Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Vinobraní: 'I am Hannibal!'

Today's picture is one of several extraordinary spectacles at last weekend's Vinobraní, or wine-harvest festival in the Grébovka park which borders Vršovice and Vinohrady. Just after my friends and I arrived, a great trumpeting was heard, and a fully costumed warrior rode in on the elephant roaring out 'Ja jsem Hannibal!' at the top of his voice.

The elephant was then led in triumph around the park, which also bore witness to archery contests, gladiatorial fire fights, and a huge crowd of people sampling the flavour of the year's first burčák.

Burčák is partly-fermented grape juice - the preliminary stage of the wine-making process. The extremely sweet and potent liquid (between 5% and 8% alcohol) is sold in one-litre plastic bottles and consumed throughout the afternoon. This innocuous-looking drink (it reminded me of slightly fizzy pear juice) is so refreshing in the late summer heat that many unsuspecting drinkers are legless by the evening.

At the point when I took the picture, the elephant was also going down on his knees, though l'm not sure it was the burčák in his case; I rather think he had been trained to do the trick - but who knows?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Putting things in perspective

Today's picture is not from Vršovice at all, but from Holešovice in Prague 7. That's just about as far as we have ever ventured in these pages - but there's a good reason for the journey. Today is theme day on City Daily Photo, a splendid website which aggregates photo diaries from all over the world and publishes the main pictures side by side, so you can see what's going on pretty much anywhere at a glance. And the theme for September is 'Perspective'.

A few weeks ago I paid my first, long overdue, visit to Dox, the newest - and one of the most successful - of Prague's contemporary art galleries. Here we can see 'Zig Zag Corridor' by op-artist Petr Kvíčala, an unbroken 10cm-wide red line painted directly on the walls of the gallery. The idea is that when viewed end-on, the rectangular lines start to reveal diagonal 'zig-zag' paths, which emerge in a ghostly way from the design. But to me there's a further illusion. Can you see how despite the straightness of all the lines, the walls of the corridor appear to curve or bulge out slightly? Only one person could answer my query, my friend David, a specialist in optical illusions. He told me what was going on:

'It's the Hering illusion, a special case of the more general Zollner illusion. In both, the short cross lines usually extend either side of the long lines that seem to bulge or lean over, but, as here, the effect works even if an edge just abuts an array of short obliques.  Amazingly, it was first reported in the edges of the feathers of arrows by Montaigne.' So, now you know!

Click here to view thumbnails for all participants in today's City Daily Photo theme day. Or, for more optical illusions, please visit David's site here. And now I'm feeling just a bit dizzy, so I'm off for a beer to set things straight again.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Jára Cimrman

Jára Cimrman was a celebrated Czech writer, inventor and explorer. Born in Vienna in the 1860s, his expertise was highly valued in his lifetime, even though subsequent history has not always recorded his outstanding contributions. Among the many great names assisted by or influenced by Cimrman were Thomas Edison, Count Zeppelin, and Marie Curie. It is quite astonishing to realize that many of the inventions we take for granted today, even the humble light-bulb, would not have come to fruition without Cimrman's input. He advised Gustav Eiffel on the location of the Eiffel tower, and helped Chekhov write his plays. He also very nearly discovered the North Pole. And recently it has been claimed that he developed prototypes for both the CD (the Cimrman Disc) and the Internet.

Since 1966, when his papers were re-discovered, Cimrman has been the subject of multiple books, films and radio programmes; and a long-running series of biographical plays are continuously enacted at a playhouse uniquely dedicated to his exploits, in the neighbouring suburb of Žižkov (Prague 3).  But today's photo comes from the south of Prague, from Michle (Prague 4), and shows a sign affixed to a hotel where the famous man once breakfasted.

Needless to add, Cimrman is a fiction, the brilliant invention of the equally polymathic, but real, Zdeněk Svěrák. But the enduring popularity of this Quixotic figure has made him one of the most popular figures in Czech history, as proved by the fact that he was voted the Greatest Czech in a TV poll in 2005. When Czech TV disqualified him on the grounds that he was not an actual person, there was a massive public outcry, which saw Cimrman rightly restored to first place, albeit in a special category all his own. He would have been delighted.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Danger: Vicious Dog!

