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.


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...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Vinohrady Water Tower

The Vinohradská Vodárna is a beautiful neo-classical turret by Antonín Turek (Anthony Turk, in English), who was also responsible for several other notable public buildings in close proximity to it, including the 'National House of Vinohrady' and the graceful Vinohrady Market Hall, which will be the subject of a later blog.

Its seven storeys used to house a 200,000 litre (44,000 gallon) tank which supplied this part of Vinohrady and Vršovice with water pumped from the Vltava and from the Kárané water station.  The tower formed part of a vast network which expanded rapidly from about 1912 onwards. Although it's no longer open to the public, from its observation deck one can apparently admire the view as far north as the Krkonoše Mountains, near the border with Poland.

The handsome clock is operated by a mechanism designed by Ludwig Hainz of Prague, and the tower itself is embellished with the crest of Vinohrady, and sculptures of herald angels, all, like this one, blowing their own trumpets.

It is a great shame that there is not more readily available material about Turek: he seems to me to have been a superb architect who deserves a stronger reputation in his own country, let alone abroad.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Vršovice Railway Station

This pretty little station of neo-classical design, recently refurbished at a cost of £1.8 million, is located close to the Bohemians' football ground. The track joins the Prague main line and travels southwards to České Budějovice (two-and-a-half hours), Linz (five hours) and Salzburg (six-and-a-half). For this last journey the current price is £17 each way if booked three days in advance from the Czech Railways e-shop.

The first station was built in 1880, though the present one dates from the turn of the century. Railway buffs will be interested to note that the marshalling yards, constructed in 1919, were at that time unique in Europe in making use of a natural incline to reduce the need for locomotive shunting.

The railway line here marks the southern boundary of Vršovice and of Prague 10: everything south of the tracks is in Nusle (Prague 4), itself a fascinating area but one which will have to wait for another blogger.

Visitors to Prague may also like to know that normal metro/tram tickets also work on local railway trains, as long as the journey is entirely within the integrated transport region (£3.50 for a 24-hour pass, available from metro stations, and from shops near tram stops).

To see pictures of the station prior to renovation, click here

Friday, 20 November 2009

Heroldovy Sady, Vršovice

Although Vršovice has existed since 1088, eight centuries passed before it officially became a town, and a further forty years before it became part of Prague. The mayor who presided over the change in status in 1855 was a certain Dr Herold, who is today commemorated by these gardens.  His monument stands near the huge ash tree, which is still wearing its leaves in this late autumn weather.

But before it was a public park, this particular area had been - of all things - a mulberry plantation. In the early part of the 19th century, over 1000 bushes were cultivated here for the breeding of silkworms by the Italian Josef Rangheri and later by his son Henry, whose great palace the 'Rangherka' still dominates one end of the park. I was tempted to think that the bush in the foregound might be a descendant of one of their mulberries, but after careful research my sister and others have come to the conclusion that it's a species of Viburnum, possibly viburnum pragensis, a variety first bred in this city in 1955.

Heroldovy Sady is bounded on its northern side by some particularly fine residential buildings, one of which is pictured below. Click to enlarge, and you will have a better view of the cameo of St Wenceslas in the medallion above the window.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Czech Ministry of the Environment, Vršovice

The Czech President, Václav Klaus, is well known for his antipathy to the European Union's Lisbon Treaty. He's also a fierce opponent of environmentalism, which he has called a religion based on political ambitions rather than science, and - most controversially - worse than communism: 'This ideology,' says Klaus, 'wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central planning of the whole world.'

One imagines that none of this goes down terribly well at the Ministry of the Environment in Vršovice, whose windows are being cleaned in today's picture. Formed immediately after the Velvet Revolution, the Ministry deals with all aspects of the Czech environment: water and air quality, conservation of natural areas, waste, biodiversity and so on.  Pollution from the notorious open-cast mining region known as The Black Triangle in the north of the country has been substantially reduced during its twenty years of existence.

Yesterday the Ministry launched an ambitious project to try to get each Czech to adopt a tree in the Congo. The aim of 'The World's Green Lungs' programme is the reforestation of a large area of central Africa, in order to promote better social and living conditions for local people and to contribute to an easing of the effects of climate change across the continent. I wonder whether the President will stump up? Somehow, your blogger doubts it.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Vršovice from the Grébovka

We are looking east from the esplanade of the grand neo-renaissance residence built in the 1880s for industrialist Moritz Gröbe. The villa stands in the grounds of Havlíčkovy Sady, a beautiful tree-lined park named after Karel Havlíček, journalist, satirist and literary critic of the 19th-century Czech Revival. Among the many achievements of his short life was the proposal to change the name of Prague's great central boulevard from 'Horse Market' to 'Wenceslas Square'.

