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.




Monday, 1 May 2017

Prague Moments #6 - Břevnov Monastery May Day Beer Festival

The May Day bank holiday in Prague marks the date for the first Beer Festival in the city - První Pivní Máj (literally First Beer May). It is currently held at the Břevnov Monastery in Prague 6 and last year I arranged to meet there with my Polish friends, Slawomir and Renata.


It was a lovely spring day and rather than take the tram, I decided to walk from my flat on Smetanovo nábřeží, across the Charles Bridge, up to the castle and onto Pohořelec, before heading down Bělohorská and finally arriving at the monastery grounds for the opening at around 10:30. It was a two and three-quarter mile walk but not uneventful. On the steep climb up Nerudova towards the castle, there was quite a commotion caused by a young and very pretty lady quite happily striding along the street without a care in the world and without a stitch of clothing (sorry, no photos, you'll have to take my word for it!). Most of the noise seemed to be from the tut-tuts of the older, disapproving shopkeepers and the wives and girlfriends of the male tourists busy taking photos and getting in the way of the 'official' photographer.

I also found this rather eerie place near Diskařská which I decided must be where old trams go to die.


By the time Slavo and Renata arrived about half an hour later, the party was in full swing. I've been to a lot of beer festivals over the years, and some in strange places like a covered over swimming pool and an old converted railway roundhouse, but a monastery was a first, and it was also the first truly outdoor festival I'd been to.
Beer Festival in the shadow of Brevnov Monastery
The festival is fairly small in terms of the number of breweries, usually about 20 microbreweries, but with each of them having three or four different beers, there's no shortage of different tipples catering for most tastes. Along with the beers, there are a few Moriavian wines, ciders and a selection of typcial Czech sauages and other nibbly bits to choose from.

Having spent a good few hours sampling the delights and trying very hard not to get roped into the drinking contests (one of which involved drinking a litre of beer through a very long straw) we made our way back into town before winding down with a few cocktails at the bar underneath my flat.

Beer festivals are a Czech family affair!
The first of many beer festivals had been a great day out. Perfect weather, wonderful Czech hospitality, and truly wonderful friends. You'll hear more about them I'm sure!








Friday, 28 April 2017

Hidden Prague #3 - Franciscan Gardens

Continuing with the theme of hidden Prague, there are few substantial places more hidden in plain sight than the Franciscan Garden (Františkánská zahrada) which sits betweenWenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) and Jungmannovo náměstí, in the shadow of the Church of the Virgin Mary of the Snow.
Franciscan Gardens and Church of the Virgin Mary of the Snow
It was originally a much larger medieval garden of the Carmelite Monastery established around 1348 at the time of the main development of the New Town (Nové Město). After 1604 it became the property of the Franciscans Order. The garden was opened to the public when the Franciscans were expelled by the communists in 1950.

Between 1989 and 1992, the garden was reconstructed by the architects Josef Kuča and Ivana Tichá, and new sculptures were added by Stanislav Hanzík and Josef Klimeš. The monastery and gardens were returned to the Franciscans as part of the restitution of property following the Velvet Revolution.




What strikes you on entering the garden is the peace and quiet compared to the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest parts of the city. In the spring and summer especially there is a blaze of colour, subtle smells of blossom, herbs and spices, and the gentle buzzing of bees. It's a great place to rest your feet, have a bite of lunch and sit and ponder or meditate for a moment or two before setting off on the next part of your adventure and hitting the busy streets once again.


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.