Sunday, 23 April 2017

Prague Moments #5 - Klementinum Tour

I first moved to Prague in mid-October 2014 to start a new contract as a member of a small team of IT quality management specialists. I was the third member of the recently formed team and the first Brit, but a few weeks later I was joined by a second compatriot. Alec is a Glaswegian and we hit it off from the very start and went on to have a number of adventures in Prague over the course of the next two years.

Our first (and last) cultural experience together was a trip to the Klementinum, for a night tour of the building followed by a classical concert*.

Situated in Mariánské náměstí, the Klementinum is a huge complex founded by the Jesuits in 1556. Initially, the inhabitant lived in the old Dominican monastery on the site, but expanded this over the next 270 years and the site is now spread over more than two hectares, making it one of the most largest building complexes in Europe.

In 1622 part of the site that started off as a Jesuit college was promoted to university status, and this merged with the Charles University in 1654. In 1930, the last part of the university moved out of the complex, and it was taken over by the National Library.

The main features of the complex today are the Astronomical Tower, the Mirror Chapel and the Baroque library.

I'd ordered tickets on-line for the event, and these were delivered to my phone well before the night of the tour. Our first challenge was finding the right entrance to the building, which we finally managed, only to find that on arrival at the ticket office I couldn't get a signal on the phone and couldn't retrieve the tickets. After some prolonged discussions, we eventually managed to prove that we had indeed got valid tickets and we were who we claimed to be, we were eventually allowed on the tour.

We started in the Mirror Chapel, where Mozart used to play the organ, and where the concert was due to take place an hour or so later. Next was the Baroque library which was looking rather depleted as 90% of the books had been transported to Germany for extensive restoration. Like the other classic library in Prague, at the Strahov Monastery, you're only allowed to look in through the doorway and photography is completely out of the question (our charming guide told us that she had to run a quick errand and that she wouldn't know if we took any photos as long as we didn't use flash!).

Baroque Library in the Klementinum
The highlight of the tour was the highly gymnastic (and health and safety free) trip up the astronomical tower, stopping on the way to marvel at some of the earliest astronomical instruments still in existence (and some of which are still being used). These were the hallowed grounds where astronomers like Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, or Thadeus Hájek may once have worked.

The night time vista of Prague viewed from the top of the 68 metre tall tower is magnificent, and we were fortunate enough to have timed it such that the Christmas markets and lights were fully ablaze. This is undoubtedly one of the best viewpoints in Prague. Sadly, my photos don't do it justice.

Reluctantly we left the tower and Alec and I returned to the Mirror Chapel for the concert. Not only had our tickets been validated, we'd been upgraded to VIP status and had front row seats. Listening to Baroque music, in the same place where some of the composers had performed the very same music over 200 years previously was quite a profound experience. The musicians clearly enjoyed themselves, especially as one of them stood up for the final round of applause a few bars too early - oh those pesky false endings!

Organ in the Mirror Chapel
A great night out, one of many we shared as the 'bromance' blossomed over the next few months and years. Thanks buddy!

* Classical concerts are two a penny in Prague, and the churches and assembly halls clamber over each other to try and get your attendance and your money! The musicians are extremely competent, but they perform the same pieces night after night (sometimes rushing from one venue to another) and get paid a pittance so don't expect an evening of virtuoso performances for a few quid! I'd suggest you choose music that you're familiar with (extracts from the Four Seasons are usually on the 'menu') and find a venue which grabs your imagination. The Klementinum experience we did was fantastic and highly recommended, but there is currently a legal dispute going on which means that the tours can't be guaranteed.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Prague Moments #4 - Vojanův dvůr

With over 5400 local restaurants and bars mentioned in Trip Advisor, Prague is not short of places to eat and drink. The world doesn't need another set of restaurant reviews and I'm certainly not in the mood to become a food and drink critic. So, rather than start another theme in this blog dedicated to matters epicurean, I've decided to write about my favourite places under the mantle of my Prague Moments.

Vojanův dvůr is located on the West Bank of the Vlatava on U Lužického semináře. Cross the river via Mánesův Most, turn left and cross over the road and you can't miss the huge iron gates which lead into the courtyard.

The place has undergone a huge transformation since I first went there. My very first visit was with some Scottish friends who were in Prague for a friendly football match with the Czechs; it was during the winter and I remember us being the only people in the bar - outside the bar to be precise - and  even the hardy Scots were wrapped up in yellow blankets.

