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.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Vila Jitřenka, Petrohradská 141/52

This villa by the banks of the Botič - in recent years home to the Prague Gentlemen's Fly Fishing Club - dates from 1738, and is therefore only slightly younger than the nearby Church of St Nicolas, the oldest extant building in Vršovice.

The house was originally a hunting lodge built among the extensive forested land which had once belonged to the estate of the Silesian nobleman Jan of Vrbno. In 1880 it became the property of a certain Baron Popper, a great Prague benefactor, who undertook its repair and that of the neighbouring streets.

With its low-hipped roof and neo-classical detailing, it's a remarkable survival of domestic architecture - particularly when you see it nestled among the more modern and far less colourful suburban housing that has since sprung up around it.

The Vila Jitřenka, or 'Villa Aurora' (from 'jitro'='morning') has recently been successfully restored to its 19th century appearance, with its appropriately sunny colour-scheme pointing up delightful architectural features such as the pilasters which divide the bays of the first floor.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Sunlight in Rostovská

Yesterday I went in search of one of Vršovice's oldest buildings, the 270-year-old 'Jitřenka' villa, of which more tomorrow. On the way I passed along the attractive Rostovská Street, home to two good pubs, 'The Seventeen' and 'Gulliver's'.

The Seventeen has recently been redecorated and now serves Hedgehog Ale (Ježek), to the great delight of its local clientele. Gulliver's, which also has an excellent menu featuring various skewered meats, serves the better-known and pretty much ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), one of the most venerable of all Czech beers.

The dog and his fashionably-dressed owner outside Gulliver's were too good to miss. I like the way they're wearing pretty much complementary colours - and the spaniel certainly looks as though he could do with a quick taste of Hedgehog. Or perhaps not. A cautionary tale from many years ago: on a hot Sunday in the English countryside, a family friend poured a generous measure of beer into our American beagle's water dish. The dog lapped it up with gusto - then immediately rolled onto its back in a catatonic stupor, with its four legs pointing directly upwards. Amusing though it may sound, do not try this at home - booze is bad for man's best friend.

Tomorrow, a special for all fly-fishers among our readers. 

Saturday, 11 September 2010

'We are Reconstructing for You'

And not before time. Hats off to the council etc. The magnificent 'Rangherka' chateau, which dominates the historic centre of the old town of Vršovice, has been in a state of severe decay for at least a decade. Now 100m Czech crowns (£3.3m) - a tenth of Prague 10's annual budget - has been ringfenced for its reconstruction.

Giuseppe Rangheri was born in Gora, on the shores of Lake Como, and came to Prague in the late 1700s when there was already a thriving silk market. He set up his original mulberry plantation near Wenceslas Square, in those days the city's horse-market. After his death, Rangheri's son Enrico bought this plot of land in Vršovice - previously a vineyard - and planted hundreds of new mulberries, converting the existing farmstead into a turretted palace-cum-silk factory.

But silkmaking in Prague was in decline, and after Enrico Rangheri's death in 1857 this noble if eccentric enterprise gradually came to an end, The building was sold for 30,000 gold pieces, then re-sold in 1882 to the township of Vršovice, The mulberries were grubbed up and a public park established. Finally in 1899 the turrets were torn down and the palace rebuilt in its present neo-renaissance style, along with a monumental horseshoe-shaped staircase.

Since then the building has been through many incarnations including a primary school and clinic for the treatment of tuberculosis and, later, alcoholism.  And what now? Plans are currently wavering between a hotel-restaurant complex and accommodation for senior citizens. Given that Vršovice has the highest percentage of pensioners in the city, that is the plan which seems to be gaining approval. Let's hope they keep the five-star restaurant idea, though - after all pensioners still have to eat!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Lobby of the Civic Savings Bank

For fans of Art Nouveau, the Občanská Záložna (Civic Savings Bank) in Vršovice is a hidden gem. The building is the work of architect Antonín Balšánek, whose name is grandly inscribed in the vestibule along with those of the supervising committee and the bank's board of governors.

This jewel in Vršovice's crown has much in common with Balšánek's much better known Obecní Dům (Municipal House), near Prague's Old Town Square:  classically simple arches decorated with ornately gilded grilles, dark oak panelling offset by spangles of coloured glass - the whole structure is simultaneously accessible and deliberately lofty - perfect for a bank wishing to give its clients an impression of solidity and authority. This was a time when bankers were respected members of society, of course.

