Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Pozor! Padá led ze střech!

Since at least 1838, it has been a legal requirement of homeowners in Prague to keep the pavement in front of their houses accessible, and until very recently that meant clearing snow and ice as well. But last year a change in the law shifted that particular responsibility to the council, and although some homeowners still muck in with their own shovelling and gritting, most are only too happy to see council employees fulfilling their new role.

When it comes to the roof, however, it's a different matter: that really is up to the householder. It works like this. If you can clear more than 50 kilogrammes of snow from one square metre of roof, it's too much: you need to call in the experts, or have a go yourself at sweeping the roof. This can be a very tricky business, involving ropes and harnesses normally employed for tackling mountain faces.

It's common at this time of year to see signs dotting the pavements saying 'Pozor! Padá led ze střech!' - 'Look Out - Ice Falling from Roof!' Personally, I'd be more worried about people falling from roofs. To see what the gods have in store for Vršovice in the coming days, click on the weather tab at the top of the page.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Homage to Schikaneder

The painter Jakub Schikaneder (1855-1924), who lived for a time on Vinohradská Avenue, was the great-great-nephew of Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist of The Magic Flute; and the great-grandson of Urban Schikaneder, who sang in that opera's premiere.

With such a theatrical background, it's hardly surprising to find the work of this artist imbued with a real sense of drama. He made his name with an emotionally-charged tableau, Murder in the House, exhibited to critical acclaim in Berlin in 1890. But it was his crepuscular winter scenes of Prague which were to become his trademark. If you like the moonlit landscapes of Atkinson Grimshaw, you'll love Schikaneder.

Always lit by a single light source - a tablelamp, a streetlamp or the setting sun - his canvases depict lone figures slowly making their way home through the snow, leaning sadly on windowsills or gazing melancholically across the rooftops. Ten years ago I went to a superb exhiibition of his work in the Waldstein Riding School, in which each painting was spotlit using the painted light source as a focus, eerily enhancing the effect.

Visitors to Prague should have no problem tracking down Schikaneder's greatest paintings, though a recent re-hang means that they are now split between the modern art gallery in the Veletržni Palace, and the Convent of St George in Prague Castle.

Sadly, his most extraordinary piece, a huge canvas entitled 'Contemplation' (pictured here) is no longer on public display. It was sold just last week to a private telephone bidder for 8 million Czech crowns (£275,000), a record for a work by this artist.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Villa Gröbe (Grébovka)

I've written a good deal about the Villa Gröbe, or Grébovka, as it's known, without ever having really shown a picture of it in all its splendour. Today is the perfect opportunity to do so, with the added advantage of the westering sunlight to enhance the view (yes, that really is the setting sun reflected in the Narnia-style lamp-post). Although the villa was not the first building to have stood on this site overlooking the Royal Vineyards, it was by far the most splendid. And its story began with the coming of the railways.

140 years ago Prague's main train station was built at the top of the old Horse Market, today's Wenceslas Square. Connecting the lines to major hubs such as Vienna was going to be complex, however, since they would have to run directly through the historic Vinohrady district.

The solution was to construct a kilometre-long tunnel directly under the high ground of Vinohrady as far as the Nusle valley, and Moritz Gröbe was the railway magnate whose company was responsible for digging it. The debris from the excavation was then hauled up the hill to become the foundations of his magnificent summer residence.

Shortly after his death, the family sold the villa and surrounding parkland to the local municipality. The building was used as school, and during Communist times became the Palace of Young Pioneers. Today, beautifully restored to its original state, it is the headquarters of the Central European and Eurasian Law Institute.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Church of the Sacred Heart, Vinohrady

Getting off the metro at Jiřiho z Poděbrad, you never need to stop and ask anyone the time, because the entire square is overlooked by this vast dial, measuring some six metres in diameter. The clocktower is the dominant feature of the Church of the Sacred Heart. At 42 metres high, and - unusually - stretching the entire width of the nave, it gives the church the appearance more of a grand railway station than a place of worship.

Designed in 1928 by Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik and built between 1929 and 1932, this art deco masterpiece integrates design elements of classical architecture such as pediments, friezes and obelisks, with industrial materials: huge bronze doors, blue glazed bricks and, of course, the enormous, functional clock, the largest of its kind in Central Europe.

Inside, the effect is similarly shocking: bare brick walls, pierced at regular intervals with gold Greek crosses, and spherical copper lamps suspended from the unsupported ceiling. You might be inside a conference hall, were it not for Damian Pešana's ten-foot gilded statue of Christ above the altar.