Some months later, in the middle of spring, I found myself back in the courtyard on a glorious spring Saturday morning. I sat at the same table as before (but with no need for a blanket) and had a few beers while people watching. I got talking to one of the waitresses and ended up staying a bit longer than I'd intended. I returned the following day, and ended up waiting a while for somewhere to sit, but  my patience paid off and I spent another happy afternoon there.

It didn't take long for Vojanův dvůr to become my favourite watering hole - much to the amusement of the staff. This is basically a tourist pub, and it's certainly not the cheapest place in the city - but compared to the UK it's still a bargain! This is my 'Cheers' pub, where everybody knows my name. I've spent many happy hours there and whenever I walk in I know I feel welcome.

For most of 2016, the courtyard housed a temporary kitchen. Even with this constraint, Tomáš the chef and his team were able to knock out first rate food at reasonable prices. The main building was cloaked by fencing and scaffolding, but these finally came down later in the year, and the new kitchen, bar and inside restaurant were open to all. With the new facilities, the menu has got more diverse, catering for both traditional Czech and international cuisine.

The Pilsner Urquell is as good as any you'll get in the city, and I enjoy sitting at the bar chatting with the staff, and continue to be amazed at how some people behave in public, usually without realising it!

Vojanův dvůr continues to be one of my first (and most regular) ports of call when I'm in town. Pop in one day if you're in the neighbourhood, and tell them Ally sent you! Maybe I'll be there myself and I'll be happy to buy you a beer (offer not valid for stag and hen parties or groups of more than two!).

Monday, 10 April 2017

Prague - My City of Romance

If you've read any of my previous posts in this blog you'll already be aware of my special connection to Prague, and my passion for being in the city. My most recent visit has completely sealed that bond and has catapulted Prague to the top of my list of the most romantic cities in the world.

In an article in the independent newspaper last year, Prague came in at number ten of the top twenty five most romantic cities in the world (Paris came in top, but that was hardly a revelation!). It has also featured in a similar poll and in a similar position this year and in 2014, Prague was third in the list of most romantic cities in Europe.

If you've visited Prague, you'll understand why people fall in love with the city. If you're lucky you may even have fallen in love with someone while you've been there. Even in the depths of winter, I've seen couples having wedding photographs taken on the Charles Bridge. A former colleague from Romania got married in her embassy in the city (best of both worlds - get married on your home soil in a different country!).

On my second trip to the city, some twelve years ago, I have a feeling that something sparked between me and another former colleague, although I can't be entirely sure - I was a bit less worldly than I am now!

We started seeing each other some years later after that, and have now been together for over ten years. Mel has been to stay with me on a number of occasions while I've lived in Prague, and she shares my love of the place. And on her birthday this year, as the climax to a great weekend shared with some old university friends of mine, we sealed the deal and got engaged (much to my surprise!).

Just after the big event - outside the first hotel we stayed in
Prague is truly My City of Romance! And Mel has a beautiful Bohemian white gold and diamond ring on her finger to prove it!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Hidden Prague #2 - Kafka's Head

I wasn't entirely sure whether this should be a 'Hidden Prague' post, or merely a 'Prague Landmark'. In the end, I decided on the former because when my neighbour from the UK came to stay with me last month, he spent two hours fruitlessly searching for it to no avail. Eventually I managed to point him in the right direction, and he went home a happy bunny, having seen everything on his list. When I first discovered it, it was only because I'd come out of the shopping mall the wrong way in my early days - and it had only been recently been unveiled, is it wasn't in any of the tourist guides.

Kafka's Head is another David Černý sculpture but on a massive scale. It stands 10.2 metres tall and is made up of 42 independent rotating tiers, held together by a kilometre of cable, driven by a motor and series of relay motors, and weighing in at 39 tonnes.

The whole assembly was erected in late 2014 above Národní třída metro station at the back of the Quadrio shopping mall and business centre (or here on Google maps).

Have a look at the video...(which seems not to show up in Safari. If you can't see the embedded video, trying clicking here)


For more technical information on the sculpture have a look at this page.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Hidden Prague #1 - Vojanovy Sady

As spring finally arrives in Prague, I thought I'd share some of my favourite places in the city that are hidden in plain sight.

