Saturday, 31 July 2010

Sudička Restaurant

Prague cuisine has come a long way since the bad old days of dumplings and overdone cabbage, though these classics are still available if you know where to look.  Today's breed of boutique eateries provides a wide range of international delights, and Nitranská is blessed with two very good such restaurants in close proximity. One is the well-known Mozaika, but only a block away is the less expensive but no less superb Sudička. May I give a plug for my favourite restaurant?

Sudička is the name of the old woman who, in Slavic mythology, spins the yarn of a child's destiny; and in this below-street-level cellar, with sunlight filtering in from the upper world, one can easily imagine her at work. I have been here three or four times in the last six months in excellent company, and always plump for one particular dish - a smoked salmon salad with fennel and strawberries, and a glass of chilled Müller Thurgau. At £7, this is not only excellent value, but also gourmet cuisine of the highest order.

The restaurant was at one time a coal-store and later a laundry, serving the art-nouveau house above. The management at Sudička are charming, if eccentric. Their card indicates that they are 'usually open from 12.33 until 11pm, though frequently longer'. I think that covers most eventualities. From here it's just a short walk past the water tower and over the hill to Vršovice for a well-earned rest.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Busking

'Praise the Lord, we are a musical nation' says the Revd. Eli Jenkins in Dylan Thomas's portrait of Welsh village life, Under Milk Wood.  The same could easily be said of the Czech lands, whose history can be mapped out in their wealth of composers and performers.

Czech baroque music is not as well known as it should be, but readers may like to jot down the names of Michna, Hollan (known, after his birthplace, as Rovenský), Tůma and Zelenka, all of whom took liturgical music to unimaginably expressive heights. Mozart said that Prague of all cities appreciated his music best - and several of his most celebrated works had their premieres here, including Don Giovanni.

Later the music of Dvořák and Smetana became identified with the period of the patriotic fervour known as the Czech National Revival; and the year after the latter's death, the great concert hall the Rudolfinum - home to the Czech Philharmonic - was constructed, with Dvořák at the podium.

But this is essentially a country where ordinary people have always made the music, whether in the church congregation or at work in the fields. Leoš Janáček famously incorporated Czech-Moravian folk songs into his works, a tradition proudly upheld today by musicians such as acclaimed jazz pianist Emil Viklický. It's no surprise, either, to learn that jazz was for many Czechs the call-to-arms of the Velvet Revolution.

This busker, crouched in the corner of the cathedral of St Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad, seems to me to best represent the deeply musical consciousness of a people who live in a country which the English music historian Charles Burney called the 'conservatoire of Europe'.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Ctirad and Šárka at Vyšehrad

Five minutes from Prague's Ruzyně International airport, shielded from the dual carriageway by the most insensitively-placed McDonald's in the world,  lies a forested valley of particular beauty. Its rocky landscape, the haunt of climbers and summer daytrippers, resembles that of Middle Earth, and of course it has its place in Czech mythology.  One of its cliffs is known as Dívčí Skok, or Maiden's Leap, since it was from here that Šárka - on the left in today's picture - hurled herself to her death in a final act of defiance or remorse, depending on your reading of the legend. 

Šárka was the chief actor in a drama of betrayal which took place in the seventh century AD.  After the death of princess Libuše, the women of the tribe decided to run things in their own way, and set up a fortress of their own on the opposite bank of the river from Vyšehrad. They were led by a fearsome amazon called Vlasta, but despite a number of gory victories over their masculine counterparts, they had not yet managed to dispatch the noble knight Ctirad.

It was therefore arranged that Šárka should be tied to a tree, in apparent distress (railway tracks had not yet been invented), and that when Ctirad took pity on her, she should reward him with a cup of mead, which she conveniently had with her despite having been ambushed.  When he was suitably drunk, Šárka persuaded Ctirad to blow on her horn for help, and thus he sealed his own fate at Vlasta's merciless hands. The statue is one of four sculpted by Josef Myslbek, who was also responsible for the equestrian statue of St Wenceslas outside Prague's National Museum.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Grave of Jan Neruda

It will come as no surprise to devotees of Pablo Neruda, the great South American Nobel Prize winner, to know that he adopted his surname as a homage to Jan Neruda, the Czech poet who is buried here in Vyšehrad's 'Hall of Fame'.

The original Neruda, who died thirteen years before the birth of his Chilean namesake, also came from a working class background, and spent his life observing and commenting on the foibles of the bourgeois inhabitants of Malá Strana, Prague's 'Lesser Quarter'. It was an area Neruda knew well: he began his literary career in the House of the Two Suns on the street directly below Prague Castle which used to be known as Ostruhová. The steep and ancient royal route, lined then as now with hotels and government buildings, is today named in the writer's honour: Nerudova.

