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!




Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Prague Landmarks #9 - Vyšehrad

In many of the posts in this blog, I've tried to focus on the less familiar sights in Prague. While it's understandable that visitors to the city want to visit places that are famous and within easy reach of their hotels there is a tendency to miss some of the really interesting monuments and historical landmarks that may be just a little further out of reach.

One such place is Vyšehrad ("The Upper Castle") located on a steep rock above the right bank of the Vltava. Located in Prague 2, Vyšehrad is about two miles south of the Old Town Square. It can be reached by metro on the red line or by tram to Výtoň or Albertov and then walking up the hill. My personal favourite route is to walk along the river down to Naplavka, then head left under the railway bridge heading up Vnislavova and finally climbing up the steep hill Vratislavova, until you reach the gateway into the fort.

Looking over Libuše's bath and the Vltava
The history of Vyšehrad allegedly begins in the Stone Age and is the stuff of the most ancient legends concerning the founding of Prague. The story goes that Libuše, the youngest and wisest of three daughters of the ancient (and also legendary) Krok, had the gift of prophecy and after she succeeded her father, she foresaw "a great city whose glory will touch the stars" whilst looking out from a rocky point above the river Vltava, now said to be Vyšehrad. She ordered the building of a castle and town that became Prague. With her ploughman husband, Přemysyl, Libuše went on to found the Přemyslid dynasty who ruled Bohemia right through until 1306.

           

Vyšehrad reached its peak as a royal seat in the 11th century but was subsequently abandoned during the 15th century and largely fell to ruins during the Hussite Wars. The current fortress was mainly remodelled during the 17th century as part of the Baroque era in and around Prague, and then again in the late 1800s.

Some parts of the earlier Citadel do still exist, most notably the Špička Gate, the lookout tower known as Libušina lázeň (Libuše's Bath), and the Rotunda of St Martin all date back to the 11th century.

The Rotunda of St Martin
The twin towers of the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul are unmistakable landmarks overlooking the river and Vyšehrad cemetery is the final resting place of such notable Czechs as the composers, Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, the writer Jan Neruda, and Milada Horáková, the only female Czech politician to be executed by the communist regime.

The twin towers of the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul
These days Vyšehrad is a popular park, which even on busy days seems relatively quiet. There are spectacular views down to and across the river, a number of interesting museums and galleries to visit and a few places to sit down and enjoy a beer and something to eat, away from the more popular tourist sites. There's even an open air theatre, originally designed as a mortar position, which hosts occasional performances, especially during Masopust (Carnival).

Panorama of Vyšehrad fortress and Prague
Whether you want an energetic workout or a gentle stroll, there's plenty for everyone here. Back in March 2015, I decided that the best place to watch the solar eclipse would be within the walls of Vyšehrad. Sadly I was wrong and I failed to get any photos of the actual event - but then the only one of my colleagues who stayed near office who did get a shot managed it by accident, only noticing it later in a reflection in a window! But it was a magical place to witness such an event and worth the leg work to get there. I strongly suggest you do the same, sooner rather than later!





Tuesday, 8 August 2017

More Musings from Malá Strana and a Murderous Memento!

In my last post, I shared the briefest of views of Malá Strana - the lesser quarter which lies in the shadows of Prague Castle. I did hint at a promise of more to read, especially around Nerudova. As it turned out, the very next day I found myself with a little bit of time so,  here we are again - a bit earlier than expected!

Nerudova is named for Jan Neruda, the author, who lived on this street over 170 years ago. You can't miss the house, near the top of the hill, with its distinctive nameplate.


Did I mention before that this is a pretty steep hill? This is the view looking down from Neruda's house looking towards the Old Town Square and Our Lady Before Tyn.


A few years ago, I was walking up the hill fairly early one morning and was aware of a commotion in front of me. I could see a number of shop keepers were out in the street shaking their brooms and wagging their fingers, while a small number of tourists were jostling for position to take photographs. It turned out that the cause of the excitement was a young lady wearing nothing more than a smile and a pair of flip flops with a video cameraman trying to film her and act as a bouncer a the same time. My Czech isn't good enough to know what the shop keepers were saying, but I doubt it was to warn her that flip flops are not suitable footwear for this particular road. I was too polite to take photos, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Nerudova is famous for its house names and the beautiful signs that identify them. Here's a small selection.

 

They represent (clockwise from top left): The White Swan, The Green Lobster, The Red Ram, Medusa at No. 14, The Golden Cup and The Three Fiddles. Often the signs were associated with the nature of the businesses carried out at the property. In Czech the names are usually preceded with the letter 'U' which translates to 'At the house of', so 'U zlate cise' translates to 'At the House of the Golden Cup'. This sign at No.16 used to be the home of a goldsmith and his family.

One other oddity worth looking at in Malá Strana are the bollards in Malostranské náměstí at the bottom of the hill. These curious looking things represent the 27 Czech nobles executed on June 21st 1621 in the Old Town Square. The victims were part of a Protestant revolt, and they were executed by the official Prague executioner, Mydlár - who used four swords and took from 5am until 9:30pm to complete his grisly task. 14 of the most influential nobles were beheaded, the rest were hanged but one, Dr Jesenius, had his tongue ripped out before his demise. The heads of the victims were then displayed on the East Tower of the Charles Bridge. The location of the bollards, which were erected in 1993 is significant. They are in front of the Liechenstein Palace - once owned by Karel of Liechenstein who ordered the executions.


  

Yet more ghosts and gruesome tales from this beautiful place with such an extraordinary and chequered past!









