Saturday, 22 July 2017

Prague Moments #12 - Home Alone in a Post Apocalyptic Prague?

One of my most magical Prague moments was getting up at the crack of dawn in April 2015 and watching the sunrise over the Charles Bridge. Last month, I almost repeated the experience by accident when I'd woken up at five a.m.,  unable to sleep. I only had a few more days in town, so I decided to get up and have a walk around town. My particular mission was to take photographs of each of the statues on the Charles Bridge, and this was only realistically possible early in the morning before the crowds made the task nigh on impossible.

I missed the sunrise this time by about thirty minutes, but the bridge was still relatively empty bar a few photographers, some hardy tourists and the ubiquitous Japanese wedding photo party! (I wonder if it was the same ones as last time?)

I managed to complete my task - I'll maybe publish another post in the future on that topic - and headed into town to see what else I could find in the early morning light. What I found blew me away!

Coming back off Karlovy Most, I headed down Karlova, a street I normally try and avoid because of the crowds. Apart from a few delivery vans and some store/restaurant staff taking in the deliveries, the street was completely deserted.

I headed into the Old Town Square and found exactly the same phenomenon - there was one other person in the square. I walked on towards Wenceslas Square and the only life was a lady at one of the sausage stands, smoking a sneaky cigarette while the grills were warming up. It was a similar story around the back of the Estates Theatre, Můstek and Na Příkopě, all usually buzzing with people and life.

Old Town Square
Old Town Square
Wenceslas Square
For over an hour, I appeared to have Prague to myself. It was a bit like walking around a post apocalyptic cityscape. The beautiful skies of this time of year and this time of the morning gave the place real atmosphere and were reflected in the empty streets. Finally, I headed back to Ostrovni and went back to bed for a couple of hours while the city woke up around me and started filling the streets.

Life returns to the Old Town Square
Once again the city shared its magic with me, but please don't all go out and try this at the same time. It won't work!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Prague Landmarks #8 - Memorial to the Victims of Communism

I have to confess that during my association with Prague I've not spent anywhere near as much time exploring the western embankment of the Vltava and its environs. Of course I've made numerous trips up to the castle, I've spent plenty of time in the cafes and restaurants of Malá Strana, and enjoyed some good walks up on the Letna plateau and on Petřín  Hill.

But there's a lot more going on in this area, and on my most recent visit I started to try and rectify my omission, and I'll continue to do so in the future.

If you're staying on the east bank, a common walk is to go over Most Legií from the National Theatre, and maybe drop down onto Shooter's Island (Střelecký ostrov ) and look out over the Charles Bridge. Most people will then continue over the bridge and turn right at the end and head down towards Kampa.

But if you continue straight ahead, along Vitèzná, and down to Újzed at the bottom of Petřín Hill, you'll look up and see the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. The monument consists of a series of seven bronze figures (or partial figures) descending a flight of stairs. It was unveiled  22nd May 2002 to commemorate, some twelve years later, the victims of the communist regime between 1948 and 1989.

A plate at the base of the monument gives the estimated details of the numbers of people directly affected during those years:

  • 205,486 arrested
  • 170,938 forced into exile
  • 4,500 died in prison
  • 327 shot trying to escape
  • 248 executed

A nearby plaque reads:
"The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism"
The whole memorial was the work of the Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek, and the architects Jan Kerel and Zdeněk Holzel, and has caused considerable controversy since its erection. In 2003 two bomb blasts damaged one of the statues, but no group has ever claimed responsibility.

I had previously seen the monument in daylight (albeit a very damp, gloomy November day) but only recently visited it after dark where it has an eerie glow making it even more disturbing.

Memorial to the Victims Of Communism

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Hidden Prague #7 - Star Wars meets Art Nouveau in Perfect Harmony

A few weeks ago I published my Fly on the Wall and other Oddities post. It appears to have been very popular (thank you!), so I've decided to follow up with another set of weird and wonderful statues and sculptures which are all in easy reach of the centre of town but might not immediately jump out at you unless you make a determined effort to see them!

Firstly - the Star Wars Connection. Well, actually there isn't really one. But there are two statues in town (that I know of) that bear an uncanny resemblance to characters from the franchise. The first is the Darth Vader look alike, which is located in Mariánské náměstí, and best reached by walking along Platnéřská as an alternative route into the Old Town Square.

The statue of the Iron Knight was sculpted by Ladislav Šaloun in the early 20th century and depicts a character named Jáchym Berka who was the subject of a rather tragic love story, and now haunts the streets of Prague until he can obtain his freedom - an opportunity only afforded to him once every one hundred years. For the full story check out this page.

Jáchym Berka - the ghostly Iron Knight
The second Star Wars character is that of the Emperor himself. This is the "Cloak of Conscience" or "Il Commendatore" by Anna Chromy. The "Cloak" has many versions, but this one is located outside the Estates Theatre (Železná), best known as the place where Mozart first performed his opera, "Don Giovanni", from which Chromy first took partial inspiration for the piece. When asked about her inspiration for the work, Anna Chromy quoted Albert Einstein: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science..."