Today is the first of the month, and thus theme day for the City Daily Photo community. Today's theme, it will come as no surprise, is Time. Click here to view thumbnails for all participants

Monday, 29 November 2010

Siberian Huskies, Havlíčkovy Sady

This is Jirka, with his two devoted huskies, Inari (left) and Jessie (right), all of them looking in their element - and in the dogs' case, exceptionally well camouflaged - in today's fresh snow.

The three of them live close to the park, and have recently returned from Reingers in Lower Austria, where Jirka and Jessie participated (and were, I am delighted to report, victorious) in the one-dog scooter class. As far as I can make out, this 'mushing' sport involves being pulled along by the dog on a specially designed push scooter.

According to Jirka, there are about forty huskies in Prague and over 800 countrywide; no wonder that he spends a good deal of time meeting with other owners and taking part in the popular závody (races) and other competitions.

Jirka told me the story of Stalin's wholesale destruction of the original breed in an attempt to control the nomadic Siberian peoples, for whom huskies were the only means of transport. Fortunately, a number of the dogs had already been imported into Alaska by fur traders in the early 1900s, and I was interested to learn that both Jessie and Inari come from America. If only they could talk...

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Tram Stop, Náměstí Míru

Today, in common with several other parts of Europe, we had our first covering of snow. For those affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder the morning was a blessing - frosty, icy underfoot, and a sparkle in the air.

Night comes early, though, and here at the tram stop there's not much relief from the pervasive dark: a few streetlamps and the promise of 'Snídaně' (breakfast); other than that it's a hurry to get home and escape the chill that seems to penetrate even the warmest of scarves.

This tram stop is at a busy intersection with the metro. On the left of the picture the tracks continue along Francouzská to Vršovice and beyond, while to the right the same line takes passengers in ten minutes to the National Theatre, then across the river to the western side of the city. On the corner, behind the posters, are the illuminated arched windows of the Pizzeria Grosseto.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Rose Window, Church of St Ludmila

Tomorrow is the birthday of Josef Mocker, the Prague architect whose dazzling reconstructive work can be seen in the West End of St Vitus's Cathedral in Prague Castle, as well as numerous other famous buildings including the cathedral church at Vyšehrad, Karlštejn Castle, and Charles University.

This week is also the anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of one of his most inspiring original achievements, the neo-Gothic church of St Ludmila in Vinohrady, whose rose window we see here reflecting the winter sunlight.

Begun in 1888, the church took four years to build, and played an active role in the spiritual life of Vinohrady until the advent of Communism, when priests were debarred from working and often ended up in prison, working in factories, or - like the cardinal of Prague - as a window-cleaner (not this window, presumably). In 1974 St Ludmila was shut completely during the construction of a major hub of the Prague underground system at Náměstí Míru.

Since the revolution of 1989, churches have been open again for worship - and St Ludmila still attracts a good Sunday congregation, despite the fact that (in contrast to neighbouring Poland) fewer than one fifth of present-day Czechs say they believe in God, or indeed a god of any kind.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Rezidence Havlíčkovy Sady

These striking new apartments with their cantilevered balconies and offset windows are highly successful in their aim of disrupting the monotonous straight lines associated with the more traditional panelak-style architecture so beloved of the former regime.

The resulting organic shapes also provide an aesthetic link between the functional aspect of the area to the south  -  bordered by the railway and the busy dual carriageway of Vršovická - and the view to the north, overlooking the greenery of Havlíčkovy Sady with the delightful prospect of the Grébovka and its steep vineyards rising up from the Botič valley.

The residences, built in 2005, are part of a broader complex which also contains a state-of-the-art gym, tennis courts, supermarket and the gastronomic pleasures of the Park Restaurant - owned by the same group who run the Bodeguita del Medio Cuban restaurant in Prague's Old Town, and soon to be featured in these pages; in the meantime you can read a splendid review of their menu here.

A small footbridge leads over the stream into leafy Vinohrady, where a short walk brings you to the park and its Vineyard Gazebo.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Karel Hynek Mácha 1810-1836

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karel Hynek Mácha, the Czech poet whose Gothic fantasy 'Máj' perfectly captured the idea of doomed youth so favoured by the Romantics. The narrative of Mácha's poem takes place on the first of May, and each year on that day his memorial on Petřin Hill becomes a place of devotion for lovers old and young.

