Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Shakespeare a Synové

Shakespeare's is one of the great institutions of the Czech Republic. Despite the similarity in name to the great Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co., it's an entirely independent enterprise, though infected by the same spirit, a combination of learning and pleasure.

There are three stores altogether, two in Prague and one in the attractive southern Bohemian town of Český Krumlov. All of them specialize in new and second-hand English-language books and newspapers, but this one provides food for both body and soul thanks to its bar and café, which regularly attract a good local crowd and a number of would-be bohemian writers, poets and musicians.

Most nights find this place, on Krymská (Crimea Street), alive with conversation and argument, chess, backgammon, occasional drunken song and a positive, creative energy.

Back in November, I ran across a team of British radio journalists who had turned up at the bar to interview a number of Praguers about their experiences of the Velvet Revolution. Who are you? I asked one of them. 'I'm John Simpson' he replied. It clearly was not John Simpson, who is known to all British viewers as the larger-than-life foreign correspondent for the BBC. 'You're right,' replied the man from Auntie. 'I'm actually John's producer - but he can't be here because he's ill at the moment'. A few weeks later they put out the broadcast anyway, with John Simpson's separately-recorded questions spliced in - a curiosity the truth of which was known only to those of us who had been in Shakespeare's that night.

Anyone interested in looking over the latest stock might like to visit the store's official site.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Girl with a Dove

On its simple white pedestal, the graceful 'Dívka s holubicí' (Girl with a Dove) by sculptor Jiří Kryštůfek (born 1932) is one of the most striking statues in Prague. The simplicity of its concept belies the complexity of technique, which has a dove literally at the point of release from the girl's outstretched hand.

Kryštůfek, who studied at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, is an internationally renowned sculptor specializing in such youthful forms, whose work is held in private collections in the Czech Republic, the USA, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany.

The alternative name for this 1979 statue, which stands outside St Ludmila's cathedral, is 'Mir' - embodying the tutelary spirit of Peace Square (Náměstí Míru). But 'Dívka s holubicí' is also a memorial.  Archive footage shows that this remarkable piece was erected on the very spot where a number of Soviet soldiers were buried in May 1945 in the aftermath of the liberation of Prague.

As we approach the end of the year, I wish all readers of this post a peaceful conclusion to 2009 and a New Year of hope and renewed happiness.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Koh-i-Noor

There are two Czech companies named after the renowned South African diamond whose name means 'Mountain of Light'. The more internationally famous, perhaps, is the pencil manufacturer Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth, founded in Vienna in 1790 but based since the mid-19th century in the southern Bohemian city of České Budějovice.

The other is the no less global Vršovice-based manufacturer of press-studs, snaps, needles, pins, buttons, zips and all manner of other fasteners, which moved here from Holešovice in 1907 and has continued very successfully ever since.

Their advertisement, painted on the side of the Koh-i-Noor building on Kavkazská (Caucasus Street), is composed of the trademark image of a girl's face with a press-stud for an eye, originally designed by the great Czech artist František Kupka, and the legend 'Patent na spolehlivost' - 'Patented Reliability'.

But an even greater sign than this of the company's enduring success (and anticipated permanence) is the fact that their company headquarters has a tram stop named after it. Anyone clambering aboard the 22 or the 7 will be familiar with the message 'Next stop: Koh-i-Noor', and it's hard not to feel a twinge of local pride each time travellers are reminded of this great name.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

House on Rybalkova

This road, which marks the boundary between Prague 2 and Prague 10, is named after the Russian tank commander Pavel Semjonovich Rybalko, whose Red Army division played such a significant role in the liberation of Kharkov, Prague and ultimately Berlin. It's always interesting to note street and station names that have been allowed to retain their associations with the old regime, and this is one of them. But then Marshal Rybalko, who died suddenly in 1948, is quite rightly considered a hero.

The story of the final days of the war is completely fascinating, and anyone who would be interested in helping me put together a movie proposal is welcome to get in touch.

Effectively, Prague found itself in a vacuum in May 1945, and even though General Patton and his US forces were closer than the Red Army (who had been engaged in liberating the concentration camps), they would not aid the Prague uprising because of the pre-agreed demarcation of what was to become known as the 'Iron Curtain'. With no help from East or West for five days, 3000 Praguers lost their lives in bitter street fighting against the rump German army.

A recent occupant of this street is one of the jazz legends of Prague, Jiří Stivín, the baroque flautist, whose daughter is a well known film actress. Stivin - known for his trademark flat cap and impish sense of humour - has played alongside Dizzy Gillespie, US presidents Bush Snr and Clinton, and in many film soundtracks, as well as giving numerous concerts in Prague and Paris.

The snow-capped wall in the foreground - as regular readers might have guessed - is that of the Havlíčkovy Sady park (see this blog, passim).

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Bells of Prague

A few weeks ago I briefly mentioned Bartoloměj of Prague, the sixteenth-century master bell-founder several of whose masterpieces are still being rung today, including one bell in the church of St Nicolas here in Vršovice.

Although these pierced ceramic bells in the Christmas market would not be much good for summoning the faithful, the true bells of 'hundred-spired Prague' have always played an important role in the history of the city - until the 1940s, that is, when their forced removal by the Nazis made a deep wound in the national psyche. Petr Ginz, writing in his diary between 1941 and 1942, notes that 'you can't hear any bells ringing: the Germans have confiscated them all - perhaps 8000 - to make into cannons.' He adds, wryly, 'At least the great bell Zikmund in the cathedral of St Vitus has been spared'.

Unlike tragic Petr, Zikmund survived the war. It is still in use, though rung very seldom, and only on great or solemn occasions. The 11-tonne bell, the largest in Central Europe, announced the general strike of 1989 which was the precursor to the Velvet Revolution, as well as the Czechs' ice hockey victory in 2000, and the tragic events of 11 September 2001.

