Monday, 30 January 2017

Prague Landmarks #4 - The Metronome

If you are standing on the eastern bank (right had side) of the Vltava looking across the river and you manage to pry your eyes away from the view of the castle and cast them further to the right you should catch sight of the bright red Prague Metronome, high above the city on the edge of the Letná plateau.

The Prague Metronome was built in 1991 and is a fully functional 75ft tall metronome, designed by Vratislav Novák. It was erected as a permanent symbolic reminder of the Czech struggles under communism. Before its construction, the site was home to the largest statue of Stalin in the world,  a 17,000-ton statue of the Soviet dictator.

The original statue was blown up in 1962 on the orders of Nikita Krushchev and the remnants are reported to be buried in the pedestal under the metronome.

The story behind the building of Stalin's monument is as bizarre as any of the amazing tales from Prague's past. A Czech TV film (Monstrum) was being made about it and in May 2016 for a couple of days, Stalin once again cast his (much smaller) shadow over the city. It was a little disconcerting going for my morning run, crossing Chechuv Most, looking up expecting to see the metronome and instead seeing what appeared to be the return of communism!

The stairway up to the metronome from the bridge is fairly steep, and not to be under-estimated in winter when it gets quite icy. There are a few less arduous pathways which go up to Letná park, but whichever route you take, you get amazing views of the river.

Behind the metronome, the area has been adopted as a popular meeting place for younger people, and there are usually a number of skateboarders honing their skills amongst the dog walkers, runners and other less athletic folk! In the heat of the summer, there are a number of great little places to grab a beer in the park and cool down a little.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Prague Landmarks #3 - Vítkov Hill

My third landmark lies about half a mile (as the crow flies) from the TV Tower and is often missed by visitors to the city, especially by those on short stays. I didn't become aware of the site until I'd lived in Prague for over three months, and then it was only because I'd been flicking through a book of photographs comparing old and new Prague*.

I'm talking about Vítkov Hill, which lies between Karlin and Žižkov in Prague 3, and is the site of the National Monument and the third largest bronze equestrian statue in the world, the 9m high, 9.6m long, and 16.5 ton sculpture of Jan Žižka. The monument was built between 1928 and 1938 to honour the Czechoslovak Legion.

Jan Žižka led the Hussite forces against the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund, at the battle of Vítkov Hill during the Hussite Wars. The battle took place in July 1420 and was a decisive Hussite victory.

The statue was commissioned in 1931 and created by Bohumil Kafka and took over 10 years to complete, but Kafka himself died in 1941, before it was finally erected and unveiled on 14 July 1950 to make the anniversary of the battle.

The Czech tomb of the unknown soldier is located underneath the statue.

During the communist years, the monument was used to promote the regime, and in 1954-1962 it was used as the mausoleum of the communist leader Klement Gottwald.

The views over Prague from the top of the hill are magnificent, and are well worth the climb. On my first visit, I'd started on a beautiful summer day and was recovering from the exertion when I noticed a huge storm cloud looming over Hradčanská and travelling towards me. Despite my best efforts, I failed to outrun it and was still a good five minutes away from my flat when it hit. Since then, I've rarely gone out on a without packing a cagoule in my backpack!

* Prague Then and Now by Jenni Meili Lay

Monday, 9 January 2017

Prague Landmarks #2 - The Hunger Wall

I've chosen The Hunger Wall (Hladová zeď) as the second of my Prague landmarks. Built in 1360-2 on the orders of King Charles IV, the wall snakes up Petřin Hill behind Ujzeď, then on towards Strahov, and is clearly visible from the opposite side of the Vlatava to the left of the Funicular Railway.

The Hunger Wall gets its name from the idea that it was built in order to provide work for the locals during a serious famine in 1361. While the construction of the wall certainly did afford work during the famine, its real purpose was strategic and it provided protection for the castle and Mala Strana against attacks from the west and the south. Originally the wall was 4-6 metres high, about 2 metres wide and equipped with battlements and bastions. The final bastion (it is assumed there were 8 originally) became the site for the Stefanik Observatory. About 1200 metres of the original wall still remains.

You can walk up Petřin Hill along the side of the wall. It's quite a steep climb but it gives you an idea of how arduous building it would have been! There are easier ways of getting to see it up close - most notably by taking the funicular and then walking across to the wall from the top station.

It's not a good trip out if the weather is bad, but on a fresh winter or spring day it's quite exhilarating and the views across the city are great, even if the origins of the wall are only myths (like so many of the stories about Prague). Apparently the phrase Hladová zeď is now used to describe useless public works...but at least this one has character, unlike our equivalent PFI infrastructure projects in the UK!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Prague Landmarks #1 - The "Baby" Tower (Žižkov Television Tower)

Over the last two years I've taken about 2,500 photos in and around the city. So I'm going to showcase some of them in my future posts. Each post will focus on a particular landmark or specific photo and I'll write a few accompanying notes about the history, significance and other (hopefully) useful snippets of information. The landmarks won't be in any order - I'm just plucking out photos from my library at random.

My first landmark is the Žižkov Television Tower (Žižkovský vysílač) lovingly referred to as the Baby Tower by my girlfriend (more on that in a moment).

The tower is located in the Žižkov district of the city, which is pretty much due east of the Old Town Square. It was built between 1985 and 1992, stands 709ft (216m) tall, and was designed by architect Václav Aulický and the structural engineer Jiří Kozák. 

The primary functions of the tower are for TV transmission, meteorology, and, most recently, a data centre, but there are sections which are open to the public and afford amazing views of the city both during the day and at night. 

There are a number of fibre glass sculptures of babies crawling up and down around the lower and mid sections of the tower (hence the 'baby tower'). These were designed by the 'alternative' Czech sculptor David Černý and initially mounted in 2000 as a temporary erection but returned permanently in 2001. (David Černý will crop up numerous times in future posts!)

There is also a restaurant and a snack bar (but a bit pricey!). At night the tower is usually illuminated by stunning red, white and blue lights, mimicking the colours of the Czech flag. 

The tower is the tallest building in the Czech Republic, but also used to have the dubious reputation of being the second ugliest building in the world (it now appears to have been relegated to fourth ugliest - the ugliest being the Verizon building in New York or the Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea depending on which list you read).

Personally, I love the building, and it's never far out of view wherever you are in the city. 

If you like this post, please comment on other landmarks you might want me to write about...after all, this is Prague and there are more than a few! 

And there's a pretty good chance I've been there and have some photos!