Last night saw a pilgrimage of a different sort, a candlelit event organized by the energetic Bernie Higgins as part of the highly successful Poetry Day festival (which actually runs for two weeks each November). At the foot of the statue, a number of poets from Prague, Brno and further afield read their work or recited from 'Máj'. Please feel free to read the sonnet I wrote for the occasion on my poetry blog.

The statue, sculpted in 1912 by Josef Myslbek (who was also responsible for the fine equestrian bronze of St Wenceslas below the National Museum), stands on the other side of the Vltava, within view of Prague Castle. The no 22 from Vršovice gives easy access to the hill from the tram-stop at Újezd.

In the fashion of the true romantic poet, Mácha died young, the result of a fever contracted while helping to put out a barn fire during a visit to Litoměřice the day before his wedding in 1836. His remains were finally interred in Vyšehrad cemetery, the resting place of those artists, writers and musicians whose work has contributed to the revival and survival of the Czech national spirit. Click on the smaller picture to see a picture of Mácha's grave.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Warmest November day on record

The record books were torn up in Prague today as the mercury rose to an astonishing 21.2º C (70.1º F), the hottest weather ever set down for mid-November. That was in the centre of town. Here in Vršovice it certainly felt just as warm in the breezeless air, though the temperature was more likely in the high teens.

The Havlíčkovy gardens were heaving with families, small children and dogs, many of whom made their way up the steep slope of the vineyards to the Grébovka gazebo - where the refreshment of choice was Pilsener lager rather than the more seasonal wine. And as you can see, it was strictly shirt-sleeves order!

In this view you can see the extension built on to the side of the gazebo with its mirror-glass wall showing the view to the south of the city. One nice effect of this 2004 addition is that the expanse of reflected sky lends even more of a floating appearance to the oriental-style hillside pagoda, originally constructed in the 1880s. Above and to the left, the massive villa, itself recently refurbished, looked like a great white liner against the Mediterranean-blue sky. An extraordinary day, unlikely to be repeated before the snow sets in - but who knows? Today was proof, if any were needed, for apologists of global warming everywhere.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Vineyard Gazebo

The Vinični Altán (or Vineyard Gazebo) was built between 1879 and 1881 as a summerhouse for the neighbouring Villa Gröbe (Grébovka) by the estate architects Antonín Barvitius and Josef Schulz.  Overlooking the slopes of the vineyard with panoramic views over the Nusle valley, the decorative construction is today a restaurant and wine bar where you can sample the Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Rielsing cultivated on the slopes below.

In February 1945, the buildings on this exposed hillside suffered badly in an Allied bombing raid:  the gazebo, the neighbouring historic bowling alley and rustic grotto subsequently fell into disrepair. Since the vineyard was replanted in the 1990s, however, a massive reconstruction programme has gradually been piecing them all back together again, using original plans and materials. The gazebo itself was rebuilt in 2004 at a cost of 20m crowns (about £700,000 at the time), retaining Barvitius's design, but with a modern glass and stone extension to accommodate its new commercial role.

With its wide terrace and magnificent vista over southern Prague, it has become a very popular venue at all times of year for weddings, as well as other celebrations such as the opening of the new vintage on St Martin's Day. the altán also has a small gallery where exhibitions of contemporary photography are frequently held.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

St Martin's Day Wines

As explained in yesterday's post, St Martin's Day is both the start of winter and an excuse to uncork a few bottles of the new vintage. Tradition has it that 'svatomartinské vino' is served from 11.11 on the 11th of the 11th, as announced by this neatly-executed notice behind the bar of the Café Sladkovský.

Beneath the charming welcome are listed the wines for St Martin's Day. They come from two vineyards in Moravia, the area of the Czech Republic which - as anyone will tell you - produces the best vintages in the country.

Jazz great Emil Viklický comes from that region, and he is always keen to remind his audience of the virtues of the Moravian grape above those of the Bohemian hop. You can click on the arrow above to hear a snippet of his celebrated composition 'Wine, Oh Wine'.

Some of today's wines have names that reflect the colour of the grape, such as Modrý Portugal (Blauer Portugieser), or Veltlínské Zelené (Grüner Veltliner); also appearing on the blackboard are a highly-recommended white, Müller Thurgau - and, from Vladimir Tetur's vineyard, an exceptional rosé for St Martin's Day, my goblet of which is pictured here. A beautifully dry, slightly acid start, followed by a full-on fruity hit - not too fruity, mind - this is certainly one to add the Christmas present list.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The beginning of winter?