Prague is, without question, a doggy city. Its numerous parks offer plenty of green space in which happy hounds may be walked, and dogs acquire almost the status of citizens with their free rides on public transport (usually muzzled) and their entry into drinking houses, where they have a tendency to approach complete strangers with a pleading look in their eyes, especialy when there's a tasty piece of klobása in the offing.

They appear frequently in the literature: Josef Čapek was the creator of an immensely successful children's series about the adventures of a dog and a cat ('Pejsek a Kočička), and his brother Karel also discoursed on the animal, declaring 'If dogs could talk, perhaps we would find it as hard to get along with them as we do with people'. In a similar vein, Franz Kafka's 'Investigations of a Dog' ('Forschungen eines Hundes') invests its canine narrator with self-consciousness and the ability to consider some of the big human and philosophical questions. In the first part of Jaroslav Hašek's masterful 'The Good Soldier Švejk', the ever-willing recruit puts his dog collecting skills to great effect when he kidnaps a lady's pride and joy from a Vinohrady park and delivers it to Lieutenant Lukaš, only for the latter to walk his new prize straight into the path of madame's outraged husband, the Colonel.

Were I a dog-thief like Švejk, today's house-sign (from Vinohrady, Prague 10, close to the Čapeks' house) would certainly give me pause as I delved into my satchel for that tempting bit of liver.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Lightning over Vršovice

One of the dangers of the electronic blog, as opposed to the old pen-and-ink version, is the possibility of having your laptop wiped out by a lightning strike just at the critical moment; and believe me, there were plenty of opportunities for that to happen for about an hour and a half this evening, when the mother of all storms paid a visit to Vršovice.

This picture was taken just before 10pm, when the last vestiges of the tempest were drifting away to the North. Now the sky is clear, the torrential downpour has magically been turned off, and all is calm again.
Sadly I cannot provide a recording of the thunder, which was easily as impressive as the lightning.

The storm had me scurrying for my extremely useful dictionary of idiomatic phrases, where I found, as I thought I might, 'jako bouře ve sklenici vody' - 'like a storm in a glass of water' (unsurprisingly, the 'teacup' means little to non-British peoples). By the way, Shakespeare's late romance 'The Tempest', is called, simply, 'Bouře'; it's a popular play with the Czechs, who have a penchant for putting on outdoor performances in the summertime at Prague Castle. Though not tonight, I hope.

Friday, 1 July 2011


The picture shows a typically decorative window in Vinohrady, Prague 2, near the square named after I.P. Pavlov, the celebrated Russian physiologist most famous for his experiments on 'conditioned reflexes' in dogs which paved the way for the science of behaviourism. Today 'I.P.P' is best known for its metro station, and as the place where tram drivers switch shifts.

In the nineteenth century the demand for housing in Prague led to an explosion of building in this area, which lies just to the east and south of Wenceslas Square. Fine neo-classical detailing such as this is not at all unusual as one looks up at the many imposing apartments surrounding the square.

The first of each month is 'theme day' at City Daily Photo, which collates photos from all over the world under a single website, and this seemed an appropriate way of celebrating July's topic, the colour green. Click here to view thumbnails for all participants

The photo is also a suitable cue for announcing my new blog, The Prague Vitruvius, which arose from a slightly obsessive plan to catalogue the thousands of architectural elements such as this that adorn the streets of the Czech capital. If you like Vršovice Photo Diary but would like to explore more of the city, why not pay a visit?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Montessori School

This little infants' school for children from two-and-a-half years of age and upwards opened in the Vršovice neighbourhood in 2009 and is one of two Montessori schools in Prague. English, as well as Czech, is spoken, so that children from different countries can be welcomed to the community. In accordance with the founding principles of Maria Montessori, the school teaches children to have respect for others' needs, talents and responsibilities, as well as their own; and to this end children are encouraged to initiate their own opportunities for learning and playing, under the observation and guidance of their teachers.

Apart from the specialized Montessori educational programmes the pre-school also offers post-lunch creative activities such as art, English, drama and music classes.

Pictured here with older brother Peter and proud mum Lena is young Misha, who has been going to the 'Montessori Dům' for a year or two, before he enters the Czech high school system in the autumn.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Sunlight on an old wall, Košická

At the end of Košická stands an old house which has somehow survived the grand sweep of history, even though the rear elevation, seen here from the neighbouring Na Královce, is really quite dilapidated.