But perhaps the most interesting bell in Prague is perpetually mute. 'Cast' of stone, it occupies the corner of a building in Prague's Old Town Square, where it has acted for centuries as a house-insignia. See if you can spot it next time you're there!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Happy Christmas

During the last two months, regular readers will have come to appreciate the diverse architecture of this artistic neighbourhood, from its art-nouveau apartments and splendid cupola of the Civic Bank of 1912, to the minimalist 1928 Church of St Wenceslas, and the Husův Sbor (see yesterday's post) built in 1930. Nestled somewhere in the mid-ground, undetectable in this photo, is the oldest building in Vršovice, the Church of St Nicolas (1704). 

You have also been introduced to some of the eccentricity and delight of the bohemian quarter as it appears to a foreigner's eyes, and much of its history, anecdotal or otherwise. And I have tried to express a little of the spirit of the people who live and work here.

As I have mentioned before, I feel the title of the blog is slightly misleading, since we have also already strayed as far as Nusle to the right of this photo and Vinohrady to the left, and will no doubt pay visits to Žižkov and Vyšehrad in due course.

But my resolution for the new year will be to explore the much larger extent of Prague 10 as it spreads eastwards away from the centre, an area where art-nouveau gives way to urbanism in its most uncompromising and bleakest guise. Four years ago someone picked my pocket on tram 7 travelling East, and I have not been that way since by public transport. It's going to be gritty, grim, and dangerous. Wish me luck.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Veselé Vánoce!

In the Czech Republic, 24 December, not 25th, is the day on which presents are traditionally given out under the tree. And it's not Santa who brings them, but baby Jesus himself, or 'Ježíšek', as he's known in these parts.

Since the revolution of 1989, with the massive influx of Western businesses (and, like yours truly, Westerners), Ježíšek has been locked in commercial battle with Santa, and a couple of years ago there was actually a 'Ban Santa' campaign waged in the streets of Prague, largely in protest at the vastly-inflated plastic Clauses nodding their collective beards and bobble hats outside every shop you could think of.

The iconic Christ-child of this city is a doll, the so-called 'Pražské Jezulátko' or Infant Jesus of Prague, which was donated to the local Carmelite order by the influential Polyxena von Lobkowitz (of whom more in a later post)  in 1628. It can be seen in the Kostel Panny Marie Vítězné (church of Our Lady Victorious) in Prague 1. The doll has its clothes changed regularly - some of the costumes are really quite spectacular - and to it are attributed a number of miracles. 

These wooden decorations on my kitchen table are altogether more simple: the Holy Family wait, like all of us, for that particular present to be unwrapped. Next week I'm in England, and may be out of touch for a day or two - please forgive any unwonted breaks in transmission. A Happy Christmas to one and all! Alex

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Hussite Church

There are several words for church in Czech - 'katedrála', of course, and 'chrám', which mean practically the same thing, then 'kostel' (church), and 'kaple' (chapel). These all refer to actual buildings. But this protestant church is called 'sbor', which really means congregation. The word was used to indicate the significance of the people themselves to John Hus and his followers. They were utraquists, who argued that the congregation, not only the priests, should be allowed to receive the body and the blood of Christ (utraque means 'in both kinds' in Latin).  For this reason, their symbol, of a chalice, appears on top of Hussite churches, as well as the cross.

The Hussite movement flourished at the end of the 14th and start of the 15th centuries, and their fierce conviction led to many bloody wars against the Catholics. Hus was eventually tried and burnt at the stake, but his writings crucially informed the arguments of Martin Luther in the following century.

Hus, whose name by the way means 'Goose', was also responsible for introducing an important feature of the Czech written language, the diacritical mark - ˇ - the so-called 'háček' (hooklet) which appears over certain consonants and the vowel 'e'. Over 'c' and an 's' it has the same effect as adding an 'h' in English - in other words it makes the sounds 'ch' and 'sh'. Adding it over an 'e' or an 'n' makes a 'yeah' or 'nyuh' sound. And adding it over an 'r' is something you should not try to do unless you have had a few drinks.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Grébovka Pavilon

A different aspect of the newly-restored pavilion (Czech 'pavilon') in Havlíčkovy Sady, this time looking from the south. As you can see, it's a most unusual building, but what really stands out is the painted panel above the door. I've been unable to determine what exactly is going in in the three paintings: this one looks like a market scene, but the others (like the one in closeup below) have the character of a story from legend. As soon as I can, I shall post my findings in this blog.

Even so, this mock-mediaeval picture puts me in mind of a story. This evening in the local boozer, my friend Jan (an archer) told me that there's an expression in the sport, 'a Robin Hood shot', which refers to the splitting of one arrow by another. With modern equipment - a metal and carbon fibre arrow - this feat is apparently more common than you might think, but still pretty impressive. He showed me on his mobile phone a picture of a successful 'Robin Hood shot' of his own. I now believe this must be possible.

As a matter of interest, I am including this link to an article from Česká Televize (Czech TV) about the reconstruction of this building. If you're unfamiliar with Czech, you can always run it through Google Translate to get the details, but the pictures tell the story pretty effectively, especially the one of the pavilion prior to reconstruction, a sad affair overgrown with weeds; and that of the interior of the historic bowling alley (see yesterday's post).


Monday, 21 December 2009

The Old Pavilion and Bowling Alley

As promised, a photograph of the new café in the reconstructed pavilion of the Grébovka. The three interconnecting wings of the wooden pavilion were designed in the 1870s by Josef Shulz, who was also the architect of the villa itself, to contain a bowling alley and indoor shooting gallery. With a style strongly influenced by the Italian renaissance, Schulz was one of Prague's leading architects, also responsible for the Rudolfinum concert hall on the banks of the Vltava.


One wing has now been re-built in a modern style, although its gable end is original. In this shot of the cafe interior, we can see the wooden bowling alley, which has also been restored, across the snowy garden courtyard. The third side of the pavilion, which links these two, is to be used for wedding receptions.

