Friday, 18 February 2022

Prague in Plain Sight #8 - Powder Tower (Prašná brána)

In my previous post I wrote about Jindřišská which is only a few minutes walk from my apartment, but a monument I had never properly visited until relatively recently. The Powder Tower, (Prašná brána) is even closer, and despite having walked around it and under it countless times, I had never been inside this landmark either until a few weeks ago.

The tower is located at the intersection of Celetna and Na příkopě (which literally translates to 'in the ditch', and refers to an old moat long since filled in) and just a few steps away from Náměstí Republiky metro station.


Also known as the Powder Gate, this is one of thirteen original city gates in Prague’s Old Town and this one separates the Old and New Towns. Construction began in 1475. It was inspired by the design of the towers on the Charles Bridge and was intended as a decorative tower rather than as a defensive one, and replaced the old and dilapidated Horská tower and was part of the old King’s Court which was located where the Municipal House now stands. As such it became the passing point through which coronation processions used to pass on the way to the St Vitus Cathedral. In 1485, Prague Castle became the royal residence and the next royal procession through the tower did not take place until 1836. In fact, the Powder Tower remained unfinished until 1592.


The building was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century, hence the name Powder Tower. Today’s appearance dates back to the years 1875 - 1886 when the Powder Gate Tower was restored and completed in a pseudo-Gothic style by the architect Josef Mocker. 

The Powder Tower is 65 m high with an observation gallery at 44 metres above ground level. Inside, the spiral staircase is made of 186 stone steps.

Perhaps waiting until the middle of winter to go up the tower was not one of my brightest ideas! Three days after Christmas, it was cold, grey and quite windy, but my fiancée had come over to join me for Christmas. It was only the second time I had seen her in two years because of Covid restrictions and we were determined to make the most of the time and do as many new things as possible.

Having climbed up most of the towers in the city, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Cold, clammy, stone-clad walls and an element of dizziness from climbing steep spiral staircases with the ever-present threat of someone coming down the other way! For that reason, we went in the first hour of the tower being open (which also meant a discount on the ticket prices) - and it wasn't too busy, although there was a group of people who seemed more interested in screaming down their phones than being aware of their surroundings!



The views from the gallery were amazing despite the conditions. My real problem was that given the cold and having to wear a mask (which was trying very hard to fly away) I was really struggling to keep my glasses from steaming up. As a result, I couldn't use my DSLR camera and had to rely on my iPhone for my photos.


To be honest, I was quite happy to get back in from the gallery, back down the draughty stairwell and back onto terra firma! And by then it was beer o'clock! 


Monday, 31 January 2022

Prague in Plain Sight #7 - Jindřišská (Henry's Bell Tower)

Many years ago my neighbours, who had by then become great friends, moved to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. From childhood, I’d always been fascinated by the name Kuala Lumpur (although I have no idea why) and I finally had an opportunity to go and visit, which I did on many occasions. Although my friends had been there for a while before I finally made my first trip, they had spent their time setting up their new home, sorting out the children and engaging with members of the extensive ex-pat community. On a visit to the Bata Caves, not far from KL, they let me into a little secret. This was the first time they’d done anything even vaguely touristy since they’d arrived.


Over the last eight years living in Prague I’ve definitely done a lot of touristy things. I’ve written about a lot of them in the seventy articles I’ve written on this blog! Some of them are more mainstream than others, but the great thing about spending a lot of time in a place is that you get to go to places that weekenders and short stay people rarely get to see. And then there are some places that kind of fall between the two - touristy but not quite mainstream! One such place is Jindřišská or Henry’s Bell Tower. 


Jindřišská is a stone’s throw from my apartment and I have walked past it countless times but never been inside. I finally crossed the threshold when some friends came to visit me in the autumn of 2019 and I thought it would be something a little off the beaten track for them to enjoy as well as filling a gap in my compendium of Prague attractions.

The bell tower from Jindřišská street


Situated in the New Town, mid-way between Namesti Republika and Vaclav Namesti, Jindřišská was built between 1472 and 1476 as the bell tower for the Church of St Henry and St Kunhuta (which now sits on the other side of the street). At 65.7m, it is the tallest free-standing bell tower in Prague. It was built from sandstone, with a wooden roof covered in slate tiles. The clock was added in 1577.

