn’t appeal to us, especially after sampling pork steaks rolled in soggy pastry (maybe dumpling mixture) with cabbage the night before. It would have been nice if we had had a longer stay to be more adventurous and try goulash, but that always gives us another reason to come back again.

    Just down the road from our hotel we had seen a bar used by the locals, just right for a night cap. Inside it was rather basic, rough timber planked floors, scratched wooden table and chairs, cigarette smoke filled the air, chatter filled the full room, but it was warm and friendly. Some couples shared food and gazed in to each others eyes. One of the things we noticed throughout our stay was how loving some couples were, kissing on street corners, on escalators, travelling by train, like staged romantic films but they seemed genuinely happy.   

    To make the most of our last day we breakfasted early, starting with fruit juice, then savouring yoghurt, toast, cereals, cheese, ham, all washed down with tea or coffee. A walk by the river in the bright morning sun was planned for the end of our time in Prague. Crossing the river, we walked along the banks to Charles Bridge, stopping for photographs and enjoying the scenery, where we collated more happy memories to treasure and to take back home.


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