His 'Povídky malostranské' (Tales of the Lesser Quarter) is highly recommended, especially the satire 'Doctor Spoiler', about a physician whose reputation soars when he pronounces a dead man alive, and is thereafter much in demand - especially, as Neruda wryly remarks, 'from people whose death would have given large numbers great joy'.  There's an English version by Michael Heim, and another by Edith Pargeter, the Shropshire-born author of the Brother Cadfael mysteries.

In 2009, the poems of Jan Neruda achieved new heights - literally so - when his 'Pisně kosmické' (Cosmic songs) were taken into space on one of the final missions of the US space shuttle by an American astronaut of Czech descent, Andrew Feustel. The honour would have no doubt amazed and delighted Neruda, who was a keen scientist and godfather to the astronomer Josef Frič, buried in the adjacent plot.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Devil's Pillar

A curious story is told about a certain canon of Vyšehrad who once accepted a bet from the devil. The demon Zardan would fly to Rome, bodily lift one of the great granite columns from the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and fly back to Bohemia with it before the priest had finished saying Mass. The priest readily agreed, and began the service.

Zardan soon arrived in Rome and duly stole the column (which, incidentally, is missing to this day); but St Peter, who was keeping his eye on things, delayed the thief three times on the return trip, at one stage dunking him in the lagoon of Venice. By the time Zardan arrived at Vyšehrad, the Mass was finished.

So enraged was the devil that he hurled the pillar with supernatural fury through the roof of the church of St Peter and St Paul. It shattered into three pieces, which can still be seen, relocated in the beautiful gardens close to the church and its historic cemetery. The broken column is called 'Čertův sloup' or 'Devil's pillar', but those who know the story refer to it more correctly as 'the pillar of Zardan'.


Today's main picture shows a beautiful fresco from the start of the 18th century over the entry to the sacristy, illustrating the moment when the devil was defeated. Click on the smaller picture to see a recent photograph of the pillar itself, an object which has been the subject of fascination and debate for many centuries.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Přemysl and Libuše

This leafy park is home to four monumental statues by Josef Myslbek depicting characters from the story of the Czech tribe. One shows an allegorical couple, 'Lumír and Piseň' - singer and muse. The other three are historical pairings: Ctirad and Šárka, the temptress who lured him to his death in the 7th-century War of the Maidens;  Záboj and Slavoj, two warriors who fought off a Frankish incursion in the 9th century; and these two: Libuše and Přemysl, mythical founders of Prague.

According to legend, Libuše was one of the three daughters of old king Krok, who ruled over these lands from his fortress here at Vyšehrad. When she became queen, Libuše had no husband, but as luck would have it she had a dream in which her horse led her to her future consort. The next day the animal was sent off to the distant hills, where it came across a ploughman called 'Přemysl' (his name means thoughtful, or studious). The mystified peasant was swept back to Vyšehrad and became the father of the great Přemyslid dynasty. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, not quite. Inspired, no doubt, by her prophetic success, Libuše went into a further trance. This time her horse took her in a quite different direction, towards the area where Prague Castle now stands. 'Go until you reach a man making a lintel for his house', the vision had said, 'and on that spot you will found a city whose fame will reach the stars.' She did, and she named it 'Prah', the old Czech word for a lintel. The gesture with her arm in this statue refers to that seminal moment in the country's history.

These gargantuan sculptures (quite how gargantuan you can see from the smaller photo) once stood on the nearby Palacký Bridge, until 1945 when a US bomber whose crew had apparently mistaken Prague for Dresden managed to destroy two of them. 'Přemysl and Libuše' is one pair which has been reconstructed; all four were removed to Vyšehrad after the war.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Tomb of Antonín Dvořák

Between Vršovice and the river lies the broad Nusle valley, through which the Botič flows until it emerges into the Vltava from under the rock of Vyšehrad, or 'High Castle'. According to legend, this fortified hilltop was the seat of the Přemysls (the first ruling dynasty of Prague) until the time when the present citadel was constructed on the hill to the north, two miles downstream.

Such was the enduring power of the myth that, at the time of the Czech National Revival in the 1800s, the church of SS Peter and Paul was re-constructed here in grand neo-gothic style, and a colonnaded cemetery built to house the remains of the greatest Czechs. At its east end a mighty tomb called the Slavín (The Glorious Dead) was erected in honour of artists, musicians and others whose words 'continue to speak even though their lips are sealed'.

