Saturday, 17 February 2018

Prague Moments #14 - The Butterfly House

Despite all the wonderful things to see around the city of Prague, at this time of year you sometimes need a break from the cold and find an indoor venue.

Arguably the warmest new attraction in town is the Papilonia Butterfly House which opened last summer. Located on the lowest level of Hamleys' toy shop on Na Příkopě (around the corner from Wenceslas Square), the permanent attraction covers 150m² and its design was inspired by the temple of Angkor Vat in Kampuchea.

The environmental controls maintain a temperature of 26ºC and 80% humidity and the attraction is home to 600 butterflies from 40 different countries, including Mexico, Australia, and other South American and South East Asian locations. The intention is to vary the species during the year so there will be different species in the spring compared to the autumn.


When you go through the hermetically sealed double doors, it’s like hitting a brick wall of heat and humidity and reminded me of leaving the airport building in Hong Kong. Butterflies with wingspans of up to 20cm are apparently happily flying around, seemingly oblivious to the human sightseers. Butterflies will come and perch on you if you're lucky - they are attracted to bright colours like reds and yellows.



Because of the humidity cameras may get a bit steamed up, especially coming in from the cold. My new iPhone X had no problems, but my Nikon DSLR couldn't cope so it went back in the bag. You can get up really close to the 'models' which continue to pose even when you're just a few centimetres away.


Children are welcome, but I would prefer parents to keep hold of them. There are butterflies on the floor as well as everywhere else, and it's easy to tread on them if you're not careful. You also need to be careful leaving to ensure no butterflies escape.

             

This was a wonderful experience and at the time of writing cost 150CZK for adults. The collection is open every day from 10:00am to 20:00pm (8 o'clock).

Monday, 5 February 2018

Prague in Plain Sight #2 - The Šitka Tower

If you continue walking past the Kranner Fountain towards the Dancing House, you’ll not miss the Šitkovská (Šitka) Water Tower on the right-hand side of the road (Masarykovo Nábřeží). This tower was named for one of the original mill owners that used to crowd the riverfront. It supplied water from the Vltava to the upper New Town.

Šitka Tower from Jiráskův most
The current tower dates back to 1588-1591; other towers existed on the same site but were destroyed by fire. The onion shaped dome was a later addition in 1648, following damage from the Thirty Years’ War. The waterworks went out of operation in 1880 and the tower was threatened with demolition.

Šitka Tower with Prague Castle in the background
Václav Havel, the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia, probably wished it had been, as the top floor was a spying spot for the communist Secret Police for many years as it had the perfect view of his house, which was monitored 24 hours a day in the 1970's to see who was visiting, when, and for how long.

Although you can easily get to the tower along the main embankment, a more interesting route is to cross the little bridge onto Slovansky ostrov (Slav Island) and approach the tower through the park. Head right down to the end of the island and you can make your way back up to the road via the staircase under the tower.

The Tower from Slav Island
Inscription on the rear of the tower
The building alongside the tower houses an art gallery (Galerie Mánes) and a little cafe restaurant.


Thursday, 1 February 2018

Prague in Plain Sight #1 - The Kranner Fountain

In a city like Prague, there are plenty of things that you often walk past but never give them a second thought. Sometimes it’s because there’s something more interesting on the other side of the road, at other times you may just step over them without realising their significance. In this set of posts, I’m hoping to bring some of these places into a bit more prominence. They don’t really qualify as being hidden because they are in such plain sight, but they do deserve a mention, rather than being taken for granted.

The first of these landmarks is the Kranner Fountain, which is just a few blocks from my usual apartment when I’m in town. I’ve walked past it thousands of times but only have one photograph of it, and until I started writing this, I didn’t even know what it was called.

Reminiscent of the Scott memorial in Edinburgh or the Albert Memorial in London, the Kranner Fountain was built in 1848 by the architect Josef Ondrej Kranner from whom it takes its name. It was unveiled in May 1850 as one of the requirements of a project which included the construction of a chain bridge linking Malá Strana and Smíchov and the creation of the first paved stone embankment in Prague, now Smetanovo Nábřeží.

Kranner Fountain
The Homage to the Bohemian Estates or Kranner Fountain

Whilst it’s Kranner whose name is associated with the fountain, the sculptor was Josef Max, and the primary stonemason was Karel Svoboda.