There's a sudden chill in the air, and tomorrow is St Martin's Day, of whom the Czech proverb says 'Svatý Martin přijíždí na bílém koni' or 'Saint Martin is coming on his white horse' - in other words, the snow is on its way. But although the bookies are taking bets on a fall of snow on the 'Bald Mountain' of the Czech-Slovak border, it would be premature to expect too much too soon here in Prague.

Last year, for the record, the snow didn't arrive until mid-December, though when it did it hung around for an awfully long time, in quite large drifts, some of it not melting until February, if memory serves.

As well as being the harbinger of winter, St Martin - a Roman legionary who converted to Christianity - is the patron saint of winemakers. Snow or no snow, tomorrow will resound to the opening of countless bottles of 'Svatomartinské víno' across the country.

The fact that St Martin was a monk in Anjou and introduced certain grape varieties into that region of France has led some people to link the November arrival of the new Czech vintage with that of the Beaujolais Nouveau. But as this entertaining article by Rob Cameron suggests, the traditions are separated by a good six hundred years.

To keep a weather eye on conditions in Vršovice, click here and be prepared to wait while the graphics load.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Švejk visits the Barracks at Vršovice

Shortly after the incident with the field altar, the drunken chaplain loses all his money playing blackjack, and is forced to barter Švejk. Inevitably he loses the game, and Švejk is 'won' by Lieutenant Lukáš, in whose service he remains for much of the rest of the book. Lukáš is a sympathetic character whose natural decency is sorely tested by Svejk's transparent foolishness. But he also embodies the hypocritical position of a servant of the Austrian crown at a time when Czechs were defiantly promoting their own national identity:

Lieutenant Lukáš was a typical regular officer of the ramshackle Austrian monarchy.  The cadet school had turned him into a kind of amphibian. He spoke German in society, wrote German, read Czech books, and when he taught the course for one-year volunteers, all of whom were Czechs, he told them in confidence: 'Let's be Czechs, but no-one need know about it. I'm a Czech too.' He equated being a Czech with membership of some sort of secret organization, to which it was wiser to give a wide berth. Otherwise he was a decent man. 

Prior to joining the 91st regiment in České Budějovice, he works as an instructor at the barracks of the 28th Infantry in Vršovice, which is where Švejk visits him to report the arrival of (yet another) young lady at his apartment. For Lukáš is also a ladies' man, who, as well as a canary and Angora cat, boasts a surprisingly wide collection of lingerie...

The barracks were last used by the army in the 1950s, and in the last few years have been transformed into an enormous area court serving four adjacent districts, including Prague 10. You can find a picture of the barracks in their original incarnation here.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Švejk's Adventures in Vršovice

Just along the street from Jaroslav Hašek's apartment in Vršovice is the church of St Nicolas, which appears several times in this blog and also, famously, in the first part of The Good Soldier Švejk.  The story goes something like this. On his release from a variety of lunatic asylums and garrison gaols where he has been placed on account of his imbecility, Švejk becomes batman to an army chaplain, Otto Katz, who has about as much spirituality in him as one of Švejk's specially-brewed pints of grog.

On the morning of the departure of a detachment of troops for the front, Katz requests Švejk's assistance in the administering of the traditional Mass, but lacks one important item of church furniture - a portable field-altar which he has accidentally left tucked underneath the seat of the sofa he sold the previous week to pay for drink. Švejk finds out from the furniture dealer's wife that the item was sold on to a retired teacher in Vršovice;  but the good old man, believing the altar to be a divine gift, has already donated it to the church of St Nicolas. There follows this exchange between the chaplain, Švejk, the teacher, and the parish priest:

'We don't think this at all funny,' said the chaplain. 'An object of this kind which didn't belong to you, you should at once have taken to the police and not to any blasted vestry.' 'Because of that miracle,' added Švejk, you may face a lot of trouble... A divine dispensation can cost you dear. You ought not to have paid any attention to the angels.' When the vicar asserted that the field altar did not belong to the sofa, the chaplain declared that in that case it belonged all the less to the vestry of a church which was attended only by civilians. Švejk made various remarks to the effect that it was an easy job to fix up a 'poor' church at the expense of the army authorities. He pronounced the word 'poor' in inverted commas.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

On the trail of the Good Soldier Švejk

In 1911, 28-year-old Jaroslav Hašek began work on a new short story. He'd already written hundreds of them since his first was published at the age of only 16. But this one (penned shortly after his marriage when he was living here in Vršovice) would make his name - and a moderate fortune.  It was entitled 'The Good Soldier Švejk', and in time it was to grow into a much greater work of 700 pages,  based on Hašek's own experiences in the First World War.