Many of the gravestones are decorated in the Secessionist or Art Nouveau style popularized by Alfons Mucha, who is one of those buried here. Opposite him rests Bedřich Smetana, whose tone poem 'Vltava' rings out from the church's carillon on the hour, and whose opera 'Libuše' tells the legend of the princess who once lived here.

But the most visited tomb is probably that of fellow-musician, and composer of the 'New World' symphony, Antonín Dvořák. He was born in 1841 in Nelahozeves, a small village half an hour north of Prague, and died in 1904 on 1 May, the Czech 'Day of Love'. He was laid to rest here four days later, following a procession through the city (see smaller picture) in this tomb designed by Ladislav Šaloun.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Smolenská 157/2

Just a few steps from Vršovické Náměstí is a tiny lane called Smolenská which still retains some pre-twentieth-century cottages. Some have been redeveloped, but one or two still look pretty much as they did before the expansion of residential housing in the early 1900s. This attractive example is most unusal. It reminds me of Wordsworth's cottage in the English Lake District.

One curious feature of streets in Prague is that every building is numbered twice. At one time, houses were called after animals, birds, fish, religious or astronomical emblems, and were decorated with appropriate insignia (over two hundred such house signs remain in and around Prague's Old Town).

In 1770, they ran out of animals and stars and fish, and introduced a unique numbering system, based on individual plots of land:  this so-called 'cadastral' number is still technically the main identifier in a postal address. Originally painted or carved over the door (see smaller photo) they nowadays appear on a red plaque, along with the district number (Prague 13 is now part of Prague 10, by the way!)

Blue street numbers came later, and are included in the address following the cadastral number, as in the title of today's post.  As in many other countries, they are odd on one side of the street and even on the other, with the lowest numbers at the end of the street closer to the river.

If you are interested in finding out more about the ancient house signs of the Old Town, may I recommend Alena Ježková's excellent House Insignia of Ancient Prague?

Friday, 16 July 2010

Hot Summer

The thunderstorm the other night temporarily took the edge off the heat, but it was back today with a vengeance; and as I type up this post at 10pm it's still nearly 30 degrees inside, and I've had the windows open all day. The desk fan is on, but where's the air conditioning when you need it?

This man feels the same, doubtless, the mustard-coloured walls of his handsome turn-of-the-century apartment somehow conspiring to make him look even hotter than he no doubt is. It's uncomfortable alright.

At the time of writing, we're in for a short lull in the heatwave, and then from Thursday to Saturday it's going to scream back into the upper thirties. Of course there are hotter places in mainland Europe. I remember ten years ago trying to finish an ice in Rome without it turning into water before it reached its destination, and walking to the Etruscan museum feeling as if hot irons were being applied at every step.

Oh, and while I think of it, a word of advice:  never, ever, drive across Italy in the summer with a cheese in the boot. It's absolutely the worst thing to do. There is no known antidote, and you will never find a buyer for your car even a decade later. Ciao.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Nusle Town Hall

A short walk from Vršovice Railway Station brings you to Náměstí Bratři Synků, named after two brothers, Otto and Viktor Synek, resistance members who were killed by the Nazis in 1941-42. Look south from the square named in their honour and you will see the neo-renaissance Nusle Town Hall, built in 1908, which houses the offices of the district of Prague 4.

Its splendid arcaded balcony, facade and clock are all typical of the decorative fervour of the time, as is the declaration of Nusle's independence in the letters cut into the pennants (MN = Město Nusle: the Town of Nusle). To assert this fierce sense of identity even further, the interior of the hall carries the legend 'Nusle Sobě' (Nusle unto itself), echoing the famous slogan 'Národ Sobě (the Nation unto itself) which appears over the stage of Prague's National Theatre.

On the side of the square is a bust with an inscription commemorating another hero of the resistance, Karel Kutlvašr, who received the German surrender here in 1945 but who was later imprisoned by the Communists.

Náměstí Bratři Synků, at one time a marketplace and currently a major tram stop, is slated to become one of the main stations on the new line D of the Prague Metro, if and when it's ever built.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Žižkov Television Tower

This rocket-like structure (which has a habit of ending up in tourists' photos whether they like it or not) is located in the neighbouring suburb of Žižkov, near to another colossal edifice - a memorial to Jan Žižka the one-eyed Hussite warrior, at 30 feet one of the tallest equestrian statues in the world. But the TV tower (of which we can see only the top third) dwarfs that statue by a further 680 feet.