I have no idea of the history of the building, but the hexagonal turret (on the right of the picture) has always struck me as an unusual and interesting feature, and the two gaping windows and fallen plasterwork amplify the air of abandonment, even - perhaps especially - in the summer sunshine.

This is a quiet, unprepossessing area of town. The unusual cottage next door is now a Montessori school, and I shall be showing some pictures of it soon. It has a small picturesque garden, inhabited no doubt by fairy-folk. But if it's real ghosts you're after, this is surely the nearest you'll come to a haunted house.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Galerie Deset (Waldes Museum)

In December 2009 I posted a picture of a billboard advertising Koh-i-Noor, the manufacturer of press-studs, buttons and fasteners, and its famous trademark of the winking girl. The founder of the company, Jindřich Waldes, was born in 1876 in Nemyšl u Tabora, and set up his first business in Holešovice before establishing a new headquarters in Vršovice.

Opposite the church of St Wenceslas, on the corner of Moscow Street and Slovenia Street, is a smart town house that was originally built for Waldes in 1911 as commercial premises for the company. In 1918, the building was re-branded as the Waldes Museum of Buttons and Fasteners, and gained this smart new entrance and an allegorical statue representing the Sciences by Čeněk Vosmík (whose work also adorns the National Museum).

With factories in Vienna, Paris and New York, Waldes soon became a rich man, but, despite having paid the almost unbelievable sum of 8 million crowns to the Nazis as a ransom to get his family out of the country in 1939, he himself died two years later in Havana under mysterious circumstances which have never been solved. One colourful account suggests he was poisoned. Today the 'Waldesovo Muzeum' is a smart modern art gallery, Galerie Deset ('Gallery Ten').


Koh-i-Noor press-studs,
showing Frantisek Kupka's
famous design, Miss K-I-N

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Building vocabulary

We're all familiar with these rather pedantic signs, the international  icons of the health-and-safety brigade, but you may not have seen them in Czech before. Although they may be good for little else, notices like these are nevertheless one way to pick up some useful vocab. So here goes. From left to right, visitors are reminded to use protective gear at all times, to enter only if wearing a hard hat, and that unauthorized entry is forbidden; and on the bottom row, that there's a danger of injury, danger in the area of the crane, and danger of falling down holes.

The most useful word here for everyday use is 'nebezpeči' (danger). 'Bezpeči' from 'bez' (without) and péče (care) is the exact equivalent of the French 'sans souci', so the word for danger means, literally, 'not-without-care'. An interesting technical term is 'jeřáb'. Just like English 'crane' and French 'grue', the word refers to both the bird that stands on one leg and its mechanical equivalent used in construction.

This notice is fixed to the metal hoarding around the splendid 19th century pile known as the Rangherka, which dominates Vršovice Square (Vršovické Náměstí) and is currently being converted into accommodation for the elderly. The original plan, for a hotel and restaurant, was put on the back burner after the global financial crisis caused a fall in tourist numbers, but there is still some debate as to how a project as big as this will pay its way.

Today's City Daily Photo theme is 'Under Construction'. Click here to view thumbnails for all participants

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Nuselské Schody (The Nusle Steps)

On the south edge of Vinohrady (Prague 2) the land falls away into a broad valley, spanned today by the dramatic Nusle bridge carrying metro and road links to the southern suburbs and beyond. But the industrialization of the area began in the 1870s, when the first Vinohrady railway tunnel - still in use today - was dug through the hillside.

Needless to say, the coming of the trains changed the fortunes of this part of Prague forever. Ladies and gentlemen from as far away as Vienna could alight at Vyšehrad station (now no longer in use) and continue their journey into leafy Vinohrady. Horse-drawn trams were running to Wenceslas Square by 1884, but there was a hitch: the tram-stop was at the top of the steep hill.