Officially called “The Homage to the Bohemian Estates” (rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it?), the centrepiece of the monument is an equestrian statue of the Austrian Emperor Franz I. Below this are sixteen figures representing the, then, sixteen Czech regions, with Prague at the head. These are allegorical depictions, representing science, art, peace, abundance, ploughing, mining, industry and commerce. A complex water pumping mechanism is built under the main plinth, connected to an underground corridor leading off to Divadelní.

In May 1919, after the founding of the first Czech Republic, the statue of the emperor was removed but a copy was returned to the platform in 2003 when the monument and pumping system was renovated.

One of the things I need to do on my return to Prague in a few weeks is to spend a bit more time in the little park in which the fountain is situated, maybe have a bit of lunch, and take a few more photos of this exquisite fountain.



Thursday, 21 December 2017

Christmas In Prague and The Last Lamplighter

Christmas is a pretty special time of year wherever you are, but there’s something especially magical about Prague during Advent. I’ve been lucky enough to have been in town in early December for the past four years, and I still feel like a schoolboy in a sweet shop.

Lighting the Christmas Tree - this year in the Old Town Square
The Christmas markets are amongst the most famous in the world and there are a number of them dotted around the city. My two favourites are the ones in Staroměstské náměstí and Náměstí Míru (which was recently voted the most popular amongst Prague expat residents). The atmosphere is very special, and despite the crowds, there is such an assault on your senses that you can't help feeling that this is a magical time in a magical place!

Staroměstské náměstí from the Clock Tower (2014)
Each of the markets is filled with food and drink stands, with Prague Ham, klobása (sausages), tredlník (rolled dough, grilled and topped with sugar and cinnamon), and freshly fried potato chips (crisps) being the favourites. These are usually washed down with hot medovina (honey mead wine), or other warm mulled wines. There are plenty of stalls selling trinkets, gingerbread and other cakes, but some of the Christmas decorations on sale are beautiful and are good value (as long as you take care getting them home!).

 

There are a couple of other things that you might not find described in any of the standard tourist guides.

First of all, there are the buckets of carp dotted around town. Carp is traditionally eaten at Christmas in the Czech Republic, and the fish are sold on the pavements, where they are kept in huge blue bins and you select the specific fish that you want, take it home (swimming around in a plastic bag) and leave it in the bathtub until you’re ready to cook it (carp are bottom feeders, and can taste a bit muddy unless there is time to flush the dirt through their systems). The more squeamish - or folk that prefer not to share their baths with live fish - can get the fishmonger to perform the necessary decapitation. Carp may be a strange choice for a Christmas dish, but fish has religious significance because it is eaten instead of meat on days of fasting and Christmas Eve is a day of fasting. The fish is served with a traditional Czech potato salad containing potatoes, onions, peas, carrots, gherkins, eggs and mayonnaise.

Carp on sale in the street
Traditionally, the lights on the Charles Bridge used gas to power them. The city converted all their old gas lights with electric ones starting in 1985 but in 2002 the decision was made to change back to gas in many parts of historical Prague, and the lamps on the Charles Bridge reverted to gas in 2010. All of Prague’s gas lights are lit electronically these days, but during advent, each day between 16:00 and 17:00, one of the last lamplighters still performs the duty in person, making his way across the bridge, lighting each of the forty-six lamps using a long pole. The Lamplighter is instantly recognisable in his red and black tunic and peaked cap.

 


Enjoy your Christmas and have a great New Year.

Veselé Vánoce a šťastný nový rok!



Saturday, 9 December 2017

Hidden Prague #10 - The Langweil Model of Prague

They say that the best things come wrapped up in small parcels, and that certainly applies to the Langweil Model of Prague. This extraordinary art piece is made entirely of paperboard and contains models of over two and a half thousand buildings taken from the city as it was in the late 1820s. Every element is modelled down to the last detail, house signs, sundials, broken windows, and flaking paintwork, even piles of wood and barrels stacked outside warehouses on the river.