Still considered one of the world's greatest satirical novels, this Rabelaisian rambler of a tale concerns the thoughts and opinions of the 'patent idiot' Švejk, who remains blithely untouchable by authority as the war machine gathers pace. Today it is admired all over the world. Joseph Heller said that he would never had written Catch-22 had it not been for The Good Soldier Švejk, and in lines like these you can see the germ of Heller's work: 'Sergeant major,' Švejk said with dignity, 'allow me to inform you that even with the best will in the world I cannot carry out your order to remove myself from this room or altogether from the whole camp, as I am subject to higher orders.'

We know that Hašek lived on what is now Moskevská Street at number 363, in a building whose ground floor is now occupied by the Stella Café and Restaurant.  The barmaids knew the book, but were not aware that they were working where Hašek dreamt up his hero. The absence of any kind of memorial suggests that the council aren't aware either. If I were Švejk, I would be marching in to the town hall this instant to demand whyever not! But of course, I'd be delighted that they'd had the good sense to install a pub.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Sad Marionette

This marionette of a jester with his lute and belled cap is one of my favourites. He wears the slightly bemused expression that I associate with Dalibor, the mediaeval Czech knight who though under sentence of death played his violin so sweetly that thousands trooped to the tower where he was incarcerated to hear his sad strains. My jester has a slightly chipped plaster face (the usual material; only the really expensive puppets are completely carved from limewood).

The history of puppeteering in Prague goes back to at least 1771 when a play with marionettes was put on with indifferent results because of the actors' inability to speak Czech. Purists will tell you that true marionette plays should not really depend on spoken language - although singing, it seems, is fine: a perennially popular show these days is a puppet version of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'.

Prague is well-known today for two specific types of theatre which have their origins in puppetry: Black Light theatre, in which props are manipulated by unlit actors, giving inanimate objects a spookily lifelike quality, and 'Magic Lantern' productions, in which live actors mime and dance in front of back-projected films. Though not technically a puppet show, 'The Wonderful Circus', one of the most popular of these Laterna Magika productions, has clowns interacting with larger-than-life dolls in a variety of surreal scenes.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Svatopluk Čech

Much has been written in these pages of the nineteenth-century Czech National Revival, so today, a few words about the origins of that important cultural and political movement.

In the mid 1500s, Bohemia (that is, the Western part of today's Czech Republic) passed to the Habsburgs, and thus became an Austrian state. Religious tolerance was practised for a time in what was largely a protestant country, but after the Thirty Years War (1618-48) the catholic Habsburgs reasserted themselves in a brutal fashion, executing protestant leaders and insisting on German as the state language. This remained the case for at least the next century, during which spoken Czech survived only fitfully and largely in rural areas.

A lifeline was thrown by sporadic literary efforts in the 18th century, but it was the publication of the first grammar in 1809 and a Czech-German dictionary in the 1830s that upped the pace of revival. From the 1840s, Europe-wide discontent with the concept of absolute monarchy was reflected in many Czech writers' anger at their continued subservience to Vienna. One of them was this man, the aptly-named Svatopluk Čech, whose statue - accompanied by the figure of Victory - stands in the Vinohrady gardens named after him. One of the major bridges crossing the Vltava also bears his name.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Richard Tipping

Australian-born Richard Tipping is an artist and poet who specializes in art works which play with and subvert the written word, such as his 'Stop Go', pictured here. He has become especially well-known for his sculptural and printed pieces which take strings of connected words like 'openotherend' and 'hearthearth' and arrange them in ways that allow various meanings to emerge - for example the words 'dope not here' can be found in the first example, while the second gives rise to combinations of  'earth', 'hearth', 'the art' and so on.

His concrete poems have been turned into sculptures, watch-faces and large-scale landscape pieces; some have been commissioned by public institutions, and still others are held in permanent collections in Australia and New York, Frankfurt and Oxford.