The total cost of the project - including the refurbishment of some beautifully painted lunette-shaped panels -was 70m crowns, or £2.4m. The restoration was a condition of the purchase of the villa and its associated buildings by the US-based CEELI Institute, a non-profit organization specializing in legal training. They use the villa as their global headquarters, but had to agree to provide public benefit in the form of a place for me to have my cappuccino. I raise my cup to them.

More photos of the reconstruction tomorrow

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Winter in the park

Most people imagine Prague must be like this all year round! But this scene has been reflected all over Europe this week, and it looks as though many of us are going to be enjoying a white Christmas. I came back from the south of France yesterday and it took 15 hours instead of the normal 4, most of it spent sitting in locked-down airports.

It's very cold at the moment, and I'm not moving more than I need to. This graceful avenue is in the park only two minutes way from my front door, and that's far enough. The photo was taken at 4pm today.  For comparison, below there's a picture taken in the same park (though not of the same trees) at the beginning of October this year, when the temperatures were still incredibly high. Seems a world away.

My winter soup recipe:

1. Quickly saute, in 3tbsp pumpkin oil or alternative, one small birdseye chilli - deseeded for a slightly less spicy version - one small onion, diced, two large or four small parnsips, diced


2. Add 500ml vegetable or chicken stock, and a half inch piece of peeled and sliced ginger
3. Bring to boil, then simmer for 20 minutes
4. Add 50-100ml cream, to your taste.  Stir. Transfer to blender and blend till smooth
5. Reheat if necessary



Saturday, 19 December 2009

Sledding in Havlíčkovy Sady

Christmas is coming, and for the local kids there's nothing better than sledding in Havlíčkovy Sady. The natural incline of the valley here makes a perfect luge track, but, as you can see, accidents do happen!

This picturesque park is immensely popular all year round, and it's hard to believe, looking at this and the photos to come later this week, that only a few months ago people were still enjoying the sunshine here and seeking shade under the trees.

Winter sports remain some of the most popular in the country, with plenty of good skiing to be had only an hour from Prague, and the Austrian resorts only a train ride away.

The national ice hockey team is one of the most successful in the world, lying sixth in international rankings, just below the USA. Vršovice has plenty of rinks, including one in a big indoor bubble just across on the other side of the Botič valley from where today's unfortunate subject tumbled off his sled.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Bust of Karel Sladkovský

Many buildings in Prague carry busts of celebrated writers, musicians, scientists and actors.  Often there is a particular association between the person and the place itself.  On other occasions, the memorial is a reminder of a national celebrity. One such was Karel Sladkovský, leader of the so-called 'Young Czechs', who inspired his followers in seeking greater autonomy from the Austro-Hungarian empire in the years preceding World War I.

A luminary of the Revival years, firebrand editor and lawyer, it was Sladkovský who laid the foundation stone of Prague’s National Theatre in 1868. Uniting art, literature and architecture in an act of great public generosity, this building is the greatest example of the flowering of Prague's cultural garden. Above its stage is picked out in gold the motto of revolutionary thinkers like Sladkovský - the precursor of Masaryk and Havel: ‘Národ Sobĕ’ – ‘The Nation Unto Itself’.

Sladkovský's memorial appears here in Vršovice at the corner of Cernomořská (Black Sea Street) and Sevastopolská (Sebastopol Street). In a few weeks' time, the building will become home to yet another of the neighbourhood's burgeoning coffee houses, the Cafe Sladkovský, and its guiding genius will be there to preside over the auspicious occasion.  I hope to be there too to bring you some pictures.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Corinthia Towers Hotel seen from Vršovice

Today's photo shows the Corinthia Towers hotel, at one end of the Nusle Bridge, seen from the vineyard that borders Vinohrady and Vršovice.

On the left can be seen some of the houses of Nusle, nestling under the great viaduct (see my post of 14 December) and, on the right, a glimpse of the Congress Centre which was used until the fall of that regime by the Communist Party before temporarily becoming home to the Magic Lantern theatre company. Now it has reverted to use as a conference hall. In 2006, it was the building in which a convention of astronomers stripped Pluto of its planetary status - shame on them.

It also houses an art gallery where last year I went to see some paintings based on the life of the world-famous Czech-born tennis star Martina Navratilova. It was a curious affair.  Martina had teamed up with Juraj Kralik, a Slovak painter, under whose inspiration she had lobbed a number of paint-covered tennis balls at a wet canvas, producing 'birds-eye views' of her play.

The idea was supposed to generate a multi-million-dollar trade in the new art form, dubbed 'tennising'. Sadly, however, the pictures reminded one of nothing other than the 'hawkeye' TV images which analyse the frequency and position of on-court impacts.

Weirder was the fact that I was followed for an entire half hour by a little old lady at a precautionary distance - a throwback, as if one were needed, to the paranoid regime which Martina, sensibly, fled.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Grébovka Villa at sunset

Last time we visited the Grébovka, it was a bright November day and we were looking out over its magnificent vineyard, to the huddled red roofs of Vršovické Náměstí beyond. This is an entirely different aspect, looking up at the villa from the corner of Rybalkova and Charkovská, as it looms out of the darkness like some forbidding mansion from the imagination of the Brontës.

Throughout the countryside, particularly in Moravia (that's the bit of the Czech Republic to the east of Bohemia, and the main wine-growing region) they have a centuries-old tradition called Vinobraní - the celebration of the wine harvest, and I'm pleased to say this excellent festival is also commemorated here around the park and gardens. A word of warning though: last September as my car rattled the last few yards of its 1000-mile journey from England down these peaceful cobbled streets I suddenly found my way blocked by drunken yahoos and more cars than I'd ever seen, parked at all angles, jammed together, including across the right of way. Memo: in future, do not return to Prague by car on Vinobraní weekend.

