Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Hidden Prague #6 - Troja Palace

Strictly speaking, this is another post that crosses my arbitrary categories. The Troja Palace isn't hidden in the same way that some of the other parks and gardens I've written about are. But you're unlikely to come across it by accident as it's a good couple of miles from the old town, to the north of the city.

Its location doesn't make it inaccessible - jump on a number 17 tram from Staroměstské to Trojský and then either walk to the palace or hop on the 112 bus - and you'll be there in 30-45 minutes. If you find yourself at Prague Zoo, you've slightly overshot!


There are several times in the year when the municipal authorities in Prague join forces with the custodians of certain landmarks to allow free entry to those attractions. Last weekend was one such occasion, and on Saturday night, a lot of museums waived their entry fee. On Sunday it was the turn of a number of public and privately owned gardens to do the same thing, and one of the places on the list was the Troja palace.


The Troja palace was built between 1679 and 1691 for the Count of Sternberg, although it is now owned by the city of Prague. It was primarily designed by the French architect Jean-Baptiste Mathey, who also designed the building which now houses the French embassy in Prague (opposite the Lennon Wall).

But the purpose of my trip was to see the gardens and in particular the stunning staircase at the back of the building.  Designed and sculpted by two artists from Dresden, Johann Georg and Paul Heermann, the staircase is adorned with statues representing the fight between Olympian Gods and the Titans.

Heading up the sweeping oval staircase (1685-1703)
From the top of the staircase, looking out between the sons of Mother Earth
What lies beneath?

Although I didn't venture into the palace itself, it houses a collection of 19th century art and boasts some very impressive interiors by all accounts. 

I have also discovered that the gardens have been used to host the occasional Pétanque competition. As a player myself, I can honestly say it's a bit more up-market than some of the venues we're used to in the East Midlands - although it's a long walk to the bar!







Friday, 9 June 2017

Hidden Prague #5 - A Fly On The Wall and other Oddities

If you read this blog on a regular basis, you may remember my post in February this year about the Hanging Man (strictly Man Hanging Out). In that post, I urged people to not only look around them at the wonders of the city but also to look upwards.

Here are some more strange things you can get a glimpse of if you're looking in the right places. 

First up are the human figures which are part of Michal Trpàk's "Slight Uncertainty" installation. These were originally part of a much larger group of figures displayed in the EBC office building in Prague, but some have made their way to other parts of town.


These two can be found at the intersection of Na Zbořenci and Odborů. Although they look like cement, they are actually made of polyester and are meant to represent "the people belonging to the working middle-class society who have taken the biggest hit in the recession. The airborne figures portray an expression of sadness, despair and an apparent instability". Each figure took about six months to create from initial drawing and is about 160cm tall.

While you're there, check out the giant fly on the building behind the man with the umbrella. Most people miss it, and quite honestly, it is pretty gross. Interestingly I can't find any information about the creator or intent behind this monster, but then this is Prague!


Next are the mysterious figures sitting atop the building (Deymův Palace) on Voršilská which runs between Národní and Ostrovní (where I'm currently staying and writing this post!). Once again, I can't find any provenance associated with the three figures, but my research indicates they were installed sometime after 2005.


Finally, in this group, it would seem appropriate to mention the figure of King Wenceslas riding on an upside down horse which is hanging from the atrium roof in the Lucerna Palace. It's another David Černý sculpture...



The figure is either called "Horse", "Dead Horse" or "Saint Wenceslas" depending on which source you use and was created in 1999, but, as usual, Černý makes little comment about his work. However, I'm sure that the location of the statue, just a few hundred metres away from the more conventional monument to King Wenceslas in Václavské náměstí is no coincidence! I leave you to speculate on the meaning.

Remember - in Prague, it's often 'onwards and upwards'! If you know of any other upwardly mobile oddities, please leave a comment or drop me a note.








Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Hidden Prague #4 - Palace Gardens (Under Prague Castle)

Despite having lived in Prague, on and off, for nearly three years and done all the classic tourist sights, I'm constantly finding new and wonderful things to do and see. Yesterday I was on a mission to find one specific place (a task that I completed successfully) and ended up somewhere that I knew about but had never really managed to put particularly high up on my priority list.

There are numerous gardens all around the castle complex. Some of them are directly associated with the castle, others belong to some of the ‘palaces’ which lie underneath the castle hill.

Yesterday, I stumbled on 'Zahrady Pod Pražskym Hradem' (which translates to 'Palace Gardens under Prague Castle'). These started out as a set of individual gardens but have now been merged into a single attraction. The original gardens, the Ledeburg, Small and Large Pálffy, Kolovrat and Small Fürstenburg gardens, and are situated on the southern slopes of the castle. Originally the site was covered in vineyards. For a full description of each of the component gardens, let me refer you to this site.

These are Prague's very own ‘hanging gardens’ which literally hang off the slopes underneath Prague Castle. They are a series of terraces, which climb up from Valdštejnská in Malá Strana to a level where you can just about bang your head on the castle wall.


Each terrace is reached by a set of steep stone stairways, and it appears that, at every level, the span of the terrace gets wider. The viewpoints over the city get more and more stunning as you climb above the rooftops.


You could argue that these are the same views that you get from the top of Nerudova from the castle parapets but you'd be wrong. For one thing, despite this being the start of the busy summer tourist season, I was almost alone in the gardens. From my vantage point, I could see the throngs above me clambering over each other to take photos and get a fleeting glimpse of the panorama. I was able to take my time, compose my shots (and myself) and quite literally, smell the roses.


Coming down from the terraces (you used to be able to get into the castle from the top, but this is no longer possible with the most recent security crackdown), you should find your way down to the Ledeburg Garden, near street level, with its grand staircase, statue of Hercules fighting the hydra, a fountain and a fresco covered 'sala terrena' or gallery. This whole area is used for concerts and theatrical performances.


Adult entrance to the gardens is 100 CZK and it's worth every penny to escape the madness and marvel at the views of the city and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

I mentioned the hydra, the mythical creature, which grew additional heads every time one got chopped off. My Prague bucket list is a bit like that. For every sight on my list I get to tick off, two or three more take its place!








Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Prague Moments #9 - Apple Museum

I often say that Prague is a city of contrasts, and none more so than the juxtaposition of the hi-tech Apple Museum with the medieval buildings in the backstreets of the old town. Situated at the intersection of Karlova and Husova in the Old Town, the Apple Museum is the largest private collection of Apple products.

Apple Computers timeline 1976-2012
There are 472 exhibits, housed across 767 square metre of exhibition space, and covers Apple products and memorabilia going back as far as 1976. Among the products represented in the museum are an Apple Lisa, Apple II, numerous iMacs, PowerBooks and iBooks as well as more modern incarnations of iPhones, iPods, iPads and MacBooks. The Macintosh family is especially well covered.

PowerMacs 1994 - 2006
Macintosh computers 1984 - 1991
                  

In addition, in a celebration of all things Steve Jobs related, there are NeXT cubes and Pixar paraphernalia from Jobs' time away from Apple.

There are bucket loads of other Apple accessories, including printers, cameras, networking devices and i/o devices.

Some people may argue that the museum exhibits don't reflect the latest and shiniest kit to originate from Cupertino, but this was an intentional decision because the museum curators wanted to focus on products created during Jobs' lifetime, so there is no representation of items after 2012.

Tickets cost €9 for adults (a little under £8 at today's rates) and all profits go to charity.

As an Apple user myself for the last ten years, and someone with a real interest in the history of IT, I found it a fascinating way to spend a (very) wet afternoon. Although quite a lot of the exhibits also appear to exist in my spare bedroom, they aren't anywhere nearly as well presented as they are in the museum, which could almost have been designed by Apple itself.