Thursday, 3 August 2017

Prague Moments #13 - Musing In Malá Strana

When I wrote about the Memorial to the Victims of Communism a few weeks ago, I confessed that I didn't spend anywhere near as much time exploring the western side of the Vltava as perhaps I should.  But I started to rectify that in June and spent a bit of extra effort walking around the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana) looking for interesting places and photo opportunities. And by chance,  just after I started writing this post, I've had to come over to Prague for an unscheduled visit, and I just happen to be staying on Nerudova.

Malá Strana is well documented in literary works about Prague, especially in Prague Tales by Jan Neruda, which is set in the real world of real people living in the area in the 19th century. One of the many wonderful things about Prague is that it only takes a little imagination to transport yourself back to those bygone years, and follow in the footsteps of those characters like the Doctor and Josefina.

Backstreets of Malá Strana in the early morning
So here are a few of my favourite sights in Malá Strana; the well known, and the not so well known. I hope it will give you a taste of what you might discover by stepping away from the main streets and squares, without using up too much shoe leather!

The most famous landmark in this area is almost certainly St Nicholas' Catherdral which dates back to 1702 although the original site was a place of worship as far back as 1283.

St Nicholas' Catherdral
One of my favourite sights is the building that spans Thunovská. Take a short walk up the hill and you'll find the British embassy tucked away on a side street, with a bust of Churchill keeping vigil at the corner of the street.



The real gem of course is Nerudova itself. The steep hill takes you up to Prague Castle and whilst it is heavily populated with touristy tack shops and many of the buildings date back to medieval times. Many of the houses still bear their original name signs - house numbers were not introduced in Prague until 1770. Originally part of the Royal Way, Neruda was renamed in honour of the author Jan Neruda who lived there from 1849 to 1857. In a future visit, I'm going to try and photograph all the different house names and their symbols, and I'll showcase the most interesting in a future post.

Malá Strana is a popular place, but as always in Prague, taking a few steps off the beaten track will provide you with some great rewards.



Saturday, 22 July 2017

Prague Moments #12 - Home Alone in a Post Apocalyptic Prague?

One of my most magical Prague moments was getting up at the crack of dawn in April 2015 and watching the sunrise over the Charles Bridge. Last month, I almost repeated the experience by accident when I'd woken up at five a.m.,  unable to sleep. I only had a few more days in town, so I decided to get up and have a walk around town. My particular mission was to take photographs of each of the statues on the Charles Bridge, and this was only realistically possible early in the morning before the crowds made the task nigh on impossible.

I missed the sunrise this time by about thirty minutes, but the bridge was still relatively empty bar a few photographers, some hardy tourists and the ubiquitous Japanese wedding photo party! (I wonder if it was the same ones as last time?)

I managed to complete my task - I'll maybe publish another post in the future on that topic - and headed into town to see what else I could find in the early morning light. What I found blew me away!

Coming back off Karlovy Most, I headed down Karlova, a street I normally try and avoid because of the crowds. Apart from a few delivery vans and some store/restaurant staff taking in the deliveries, the street was completely deserted.

Karlova
I headed into the Old Town Square and found exactly the same phenomenon - there was one other person in the square. I walked on towards Wenceslas Square and the only life was a lady at one of the sausage stands, smoking a sneaky cigarette while the grills were warming up. It was a similar story around the back of the Estates Theatre, Můstek and Na Příkopě, all usually buzzing with people and life.

Old Town Square
Old Town Square
Wenceslas Square
For over an hour, I appeared to have Prague to myself. It was a bit like walking around a post apocalyptic cityscape. The beautiful skies of this time of year and this time of the morning gave the place real atmosphere and were reflected in the empty streets. Finally, I headed back to Ostrovni and went back to bed for a couple of hours while the city woke up around me and started filling the streets.

Life returns to the Old Town Square
Once again the city shared its magic with me, but please don't all go out and try this at the same time. It won't work!



Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Prague Landmarks #8 - Memorial to the Victims of Communism

I have to confess that during my association with Prague I've not spent anywhere near as much time exploring the western embankment of the Vltava and its environs. Of course I've made numerous trips up to the castle, I've spent plenty of time in the cafes and restaurants of Malá Strana, and enjoyed some good walks up on the Letna plateau and on Petřín  Hill.

But there's a lot more going on in this area, and on my most recent visit I started to try and rectify my omission, and I'll continue to do so in the future.

If you're staying on the east bank, a common walk is to go over Most Legií from the National Theatre, and maybe drop down onto Shooter's Island (Střelecký ostrov ) and look out over the Charles Bridge. Most people will then continue over the bridge and turn right at the end and head down towards Kampa.

But if you continue straight ahead, along Vitèzná, and down to Újzed at the bottom of Petřín Hill, you'll look up and see the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. The monument consists of a series of seven bronze figures (or partial figures) descending a flight of stairs. It was unveiled  22nd May 2002 to commemorate, some twelve years later, the victims of the communist regime between 1948 and 1989.



A plate at the base of the monument gives the estimated details of the numbers of people directly affected during those years:

  • 205,486 arrested
  • 170,938 forced into exile
  • 4,500 died in prison
  • 327 shot trying to escape
  • 248 executed

A nearby plaque reads:
"The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism"
The whole memorial was the work of the Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek, and the architects Jan Kerel and Zdeněk Holzel, and has caused considerable controversy since its erection. In 2003 two bomb blasts damaged one of the statues, but no group has ever claimed responsibility.

I had previously seen the monument in daylight (albeit a very damp, gloomy November day) but only recently visited it after dark where it has an eerie glow making it even more disturbing.

Memorial to the Victims Of Communism