For many centuries this part of Prague was famous for its vines - hence the name Vinohrady - and here we can see a fraction of the magnificent Grébovka vineyard on the terraced hillside, descending to the Botič stream that runs along the southern edge of the gardens.  It is still operational, and a splendid gazebo at the western end of the terrace houses a restaurant which serves the product itself.

The white wall demarcates the boundary with Vršovice, which was an independent town until it was incorporated into Prague in 1922.  The view is dominated by the art-nouveau Civic Bank (1912) with its distinctive cupola, designed by architect Antonín Balšánek; in the distance on the right we can see the 4D Centre, a suite of hi-tech office buildings whose architect has been looking at colour-charts too long; and - just in picture - the modernist Church of St Wenceslas, built in 1929.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Shakespeare and Sons, Vršovice

It was twenty years ago today that the music died for the communist regime in Prague.  I went to Shakespeare's hoping to get a portrait of local celebrity Vrat'a Brabenec, the musician whose proto-punk band The Plastic People of the Universe so enraged the authorities with their free-thinking lyrics and anarchic sounds that they were all imprisoned.

The band's arrest was the spur for the human rights movement Charter 77, which finally achieved its goals a decade later with the Velvet Revolution of November 1989.  Playwright Václav Havel was the powerhouse of that movement, but Vrat'a and his band can claim to have been the inspiration.

Unusually, he wasn't there (perhaps the anniversary had spirited him to a loftier drinking location) but the evening wasn't wasted.  I spent a happy few hours chatting with my friend Jan, whose father had been made to work for Hitler's war effort and later became a rabid anti-communist, at one stage being arrested for accidentally-on-purpose ejecting a bust of Klement Gottwald, the massively unpopular Stalinist president of Czechoslovakia, from a window: a typically Czech act of defenestration.

As the evening wore on, it became increasingly obvious that I wasn't going to be able to get a very focused picture of the day, but by sitting the camera on the table I managed to get this one, of the chairs stacked for closing time - an appropriate enough image by which to recall the end of the long totalitarian nightmare.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Ďolíček Stadium, Vršovice

In 1905 a local football team was formed, AFK (Atletický Fotbalový Klub) Vršovice. Their fortunes were those of any moderately-sized suburban outfit until the season 1926-7, when history unexpectedly played them a trump card.

In that year the Czechoslovakian national team received an invitation to go on tour to Australia - a huge undertaking in the days of ocean-going steamers. So when the Czechs declined the opportunity, it was left to plucky little AFK Vršovice to take their place, under a name which appropriately reflected their new-found 'national' status: the Bohemians.

The sixteen young men set off from Prague to Naples in April 1927 and arrived by boat in Perth in early May. Of the 19 matches played - three of them against the Australian national side - the Bohemians won 13, many by a considerable margin, and lost only three. In recognition of their courage and skill, at their final match in Brisbane the Premier of Queensland presented the Vršovice lads with a pair of kangaroos - 'a gift to the Czechoslovakian President and people'. The animals were subsequently donated by the footballers to Prague Zoo, where, as you can imagine, they became an instant hit.

But the real star attraction was the team itself, which retained not only the name 'Bohemians', but also a symbolic kangaroo - in the form of the badge which the players still proudly wear.

The Bohemians' stadium, whose name means 'The Dimple' (Ďolíček) is a wonderfully old-fashioned and somewhat run-down affair, but the fans who go there week after week to support the 'Kangaroos' testify to its great atmosphere, and would be heartbroken if, as a result of promotion or the need to sell the land, the team had to lose their historic home.

Read this fascinating article from the Prague Post

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Prague Metro: Jiřího z Poděbrad

So many fascinating things to tell about this photo of one of the metro stations near the border of Vinohrady and Vršovice. First and foremost, this is of course classic Communist-era architecture: functional, minimal, progressive, and, like most of the stations on the 'A' line, colour-coded for easy recognition! The metro system was begun in 1967 and is still being expanded, with plans for a fourth line and possibly a link to the airport.