If this photo had been taken in daytime, you would have been able to catch a glimpse of the new café which has just opened in the grounds of the villa, incorporated into a reconstruction of a historic indoor bowling alley, to which we shall pay a visit next week. For now, though, my work has taken me to the Côte d'Azur for a few days - lucky me - so from a comparatively warm Nice, farewell until tomorrow.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Vinohradský Pavilon

Originally named Vinohradská tržnice (Vinohrady market hall), this handsome iron-framed building dating from 1902 was designed by Antonín Turek, who was also the architect of the Vinohrady Water Tower. It's one of three original market halls from the period to have survived in Prague. In 1994 it had the dubious honour of being gutted and remodelled to provide what was at the time a state-of-the-art shopping mall, called Pavilon (Pavilion). To my mind, although the development won various awards, the work is somewhat out of keeping with the original design, for which one gets a much better feel from outside.

Prague experienced a real boom in shopping malls and hypermarkets in the 2000s, and many of them rival anything that has gone up in the UK in recent years (actually the Birmingham Selfridges, or silver slug as I call it, was designed by a Czech architect). One reason why the Czech economy is now not doing so well was the amount of sheer credit expended on tempting new goods from these Aladdin's caves.

This sad fact was capitalized on (if I can say that) by two students from Prague's excellent Film School in a satirical documentary made in 2004. 'Český Sen' was the name of a new supermarket due to open on the outskirts of the city, after a massive advertising campaign which attracted tens of thousands to the opening. When the crowds gathered to witness the removal of the painted hoardings from the shopfront they were shocked to find that what lay behind them was ... nothing. Just a huge, empty, metal framework.  'Český Sen', in English 'Czech Dream', turned out to be nothing more than that - a dream. The film is available, on DVD, with subtitles.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Morning light : Vršovice and Nusle

This is the view due south from Havličkovy Sady, looking over the rooftops of Vršovice and Nusle beyond. Barring the odd TV aerial, it could be Victorian London.

In fact there's more than a whiff of Dickens about the suburb of Nusle, where there was once a castle and parkland before the railways came. It's a bustling, faintly grimy place, with two significant features. One is the crowded, tiny Náměstí Bratří Synků (named after two journalist brothers, Viktor and Otto Synek, executed by the Nazis) which is a major intersection of tramlines and the site of a future Metro station on the proposed Line D.

The other is one of the outstanding architectural achievements of the communist era, the Nusle Bridge, completed in 1973. This extraordinary construction, which spans the Botič valley, carries six motorway lanes and Line C of the Prague Metro, 150 feet up in the air! I would imagine it's the highest overground underground line in the world.

Although this blog technically only covers Prague 10, I've been nibbling away at other suburbs; and I think Nusle is close enough to Vršovice, and interesting enough photographically and historically,  to warrant more in-depth coverage later in the year. Now I think about it, the ancient citadel of Vyšehrad is on the other side of the Nusle bridge, and I'd love to show you that, but I really would have to rename the blog if I went that far afield. Let me know what you think!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

In the Potraviny on Charkovská

Potraviny are the equivalent of English corner-shops. The sign in the thumbnail at the end of today's post shows what they sell: 'ovoce' - fruit, 'zelenina' - greens, 'noviny' - news, and 'časopisy' - periodicals.  The shop is open from 'Po - Ne' (Mon - Sun,  i.e. all week) and from 7am till 10pm. Easy!

My local shop is run by a delightful Vietnamese couple who have been here for many years, making their living like many of their fellow-countymen in Prague by running mini-markets like these. In fact on this and the next couple of streets there are least seven such 'Vietnamese shops'.

The entire Vietnam community in Prague numbers 60,000:  many of them are the families of workers who were 'invited' here during communist times to work in exchange for limited privileges and barely any income. Since the fall of the regime, they have become more established, their children often outperforming indigenous Czechs at school (according to this article from national radio station Český Rozhlas), and an increasing number opting to stay in the Czech Republic to improve their education and prospects for work rather than returning to Vietnam.

Prices are reasonable, with most basic goods about 3/4 of the English price, though there are some things that money just can't buy: mature cheddar is hard to find, cheshire an impossibility, and Marmite, while available, is over-priced. On the other hand I'm pleased to say that a refreshing bottle of Czech lager, just being unpacked for me here, costs around 30p - about a fifth of the price back in Blighty.


Saturday, 12 December 2009

Vinohrady Theatre by night

This is another shot of a building with which you may be familar. Its name in Czech is Divadlo na Vinohradech, divadlo meaning 'theatre'. The word is derived from the verb 'dívat se' meaning to watch. There are several other words formed in the same way, for example jídlo ('food' from 'jist' - to eat), and letadlo ('aeroplane' from 'létat' - to fly).

The theatre scene is excellent throughout the city, and it's a good lesson in language learning to go to one of the many playhouses (they say there are more theatres on these streets than anywhere else in the world), because the actors always enunciate so clearly. Fortunately for this particular Prague-dweller, although there are few actual English performances, there are plenty of English-language authors. I've seen many Czech versions of Shakespeare over here, as well as plays by Tom Stoppard (who was born in this country), Timberlake Wertenbaker and others.

Last week I went to see an experimental Hamlet at a small theatre in Dejvice, Prague 6.  All very well done, but also rather troubling, The director had decided that soliloquy was a rather old-fashioned device, so all of Hamlet's great solo speeches - in which only he and we should be party to his thoughts - were carried out as chatty conversations. 'Být,  nebo nebýt' was a kind of fireside natter with Ophelia. The result was that everyone, including the wicked King Claudius himself, was completely in on the plot from the start. There's one moment in the play where Hamlet privately wonders whether to kill Claudius and then decides not to. This was carried out as a kind of business interview, but with a gun literally pointed at Claudius's head. Still, they're great fans of the bard over here, as the name of my local testifies.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Grog stall, Náměstí Míru

A few days ago, I mentioned the history of the word 'grog', and to prove it, here is the Grog stall. The sharp-eyed among you will also recognize another loan-word from English, 'punč': yes, that's that other classic winter warmer, Punch, of course.

Needless to say, borrowing from other cultures is never a one-way process. And since the Christmas market is positioned next to the church of St Ludmila, grandmother of St Wenceslas, the time has come to tell you of the origin of a favourite English carol.

