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.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Prague Landmarks #6 - The Astronomical Clock

My initial intention with this series of Prague landmarks was not to pick the most obvious places, but to focus on some of the less well known and less obvious ones. It's fairly safe to say that the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square is probably the most well known and obvious sites in the city, but I've decided to include it now...because it's just about to disappear. That is to say, it is just about to undergo a huge year long maintenance programme and for the time being is going to replaced by a video representation.

The clock is one of the most iconic images associated with Prague - and justifiably (in my opinion at least). The impact it makes the first time you see it lasts a lifetime, and even having walked past it hundreds of times, I still find it impossible not to sneak a peek when I'm nearby.

There is so much history about the clock it would be impossible to do it justice in such a short post. Trying to explain the science behind such a phenomenal piece of engineering would be even more difficult. Instead I'll focus on the basics and point you towards one of the books or pamphlets available on sale inside the clock tower. 

It has now been determined that the original clock dates back to 1410 by Mikuláš of Kadaň, but it has been modified and added to many times over the centuries. The clock shows four types of time:

  • Old Czech (Italian) time displayed by the Gothic symbols on the outer rings
  • German (Local) time marked in golden Roman numerals along the edge of the astrolabe
  • Planetary time shown by the 12 blue Arabic numerals
  • Sidereal time designated by the star on the zodiac ring
Additionally the clock displays the position of the sun and moon and other celestial events such as solstices.

The calendar dial which is situated underneath the clock was painted by the Czech painter Josef Mánes (1820-1871), although the original was badly damaged by exposure to the weather, the current copy was unveiled in 1882 .

St John the Evangelist (left) and St Thomas (right)

The statues of the apostles which appear from the windows above the clock appear to date back to 1793. The originals were destroyed by fire in 194 and replaced with the current set between 1946 and 1948. They appear so briefly that the best way to see them is to take the trip into the clock tower and find them in their little cubby hole where you can really appreciate their eerie beauty.

There are too many details all around the clock to describe them all but it wouldn't be right not to single out the orchestrator of the chiming ceremonies - the wooden sculpture of Death.

Death (the skeleton) and Delight

Every hours, when he rings his bell, and the hourglass turns it launches the apostles forty second journey outside into the elements, before the windows close and the rooster crows and flaps its wings (generally to the sound of applause from the gathered throng down below).

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Prague Landmarks #5 - The Hanging Man

I've mentioned in other posts in this blog that when you're in Prague, you really need to look all around you to be able to really appreciate the city, especially some of its quirkier features. And all around includes looking upwards in places where you'd least think about looking upwards!

One of these places is the intersection of Husova and Skořepka in Stare Mesto. As you approach the intersection it's easy to keep your eyes focused in front of you as a number of small backstreets converge, and there are a couple of interesting little shops and restaurants which can easily distract you. But if you pause for a moment and look skywards you'll see the somewhat disturbing sight of a man hanging from a beam above the street.

Man Hanging Out (Husova, Prague 1)

The 'Man Hanging Out' (to give it its the correct name) is another of David Cernvy's weird and whacky pieces - you may remember his name as the designer of the babies on the TV Tower. This one is a 7ft tall bronze coloured fibreglass sculpture depicting Sigmund Freud. It was created in 1996 and has been exhibited in London, Berlin, Rotterdam, Chicago, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The renowned psychoanalyst was born in Frieburg, now part of the Czech Republic, and suffered from a number of phobias, including the fear of his own death (who doesn't?!). This depiction has Freud hanging by his had and debating whether or not to let go - a constant struggle between life and death.

It is just a sculpture, but is often mistaken as a suicide attempt and has resulted in more than one call to the fire and police services!

Most people are too busy to even notice it's there!

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Prague Moments #2 - Náplavka

This morning marked the start of the Farmer's Market 2017 season on Náplavka. My Saturday morning in Prague followed a fairly consistent routine, starting with a 2 mile jog, then sorting out my laundry and doing a general tidy up of the Pent-Palace, before heading off to Náplavka along the embankment.