Antonín Langweil (13.6.1791 – 11.6.1837) was born into a large family and after his father’s death in the same year moved to Český Krumlov. He studied business but was also a talented artist, and set up his own lithographic workshop in Prague in 1819, the first in Bohemia. His business didn’t last long and in 1822 he became a library assistant in the university library in the Klementinum where he stayed until his death. He began work on the Prague model in 1826. Eleven years later, before the model was completed, Langweil died. Before his death, and in failing health, he offered his model to the National Museum (known then as the Patriotic Museum) but they declined to take it. It was stored in the Klementinum attic in nine crates until his widow asked Emperor Ferdinand I to buy it. He then donated the purchase to the museum, but even then it was rarely displayed until 1905 when it became a permanent exhibit.


In 1954 the City Of Prague Museum took possession of the model and beautifully restored between 1963 and 1969 by Jana and Jiří Bouda. The model got a new glass case in 1970, which was then replaced by the current case in 1999 which maintains a controlled dust-free environment. The lighting system was installed in 2007.

                  


The model covers about twenty square meters, In addition to the buildings there are over five thousand items of vegetation. The only people in the model are two soldiers on guard. Of all the buildings in the model, about half have since been demolished or radically rebuilt.


As mentioned above, the model is housed in the City of Prague Museum. The museum is located on Na Poříčí in Prague 8, near Florenc metro or bus station. The museum is relatively small and contains a number of exhibits in addition to the Langweil model. These include a  pre-history collection and a medieval exhibition. When we were there, a small party was just leaving, and we were almost alone in the building apart from the staff. We got there just in time to watch a specially created 3D movie which takes you on a virtual trip through the model lasting about six minutes.

If you only visit one museum in Prague, I would strongly urge you to make it this one. You won't be disappointed.


Saturday, 18 November 2017

Hidden Prague #9 - More Saints and Sinners

It seems that I hit a sweet spot with my previous post concerning Prague's Saints and Sinners. In the first two days since it was published, it received more views than any of my previous posts. I did promise a further instalment so let's see if you enjoy this one as much!

Ever since I was a small child, the story of St Christopher has resonated with me. There is considerable speculation as to the actual existence of a definitive St Christopher. His most famous legend, which is mainly known from the West is that he carried a child, who was unknown to him, across a river before the child revealed himself as Christ. Often known as 'the Christ Bearer", the character from the legend is often reputed to be Saint Menas, an Egyptian soldier who was martyred in Antioch circa 385.

St Christopher on the Charles Bridge
St Christopher is the patron saint of travellers, ferryman, storms, boatmen, mountaineers and bachelors - so it's only appropriate that he has a place on the Charles Bridge (the statue was designed by Emanuel Max in 1857) and a special place in my life.

Next up, a genuine bad boy. Jan Mydlář (1572–1664) was a 17th-century executioner from Prague. He is best known as the executioner of 27 high-status leaders who took part in an uprising against the Habsburg empire in 1621.

Twelve men were beheaded and fifteen were hanged. The beheaded ones had their heads displayed on the Prague Old Town Bridge Tower. The execution is of historical interest, not only because of the numbers executed on a single day, but because the condemned were men of high importance, representing various ranks of the Czech society and professions—noblemen, scholars, burghers, and businessmen. They are remembered in the Old Town Square near the place of execution, by a set of 27 white stone crosses (At the time of writing these are currently almost completely hidden by the renovations being performed on the clock tower).



Mydlář is the inspiration for the 19th-century novel by Josef Svátek, "Memoirs of A Prague Executioner".


The event is also remembered in a local bar just off the Old Town Square called Pivnice U Kata (on U Radnice), where the walls are adorned with the shields of the executed men and various macabre tools typically used by executioners of that time. The bar itself draws mixed reviews (from tourists) - it is small and unpretentious, but has good Pilsner Urquell beer at a good price for that part of town! I love the place.

Saint Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who was baptised as an adult and became a monk. The most famous legend concerning him was that he had once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the latter from the cold. That night, he dreamt of Jesus, wearing the half-cloak and saying to the angels, "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptised; he has clothed me." Saint Martin died on November 8, 397.

In the Czech Republic, St Martins Festival is technically November 11th but it usually extends to the weekend. This can be considered as the European Thanksgiving which dates back to the 14th Century. St Martins Day also coincides with the real start of winter. The proverb - Martin přijíždí na bílém koni ("Martin is coming on a white horse") - signifies that the first half of November in the Czech Republic is the time when it often starts to snow.

