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.