Náplavka and Smíchov from the railway bridge
There is always a buzz around the market and it's location is fantastic, right down by the river, in the shadow of Vyserhrad and the railway bridge across the Vltava. If you want the freshest vegetables and meat, this is the best place to go in my opinion, and stuff is generally much better value than you can get in the supermarkets. Don't expect to pay much lower prices, but the produce is of higher quality and tends to have a longer shelf life. Look out for the fish stall if you like seafood - I've never been disappointed with their wares. Best of all are the seasonal fruits and vegetables - especially around the middle of May, when the city goes mad for asparagus.

The eggs from the market are bigger and browner than any you'll get in the supermarket and it's a great place to get herbs, specialist flavoured oils, cheeses and lovely sticky cakes.

It isn't just about produce to take home for the kitchen. There are plenty of stalls selling hot and cold snacks and drinks, and it doesn't feel at all strange having a beer at ten in the morning after a productive morning shopping.

Náplavka also hosts other events, including a beer festival, and even when there's nothing on, there are a number of riverside bars and barge bars where you can enjoy the summer sun, chill out and watch the world pass by. And it's equally a fine place for an evening stroll!


Quite often there are additional events, particularly food festivals, taking place on the opposite bank of the river at Smíchov. As you walk over the railway bridge you can feel the excitement as the sounds and smells of the food stalls start to crowd your senses.

Memorable moments last year were the chilli festival, the burger festival and the Cider festival. These are multi-cultural affairs, with stands from all over the world including places like Peru, Indonesia and various African nations...

...I'm starting to drool at the thought!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Prague Moments #1 - Sunrise from The Charles Bridge

It looks like my Prague landmarks photos and posts are being well received but I don't want to restrict myself to interesting places and their histories. I have a number of photographs that have a lot of personal significance and their own stories behind them that I'd also like to share.

The Charles Bridge (Karlovy Most) is one of the most visited places in Prague (maybe in Europe or even the world). Its popularity seems to increase every year, and even in the less popular months, there are very few occasions when one can be alone. Bizarrely, one of those occasions is at the crack of dawn, as the sun rises over the city of a hundred spires. It's bizarre because it would appear to be on most people's bucket list when they visit Prague, but when faced with the idea of getting up at four  in the morning, few people actually make it out of their beds.

This is just an idea of what they're missing!

I'll be the first to admit that getting up at three in the morning isn't my idea of fun, but when I decided to do this on my first extended stay in the city, I was in my final week and time was rapidly running out.

On April 29th 2015, official sunrise was 04:43, but the action was taking place from about 03:21 onwards. It took me about 30 minutes to walk down to the river from my apartment on Francouzska in Prague 2, barely seeing a soul in the half light. By the time I got to the embankment by Slovansky Island the sky was a bluish violet mix. The river was calm and it was mostly quiet apart from the clicking of the pedestrian crossing timers.

The bridge was almost empty apart from a couple of other like minded photographers, a Japanese wedding promotion shoot (the model had gone blue with the cold), and a few pigeons and seagulls. I had come armed with my Nikon DSLR, Nikon Coolpix and my iPhone 6. One problem with spontaneous decisions, is that you don't generally do the sort of checks that you do when you make a planned decision - and in this case I'd completely forgotten to check the battery levels in the cameras. The DSLR failed after about ten shots, the Coolpix lasted for another five or so, which meant I was completely reliant on the iPhone 6 camera (which was fully charged). And boy, did it prove its worth.

By about 07:30 it was all over. Over the course of three hours the city underwent it daily transition from night to day and the peace and quiet transformed into the hustle and bustle of the morning commute. It turned out to be a glorious day. Forty eight hours later I was on a plane back to the UK nursing some serious misgivings about leaving.

How can you think about going to Prague and not seeing the sun rise over the Charles Bridge? Just remember to take spare batteries for your camera(s)!