The view towards the National Gallery


In 1648, Prague was under siege by the Swedish empire and the tower was used as a military guardhouse. It was largely destroyed by artillery. After the battle of Štěrbohol in 1757, it was shelled again by Prussian forces and suffered again in 1801 from storm damage.

Close-up of the viewing gallery and clock

The tower underwent major reconstruction in 1876-1879 under the supervision of the architect Josef Mocker who used the Neo-Gothic style you see today. In 2001 the tower was modernised internally and fitted with additional floors and an elevator. The viewing platform on the 10th floor was added along with a new carillon by Petr Rudolf Manoušek. This hangs from the original roof and you can choose from 1,152 pre-set melodies to listen to from within the tower.

Looking out to Petrin and Prague Castle from the attic


The three biggest of the ten bells housed in the belfry are Maria, the oldest which was cast in 1518 and weighs 723kg; Jindřich, the largest, weighing in at 3350 kg and Dominik which weighs 1000 kg. The bells ring out every three hours from 9am until 6pm.


Not just a museum, Jindřišská is also an exhibition centre, function centre, and houses a well-stocked whisky bar and a restaurant. Entry to the tower (at the time of writing) is 160Kc and it is open daily between 10 and 6. Of all the towers in Prague, this is one of the most accessible, especially for people who don’t like cramped, dark, cold spiral staircases! 


Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Milada Horáková: A Symbol of Democracy and Freedom - People in Prague #4

If you look back through Czech history the majority of the characters you encounter are male. Indeed, if you look at Jiri Votruba’s hero’s of Prague poster the only female is the legendary Princess Libuse. The remaining characters are all male, apart from the Golem! 

This year, amidst the lockdowns and restriction of movement, the people and city of Prague did celebrate a national heroine on the 70th anniversary of her death. Her name is Milada Horáková and she was born in Prague on Christmas Day, 1901. She was executed by the Czechoslovakian communist regime on 27th June1950, the only female politician to suffer that fate.

Posters were put up on many public buildings.
The caption means 'murdered by communists'

Milada Horáková was an extraordinary woman, who, like many of her era suffered as a result of the injustice of two nightmares; first the Nazi invasion and occupation, and subsequently the communist takeover in 1948. 

She grew up during the first world war, and her first action led to her expulsion from school in 1917 for taking part in an anti-war rally. Despite that early setback, she received a law degree from the Charles University in 1926 and joined the ČSNS (Democratic Socialist Party) that same year. As the second world war broke out she joined the underground resistance and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1940 and interred in Terezín transit camp where she was tortured. Four years later she was sentenced to a further eight years imprisonment by a German court for her political activities and sent to the concentration camp at Ainach in Bavaria, narrowly escaping the death penalty which the Nazi prosecutor had demanded. She was released in April 1945 by US troops.

After the war, she rejoined ČSNS and served as a Member of Parliament until resigning in 1948 as the communists seized power. Under constant surveillance by the secret police, she was arrested in September 1949 along with twelve of her colleagues. They were all charged with treason and conspiracy, and subjected to intense interrogation and torture. On 31st May 1950,  a massive show trial was kicked off with the assistance of prosecutors from Moscow. There was only ever going to be one outcome.

She was sentenced to death on the 8th June 1950 along with three co-defendants and despite petitions from Churchill, Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt amongst other prominent people, the sentence was not changed. She was hanged in Pankrác prison in Prague, aged 48. Her remains were never returned to her family, and have since vanished.

An empty grave marker in Vysehrad cemetery

In 1968, during the Prague Spring, the verdict from the trial was annulled but Milada Horáková was not completely exonerated until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The street Milady Horákové in Letna, Prague 6 was renamed in her honour in 1990 and in 1991 she was posthumously awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1st Class). A film of her life was released in 2017, called simply “Milada”. Since 2004 the Czech Republic has used the date of her execution as “Commemoration Day for the Victims of the Communist Regime” across the whole country.  

A small monument was also built in Pětikostelní square
near the Czech parliament building in 2018

In her final letter to her daughter Jana, on the eve of her execution, Milada wrote: “Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody … but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight. Have courage and clear goals, and you will win over life”. 