The legend of Wenceslas appears first in a work by the great historian Cosmas of Prague, written in 1119. According to Cosmas, the saint arose 'every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain' and 'gave generously to widows and orphans, to those in prison and afflicted with every difficulty, so much so that he was considered not a prince but the father of all the wretched'

The legend was turned into a poem by the 18th century writer Václav Alois Svoboda, and this formed the basis of the carol known to all English children as 'Good King Wensus last looked out'. It was written by the Victorian hymn-writer J.M. Neale.

By the way, a little-known fact is that Wenceslas's page was called 'Podiven'. According to the legend Podiven kept going in the bitter cold by treading in the miraculously hot footsteps of his master. But I wonder whether grog had anything to do with it...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Karel, the decorator

Karel, from neighbouring Žižkov (the suburb of Prague named after the famous 14th-century one-eyed horseman), is one of those painters who just gets on with the job. It was difficult for him to do otherwise, as my conversational Czech didn't extend much beyond asking where he was from, and confirming that (like most Czechs) he preferred his tea without milk. Still, I think he appreciated it being made by an Englishman. This type of period apartment has extremely high ceilings, hence the fact that I can only show you his legs.

This is the second in an occasional series showing people at work. Future blogs will bring you the laundress, the artist, the chess player, the Vietnamese corner-shop owner, and the extremely bored banker. I may also have a go at capturing the elusive tram-ticket inspector, though that may end up in a fisticuffs situation.

This evening I made my way to the Christmas market again to try to get some night shots, none of which really worked too well, but I hope to show you some of them in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Meanwhile, as the paint dries, I continue with the excellent 'War with the Newts'. I also find myself - perhaps unsurprisingly - writing this post in the style of the painter's namesake, Karel Čapek.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Karel Čapek School, Copenhagen Street

The Czech education system begins for most children with mateřská škola (3 to 6 years old) from which they proceed to the základní škola (basic school) from ages 6 to 15. At that stage, pupils can opt to prepare for university at a gymnazium, or attend a střední škola (literally, middle school) for a technical or vocational course to the age of 18. Confusingly, the next level (which we would call college) is called in Czech 'high school' - vysoká škola.

The local základní škola here in Vršovice was established in 1908 on a rather attractive street originally named Hálková but, since 1926, Kodaňská (Copenhagen). I thought it might be an idea to show this picture today as the Climate Conference gets underway in the Danish capital.

But the real reason for including today's photo is that the building, as you can see, is no longer called simply Vršovice School but 'Karel Čapek School' after the famous man of letters whose house nearby we visited a fortnight ago. No doubt all the children here are fully conversant with the important legacy of the Čapek brothers. To test this I have been speaking with a number of people young and old in the neighbourhood. They ALL say, 'Oh yes, but what you really need to read is his last novel, The War with the Newts'. Fellow bloggers, I am starting on the Penguin translation tonight.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

4 Šubertova Street, Vinohrady

Here's another for all you architecture fans. This fabulous neo-baroque house, Number 4 Šubertova Street, was built at the start of the twentieth century. It was the birthplace of noted Czech art historian Dobroslav Líbal (1911-2002) whose name is inscribed on a plaque that was placed here after the building's restoration three years ago.

From reading about Líbal, one senses not only that he would have been very pleased with the sensitive restoration of the roof, facade and wrought-iron balconies; but that also, without his own dedication to Czech architecture and the preservation of buildings and monuments, such restorations might never have taken place.

The polymathic Líbal was for many years president of the Czech branch of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites, while his excellent French won him many friends at UNESCO's Paris headquarters. He was an expert military historian, too, particularly on the subject of naval battles.

No 4 was also the home of actor Karel Vávra, the son of a miller - one of whose uncles, the tenor Antonín Vávra, had sung in the opening night of Smetana's Libuše at the National Theatre in 1881.  The rest of Vávra's relatives seem also to have been actors of one variety or another, appropriately enough, for this house is to be found just round the corner from the Vinohrady Theatre.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Honey Man

The Czech word for honey is the slavic 'med', from which is derived the word 'medvěd', meaning a bear, or honey-eater (as in the name of Russian premier Dimitri Medvedev). By the way, anyone interested in pursuing this etymological delight should take a glance at this entertaining article.

Today's portrait is of a honey-seller, who agreed to be photographed if I would sample some of his 'medovina' (literally honey-wine) or, as we would say, mead. I gladly took him up on his offer, which may explain why the picture seems to be slightly over-exposed. I also bought a bottle of it, the label of which I have reproduced below. Along with the honey-wine, there are also honey-cakes and biscuits, pots of honey, and beeswax candles of various sizes.

Náměstí Míru is now in full swing in the lead-up to Christmas, and the mulled wine is having its effect:  today there was an amusing moment when a neighbouring stallholder - the girl making trdelníky - dozed off just as one of her rolled dough pancakes caught fire and fell off the front of the stall. Alerted to the fact of her blackened, smoking, and decidedly extinct trdelnik, she gingerly picked it up and was about to put it in the bin when the honey-man, no doubt a placid human being under normal circumstances, started yelling at her to stop in case it set the bin on fire. Sadly I was unable to catch the whole thing on film, but I hope today's picture gives you an impression of the authority commanded by this excellent seller of mead.

'Only the Tasmanian devil knows what's good for you'

Sunday, 6 December 2009

'The borough of Prague 10 welcomes you'

As, indeed, does this sign on Francouzská (France Street) - and very politely, using the formal 'Vás' form of the pronoun, similar to the French 'Vous'.

Although Prague 10 comprises five main 'cadastral' neighbourhoods, we can see that it has adopted the coat of arms of Vršovice - whose 35,000 inhabitants make up only one third of its total population - to represent the whole borough.

Heraldically speaking, the shield is very interesting. Let's start with the left-hand side as we look at it. Divided into two, the top quarter shows the royal lion of Bohemia, which always has a double tail and is sticking its tongue out.  Below it, a pair of crossed axes surmounts an amphora-shaped basket, an allusion to one possible origin of the name 'Vršovice', from the Czech word for an old woven fishing-pot. 