Please note - photography is not allowed in the museum (oops!)







Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Prague Moments #8 - Lucerna Music Bar

It shouldn't come as any great surprise that there is an abundant music, art, and theatre scene in Prague. After all, we often associate the term "Bohemian" with a kind of artistic lifestyle, conjuring up images of impoverished painters, composers and writers hidden away in their garrets, living on cheap wine and opium!

Manfred Mann's Earth Band
What may surprise you is the diversity of live music available to people in Prague and particularly the prevalence of popular bands and singers from the UK, US and Australia who now regularly include Prague on their tours.

Over the course of the last three years, I've seen some great acts in some interesting venues. But my favourite to date is still the Lucerna* Music Bar. The original venue, the Palace Lucerna was built at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1909 the club was being used as a theatre and later as a cabaret. After 1948 the whole Lucerna palace was nationalised. During the Communist era, the club was used as a nightclub without any real focus, but 20 years ago, on October 25th, 1995 the Lucerna Music Bar opened for the first time.

Hooverphonic
Located on Vodičkova, just off Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square),  the Lucerna Palace comprises shops, galleries, the Lucerna Theatre and the downstairs Music Bar, which has a capacity of 800, mainly standing. Wherever you stand on the main floor, you are never far from the wide stage and this allows an exceptional intimacy with the performers.

Like other venues in Prague, tickets prices are generally lower than you'd pay in the UK in a similar venue, and even more surprising, drinks are not much more than you'd pay in a bar in the same vicinity. A half litre of Pilsner Urquell (in an obligatory plastic glass) will cost about 50CZK or £1.50 and you'll pay about double that for a cocktail.

Newton Faulkner


Last time I was there, was to see Amy MacDonald, supported by Newton Faulkner (I couldn't even get tickets for her gig in Nottingham but here I was less than ten metres from the front of the stage!). In the past I've seen Hooverphonic, Band of Horses and Manfred Mann's Earth Band.


While I'm naming dropping, I've also enjoyed seeing Blackmores Night, Marina and the Diamonds, and the Australian band The Paper Kites, but in different venues around the city.




If you do find a act you want to see you'll be sure of a great night, but make certain you get there on time. The tickets will always tell you what time the show begins and venue websites will tell you when each act is due on the stage. Unlike in the UK, acts in Prague start with military precision. This is because local by-laws prevent most concerts from continuing after 22:30 in the evening (sadly this doesn't apply to drunks singing in the street!).

Amy MacDonald
Later this year Sparks (remember them?) and Anathema are due to perform at Lucerna and I'm hoping to be around to see them as well.

* Lucerna is the Czech word for lantern.



Saturday, 6 May 2017

Prague Moments #7 - Navalis (May 15th)

On May 15th the people of Prague celebrate Navalis, in honour of Saint John of Nepomuk (1345-1393). This is a tradition that dates back some 300 years to the his beatification in 1715. 

St John on the Charles Bridge
St John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of bridges, communication, good reputation and of all people of the water. I've mentioned him previously and you cannot walk far in Prague without seeing a statue, engraving or some other representation of him. He is instantly recognisable by his five star halo, which represent the stars that hovered over the river Vltava in which he was drowned on the orders of King Wenceslas IV. The legend has it that the king was convinced that his queen had taken a lover and demanded that St John, as the queen's confessor, reveal her secrets. When he refused to break the seal of confession, the king ordered him to be thrown into the Vltava from the Charles Bridge, hence gaining his martyrdom. 

The first account of this was some sixty years after his death and further chronicles go on to embellish the legend. The more likely historical truth is that St John refused to confirm the king's choice of a new abbott as part of a papal power struggle between the pope in Rome and a rival Avignon papacy supported by the Wenceslas, who was himself embattled with his own nobles.  But why let history get in the way of a good yarn? The first story is much more romantic!