Friday, 8 May 2020

Prague Lockdown - Loves and Loathes

They say that you can never really know a place until you’ve lived and worked there. I’ve now spent a very large part of the last six years living in Prague, and the last two months in a lockdown situation on my own. Not only do I feel reasonably comfortable saying that I know Prague, but I also feel fairly confident that what I thought I knew about myself has passed muster, and I haven’t had a problem living with myself during a fairly uncertain couple of months.



Of course, the uncertainly remains for the time being. There is no clear exit strategy for me to return home any time soon, and this could well have an impact on my state of mind as we get closer to the end of the year and my contract expires. My worst fear is being stuck in Prague without a contract and with nowhere to go. But it’s only just May and there’s plenty of time before December to try and formulate a plan.

I went for a little walk this morning; my back pain returned yesterday with a vengeance and I wanted to try and move around a bit to see if it would ease the problem. It did, thankfully, but as I walked around the still fairly deserted backstreets of the city decided it was time to make a list. I like lists and haven’t made a Prague oriented one for a long time. So here’s my list of lockdown likes and dislikes, starting with the latter…

1. I hate not being able to choose who I can socialise with


The hardest thing about being anywhere away from home is the isolation from friends and family. But all successful ex-pats know that the key to remaining sane is building up a network of friends and acquaintances in your new environment. Over the years I’ve built up a small but amazing group of friends here - mostly locals, but a few ex-pats as well. They are either people I’ve met through work, music or bars. And when work, music venues and bars are all closed it becomes it a bit tough to socialise. And when you’re not allowed to socialise with anyone who doesn’t share your home it becomes downright impossible without breaking the law. I can live quite happily with my own company, but it is really hard living alone and not being allowed to see anyone else. I haven’t spoken to a real physical person in English for nearly eight weeks. I’ve only been able to use my limited Czech - although I did manage a conversation two days ago in a hardware shop - I spoke in my pidgin Czech and he replied in perfect English. Surreal!

2. I hate feeling guilty 


Until the rules were recently relaxed we weren’t generally supposed to go out except for essentials like grocery shopping to trips to the doctor, chemist or hospital. A few days later a vague clarification (we’ve had lots of vague clarifications) declared that it was “allowed to exercise in parks or forests”. Luckily I’m just a two-minute walk from Letna park so I was able to abide by the rules and get some exercise minutes and miles notched up (and I confess to getting a bit creative on my journey to the park which occasionally involved going a few extra miles to relieve the monotony).



But reading some of the extraordinarily judgemental social media sites made me feel a little bit guilty even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong. There weren’t that many people around, I always wore my facemask and made sure I kept my distance. And there were plenty of people disregarding all the rules - especially cyclists and smokers. Whoever originally coined the offensive hashtag “stay the f*** at home” deserves their own little special corner of hell as far as I’m concerned.

3. I hate having to wear a face mask


Society here is completely polarised on this one. I’ve read pretty much every reasoned argument on the pros and cons of face masks and I’ve come to the conclusion that they are a complete waste of time and in the worst-case scenario actually cause more health problems than they can ever solve. If a Covid-19 virus particle is 1/1000th the width of a human hair, then nothing much short of an astronaut’s helmet is going to stop it. 99.9% of the masks that people are using fall far short of the gauge of surgical masks used by medical professionals. Face masks actually provide a safe haven for virus particles to accumulate so that they come home with you and have plenty of time to wait for you to lick your fingers or rub your face after you’ve taken off the mask. I wear one because it’s the law, but that doesn’t mean the law is either right or sensible. Again, the judgemental arguments on social media are mind-blowingly stupid - and made up by people with no understanding of statistics, cause and effect or correlations, not to mention their own cognitive bias. Besides that, I hate my glasses steaming up...


There are plenty more things I dislike about this lockdown, but there are short term workarounds for most of them - I would prefer to drink socially rather than on my own, I’d like to get back into the office to stock up on office supplies since it’s a struggle to buy them, and I really dislike the judgemental attitudes, almost always by ex-pats of a certain age and demographic and from all over the world, but to be honest, that was the same even before this crisis, and the answer is easy - stop reading them or just be amused by how stupid people are! But there are some good things that have come about - it’s not all doom and gloom!