Secondly, this station name is a model for learning the niceties of Czech grammar and pronunciation. Grammar first.  Jiři (George) was the first and only protestant monarch of the Czech lands, and he came from the nearby town of Poděbrady. But this is the station of George of Poděbrady, so you need two possessives: Jiřiho and Poděbrad- (with no 'y'). As for pronunciation, well, 'ě' is simple - it sounds like 'yeah'. The 'ř' is a combination of a rolled 'r' and quickly added 'zh' - don't try this one at home.... Finally, the 'z' (meaning 'from') is actually pronounced as an 's' in this instance because it precedes an unvoiced consonant.  So unpronounceable, but so exotic...

And who was he? Well, George was a 15th century nobleman who became a leading Hussite and took part in several significant battles against the Catholics. When he was elected to the Crown, supported by the protestant Estates of Prague, he took a softer line and tried to reconcile the warring factions of the Church by proposing a unified Christian land with common institutions and a common European parliament. It's interesting to speculate that, had George of Poděbrady been alive today, he would have made an ideal candidate for the Presidency of the EU...

Readers interested in other aspects of Communist-era Prague may like to click here.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Church of St Wenceslas, Čechovo Námestí

As 1929 was the millennium anniversary of the martyrdom of St Wenceslas, three church-building projects were undertaken across the city of Prague. The cathedral of St Vitus in Prague Castle - begun in the 14th century - was finally completed, along with two entirely new projects: the church of the Sacred Heart in Vinohrady; and this extraordinary functionalist building in Vršovice, designed by Josef Gočár and dedicated to St Wenceslas himself.

The prayer over the door reads 'Saint Wenceslas, do not let us or our descendants perish'. The graffiti underneath is a more mysterious dedication to 'Cle's Crew', dating from 2009.

The 150' white concrete tower with its prism-glass window dominates a square named in honour of Czech writer Svatopluk Čech (1846-1908), whose satirical works in which a time-travelling bourgeois Praguer gets caught up in the religious wars of the 15th century were turned into an opera by Janáček called The Excursions of Mr Brouček

Note: the eagle-eyed will have noticed the small projection jutting out at the base of the glazed tower. I had always thought this was decorative rather than functional. It turns out it was a plinth, patiently waiting for eighty years (until September 2010) to receive its occupant.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Bookshop on Jana Masaryka, Vinohrady

This is the bookshop (knihkupectví) on Jana Masaryka. In the winter months its welcoming glow is always a friendly sight when getting off the tram.

The street is named after Jan Masaryk, son of the much-loved president of the First Republic, Tomáš Masaryk.  Jan was the Czech ambassador to London during the war and became Foreign Minister of the Government-in-Exile.

In March 1948 Masaryk died under mysterious circumstances when he fell from a window of the Černín Palace near Prague Castle.

Given the fact that Czech history has been marked on several significant occasions by acts of 'defenestration' - literally tipping people out of windows - the original ruling of suicide has been contended many times.

Although two recent investigations, in 2004 and 2006, have concluded that Jan Masaryk was murdered by the first communist government, the fact is we will probably never know. Unless the answer lies in one of those books, of course...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

St Ludmila's Church, Vinohrady

Today's picture is of the church of Saint Ludmila, who was the grandmother of Wenceslas I (known to all and sundry as 'Good King', though he wan't technically a king). She it was who brought up the young Wenceslas, instructing him in language and literature and of course the principles of good government. Wenceslas's mother was uneasy about his grandmother's influence on the future ruler, and had her strangled.

The church itself is not old, by Prague standards - it's 'Victorian' Gothic, unlike the Cathedral Church of St Vitus, which is mainly real Gothic. It stands in the beautiful square known as Náměstí Míru (Peace Square), just ten minutes' walk from the top of Wenceslas Square. A popular meeting-place, it has an underground station of the same name, and a good tram service (the no. 22, which takes you straight into Town, crossing the river by the National Theatre and going on up to Prague Castle - for this reason it's popular with tourists ... and pickpockets).

This catholic church has a strong Sunday congregation, and an excellent choir and organ. It has also starred in several films, most recently the re-make of The Omen.

Technically the church is not in Vršovice but in the next-door district of Vinohrady, the slightly more posh residential area whose name comes from the mediaeval vineyards which once dominated this side of the river.

The statue of 'Peace' in Náměstí Míru