The right-hand side shows one half of Prague's coat of arms, in which you can see, beneath the portcullis, an oustretched arm grasping a sword, a reference to the defeat of the Swedish army on the Charles Bridge at the end of the Thirty Years' War. 

The crest is what is called a 'mural crown' - in other words a crown made in the form of a stone wall. One with five turrets like this indicates the status of a Town, which Vršovice became in 1885 before being elevated to city status in 1902 and being incorporated into Prague in 1922.


Saturday, 5 December 2009

Slavia Prague Football Stadium

Ask any English football fan to name three Czech players and they will immediately think of Chelsea's Petr Čech, Arsenal's Tomáš Rosický and the former national captain Pavel Nedvěd. All of them played for Sparta Prague, one of the most talented teams in the European game, and not the subject of today's post. That club, formed in 1893, was originally based near here in Vinohrady, though it now plays at Letna, close to Prague Castle.

In a curious reversal, arch-rivals Slavia, founded one year earlier as the Academic Cycling and Football Club, moved from Letna in the 1950s to a new stadium built on the former site of the Eden fairground here in Vršovice (see picture below). Recently that stadium too has been rebuilt, and today's photo shows Slavia's new 21,000-seat arena, still known as Eden, and linked by a footbridge to one of the largest Tesco's supermarkets in the city.

Slavia played their first match here in May 2008 against Oxford University, a re-run of their first international game in 1899, which Oxford won 3-0.  This time, the tables were turned, with Slavia beating the ancient university's team 5-0 in the exhibition match - a perfect start in their new venue. In the end, though, what matters to Czech fans is whether Slavia can put paid to Sparta's greater success. Since 1993, the two main Prague sides have met 68 times, and currently Sparta have the upper hand, with 34 wins against the Vršovice team's 28.


Friday, 4 December 2009

Tram 22 approaching Vršovické Náměstí

The Prague integrated transport system is one of the wonders of the known world. The three metro lines, 26 tram lines and 130 city bus routes all work seamlessly together, and a number of key services continue to work throughout the night - so it's always possible to travel everywhere cheaply and quickly.  There are a few downsides: less frequent connexions at weekends, and servicing during the summer months, when Czechs flood out of the city and leave the tourists to cope with the roadworks. 

The 22, and its night-time equivalent the 57, are the workhorses of the tramways (tramvaje).  This one started its journey 50 minutes ago at Bílá Hora (White Mountain), the historic early battleground of the Thirty Years War situated to the west of the city. Half an hour ago it picked up travellers from Prague Castle, and ten minutes later from the big Tesco's store near Wenceslas Square. In another twenty minutes it will finish its journey at the eastern terminus of Hostivař, travelling along the same route (though in the opposite direction) as the waters of the Botič.

Not the sharpest of photos in this waning December light, but a little nostalgic, since this traditional style of tram is on the way out, to be replaced any time now by a hideous new design by Porsche.  On the left you can see part of the facade of the art-nouveau Civic Bank building, guarded by one of its two imposing eagles.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Botič

The Botič is a pretty little stream that rises twenty miles to the east of Prague in the village of Křížkový Újezdec. It flows almost due West, entering the city at Hostivař, where it has been dammed to provide a beautiful 100-acre lake, the largest water area in Prague and a very popular summer bathing spot. From the lake the stream meanders through the suburbs, passing very close to the railway and at many points diving off through concrete culverts.

The Botič resurfaces in Vršovice and runs alongside the Bohemians' stadium, then through this birch-lined valley at the foot of the Havličkovy Sady gardens.  Eventually, near Vyšehrad (the historic citadel of the Přemsylid dynasty who ruled Prague from the 9th to 14th centuries) it empties into the Vltava.

It is a historic watercourse, along whose banks has been found evidence of some of the earliest settlements in central Europe; it was the place of encampment of protestant troops defending Vyšehrad from the Catholic Emperor Sigismund in 1419-20; and a number of floods are recorded here, including the devastating one of 24 May 1563 which claimed several lives.


Lest all this should sound too romantic, I do urge you to have a look at the less salubrious side of the Botič in this fascinating blog by a man whos specializes in climbing through drains...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Art Nouveau glass, Vršovice

Recently, Julie wrote to ask whether I could show a few more period details from the Art Nouveau houses in this district. So today, a rather unusual picture of an etched glass window from a drawing room door in a nearby apartment.

Although not actually by him, this design is completely typical of the work of Alfons Mucha, who must be the greatest Czech artist of the age. Mucha made his fortune in 1890s Paris, where his celebrated posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt are now considered international design classics. In fact, for many people nowadays, Mucha has come to define Art Nouveau. I reproduce one of his posters below for comparison.

Mucha's greatest work is the great cycle 'The Slav Epic' which tells the story, in a number of large-scale canvasses, of the history of the Czech people; it was commissioned at the time of the foundation of the new state of Czechoslovakia, for which Mucha also designed new stamps and banknotes. Only six months after the death of Karel Čapek, and equally distressed at the Nazi invasion, Mucha too died from a lung infection.


A few years ago I was honoured to be introduced to Geraldine Mucha, the artist's daughter-in-law. A sprightly 92-year-old, she has been the guardian of Mucha's legacy, a selection of which is now displayed in a museum dedicated to his work in the centre of Prague.

The Artchive

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Waiting at Vrsovice Railway Station

Vršovice Daily Photo is part of the City Daily Photo network, which runs a 'theme day' on the first of each month. The topic for this December is 'Waiting', and when a few days ago I visited the small railway station here in Vršovice, this gentleman struck me as being the ideal candidate.

There are more miles of railway track in the Czech Republic than almost anywhere I can think of; and those who wait for that particular arrival or departure, in attitudes of anticipation or frustration or hope or despair, people the country's platforms as well as its literature.