1. I love the way this community has just got on with life


Czech people are very resilient which is hardly surprising given their history, especially in the last century. I’ve not witnessed panic buying, I’ve hardly seen any queues in supermarkets, and I’ve not noticed any shortages - in fact, I’ve seen new varieties of certain staples. I have seen people ignoring the lockdown rules but they are in a tiny minority. Most people seem to understand that although the situation is pretty shitty, most of the things being done are at least being done to protect them not constrain them. And credit to the government for acting quickly and decisively. It’s not been perfect, but the statistics here indicate their actions certainly helped keep the initial spread under control. People are respectful and polite when you see them, and most respect the social distancing rules. I still maintain that I’m better off here than in the UK even though I’d much rather be with my family

2. I love being able to see Prague without the hordes


Being ’stranded’ here has given me an incredible opportunity to see the city in the most natural state it has been in since the tourist explosion go out of control. Seeing the landmarks and streets in their deserted state has been a privilege and has made me even more in love with the place. Already those opportunities are disappearing as life starts to return to some kind of normality and out oft owners are beginning to visit their capital city; some for the first time. And that’s OK and proper that they should get the chance to see their heritage in the same way that I’ve been fortunate enough to witness.



3. I love being able to take pleasure in the simplest things


I’ve lived here, on and off, for most of the last six years. A couple of weeks ago I heard the bells of St Vitus while I was walking along the embankment on the opposite side of the Vltava; something I had never heard before because the noise of the traffic and people usually drown them out. I saw a huge hare on the slopes of Letna park, two days running, taking advantage of the lack of people and dogs to sunbathe on the trail leading up to the plateau. I’ve seen a Nuthatch and a Greater Spotted Woodpecker on the plateau itself. It was a joy to watch little kids being able to feed the pigeons in the old town square without their parents worrying about losing them in the crowds.


4. I love that I’ve finally found the time to start to learn Czech

I tend to really busy with work while I’m living here and by the time I get home from the office, caught up with my extramural work activities, gone for a beer, cooked, eaten, cleaned up and had my daily video call with Mel it’s not usually long before I need to hit the sack. But with the working from home regulations and the pubs being closed, there’s a little bit of extra time and some language schools were offering on-line courses to learn Czech, so I jumped at the chance. I have a lesson every Saturday which lasts three hours and I try and spend some time in the evenings (not too successfully I confess) to do some extra learning and homework. It’s slow and hard, and wish I’d done it a couple of years ago. As an old dog, it is difficult to learn new tricks, especially this language, but I’m going to persevere and at least be able to speak some Czech, even if I won’t have clue what they’re saying back to me!

Hezký den! - enjoy your day! Stay safe, stay sane and may all your lockdowns be short.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Lockdown Behind the Velvet Curtain

I first started this blog over six years ago and this is entry number 68. Regular readers (if there are any) will be aware that I’ve been a bit quiet since January 2019. In March last year, I returned to Prague to take on a new role and I’ve been here ever since. It's a little bit weird, but I tend to be so busy while I’m living here that the blog tends not to get much attention. But everything has changed now and I have a bit of time to continue the story.



In November last year, I received my temporary residence permit. The idea was to try and protect myself from the uncertainties surrounding Brexit but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that small piece of paper that is allowing me to remain in the Czech Republic, and conversely, that is preventing me from going back to the UK. Strictly speaking, if there was a way to get back I could go home, but I wouldn’t then be allowed back here.

I went home at the beginning of March to celebrate Mel’s birthday and to visit my mother who is currently in a nursing home in London suffering from vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. Word of coronavirus was out but it still seemed a long way away, and I don’t think any of us had any expectations of what was to come.

I returned to Prague on Match 9th with some extra treats (bottle of HP sauce, crumpets, Fry’s Turkish Delight, Rowntree’s fruit pastilles, etc.) and some summer clothes. By then, there were 10,000 worldwide cases and 3,400 deaths. Italy went into a lockdown that very day and in the Czech Republic, the first measures began to be implemented with random border checks, and mandatory self-isolation for anyone coming into contact with a confirmed patient.