First up is Vojanovy Sady, a lovely little walled park in Mala Strana. You can find it on the map here, but it's easy enough to locate. Cross over the river using Manesuv Most, take the first turning on the left and cross the street. Walk past the big iron gates for the Restaurant Vojanuv Dvur, and the entrance to the gardens is about one hundred metres further on.

The 2.5 hectare garden dates back to 1248. It's now part of the Ministry of Finance estate and was opened to the public in 1954 after some years of decay and neglect.

Given the proximity of the Charles Bridge and the main street leading up to the castle, these gardens are a little sea of tranquility and the loudest noise you'll hear will be that of the peacocks squawking as they strut around the park looking for snacks.

There are a few little oddities hidden away as you can see in the photos. Unfortunately I never managed to take a picture of the lady in the lake - I assume it's a lady because only her legs usually stick out of the pond - and the last couple of times I've been in, she's been missing.

So, if you're looking for a little place of (relative) solitude - take your lunch with you and settle down for a brief while. You'll not be disappointed!

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Prague Moments #3 - Masopust (Carnival)

Masopust is the Czech word for Carnival and dates back to the 13th Century where it was linked to the worship of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. These days, the Carnival is more associated with masked costume parades and more modern cultural activities, but it's one of my favourite times of the year in Prague, and it's happening right now!

For me, the highlight is the parade starting above the castle. Everyone meets up at the Black Ox pub (U Černého Vola) in Loretánské Namesti, and enjoys an hour or two of drinking and music before the parade begins to wend its way down towards the castle and into Mala Strana.

With the Carnival king and queen leading the way (alongside a mounted police escort), closely followed by a throng of revellers in a huge array of different costumes, the parade slowly heads through Hradčanské Namesti, down Nerudova and across Malostranské Namesti towards the Charles Bridge and then into Na Kampé for the real party to start.

Some of the costumes are incredible while others are a bit more makeshift, and many represent the pagan origins of the festival; devils and evil spirits decked in chains walk side by side with pirates and animals (and even someone a bit more sinister!)

The atmosphere is tremendous, and it is impossible not to become immersed in the proceedings. Alcohol clearly plays its part and there are usually plenty of folk more than happy to share their grog with the crowd. A drop of apricot brandy does wonders to hold off the February chill!

Last year, the day was made even more interesting with two demonstrations taking place at the same time and in the same part of town - one pro-immigration and one anti-immigration. To our great amusement, the police redirected both groups away from the parade and settled them into a smaller square until we'd gone past. Fortunately, neither group wanted to resort to fisticuffs that day!

Similar parades and activities take place in Žižkov and Vyšehrad as well as other parts of the city, but for me, this is one of the ultimate Prague Moments - and sadly this year I'm going to miss it as I'm not back in town until two days after the event.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Prague Landmarks #7 - Nový Svět (New World)

Despite being in all the lists of 'secret' places to go in Prague, Nový Svět (New World), is still, surprisingly, relatively quiet. Hidden at the back of the castle, in the Hradčany district, Nový Svět itself is a single street in a warren of largely car free, cobbled lanes which when viewed from a vantage point look like a miniature village.

Novy Svet and surrounding district

A number of commentators liken the area to how they imagine Terry Pratchett's Ankh Morph from the Diskworld novels might look. I prefer to think of it more as a scene from the Shires in Tolkein's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books.

Dating back to the 14th century the cottages used to house castle workers, a little like the better known Golden Lane within the castle complex.

Most of the original cottages were destroyed by a huge fire in the 18th century, but they were rebuilt and later became popular with artists and writers. They are now pretty much all privately owned. I stayed in one of the cottages which has now been converted to flats but retains most of its old world charm.

One famous resident of Golden Lane was the author Franz Kafka. Nový Svět had its own celebrity resident, namely the Danish mathematician and astronomer Tycho Brahe who lived in the house called "At the Golden Griffin" in 1600.

Compared to my normal accommodation down the road from the Charles Bridge it was wonderfully quiet. Even the little cafe opposite my apartment was only open between 11:00 am and 19:00 in the evening (and it's closed on Monday) which meant I never got a chance to try it out. Neither did I get to try the little restaurant at the lower entrance to the street since it was being renovated at the time I was there.

At the other end of the street there is a little hotel, U Raka, which is the only fully log timbered house left in Prague today, originally dating back to 1739 (or earlier).

A wet and dark winter night in Nový Svět

If you fancy getting away from it all, for even just an hour or so, it's well worth diverting away from the main sites around the castle, and stepping back a little further in time.