In Vršovice's Café Sladkovský tonight, Richard gave a brief overview of his work with examples of his poetry along with a startlingly good rendition of Waltzing Matilda on the Jew's harp. He appeared as a perfomer in the current Prague Microfestival, which takes place all this week at various locations in the city.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Prague Old Town from Riegrovy Sady

From the Rieger Gardens (Riegrovy Sady) - which lie between Žizkov and Vinohrady about fifteen minutes' walk from Vršovice - there is a commanding panoramic vista of central Prague from the National Museum all the way to Prague Castle and the hills beyond. To the north-west, the view takes in the churches of the old town, dominated by the unmistakeable silhouette of Our Lady before Týn. This great city church in the Old Town Square dates from the 14th century. Its design was influenced by the work of master architects Matthew of Arras and Peter Parler, and it's the burial place of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Immediately to its right with the pale green onion-dome is the tower of Svatý Salvátor, one of two churches of that name dedicated to Christ the Saviour. One, built by the Jesuits, forms part of Charles University; this one, built at roughly the same time in the early 17th century, was a Lutheran foundation.

In the foreground are two buildings dedicated to St Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor. The nearer tower -  in the centre foreground of today's photo - is the church of Henry and his queen, Cunegunde. She lived an exemplary life, walking over red hot ploughshares to prove her fidelity, and devoting her life to charitable good works and the setting up of several convents. The better-known Jindřišská věž (Henry's tower) to the right of the picture, was built as a freestanding belfry for that church. Nowadays it houses a posh restaurant, cafe and exhibition galleries.

Friday, 15 October 2010

View from Riegrovy Sady

Oxford? Rome? Try again. That's right. It's Prague's National Museum, built between 1885 and 1891 and one of the architectural highlights of the Golden City. This well-known landmark has often been mistaken (by Russian soldiers as well as tourists) for a government building, owing to its grand design and prominent position at the top of Wenceslas Square.

But once enter its great colonnaded vestibule (star of many a Hollywood movie by the way), and there's no doubt of the building's purpose: to tell the story of the Czech and Slovak lands through its extensive natural history collections. Minerals, rocks, meteorites, fossils, zoological specimens - even the remains of a mammoth - are on show for all to marvel at.

For some time now, though, this grandiose expression of the Czech identity has been bursting at the seams. There's simply too much to display. The country's social history (particularly its recent communist past) now has a dedicated space in the next door building which was once the HQ of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly and later that of  Radio Free Europe. And from July 2011 the museum will be shut for four years for a complete overhaul. The plan is to build a museum precinct, comprising the old and new buildings, as well as the State Opera, linked by a newly-landscaped pedestrian zone; while the roaring dual carriageway which at the moment splits the museum from Wenceslas Square will be re-routed underground.

If you're visiting Prague before then and want to take a last look inside the museum, details of opening times and current exhibitions can be found here

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Corner of Krymská and Košická

Krymská is an intriguing street with an endearingly shabby appearance (today's building excepted). It runs along the hill parallel with the tramlines, then continues into a dishevelled plot that is happily being revived as a spot for traditional market fairs, before opening out onto Vršovické Náměsti.

Like the shelves of its many grocers, it's well-provisioned: at one end a couple of friendly restaurants and bars, and at the other an Irish pub and more shops selling everything from textiles and fruit and veg to car parts and pianos.

In common with nearly all the turn-of-the-century streets in this part of town, its name comes from a geographical location, in this case the Crimea. Neighbouring streets are appropriately named after Sevastopol, the Black Sea, and the river Don.

The fine residential building in today's post - also home to a well-ordered Vietnamese mini-market - has had a recent makeover, and the newly-painted facade makes it something of a striking beacon in the winter sunshine. No doubt it will mellow with time, and maybe even re-acquire some of the peeling - and appealing - grandeur of its pre-restored state.

The pictures below show the building now and as it was a century ago.

Monday, 11 October 2010

A Puppet Show

A couple of roughly turned blocks with painted faces, a rudimentary set, a knack for telling a great story, and of course a percussionist to make all the right cartoon noises at crucial moments - that's the essence of the puppeteer's art. And that was certainly more than enough to keep these children entertained for a good hour or so during Saturday's Vršovice Fair.

As readers will know who have visited Prague, the place is alive with puppetry. In the Old Town, marionettes dangle from every other shop-front - thousands of Mozarts, Pinocchios and Charlie Chaplins, supplemented these days by several differently-sized Harry Potters of course.