The solution was somewhat old-tech but very beautiful: this gracious, curving, fourteen-flight staircase, built in 1891 to connect Fričova Street below with Šafaříkova above. And if on the way you felt in need of solace, half-way up there was an eighteenth century chapel dedicated to the Holy Family. It's still there, though in nowhere near as smart a state as the splendid stairs themselves.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Prague Shakespeare Festival

Last night saw the opening performance of as magical and inventive a production of As You Like It as you are like to see. In the appropriately verdant setting of Vyšehrad's 'Letni Scena' (Summer Theatre) we were transported to a Forest of Arden where nature conspired with art in the most extraordinary ways. At the interval, a spring breeze whipped the flowers from the lilac growing from the wall of the old castle, scattering petals over the upturned faces of the audience; and at the end, as if to crown the spell of love cast by Rosalind, a distant note sounded from a steamer on the Vltava below the ramparts. The timing could not have been bettered.

And that went for the play as well, whose moments of comedy, bawdy and lyricism were interwoven brilliantly in this high-energy co-production from the Prague Shakespeare Festival and Houston's Classical Theatre (sic) Company. In what was an exceptionally strong company performance, particular credit must go to director Guy Roberts, doubling as old Adam and the melancholy Jacques, and to Jessica Boone in her debut with the PSF as Rosalind.

Czech audience members were well catered for, both by the stammering attempts of Philip Hays's redneck Silvius to make out with Laura Baranik's appropriately tarty Phebe, and also the quantities of klobasy and the obligatory křen (horseradish), some of which your blogger inadvertently fed to a sheep. But that's another story. The highlight? Undoubtedly the moment when the company chorus of  'It was a Lover and his Lass' suddenly mutated into Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'. Hats off to all.

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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Pony rides at Eden, Vršovice

Summer has surely arrived for these youngsters as they saddle up for the thrill of a pony ride at the Eden shopping precinct in Vršovice. During the last few weeks, mums, dads and doting babičky have been bringing the kids along for an ice cream and a go on the horses. It's a revival of a tradition that dates back to the heady days of the pleasure park that once stood here.

It must have been a time of great elegance in those sunny days before the war. As well as a huge helter-skelter and roller-coaster, Eden at its height once boasted bandstands, carousels, shooting galleries, three miles of boating lakes and an entire Abyssinian tribal village. In 1930, visitors flocked from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the Italian human cannonball Zacchini, whose performances must have been a real marvel for these children's great-grandparents.

It was not to last. The pre-war financial crisis spelt the end of this earthly paradise, which was demolished in the late thirties. In 1980, the architecturally grim 'Kulturní Dům' was built on the site, a communist-era community hall now every bit as dilapidated as the system which inspired it. The latest news, however, is brighter: the building is to to be completely renewed as the official clubhouse for local football teams Bohemians 1905 and their first-division neighbours Slavia Prague, whose brand new stadium now rises up where once the pleasure park stood.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Pankrác Crane

On the Pankrác plateau to the south of Vršovice they've broken ground for Prague's (and the Czech Republic's) tallest residential structure, the City Epoque 'twin towers' - and this is one of the cranes which has been pressed into service. All kinds of debates have raged over the last few years concerning the new building, which will dominate the skyline for miles around, but in fact at 104 metres it won't be any taller than the existing City Tower (seen here in the background).

More controversially, however, the new skyscraper will not be a simple block like its neighbours, but a daring V-shape. To get a clearer image, I've included one of the mock-ups available from the project website.

Pankrác, by the way, is the Czech spelling of Saint Pancras, and it's famous - notorious rather - for its prison, which during the Nazi and communist periods was also a place of execution. But in recent years the area has been earmarked for a vast new residential and business development, of which the City Epoque towers will form the centrepiece. 

Below: City Epoque building (under construction) and the existing Panorama hotel

Café Sladkovský celebrations

Can it really be only 444 days since the Café Sladkovský opened its doors on an unsuspecting Vršovice? The convivial drinkery and tapas bar on the comer of Sevastopolská and Černomořská has become so much part of the local scene that it seems - like some of its regulars - to have been there for ever. The precise mathematics don't much matter of course - 443 or 445 days would do just as well as an excuse for a party.

Tonight that was exactly what proprietor Michal (dressed here in a rather smart burgundy cravat) and his bar staff had arranged; and as a bonus the springlike weather held into the evening to allow a sizeable crowd to gather outside to usher in not only a 'hezký víkend' (yes, that's exactly what it sounds like) but many such víkends to come.

I continue to admire the number of dogs that drag their owners here on a daily basis. They must know the benefits of refreshing Czech ale. My friend Jilly of Riviera Dogs would have a field day (click to visit her blog, and please note the apposite quotation from Prague's own Franz Kafka).