On March 10th, public events in the Czech Republic were banned, and my concert season came to an abrupt end. Anyone returning from one of a number of listed countries had to go into 14-day quarantine - the UK wasn’t on the initial list. The next day schools and universities were closed and the WHO declared the global pandemic.

On March 12th the Czech Republic declared a state of emergency starting at midnight. Things were getting serious and basically, the borders were closed to foreigners coming in and Czech people, including foreigners with residency permits, banned from leaving. Pubs and restaurants were only allowed to open between 6am and 8pm. Shops and malls over 5,000 sq. m were closed along with sports facilities, and gatherings were reduced to 30 people.



By Saturday 14th there were 141 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country. The lockdown gathered momentum as bars and restaurants, markets, public events and pretty much all non-essential services were closed down.

A full nationwide quarantine went into effect on Monday 16th, March. This now meant that we could only travel to work, go shopping, family visits and do limited exercising in the parks or the countryside. The two-metre social distancing rule took effect. A large number of internal economic measures were also being introduced. By Thursday it became mandatory to wear some kind of face-covering whenever in public with a £650 fine for non-compliance.

             

The law prevents some of these measures from being put into place for more than short periods. Initially, they were put in place until April 11th but have now been extended, along with the state of emergency until April 30th.

As I write this, there is some talk of minor relaxations after Easter but nothing significant at this stage. There have been 6022 confirmed cases, 143 deaths and 128K people have been tested. 519 people have recovered and the R0 number is declining and currently stands at 0.9. It would appear that the measures have been helpful in at least preventing overwhelming medical facilities.

It is a rather surreal situation to be in. The city, which last year hosted over 8M visitors, is empty. Most people have accepted the situation with good grace and humour. There has been no sign of panic buying, at least not in the city, no shortages and no queues. For the first time in my life, I have to carry my papers around with me just in case I get stopped by the police.

             

My apartment is just a few hundred metres across the river from Letna park, so I’m able to get out and get a really good dose of fresh air and I’m managing to walk about 5 miles a day. Everyone at work is now working from home, and I’m lucky to be really busy during the day. I have a video call with Mel every night and sometimes in the morning, and my internet connection is usually good enough to be able to get access to UK TV on demand. I’m finally learning Czech through an on-line school. I do miss physical contact with my friends. We’ve had a few virtual beers and drinks which helps, but I’m worried about my mum and whether she understands what’s happening.


I occasionally wonder if I should have tried to get home before everything kicked off, especially as I’m unlikely to be able to return until June at the very earliest. But this isn’t like the fall of Saigon and I’m probably safer here than in the UK! And this is a unique opportunity to see my beloved Prague in its natural glory, without the hoards of people. I just wish I could sit down in my favourite restaurant and have a few beers with my friends and eat something that someone else has cooked for me! Until then...

Stay safe, stay well and stay sane!




Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Prague In Plain Sight #6 - The Royal Gardens (Královská zahrada)

If you take the 22 tram up towards Prague Castle from the centre of town (the most popular way to go) and disembark at the Pražský hrad stop, it is very easy to head straight through the security point and head directly towards the castle buildings via the Powder Bridge. But in doing so, you're likely to miss out on the Royal Gardens, described by some as the most historically valuable of the castle gardens. 


Founded in 1534 by Ferdinand I, who acquired the land which was originally a mediaeval vineyard, the original gardens were inspired by Renaissance designs from Italy. From the very early days, the gardens were planted with exotic botanical specimens from all over the world. The current designs are based on ideas from 19th-century English parks.

The Hercules Fountain
The buildings in the gardens were all built for the express purpose of the pursuit of leisure for the nobility rather than for any functional end. The most exquisite of these is the Ball Game Hall (Míčovna) which is covered in beautiful frescos. Built between 1567 and 1569 by the architects Bonifác Wohlmuth and Oldřich Aostalis, on the south side of the gardens, directly above the Stag Moat, the hall has also served as a riding school and stables and during the reign of Josef II, it was used as a military storage facility.