Taller than London's Post Office Tower, it has been much criticized in a country which was 'monitored' for so long by the Communist regime, and understandably attracted many satirical nicknames. One is 'Baykonur' - after the Soviet launchpad in Kazakhstan from which Yuri Gagarin was hurled into space. Another, with more than a trace of double entendre, 'Jakešův prst' (Jakeš's finger)- a reference to Milouš Jakeš, leader of the Communist party at the time of the Velvet Revolution. This tower was a grand architectural symbol of state interference, electronically and culturally, in the lives of ordinary people.

Further ill-will arose from the fact that it was built on ground which is still partly occupied by an old Jewish cemetery. But despite rumours of ghosts and curses, the TV tower has survived, and has established its place in the guide-books. Not that the tourist board have to work too hard: in 2000, David Černý, the bad boy of the Czech art scene well known for his controversial sculptures, attached a number of black babies to the side of its columns, which have become an attraction in their own right. They're still there, crawling ever upwards -  in search, perhaps, of this spectacular view over half of Bohemia.

Today's photo was taken from Vršovice, whose roofs you can see in the foreground. These black-and-white images by Václav Kostlán show the whole tower at dawn from a very different perspective.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Plavání Zakázáno!

In common with many other parts of Europe, it's turning out to be a bit of a scorcher in Prague this week, with temperatures in the mid -thirties - higher in the heart of the city, of course. And it was clearly all too much for this gentleman, who quite understandably chose not to notice the 'No Drowning' sign which the council had so thoughtfully provided.

How relaxed he looks, in contrast to passers-by like yours truly, who were all scurrying inside to win that precious piece of shade. As I write this post in the wee hours of Monday morning, 22 degrees of warmth are still hovering outside my wide-open window. With no breeze, sleeping may be tough.

The highest temperature ever recorded in Prague - and also for the Czech Republic as a whole - was 40.2°C (104.4°F) in Uhříněves in July 1983. Given the country's continental climate, it's unsurprising that diametrically opposed readings have been taken in the winter: in 1929 they experienced a record low of -42.2°C!

Out of courtesy to our swimmer and his mid-afternoon reverie, I shall naturally not reveal where today's picture was taken. More from the hot centre of Europe tomorrow.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The Reconstructed Grotto

An essential part of any grand eighteenth- or nineteenth-century house was the opportunity to show off one's classical education by erecting follies in the surrounding parkland. The gardens of the Grébovka, on the border of Vršovice and Vinohrady, are typical in this regard. On the northern edge of the park, bordered by the attractive residential street U Havlíčkových Sadů, stands this extraordinary mock-Roman arch.

Both the arch, and the 'Gaudiesque' forms that surround it (see smaller picture) are currently being cleaned and refurbished, a process that has already consumed many months of expert labour. The urn-shaped finials of the arch, until recently completely ruined, have been replaced by these new ones complete with artificial palms (are they copper, I wonder?)

The entire structure surmounts a steep chasm, at the foot of which are several more neoclassical arches opening into a grotto. I have a feeling that they may be shortly put to some use. In recent years this extensive park has gained a café, a wine-cellar and a new children's playground. We await with interest the eventual purpose of this grand scheme.

Regular visitors will notice that a few significant changes have been happening recently to the design of this blog. The latest feature is on the right, an excellent new tool from yowindow.com, which allows visitors to see a real-time animated view of the local weather. For added realism, I'm told that the landscape can be replaced with a customized photograph. I shall work on it!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

In the Elf Garden

Shhh! Tread carefully! This is the boundary fence of the elf-garden I mentioned briefly the other day. It's at the far end of Hammermill Pond, which we visited last week. And here, once upon a time, a fantasy writer named Jaroslav Boček set one of his most famous stories.

It concerns an elf called Hajásko who lives by the pond in the hollow of an old willow tree. Every evening he grabs his little toolbag and sets off though the nearby streets. And whenever he spies through a window children whose eyes are still open he slips into the house and sets to work. In mild cases just a tap on the back of the head ushers the little darlings off to the land of Nod, but for mischievous children who insist on drinking orange or going for one more pee, he spreads his magic umbrella, enchants them with his magic lantern and whispers stories in their ears.

But for those wicked children who adamantly refuse to go to sleep he has a little box of powdered poppyseed, and though he's never opened it yet, it waits on the shelf for the moment when it's needed.

The cups which decorate Hajásko's little garden fence are a real curiosity for local children. There's also a wishing well, a home-made weather station, and a kennel with a stuffed dog.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Homesick Elephant



Kevin Kelly and Sara FitzSimmons - as you can tell from their surnames - are from the USA, but the spirit of the Emerald Isle is very much alive in their ballads, which they compose and perform under the name Homesick Elephant. Last night, fresh(ish) from a gig in Berlin, they sang for what I believe is called a 'small but appreciative' crowd in the back room at Shakespeare and Sons.