Il Commendatore / Cloak of Conscience

There are plenty of examples of Art Nouveau in Prague. I'm no art connoisseur but this did catch my eye (as do so many things in this city!). I can't find much about the specific piece, but it is by the Austrian sculptor Richard Luksch (1872-1936) and it sits above a potraviny on the corner of Kaprova and Žatecká near Staroměstská metro station.

There are actually two reliefs, one on each side of the doorway, but despite them being in plain view they are about ten feet off the ground, and you can walk past them dozens of times without noticing them!

Richard Luksch Art Nouveau relief
Lastly in this post, I decided to make room for this chap. This is "Socha Harmonie" or "Statue of Harmony". You can find him on the east embankment behind the Kampa Museum. This statue of Sri Chinmoy was created by British sculptor, Kaivalya Torpy and was dedicated in a ceremony during October 2009. The plaque under the statue reads "If you can create harmony in your life this harmony will enter into vast world".


I wonder if he would have been amused by the joker who donated his hat and sunglasses the first time I visited the place? 

Monday, 10 July 2017

Prague Moments #11 - Operation Anthropoid

This year marks the anniversary of Operation Anthropoid - one of the most extraordinary resistance operations in the whole of the Second World War. Anthropoid was a series of activities organised by the Special Operations Executive and exiled Czechoslovakian government in the UK, of which the most significant effort was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

In this post, I'll provide a précis of the story and some pointers of where you can visit some of the places associated with the more recent history of Prague.

Heydrich, the so-called "butcher of Prague" was a highly placed Nazi official, with overall responsibility for the "Final Solution". Many historians consider that he would have succeeded Hitler, but what is certain, is that he was one of the most brutal members of the SS.

As part of Operation Anthropoid, a number of Czechs were parachuted back into their homeland on 28th December 1941. Among them were Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčik who were charged with carrying out the assassination. After months of planning, they carried out the attack on 27th May, 1942.

The site of the attack was by a tram stop near the intersection of V Holešovičkách and what is now Kubišova street (Libeň, in Prague 8), on tight curve in the road. This was the route from Heydrich's home to Prague Castle and the location was carefully chosen as the car would have to slow down. The area has subsequently been redeveloped and the road is a major route into the city.

The assassination appeared to have been botched when Gabčik's sten gun jammed. Kubiš lobbed an anti-tank grenade into the car before the two made their escape pursued by the driver. They were unaware that Heydrich had been wounded in the explosion. Heydrich was taken to the nearby Bulovka hospital and died seven days later - officially from septicaemia.

The memorial and ventilation shaft to the crypt of  St Cyril and Methodius
The two primary assassins and their helpers became the subjects of a massive manhunt across Czechoslovakia. The repercussions were fast and brutal, even by Nazi standards. On the day of the assassination and the subsequent days, over 13,000 people were arrested and it has been estimated that 5,000 were murdered in the reprisals. The villages of Lidice and Ležàky were destroyed after their populations had largely been massacred or deported to concentration camps.

Initially the paratroopers, including other members of the mission found refuge in safe houses in Prague, and ultimately made their way to the Church of St Cyril and St Methodius on Resslova. From vantage points in the gallery three of them held out against 750 SS troops before they were killed. The remaining four men were isolated in the crypt and ultimately took their own lives after repeated attacks using tear gas and and flooding to lure them out.

The crypt now houses the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and it is an extraordinary place to visit once you have become familiar with the whole story. In 2016 the film Anthropoid was released post dating the 1975 film I was familiar with, called Operation Daybreak. I defy anyone who has seen the films or read the histories not to be touched by a sense of dread and despair in that place. In the Anthropoid film, mockups of the cathedral and crypt were created on the sound stages of the Barrandov studios in Prague - the actors claimed that the sets were so good, they could barely tell they weren't in the real locations they had previously visited.

The Memorial to the Czech and Slovak paratroopers
The other key location still visible in Prague is the Gestapo Headquarters, the Petschek Palace. This former bank (once owned by the Jewish Petschek family) was taken over by the Gestapo in 1939. Over 37,000 went through the basement of the palace, many of them associated with Operation Anthropoid, for systematic 'processing' which involved incarceration, interrogation and torture, usually, sooner or later, with a singular outcome.

Petschek Palace today
The building is now the home of the Czech Ministry of Trade and is located at the top of Politických vězňů which runs parallel to Václavské náměstí. The basement houses a museum but is not open without prior arrangement. A memorial to the victims who were murdered inside now stands on the corner of the building.

For more reading about Operation Anthropoid there are a number of books including "The Assination of Reinhard Heydrich" and "HHhH" which I can highly recommend.