Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Reasons to Celebrate!

Not sure why these 'ohňostroj' were going off today in Vršovice, but it's not untypical at this time of year.

Perhaps they were celebrating the fact that two Czech tennis stars are making such good headway at Wimbledon. Petra Kvitová has made it to the semi-finals, the first time in her career she has reached the last eight in a major tournament; and later today Tomáš Berdych, the Czech number one, will play Roger Federer in the men’s quarter-finals.

He has a massive reputation to live up to. Two of the greatest names in tennis history were also Czechs: Ivan Lendl, and of course the great Martina Navrátilová, about whom the record speaks more eloquently than I can.

Perhaps if Berdych gets through to the semis, the BBC will start pronouncing his name properly: 'ich' as in German, not 'itch' as in scratch... I don't know - where do they get their researchers?

In other sporting news, I read that an Englishman is swimming a section of the Vltava: 175 km from České Budějovice, where he started today, to Prague, where he will arrive on 17 July. Paul Whitaker is swimming three hours a day to raise money for Asistence, a Czech charity that helps the multiply-disabled to enjoy an active life, and you can donate by clicking on his name. There's something to celebrate.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Poppy fields, Uhříněves

The Prague suburb of Uhříněves, once a mediaeval village, is today the site of Central Europe's largest and most sophisticated inland container terminal. Seen from the road, the massive cranes and gantries suggest the approach to a busy port - though the nearest watercourse, the tiny Botič, can only just about take a kayak.

Once past the acres of stacked metal boxes, however, an unexpected vista opens up that might be England: gently rolling hills and tree-lined valleys, and - sandwiched between a new housing development and a kite-flying area - this wheatfield full of wild poppies. Coming across it made me think of a verse from Philip Larkin's poem 'Here':

'And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges | Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,
Isolate villages, where removed lives | Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands | Like heat...
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance | Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence: | Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.'

Perhaps the poppies shouldn't surprise us: the Czechs, it turns out, are the biggest suppliers of poppy-seed  in the world, with a yield of 60,000 tonnes per year and a healthy export trade to India! And every year thousands of American families, the sons and daughters of Czech émigrés, continue to celebrate their old homeland with 'makové koláčky', pastries filled with crushed poppy-seed, dates, raisins and honey.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Hammermill Pond

Midway between Vršovice and Hostivař (see yesterday's post) lies the township of Záběhlice, once a small village with a castle, a fortress, and a mill. In the 1920s improvised slum housing sprang up all around, eventually making way for the panelaks you can see in the background, a housing estate ironically known as 'Garden City'.

In the foreground is the millpond itself, 'Hamerský Rybník', named after the 'hamr' or hammer mill which in the eighteenth century was the centre of the hamlet's copper-making industry. Readers may recall that the Botič stream, which powered the mill, played a significant part in the Hussite war of 1420. When they drained the pool in the 1960s, they found the remains of a fortress of Wenceslas IV destroyed in that same war.

They also found quantities of early mediaeval pottery, which makes good sense, as the petite romanesque church of the Virgin Mary in today's picture dates from the 12th century. Today it presides over a recently restored and rejuvenated millpond which has become a haven for wildlife and day-trippers.

Legend has it that a white lady used to haunt the castle at Záběhlice, until the bells of this very church (which she could not abide) scared the unfortunate spirit away...

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Panelák, Hostivař

Heading east from Vršovice towards the outskirts of Prague, art nouveau suddenly gives way to suburbs composed entirely of prefabricated concrete housing. These 'paneláky' - panel-built apartment blocks - were constructed under successive administrations from the late 1950s until the 1980s, and in their faceless functionalism are both a symbol and a reminder of the country's communist past. Former president Václav Havel is not alone in having described them as 'undignified rabbit pens ripe for demolition'.

In the last twenty years it's become de rigeur to paint panelaks in pastel colours to alleviate their grim facades, but the fact is that compared with modern housing, a number of them are failing: poor materials, bad insulation and rusting metalwork can't be disguised, however many coats of paint are applied. And though the newly-mobile, internet-savvy generation may be happy to live privately and anonymously - and despite the proximity of hi-tech shopping and sports centres - these boxes are, in the end, undesirable and undesired. 

The trend in the last ten years has been to develop 'villages' comprising more intimate, low-rise apartments, but although these are often of exceptional build quality and luxuriously appointed, they are beyond the budget of most panelák dwellers. I suspect that these estates will be with us for some time to come.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Internet Laundry

Andy's Laundromat at 14 Korunní is one of the great institutions of this part of town. Open daily from 8 till 8, its claim to fame is as a cyber-laundry, where customers and their clothes can surf to their hearts' content. As well as four networked computers there's a cosy snug, and the friendly English-speaking staff always offer you a cup of coffee while you wait.  A single wash and dry (praní a sušení) costs about £4.50 and takes just under an hour; while for those staying longer than the average backpacker, a full laundry service with hand ironing and folding can be had for under a tenner.