St Martins Goose at Vojanuv Dvur 2017
Roast goose is traditional food for the St Martins Festival because of stories about St Martins connection with the goose. One says that the goose is eaten because geese disturbed Saint Martin’s sermons and that is why they are now punished on the pan. The other one holds that Martin was so modest that he concealed himself in a goose house to avoid his appointment as a bishop, but the cackling of the geese gave him away.

That concludes this instalment of my favourite saints and sinners, and my time in Prague is once again drawing to a close, at least for this year. But don't worry, still lots of material available to share with you. Please keep checking back (no pun intended this time!) to see what's new.



Sunday, 5 November 2017

Hidden Prague #8 - Saints and Sinners

I actually started writing this article over a month ago but I've been so busy that this is the first opportunity I've had to complete it. But the good news (for me) is that I'm back in Prague and finding new places and things to write about in the future.

In some of my earlier posts, I've written about some of Prague's more famous Saints and Sinners, most notably St John of Nepomuk, and Jáchym Berka (Prague's original Darth Vader). Given the history of the city, there are plenty more characters to learn about. The trouble is, that while there are hundreds of statues of saints, nobody really builds memorials to sinners. Of course, the sinners themselves often do, but they tend to get removed at the earliest possible opportunity! Luckily, one man's saint is often another man's sinner, so that gives me room for manoeuvre.

First up is St Sebastian, a Christian saint and martyr. This sandstone statue is near the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul in Prague within the walls of Vyšehrad. It dates back to the first half of the eighteenth century.

St Sebastian at Vyšerhrad
St Sebastian is said to have been killed in AD288, during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post and shot with arrows. While this is the most common artistic depiction of Sebastian, he was rescued and healed by Saint Irene of Rome before haranguing the emperor and being clubbed to death. He certainly fits the bill as a saint to some and a sinner to others!

The "Vodník" or "Hastrman" is the Czech bogeyman or water sprite.  The vodníci are said to appear as a naked old men with frog-like faces, greenish beards, and long hair, with their bodies covered in algae, muck, and black fish scales.

The Vodník on Kampa Island
When angered, the vodníci break dams, wash down water mills, and drown people and animals. They would drag down people to their underwater dwellings to serve as slaves. To be fair, there are stories of benevolent vodníci - so I'm guessing this cheeky little chappie is one of those. You can find him just below the Velkopřevorské náměstí bridge which spans the canal across to Kampa island.

The English tend to think that they have a monopoly on St George but in addition to being their patron saint, he is also patron saint of numerous other countries and states including Georgia, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Catalonia. But the legend of St George slaying the dragon is common to many other traditions include the Czech Republic.

St George and the Dragon in Prague Castle
St George lived sometime between 256–285 A.D to 23 April 303, and according to legend, was a Roman soldier of Greek origin and officer in the Guard of Roman emperor Diocletian, who was sentenced to death for failing to recant his Christian faith. 

The statue in the photo stands in the shadow of St Vitus' cathedral in Prague Castle, not far from the Basilica dedicated to him (which is also the oldest church in the castle complex).

As my final offering in this post I've included Jan Palach. Strictly speaking he was neither a saint nor a sinner, but he became a national hero during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1969. Jan Palach (11 August 1948 – 19 January 1969) was a Czech student of history and political economy at Charles University in Prague. His protest, by setting fire to himself, was in reaction partly to the invasion, but also, allegedly, against the "demoralization" of Czechoslovak citizens caused by the occupation. 

Jan Palach Memorial by the Vlatava in Prague 1
This monument, located just off Náměstí Jana Palacha, beside Mánesův most was designed by the late Czech-American architect John Hejduk and consists of two nine-by-nine-foot steel prisms, each crowned with a roof of spikes. One is known as the House of the Suicide and clad in stainless steel; the adjacent House of the Mother of the Suicide is an inhabitable enclosure. Hejduk’s design pays tribute to both Palach and his mother, Libuše Palachová, who battled the ruling regime’s attempts to discredit her son and the dissent represented by his sacrifice.

I've still got enough material for another saints and sinners post but I'll try not to leave it so long this time!