It's no accident that one of the greatest Czech novels, penned by the legendary Bohumil Hrabal, is called 'Closely Observed Trains'. Written in what one might call the 'magic realist' style, the book chronicles the experiences of a naive young railway porter. His small life passes by with an unerring mundanity alleviated only by unfulfillable fantasies -  until one day the news comes that a trainload of Nazi soldiers will be passing through his little branch station.

In 1966, the book was turned into an Oscar-winning film of the same name directed by Jiří Menzel. If you've never seen it, try to get hold of a DVD, and do drop me a note to let me know what you think. No hurry - I'll be waiting...

City Daily Photo: Click here to view thumbnails for all participants

Monday, 30 November 2009

Charkovská, Vršovice

Sloping cobbled streets lined with period housing are typical of this part of Vršovice. What isn't so typical is their emptiness. The stance of the man about to get into his vehicle says it all. Where are all the cars? Vršovice, unlike Vinohrady, still has unrestricted on-street parking, and normally Charkovská looks more like the image in the thumbnail below which I've edited from Google Street View. The reason for the ghost-town look is simple: street-cleaning is about to take place, and sensible residents have removed their cars before the police do it for them...

Most of the apartment buildings in this street were constructed between 1908 and 1910 for the expanding middle classes (the dates are often beautifully sculpted high up on the walls). The prevailing artistic movement of the time was the so-called Secessionist or Art Nouveau style, and it's evident here in some of the exterior architectural detail, and often inside the buildings too. Under communism, families' living space and conditions were drastically restricted, and houses such as these became neglected and dilapidated. The fall of that system has meant freer movement of capital and many of these buildings, like the yellow one on the left - are being restored or developed.

Even in current economic conditions, new businesses are sprouting up in this area: cafes, interior design centres, saunas and sports shops, to name but a few. There's still a slightly run-down, 'bohemian' feel to this quarter, which one hopes will not be entirely lost with increasing investment and creeping gentrification from Vinohrady, just one street away.


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Church of St Nicolas, Vršovice

As promised, today we're visiting the oldest building in Vršovice.  Occupying a plot of land where once a Romanesque chapel stood, the present church dates from 1704 and was extended in 1896. But predating it by nearly two centuries is one of the two bells hanging in the church's magnificent octagonal belfry. It was cast in 1511 by the master founder Bartoloměj of Prague, who was responsible for many of the bells which still survive throughout the Czech lands.

Against the north side of the church is a statue erected to the memory of the 14th century St John of Pomuk, now called Nepomuk, south of Plzeň.  The stories of his life and death differ widely, but what is certain is that he disagreed with King Wenceslas IV either over the power of the state to influence church matters or - more colourfully - because he refused to reveal to the diminutive monarch what the Queen had told him in confession. The enraged king had John thrown off the Charles Bridge into the Vltava, where according to legend five stars hovered over the drowning man. His remains are entombed in an extravagantly baroque tomb in St Vitus's Cathedral in Prague Castle.

For those interested in such arcana, the badly-weathered Latin inscription - which translates 'The town of Vrsovice dedicated [this statue] to St John Nepomuk, special defender of their homeland' - can be decoded by extracting only the letters representing Roman numerals, in order to reveal the statue's date. Such 'chronograms' are common on baroque statues, columns and even sheet music. For other examples, see my posts here, and the interesting website Saxa Loquuntur.

SANCTO IOANNI NEPOMVCENO SPECIALI PATRIAE PATRONO CIVITAS VRSOVICENSIS SACRAVIT gives
C II MVC CILI I CIVI VVICI CVI= 1685

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Corner of Košická and Černormořská

As is the way in this part of town, we find ourselves at the intersection between a city and the sea. I should explain: 'Černomořská', where I'm standing, is 'Black Sea Street', and 'Košická' is named after Slovakia's second city Košice, whose fabulous gold hoard unearthed in 1935 is on display till next month in the National Museum here in Prague.

Gold and black seem appropriate for this photo, too, which was taken at about three o'clock today when dark storm clouds briefly contended with the late November sunshine over Vršovice.

Just beyond the buildings on the right, not pictured, is the extraordinary art-nouveau Civic Bank building which featured in the post of 18 November.

There are two or three small hotels to the right, and then Košická climbs up steeply to the left until it meets Moscow Street at the Heroldovy Sady gardens, and opens out into a broad square with a pleasant restaurant, the Tramtárie. You can download their menu (with English subtitles) by going here and clicking the links halfway down the page.

From there the road descends to Vršovice Square (Vršovické náměstí), and the oldest surviving building in the neighbourhood, which we'll look at more closely tomorrow...

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Christmas Market

For many visitors to Prague at this time of year, the Christmas markets are undoubtedly the main attraction, and though the tourists won't arrive for a couple of weeks, the stalls - with their bright ornaments and festive decorations - are already in evidence. Of course, it's not only the current spell of bright winter sunshine that draws the crowds, but also the appeal of hearty local food and the apparently limitless supplies of mulled wine and grog.

The Czechs borrowed 'grog' from 18th century English: originally a mixture of rum, water and sometimes lemon juice, it was given to his sailors by Admiral Vernon of the Royal Navy to keep them shipshape (the lemon juice was later discovered to prevent scurvy). Vernon wore a coat made of a rough silk-and-wool blend called 'grogram', so he, and the drink he dispensed, became known as 'Old Grog'. Incidentally, some believe that the English navy was also responsible for the common Czech greeting 'Ahoj!'; others - unlikely though it may seem - that English sailors adopted their 'Ahoy' from the landlocked Czechs.

For those too young for grog, there is always the tasty 'trdelník'. Originally from Transylvania, the sugared dough roll made its way via Slovakia to Bohemia, where it has become extremely popular with tourists in the last few years.  The dough is flattened, baked on a heated spindle (trdlo means 'stick' originally, though it can also mean 'idiot', so be careful when ordering) and then rolled in sugar, crushed almonds and cinnamon. Our young visitor is clearly enjoying his!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Memorial to the Čapek Brothers, Náměstí Míru

Karel Čapek and his brother Josef are two of the most significant writers of the twentieth century, and not only because of their invention of the word 'robot' (see yesterday's post). As observers and gentle satirists of society and humanity they are without peer.