Čistírna comes from the Czech word for clean, and usually means 'dry cleaning'- though technically Andy's is a 'prádelna', from the word 'prádlo' ('linen'). Did you know, by the way, that the English word 'laundry' is similarly derived from the old word for linen ('lawn'), which in turn comes from the French city of Laon, a great mediaeval centre of cloth manufacture? I love etymology!

Korunní, or 'Crown Street', is a long avenue stretching between Náměsti Míru and Nám. Jiřího z Poděbrad. It demarcates the northern boundary of Prague 10, and if followed far enough, brings you to a beautiful water tower, which I suppose would at one time have supplied this building with water ... though not broadband.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Šaloun's Villa

This extraordinary facade is the entrance to an even more extraordinary modernist villa built between 1908 and 1911 by Ladislav Šaloun (1870-1946), the Czech sculptor whose main claim to fame is the enormous memorial to Jan Hus in Prague's Old Town Square. He also created the bust for Dvořák's grave in the Vyšehrad cemetery due west of Vršovice.

The 'Šalounova Vila' is close to the home of the Čapek brothers, who were visitors here, as were other Czechs of international renown, such as the virtuoso violinist Jan Kubelík and his son the conductor Rafael Kubelík, along with the leading painter of the Art Nouveau movement, Alfons Mucha. All played a significant part in the artistic flowering which took place in Prague in the early part of the 20th century.

The inscription 'The Sea! the Sea!' refers to the words uttered by Xenophon's battle-weary ten thousand when, on their retreat from Persia, they finally glimpsed the shores of the Black Sea. What relevance the quotation had for Šaloun I don't know, though I guess most Czechs are relieved to see the sea at some time in their lives.

But whose is the mask-like head surmounting it all? Perhaps the waves of the hair are those of a presiding Poseidon - or could the grim features have something to do with the the story recounted by the writer Josef Vachal - that occult séances once took place in the cellar of the villa? All answers gratefully received.

The villa is now used as a teaching space for guest professors of the AVU (Academy of Fine Arts).

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Rus in Urbe

Here it is again, that venerable transport that speeds us on our way across the city on the most popular route in town (just beware the pickpockets on this one). Trams on this route are nearly always full because they interconnect with three metro stations in quick succession: Náměstí Míru, I.P. Pavlova (the dog man not the dancer - the final 'a' is a possessive ending, since its Pavlov's station), and Karlovo Náměstí (Charles Square) named after Emperor Charles IV, of Bridge and University fame.

The Czechs are great gardeners, and they have conspired with Nature here by using wild flowers to give an impression of the countryside in the heart of the metropolis: 'rus in urbe' as they say. These borders, in Náměstí Miru, have been planted by council employees, of course; but there is evidence of a more unusual horticultural phenomenon taking place across the city. Groups of self-styled 'garden guerillas' are making it their mission to 'parachute' into your area, particularly if it's an unloved concrete backwater, and plant bushes and shrubs by night, so that you wake up in the morning with a little more light in your dreary existence. Now isn't that a wonderful thing? To read more about these saviours of the soul, click here. If like me your Czech isn't up to much, there are at least some great pictures of recent revolutionary activity.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A little piece of England

Driving into Prague from the West, the E50 brings you from Germany along the old Pilsen Road into the district of Smichov, close to where Mozart lived while he was composing Don Giovanni. A turn along the embankment and the same road crosses the river just upstream of the National Theatre.

Straight on, and the road leads to Náměstí Míru, and you'll know when you've arrived because all the streets which radiate from it bear the names of countries or cities. Turn right along Francouzská (France Street) and you end up in Vršovice. Circle the square and turn off left towards Wenceslas Square and you'll be travelling along Anglická (England Street), pronounced 'Anglit-ska'.

Nearby, in no particular order, are Italy, Rome, London, Belgium, America, Romania, the Black Sea, the Crimea, Russia, Moscow, Copenhagen and Uruguay - it's a pretty eclectic collection, but a delightful and important reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of a city which after all sits squarely in the middle of Europe at what is still - to an extent - the division between 'West' and 'East'.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Royal Vineyards

Although a handful of vineyards survive in the city of Prague as a whole, these splendid terraces can lay claim to being some of the most ancient, as they lie on the land which gave its name to the district: Královské Vinohrady (Royal Vineyards), where vines were first planted under the aegis of Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century.

In 1870, Prague businessman Moritz Gröbe bought the land and erected on the upper slopes a splendid villa among whose visitors were Princess Elizabeth (daughter of Crown Prince Rudolf and the granddaughter of Emperor Franz Joseph) and her husband Karl Otto Windischgratz.

Gröbe's heirs eventually sold the villa and its grounds, which were taken over in 1905 by the commune of Vinohrady. The house and its grounds suffered in the allied bombings of February 1945, but since the war they have been beautifully reconstructed. The vineyard has been managed since 1992 by experienced winegrower Antonín Tureček, who over the last eighteen years has planted twelve thousand vines. Around 13,000 kg of grapes are harvested annually, producing approximately 9000 litres of wine.

Vintages can be sampled at the wooden gazebo which serves as a restaurant at one end of the sunny hillside, while the newly-built wine cellar at the other end dispenses bottles of white (Müller Thurgau), red (Modrý Portugal) and rosé.