A few years ago Michael Frayn made the brilliant observation in a BBC documentary called 'Magic Lantern' that puppets and Prague were inextricably linked. He gave as examples the Golem, a mud-man fashioned by a 16th-century rabbi to guard the ghetto, the robots invented by the Čapek brothers for the play R.U.R., and - and this was the most telling bit - the communist leaders themselves (whose bodies, bizarrely, were preserved in all their puppet-like waxiness in the mausoleum on Žižkov Hill).

By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a copy of that film, I would seriously love to get my hands on one. I've tried the Beeb, with no success. Perhaps someone could pull a few strings?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Bass player Eva Holická

Eva Holická is a well-known Prague instrumentalist who plays bass guitar with a number of groups including jazz-funk band 'Let's Do It Tonight' and the Brazilian-influenced 'Duende' whose name perfectly captures that indefinable electricity that connects performers and audiences - especially when the playing is as brilliant and rhythmically tight as this. Listen to 'Lonely Cat' by clicking the ► button above.

She and her friends play at numerous venues at home and abroad, and can be often heard at clubs around the city, including the new Jazz Dock on the embankment.

For yesterday's festival in Vršovice she teamed up with musicians from these and other groups, including Honza Karez-Soukup on sax and vocals, Vítek Pospíšil on keyboards, Martin Kreuzberg on drums and Tomislav Zvardoň on guitar.

The specially-formed lineup of Eva and her friends played an impressively wide range of jazz-funk and groove numbers as well as pop classics throughout the afternoon.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Roll up! Roll up!

The 'Start Vršovice' Civic Assocation was founded in 2009 to breathe new life into this historic area of old Prague.  Today, in collaboration with Café Sladkovský, they presented a superb festival of local produce, arts and crafts called 'Vršovice Sobě' - 'Vršovice for itself'.

The hugely enjoyable fair took place at the junction between Kondaňská and Krymská in a square which was a traditional marketplace in the early 1900s before being relegated to use as a car park.

Today, the cars were gone, and the stage was set for performances of live poetry and music of an exceptional quality. Alternative music from The Ecstasy of St Teresa in the morning and a performance by 'action poet' and Bohemians supporter Ondřej David were two highlights of the morning, while the afternoon saw a fabulous children's show presented by Cakes and Puppets, and more live music from Eva Holická and her gang.

They even arranged for the sun to shine all day, allowing hundreds of people to enjoy a pint and a sausage (or some of the excellent organic fare on offer) in an atmosphere which really did capture the spirit of the century-old market.  Today's picture shows Ondřej Kobza, proprietor of the new Café v Lese, playing the role of master of ceremonies.  More from the market tomorrow.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Elektra tram on Moskevská

The Elektra 14T from Škoda, with bodywork by Porsche, was introduced between 2006 and 2009, representing the most innovative re-design in public transport for many years. The main change from the old-style trams was the bendy section in the middle, which theoretically meant more room for passengers.

Sadly, the designers blew it by arranging the seating in such a way as to make the whole experience less convenient and mildly uncomfortable.

Something about the gearing makes these trams emit a high-pitched whine as they accelerate, and last but not least in this catalogue of woes, the old passenger access by the driver's door has gone, isolating the driver in a futuristic cab and causing mass-migration towards the rear doors every time a new-style tram approaches the stop. My friend Jim runs a facebook page dedicated to this chimaera of the transport system.

Fortunately, after the delivery of only sixty trams, they are to be replaced with 250 of the much better-looking 'ForCity' model, which will also premiere in the Latvian capital Riga in the coming year, and which feature, I am assured, pivoting bogies. To see pictures of this pendolino of the tram world, please see this article from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Better late than never...

Legend has it that when, at some future date, Bohemia is in real trouble - as if the Nazis and the Communists weren't enough - Saint Wenceslas (a.k.a. 'Good King') will emerge from his resting place under the hill of Blaník, thirty miles south-east of Prague, and ride to the defence of the realm.

You could have been forgiven for thinking the prophecy had been fulfilled this week when a twelve-foot-high statue of the saint was craned into position on the facade of the Vršovice church that bears his name. The statue was placed there on 29 September and blessed at a special service on 3 October.

Designed in 1929, this functionalist temple was constructed minus its patron, and the townsfolk of Vršovice have had to wait 80 years to see him take his rightful place on the empty plinth half way up the slender concrete tower. The half-ton bronze was created by sculptor Jan Roich, based on the one-tenth-scale maquette which had been preserved by the nephew of its original designer, Bedřich Stefan.