An excellent start for all English readers is Karel Čapek's book 'Letters from England' which he wrote after visiting Britain at the invitation of the newly-formed International PEN organization of writers. His sharply wry observations are delivered with typical humour: 'The English home is tennis and warm water, a gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort which is selected, fixed and blessed by the centuries ... a hospitality and formality as comfortable as a dressing gown.'

But among the delightful sketches of sheep and cows, and the comical pen-portraits of famous writers, is a sincerely-felt recognition of something more unfathomable and less available for Czechs: 'Wherever on this planet ideals of personal freedom and dignity apply, there you will find the cultural inheritance of England.' No wonder Čapek was considered highly dangerous by the Nazis.

British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has said of this little book that it is 'one of the seminal documents of Central European culture, and among the most influential books of the twentieth century'. Praise indeed.

Sadly, neither brother survived into the second half of that century. Karel died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 1938, three months before Hitler's occupation of Prague; his older brother died, probably in April 1945, in Belsen concentration camp. The monument, by sculptor Pavel Opočensky, an artist with a somewhat colourful reputation, was erected in 1995.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

House of the Čapek Brothers, Prague 10

Prague is a city full of stories of artificial human beings, from the Golem, a mud-man devised by the 16th century Rabbi Loew to protect the Jewish community, to the bizarrely mummified remains of Klement Gottwald, the first communist president of Czechoslovakia. But perhaps the most important automata appeared in the play R.U.R, written by Karel Čapek in 1921.

The play gives us a scary glimpse into a society where mass-produced biologically-engineered servants rebel against their human inventors, a plot which became the blueprint for many later works of science fiction. Originally the servants were to have been called 'labourers', but Karel's brother, the artist Josef Čapek, made an alternative suggestion, one that would go down in history: these creatures performed unpaid labour - 'robota' -  they should be called 'robots'. And so a word, and an entire modern concept, was born.

Karel Čapek's output was extensive. As well as collecting Czech fairy-tales, he was the friend and biographer of Tomáš Masaryk, first president of the Republic; he wrote satirical plays such as 'The Insect Play' and 'The Makropoulos Case', a drama on the theme of immortality which was turned into an opera by fellow Czech Leoš Janáček; and he was the author of the novel 'The War with the Newts', which provides, like R.U.R. a satirical overview of human society.

Today's picture shows the villa in Vinohrady which was home to Josef and Karel, as well as the meeting place of their literary society, the Friday Club. The road in which this peaceful house stands has been renamed 'Bratří Čapků' - the Brothers Čapek - in their honour. It was getting dark when I arrived at the house, but a single lamp was on, affording a view into the lives of two talented artists, of whom more tomorrow.

'Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul. Have you ever seen what a Robot looks like inside?' Karel Čapek

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Vinohrady Theatre

On this day in 1907, the majestic art-nouveau Municipal Theatre of Royal Vinohrady first opened its doors. The production was Jaroslav Vrchlický's play based on the life of Lady Godiva, the 11th century benefactress who supported the townsfolk against her husband's oppressive taxation by riding naked through the streets of Coventry.

And there's still a strong British flavour today in their largely Czech-language repertoire. After its centenary refurbishment two years ago, for instance, the theatre re-opened with every Praguer's favourite play about political corruption,  'Jistě, pane ministře' - no prizes for guessing what that means! In fact, one of the great ties between the two countries is a passion for satire.

Chief among the Czech satirists was Vinohrady resident Karel Čapek, who was responsible for some of the finest writing between the wars, and who was artistic director of this theatre in the 1920s. The monument to Karel and his brother Josef stands nearby, next to the Church of St Ludmila. Starting tomorrow, this blog will be telling the story of the talented Čapek brothers and their local, national and international legacy.

During the sixties, this attractive playhouse was renamed the Central Theatre of the Czechoslovak Army, and although it has reverted to its more appropriate title, simply The Vinohrady Theatre, battles are still being fought there, the most recent concerning Václav Havel's political satire, 'Leaving'. A dispute arose as to whether the lead role should go to the ex-president's second wife, the controversial actress Dagmar Havlová-Veškrnová. The National Theatre of Prague refused to stage the play with her in the role, so Havel turned to the Vinohrady Theatre, with which he had strong connexions. They were all ready to put it on when they too mysteriously pulled the plug, citing financial constraints. Surely it could not have been for that other reason, that Dagmar had once played the part of a topless vampire? - after all, the Vinohrady Theatre did set a precedent with Lady Godiva...

Monday, 23 November 2009

Prague Castle from Francouzska

The streets which fan out from Náměstí Míru (Peace Square) all have the names of countries or their capital cities, not always in a logical arrangement: in this quirky geography, Italy and Rome are next to England, but London lies somewhere between Romania and Brussels, while America finds herself rubbing shoulders with Uruguay. Today's photo is taken from half-way along Francouzská (France Street) looking northwest in a line which leads, more or less, straight down Wenceslas Square.

However, what dominates this very much foreshortened view is the great cathedral of St Vitus within the walls of Prague Castle, almost two miles distant, on the other side of the river. Begun in the 14th century, the work of Matthew of Arras and the German architect Peter Parler, the cathedral remained unfinished until the late 1920s. When George Eliot visited Prague in 1858, she was depressed by the sight of it: to her the building was 'a melancholy object ... left with unfinished sides like scars'.

Now it's finished, but a debate continues to rage about the cathedral's ownership. Technically, St Vitus belongs not to the Church but to the State, a legacy of the days of communist rule; and that situation was upheld in a recent pronouncement by the High Court. Two months ago, during Pope Benedict's visit to the largely secular Czech Republic, this thorny problem was addressed yet again - but without any real conclusion. Watch this space...