One of the archways on the Ball Game Hall originally open to the outside
The frescos represent the personification of four elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), seven main virtues (Forethought, Restraint, Mercy, Hope, Justice, Bravery, Faithfulness), and eight free arts (Theology, Astronomy, Geometry, Music, Arithmetics, Rhetorics, Dialectics, Grammar). In the 1950s an emblem of a Five-Year Plan with a sickle and a hammer were added in the third arch on the left as an allegory of industry and agriculture. (This is the only preserved feature of social realism within the Prague Castle premises).

The hall was burnt down following fighting in May 1945 but the designs were painstakingly restored, first in 1952, and then further between 1971 and 1973.

The fresco representing faith
and the art of Astronomy
The other buildings in the Royal Gardens are the Summer Palace which stands behind the Singing Fountain, the Hercules Fountain, the Lion Court and the newest building, The Orangery.

Looking back to the castle from the Royal Garden
One of the best things about this particular garden is that it offers a completely different view of the castle complex from the one that is most familiar. Additionally, when I made my only visit here in 2016, it was possible to get down to the Stag Moat (Jelení příkop). This is a natural ravine from the Brusnice stream which takes its name from when deer were bred here in the 17th century. Later, even up until the 1960s bears were bred in the moat.

Looking down into the Stag Moat

In 2018, access to the Stag Moat was restricted "for technical reasons", but there has been increased security around the area so I do wonder if this is the real reason behind the restricition.


Unfortunately, the Royal Gardens are also only open during the extended summer season from April until October, but when they are open, entry is free. If you've enjoyed this, I've written about other gardens associated with the castle here.


Sunday, 30 December 2018

Queen Libuše - People In Prague #3

I've written a little about the old citadel of Vyšehrad and Queen Libuše in a previous post. As a lifelong fan of mythology and legend, I was immediately drawn to the tale of how Prague became the city it is now, and it's only fitting to revisit Libuše's story as part of the People of Prague series. It's also an opportunity to showcase some new photos that I took in the summer!

Libuše and Přemysl
The statue shown in these photographs is of Libuše and her peasant husband, Přemysl, and is one of four great statues in the grounds of the Vyšehrad fort, sculpted by Josef Myslbek in the late 1890s. Originally they were situated at the four corners of Palacky Bridge but were badly damaged in 1944 during a US bombing raid over southern Prague. The original was too badly damaged to be retained and this is a copy.

According to legend, Libuše was one of the three daughters of old king Krok. She was the wisest of the three sisters. Her sister Kazi was a healer, Teta was a magician, but Libuše had the gift of prophecy, and was chosen by her father as his successor, to judge over the people.

Although regarded as a wise and just leader, Libuše was unmarried which was a problem in a largely male-dominated society. To appease the tribe, she agreed to take a husband but was in love with a peasant ploughman. In order to marry the man she desired, she told of a vision in which she saw the man she would marry eating from an iron table, wearing a broken sandal, and her horse would be able to lead her to this man. The animal was duly dispatched where it came across the ploughman called ‘Přemysl’ (his name means thoughtful, or studious). He was brought back to Vyšehrad and became the father of the great Přemyslid dynasty.

Libuše and Přemysl
Inspired by her prophetic success, Libuše went into a further trance. This time her horse took her in a quite different direction, towards the area where Prague Castle now stands. ‘Go until you reach a man making a lintel for his house’, the vision had said, ‘and there you will found a city whose fame will reach the stars.’ She did, and she named it ‘Prah’, the old Czech word for a lintel.

Libuše

Přemysl
Legend aside, the Přemyslid dynasty ruled Bohemia from the 8th century- the first historical Přemyslid was Duke Bořivoj I, baptised in 874 by Saint Methodius - until 1306.

Queen Libuše features in many Czech literary, musical and dramatic works, including the opera by Smetana and 'Pole a palisáda', a novel by Miloš Urban. The minor planet 264 Libussa is named for her.

For reference the other sculptures in the vicinity of the statue of Libuše and Přemysl in Vysehrad are:

  • the allegorical couple, ‘Lumír and Piseň’ — singer and muse. 
  • Ctirad and Šárka, characters from the 7th-century War of the Maidens
  • Záboj and Slavoj, the brothers who lead the rebellion against the invasion of Charlemagne and allegedly led the victorious battle in 805