The Navalis celebrations are heavy duty even by Prague standards. There's a procession, a holy mass at St Vitus Cathedral, another religious service St Francis of Assisi by the Charles Bridge, a regatta, skydiving and a riverside concert, rounded off by Baroque fireworks on the Vltava. All in the space of about five hours!

Last year, the procession from the castle to the statue of St John on the Charles Bridge was the real highlight of the evening for me. It was an incredibly moving and spiritual experience. Prague dignitaries, churchmen, children,  representatives of numerous local groups, and other pilgrims, along with horses and riders, follow a statue of the saint and hold a brief service on the bridge. 

Make way for the Hat
As the sun set, the sky turned an amazing yellowy-brown and I felt goosebumps on the back of my neck. The only disappointing aspect of the experience was the attitude of some of the tourists on the bridge, who seemed extremely put out that they were being impeded by the procession.

Incredible skies after the procession
We listened to some of the concert which was performed from a floating stage by the riverbank with lots of people watching from little boats on the river. The Charles Bridge also was illuminated with little white stars representing the stars on the saint's halo.

Concert on the Vltava and the stars illuminating the bridge
Unfortunately the place we'd chosen to watch the fireworks failed to take into account that Baroque fireworks don't go very high into the sky (at least not that night) and we didn't see a thing, but by that time it was getting pretty chilly.

If you're in Prague on the 15th May this year, I highly recommend you get along to at least some of the events in the programme. It all kicks off at 16:00 (local time) in Hradčany Square but you can find the detailed information on the official website here. And if last year is anything to go by, wrap up well!











Thursday, 4 May 2017

Prague in Print - Some of My Favourite Books; Part 1 - Factual

There is no shortage of guidebooks about Prague; a quick search on Amazon (UK) lists 1579 in the book department (including Kindle versions). Most of them cover the same old familiar sights and places and provide little more than a cursory introduction to the city, its people and its customs. Some of them are superb, and my personal favourite is the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Prague (last updated in October 2016).

But if you want to find out a bit more about Prague you have to dig a bit deeper. There are some excellent books available, covering: history, architecture, hidden or secret Prague, cuisine and culture. There's a fair bit of fiction as well, from both traditional Czech writers and more modern authors who have used the city as a backdrop to their novels and stories.


This post covers just a few of my favourites in each category. If it proves popular, I may expand it in the future.

Culture and customs

If you're going to be moving to Prague, there are three must-read books in my opinion.

The first is Czech Republic (Culture Shock!) by Tim Nollen. It's a bit short of 300 pages, but I personally think it should be mandatory reading for ALL travellers to the Czech Republic.

The next two are books by Rachael Weiss, an Australian with Czech parents, who came to Prague to find herself and her roots...twice. "Me, Myself and Prague" and its sequel, "The Thing About Prague..." are witty, easy to read books which give you a great idea of what to expect when you start to live here, although to be fair, life has got a bit easier (most of the time!).

Travellers' Tales

Some of the best insights into the city, both past and present, factual and fictional, can be found in books like "Prague: A Traveler's Literary Companion", edited by Paul Wilson, "Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories", edited by David Farley,  and "Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague" by Myla Goldberg, who lived in Prague for three years, but this is more a collection of essays and fits nicely with the other books mentioned in this section.

Coffee Table Books

There are a few 'coffee table' books in my library. Big hardbacks with lots of glossy photos. Im particularly fond of Prague: Architecture, History, Art by Stephen Brook, The Prague Book: Highlights Of A Fascinating City (Monaco Books), and Prague: Past and Present by Claudia Sugliano. My favourite in this category is probably Prague Then and Now by Jenni Meili Lau. Whilst all the photos are black and white, each double page spread contains a recent shot contrasted with a photo from a bygone age, and it's fascinating to see how the city has changed over the years (and since the book was published in 2007, how it has continued to change).

That should be enough to keep you going for a few days! In a future post, I'll share a few fictional books I've collected.