Their repertoire comprises a number of soulful pieces including one called 'Ireland' which you can hear by clicking above. It comes from their 2007 album, The Ghost of Philadelphia, a reference to the duo's home town. This is a very musical pairing, Kelly's lyrical picking sensitively matched by the soft, clear tones of FitzSimmons's vocals. Their decision to move west has clearly been a good choice: Kelly now works as Assistant Professor of Music at Los Angeles City College, a publicly-funded initiative in Hollywood which enables students from all backgrounds to enjoy excellent tuition at low cost.

Over the last decade Shakespeare's has hosted many such folk events, as well as poetry readings, films and any number of other artistic happenings. Now it's due for a change of management but it's much to be hoped that troubadours and itinerant writers will still gather here to while away the evening in good company. Sláinte!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Hat-stand



In the mid-nineteenth century, German entrepreneur Michael Thonet invented a process using steam to bend light wooden components into elegant shapes which were then glued together to form... well, café furniture. Curve-backed chairs and bentwood hat-stands like this one became the order of the day and rapidly spread from Central Europe across the coffee-drinking world.

There's nothing special about this one in Shakespeare's - it's certainly no antique - but it does call to mind two very important Czech films in which hat-stands (věšáky) feature.

In Jiři Menzel's 1966 Oscar-winning 'Closely Observed Trains', there's a scene in a photographer's studio when young Miloš comes tantalizingly close to his first kiss, only to have the romance tragicomically shattered by an exploding shell. He and his girl escape, but the studio is wrecked. As the camera pans across, we see that a sole item of dust-covered furniture has survived: a white hat-stand, standing - ironically erect - among the ruins.

A 'hommage' to that famous scene appears in the excellent 'Musime si Pomáhat' (Divided We Fall, nominated for an Academy Award in 2001). Right at the end, as the sympathetic hero Josef Cízek walks through the rubble of a war-torn Czech city, he seems to see the ghosts of those who have not been so lucky, waving and smiling to him from a café table sitting incongruously in the middle of the street. Next to them, as if to complete the picture, is the same white hat-stand. A theatrical prop, maybe, but also a powerful symbol - in both films - of survival against all odds.

Both movies should be available, with English subtitles, from the usual sources.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Vratislav Brabenec

Vratislav Brabenec is a Vršovice resident who is best known as a leading member of the Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), the avant-garde rock group originally formed in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of August 1968. The band was heavily influenced in its early days by the work of The Velvet Underground, whose music was anathema to the communists. When Brabenec joined in 1972 as saxophonist and lyricist, he directed the band towards the work of philosopher-poet Egon Bondy, whose writings were officially forbidden. (One of their albums, recorded in 1974, is called 'Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned', a title which also deliberately invokes the free-thinking music of the Beatles.)

To the dismay of the authorities, the Plastics continued to attract a large underground following, and in 1976 Vrat'a and the other band members were arrested for 'organized disturbance of the peace' and sent to prison, an act which led the dissident playwright Václav Havel to draw up the influential document Charter 77, criticizing the Czechoslovak government for its failure to respect human rights.

The story of the struggle for those rights, which reached its zenith in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, is told by Tom Stoppard in his 2006 play 'Rock'n'Roll'. The play makes reference to the Plastics throughout; and when in 2007 the Czech version was premiered at the National Theatre in Prague, the band themselves played live on stage.

This picture was taken in Vrat'a's favourite watering-hole, Shakespeare and Sons, which is soon to close before re-opening under new management with a new name. But Vrat'a - who is, after all, well used to regime change - will, I'm sure, be back.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Reflections

Loyal followers will recall that this blog is part of the excellent City Daily Photo network, which hosts a theme day at the start of each month.

July's designated subject is 'Reflections', so if you were wondering why I made my way upstream to Hamerský Rybník (Hammermill Pond) last weekend, now you know. I'm torn between two photos taken that day, but in the end I think the willows have it. The swan, however, is highly commended and is included below for all to admire.

Willows have a particular significance at Eastertime in the Czech Republic. A pagan tradition survives in these parts according to which the menfolk - boys included - whip the women of the household and neighbourhood with a braided willow stick called a 'pomlázka', in order to impart youth and vitality to them for another year - well, that's what they say they're doing. Even more weirdly, they are then rewarded by the whippees, with chocolate eggs for the little ones and strong booze for the grown-ups.

On the subject of mythology, the pond has one or two other surprises - a cool 18th century vinný sklep (wine cellar) set into the side of the hill, and, also on the far bank, a strange gnome garden where children are taken to see the fairies. More next time...

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