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.