In planning the Vršovice Bank, Balšánek enlisted the help of a number of great artists and designers - among them Josef Mařatka and Ladislav Šaloun - who had worked alongside him on the Municipal House during the same period, 1911-12. The interior contains frescoes and sculptures by another two artists who collaborated on both projects, whose work you can read about in yesterday's post.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Civic Savings Bank, Vršovice

From the late 1800s onwards the spirit of the Czech National Revival became enshrined in grand architectural statements such as Prague's National Theatre (1881) and National Museum (1885). The turn of the century brought even greater opportunities for aspiring architects as the city began to expand, along with an outpouring of Art Nouveau, the 'new style' which swept across Europe in the wake of artists such as Moravian-born Alfons Mucha.

As far as most visitors to Prague are concerned the most celebrated Art Nouveau building in the city is the 1912 Obecní Dům or Municipal House (whose lower levels, by the way, conceal one of Prague's best-kept secrets, which I will show you when you visit).

What's not so well-known, though, is that the same architects and artists engaged on that huge project went on to work on this building in Vršovice (at Vršovické Náměstí 67), the Civic Savings Bank, completed in the same year.

Today it's still a bank - a branch of Česká Spořitelna -  and its exterior and interior decoration have been magnificently preserved.  Even on a dull day the lantern roof strikingly illuminates the large allegorical painting by Jakub Obrovský, representing industry, and František Uprka's white Carrara marble statue of a woman spinning, the symbol of thrift. Mind you, given our current financial mess, she might as well be spinning the thread of Fate...
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Thursday, 2 September 2010

More from the Market

Farmers' markets are currently very popular in Prague. Just round the corner the owner of the Sladkovský Café has been petitioning - successfully, I'm pleased to say - to allow an occasional market to be resurrected on a disused plot of land where such markets took place in the past.

Yesterday's photo, and today's, were taken in Kubánské Náměstí, where there has been a market for 50 years, according to this page which has been set up specially to support the growing number of Farmers' Markets in the area.

When the outlying villages and suburbs of Prague such as Vršovice were incorporated into the city at the turn of the twentieth century, their market traditions came with them, including the name Farmář, borrowed from English and German 'farmer'.


The other word here, Tržiště ('marketplace' - don't you love those accents?) is from an old Slavic word 'trh' meaning just 'market', and that is the word which you will still find in the old centre of Prague in street names such as 'Ovocný trh' (Fruit Market) and 'Uhelný trh' (Coal Market). What is now Wenceslas Square was once known as 'Koňský trh' (Horse Market).

Those interested in the etymology of placenames might like to read this interesting discussion concerning the possibility that 'Trieste' derives from a variant of this word. 
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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

From Aloe to Žen-Šen

Today is theme day on the City Daily Photo network, and since the selected topic is 'open air markets'  let me take you to Kubánské Náměstí (Cuban Square - the word 'Revolution' was quietly dropped from the name in 1991) to visit the Czech Chinese Herbalist.

Here are a few of the things he has on sale - please click on the picture to read the names more clearly. Aloe Vera is said to be 'zázračna' - miraculous - against eczema, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Next along is 'Žen-Šen' (Ginseng), underneath which is written 'The Devil's Plant - a Panacea!' To the right are two tubs of 'Citrónová Tráva' (Lemon Grass), 'good in salads', and Eucalyptus, while below is 'Kukuřice' (Sweetcorn).

Out of camera-shot is the overpowering scent of Meduňka (Lemon Balm - see smaller picture). This last, we are assured, will give us a good night's sleep and the sweetest dreams. Many of these plants are supposed to be beneficial to those suffering from Angina, or simply the Common Cold ('rýma'), two facts inscribed on the signs above. Between them hangs a placard advertising, simply, 'Bylinky' - Herbs.

But what is Mr Louda (I believe that's his name) holding in his hand? It's labelled 'H.V.N.O' - which is very polite of him really. The equivalent in English would be writing 'S.H.*.T'  That's right. Compressed pellets of the guano of cows, horses, pigs and chickens. Feed these to your herbs and watch them grow!

Open air markets from around the world: Click here to view thumbnails for all participants