Wenceslas (Václav, in Czech) is often shown in this pose, striding (or riding) resolutely forth with his pennant or spear and his distinctive cap. The new statue is the latest in a long line of images of the saint to be found throughout the Czech lands.

You can read more about last week's occasion in this article from the Czech press, easily translatable using Google Translate.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Former Girls' School, Heroldovy Sady

The first village schoolmaster was appointed in Vršovice in the 17th century, and we know that in 1797 Matouš Holub was running a small school from his family cottage near the Botič. But the parish had to wait until the 1890s for its first purpose-built institutions, constructed alongside the gardens of Heroldovy Sady. Two of the buildings still function as business and management colleges, but the adjacent girls' establishment dating from 1898 is no longer in use as a school.

Even so, the improving sentiment of Victorian-era educational values remains in the imposing inscriptions. The one at the top reads 'School is the Foundation of Life' and below it are the names of the two women most associated with the Bohemian cultural scene in the second half of the nineteenth century, the writers Božena Němcová and Karolina Světla.

Between the two names appears an abbreviated version of the coat of arms of Vršovice: the Bohemian lion and the fishing basket called a vrš (from which folk etymologists like to derive the neighbourhood's name).

N.B. Apologies for the fact that the names are cut off. This photographer's error will be corrected in the next few days when I can get a replacement image.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Turf Wars

When I first visited Prague in 1991 the only graffiti I spotted was a stick man hanging from a hammer and sickle, sprayed thinly onto a wall beneath a bridge in Branik. Pretty daring stuff.  These days, it's everywhere, usually thoughtlessly and unartistically daubed on facades and doorways, even in the historic centre.
There's a wide range of equally unappealing stuff - largely 'tags' drawn in the usual spiky style to define some gang or other's territory.  Having said that, there is something visually striking about the overlaying of rival signatures in this collection from a wall running alongside the Botič stream on the Vršovice/Michle border.

What you don't get much of (apart from the traditional Satanic beard and horns applied to politicians' faces on election posters) is political sentiment of the sort that the commies clamped down on so successfully. The nearest I have found locally is the slogan in today's smaller picture: 'our streets, our towns' (scrawled on the hoardings of the building site behind the Rangherka). Just round the corner is another, in the same hand, reading 'today the pavements, tomorrow the whole park'. Quite witty.

But what I really want to know about all this graffiti is why you never see the little devils actually doing it...

Click here to view thumbnails for all participants in today's City Daily Photo theme day

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Autumn comes to Tyrš Hill

Just south of Vršovice, divided into three by the Botič stream and the railway, lies an area of high wooded ground called Bohdalec. The central slopes are named after Miroslav Tyrš (or to give him his original German name, Friedrich Tirsch), the founder of the world-famous Sokol gymnastics movement. Today the area is best known as the home of the Royal Archery Club of Prague.

Tyrš established the first Sokols in the 1860s at the time of the Czech National Revival, and at their height these patriotic athletics clubs boasted a quarter of a million members. Hardly surprisingly,  the successive occupying powers of the Nazis and the Communists saw them as a threat, and officially banned them.

Since 1989, the Sokol movement has re-emerged, and today about 25,000 members gather annually at places like this to recreate the spirit of the Falcon (the bird after which the movement was named).

My walk today through the beautiful autumn landscape took me to the suburb of Michle, and then to the neighbouring hillside of the Jezerka Park in Nusle (also in Prague 4, with its birch trees and splendid theatre) from where this photo was taken.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Café Sladkovský

The handsome ground floor of this otherwise somewhat distressed building on the corner of Sevastopolská (Sebastopol St) and Černomořská (Black Sea St) is home to Sladkovský's, the new café and tapas bar which has quickly established itself as a convivial 'local' in this corner of Vršovice.

As always, food, drink and good company are the driving forces, but none of that is any good without effective management. Owner-manager Michal and his team have worked fantastically hard to make this characterful place to come to life; the staff go out of their way to be friendly (especially to those who like me still struggle with the vernacular) and there's a really strong sense of community as people wander in at all times of day and night with prams, pushchairs and assorted dogs.

Inside, the decor is still in a state of flux, though pride of place must go to the enormous stage lights salvaged from Barrandov Film Studios, a few miles upstream, which now hang over the bar. But it's the food that makes this place the real deal. For delightful mezze to full English brunch (served from 11.30, washed down by tap beers Lobkowicz and Rychtař, Birrell for the non-alcoholic, or a quick sharp stab of Goppion espresso) Sladkovsky's is the place to be.