Sunday, 1 May 2011

'Now the lilac is in bloom...'

The weather's been mixed here - we had an almighty thunderstorm last night and further rain is forecast for later this week - but days and evenings are more often filled with light, and heady with the scent of lilac.

Traditionally, the first of May is Lovers' Day, and couples young and old will soon be making their annual pilgrimage to the statue of Karel Hynek Mácha, the Prague-born mill-owner's son who grew up to be the country's most respected Romantic poet.

Before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, however, today's date had a rather different significance. Under the communist whip, the Czechoslovak population was required to mark Workers' Day with vast rallies held at Letná Park, behind Prague Castle.

These artifical celebrations - an outrageous sop to Moscow - are now long gone; although twenty years on, some resourceful Czechs have been reviving them as an ironic way of capitalizing (no pun intended) on tourists' demand for 'retro-Communism', as this entertaining piece by the BBC's Rob Cameron explains. Give me the lilacs any day.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Ludmila of Bohemia

Saint Ludmila, born in Mělník, north of Prague, was the consort of Duke Bořivoj I of Bohemia. The princely couple, who reigned in the ninth century, were early converts to Christianity under the guidance of SS Cyril and Methodius.

In the year 921, Ludmila's grandson Wenceslas succeeded to the dukedom of Bohemia, but his mother Drahomíra, suspicious of her mother-in-law's influence over the fourteen-year-old prince, had her strangled with her own veil at the castle of Tetín near Beroun.

In this image, one of many splendid stained glass windows in the neo-gothic church dedicated to Ludmila in Náměstí Míru, Ludmila is seen wearing the ducal hat of Bohemia and holding in her left hand a palm frond - the iconographic symbol of martyrdom.

Saint Ludmila is the patron saint (16 September) of Bohemia, converts, the Czech Republic, duchesses, widows... and those with problems with their in-laws.

Her mortal remains are housed in the basilica of St George in Prague Castle, and this fine 14th century reliquary bust (not my photo) is on show in the Mediaeval section of the National Gallery in St Agnes's Cloister, not far from the Old Town Square. It was probably commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Frescoes in the church of St Ludmila

The neo-gothic church of St Ludmila is a triple-naved basilica dating from the late 1800s. Impressive enough from the outside, the interior is a model of the 19th century decorative arts (and in my opinion, of supreme aesthetic reserve and proportion) which would have Pugin-lovers in a flat spin.  Particularly notable is this exquisite yet subdued fresco-work by the little-known Viennese painter Johann Jobst.

The ceiling of the narthex (the entrance to the nave) depicts the four Old Testament characters known as the 'major' prophets: Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah and Jeremiah, pictured here.

Further along are Isaac, Abraham, Jacob and Noah, and the group of saints most closely associated with the Czech lands: Prokopius, Adalbert (also called Vojtěch), Agnes, Cyril and Methodius, Jan Nepomuk - and, of course, St Wenceslas and his grandmother Ludmila.

Other notable features of the church are the gilded high altar by Antonín Turek and the stained glass windows, repeating the litany of saints along both side aisles. But the greatest achievement is perhaps the delicately-decorated cream-washed pillars, which give this magnificent city church real architectural poise and elegance. More tomorrow.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Easter Monday in St Ludmila's Church

Easter is known in Czech as Velikonoce, or 'Great Night', a name which suitably sums up the significance in the Christian calendar of the Resurrection of Christ, but which also recalls the moment of the passing of Winter and the coming of Spring.  

I have been away for a while. When I last posted something on this blog, it was indeed winter, and snow was weighing down the rooftiles. Now, the white stuff has been replaced with fallen blossom and trees are alive with lilac blooms. Passing St Ludmila's today I could have kicked myself for not bringing my camera, so readers will have to make do with a photograph of a somewhat lower resolution than normal, taken on my smartphone. Not too bad after a bit of digital fiddling, and at least it captures the moment.

I also noticed for the first time today that it's only flash photography that's forbidden inside, so look out in the coming days for more interiors of this splendid neo-gothic church at the heart of Naměstí Miru.  And now that the Prague Spring is properly here, may I wish all health and happiness to loyal followers of Vršovice Photo Diary.