Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Prague - Head Above Flood Waters (2002)

NB: If you are seeking a place to stay in Prague, I cannot recommend No 46 Prague highly enough. The appartment has been furnished to the highest standards by my good friends James and Joanna Fennell.

My hosts in Prague were Irish. They bought an apartment there last year, a fine roomy affair one floor up, a block down from one of the city's most modern landmarks, the TV Tower. You can see the TV Tower from several miles away but you need to be fairly close to see David Cerny's mischievous baby sculptures crawling along its tentacles. My hosts moved here because one speaks fluent Czech and has been a closet Bohemian since she was born and the other, who is actually a quarter Czech, wanted to write a novel.

Prague's a good place for novelists. Despite 13 years of democratic capitalism, the cost of living is still wonderfully cheap. €15 gets you a decent night out; €40 and you're laughing. A good night out in Prague is very very good. Its citizens have long been aware of the special place the capital of Bohemia holds in international imaginations. When independence came in 1989 after 41 years of grim Communism, Praguers set to work on recolouring their city with haste. By 1993 the city had become one of the most popular destinations in the world. Airplanes laden with still more Americans and Western Europeans seemed to be touching down at the airport every few minutes. In the summer months, the Old Town Square was thronged with tourists falling over one another in the race to see Christ and the Twelve Apostles perform their hourly cuckoo in the famous 15th century astronomical clock. And then there would be the tight squeeze as one ventured across magnificent Charles Bridge, bumping off jugglers, caricaturists, saxophonists, beggars, Californians and Hamburgers. Praguers soon grew bored of the annual summer conquest of their beloved city and began to retreat to the countryside. By 1996, Praguers were reckoned to have one of the highest incidences of second home ownership in Europe.

The full implications of the August flood and the Nice Treaty are yet to be seen but things are certainly changing in Prague. Perhaps the most relevant change is that visitors are starting to braven up and venture further a-field than the traditional tourist landmarks. Architectural triumphs may abound in the city centre but there are hundreds of amazing structures to be found beyond the pale. And even in the city itself, large areas hitherto considered too dangerous or ungainly for English speakers have been tarted up and are experiencing a cultural boom one can't help but call Bohemian. Classical music lovers and theatre-goers might find their best bet is to divert from the plumy joints on King Wencelas Square and check out another distant venue yonder. Those in pursuit of the Czech's excellent supply of beer would certainly be advised to head for the hinterlands. It's a safe city. It's easy to get about. A lot of people walk but the trams are efficient and hire cars go cheap. More and more Praguers speak English so if you get lost, it's not a problem. And they are friendly people too, their national persona born of mutual respect for the dream of independence and good times. When you see people in Prague, you are not looking at a people who reckoned life was better under the Communists.

It would be improper to suggest that the August floods that wrought havoc on Prague were a good thing. A considerable amount of property, private and otherwise, was destroyed when the River Vltava which dissects the city unexpectedly burst its banks and began rising up the city's innermost flanks. The legacy of the flood will remain with Praguers for many years, if only in the marks so clearly etched onto the sides of buildings where the water level reached before commencing its slow drainage back to the river. But, when all is said and done, Prague survived the flood. The Charles Bridge did not fall down. Nobody was killed. The European Community and America provided emergency money. Not even Hitler wanted to see Prague ruined. Indeed, it is a fortunate anomaly that Prague survived over 50 years of Nazism and Communism with nothing more than flesh wounds. The sprawling suburbs around the city may be an eyesore of totalitarian gray high rises but even in these parts citizens are out with their paint brushes, applying colour to the walls.

The truth is everyone loves Prague. It is a truly magnificent city, epic in proportions, mesmerizing in detail. The city's origins date back to the 9th century when Duke Borivoj founded a small citadel at the site of the present Hradcany Castle above the Vltava. Over the next 300 years, settlers of German, Russian and Jewish stock began trickling into the area. While England and France were busy battling it out in the Hundred Years War, Prague was bounding ahead and establishing itself as one of the most important stop over points for trade passing across Europe from Russia and the East. But the religious strife that overtook Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries inevitably shook the city to its core. After throwing a number of influential councilors and mayors out of very high windows, Prague found itself centre stage in the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). The atrocities committed during this war were brutal enough to convince Cromwell that slaughtering a few garrisons here and there would be small fry. Prague came out of the war in a weakened condition, capital of a scorched land now absorbed by the vast Catholic Hapsburg Empire. However, Jesuits were duly invited in to counter-reform the Protestant citizens and things quickly began to look up again. A tremendous wave of building began resulting in not one but two of the finest Baroque skylines in the world. Palaces and churches of immense beauty were constructed. Splendid bridges were erected across the river. Prague may have been a backwater to imperial Hapsburg eyes in Vienna but in Bohemia it meant something much more profound. The city was built both to symbolize Bohemian's solidarity with one another and to announce to the rest of the world that Prague was big and here to stay.

Excluding the 13 years since the collapse of the Communist regime, Czechs have had just 20 years of independence since 1526; the short-lived Republic of Czechoslovakia founded by Tomas Masaryk in 1918. An architect told me his thinking on the Nice Treaty, which paves the way for the Czech Republic's inclusion in the European Union. "For many centuries we were under the Hapsburgs. Then it was Hitler. Then the Communists. And now Europe. Perhaps we need to be under the whip? But I think we will always fight back also".

It will be interesting to see what influence the Czech Republic will bring to bear on the future of modern Europe. Prague will almost certainly become a favourite port of call for the Brussels elite. Vaclav Havel, one of those who spear-headed the fall of communism in 1989, steps down from the Presidential office at the end of this year. Every year it becomes more difficult for Praguers to remember life before independence. The city is prosperous once again. Well-appointed department stores and indoor malls are springing up everywhere, the shop windows bursting with goods for sale. Cafes and pubs spill out onto sidewalks, their outdoor drinkers heated by gas lamps during colder months. In a mall one afternoon, I watched four wrinkle faced old codgers sitting down on funky new chairs drinking cappuccinos, talking of the old times. Behind them a purple-headed she-punk was shuffling around a cardboard cutout of a Wonderbra model. Fat Boy Slim was playing on the stereo. I wondered would Prague have the power to resist the homogenization of its culture as Europe becomes one. But after 1200 extraordinary years of existence, I'd hold that Prague is a city that's found its feet and can firmly stand up, even in a flood.

Special Places to Go in Prague

For an enjoyable account of Czech's colourful history see Sadakat Kadri's introduction to the Cadogan City Guide to Prague.
A useful website is www.pragensia.com/

Main selling points in tourist brochures:
Marvel at the spectacular architecture, discover the legends of Bohemia, explore the magnificent castles and churches, probe the troubled mind of Franz Kafka, contemplate the synagogues and graveyards of the Jewish Quarter, relive the Velvet Revolution, take a river cruise and enjoy the beer.

Cool Structures

TV Tower, Ziskov
Built between 1985 - 1992 on the grounds of the Jewish Cemetery in Zizkov (known as the First Israeli Cemetery in Olsany), the Zizkov TV Tower serves as a source and relay for broadcast and cable television, radio, mobile phone and other signals. The tower with a height of 216 m is the highest construction in the city. It is open to the public and contains a look-out terrace and a restaurant, both offering excellent 360° views of the city. The inspiring sculpture installation "Miminka" (Babies) by David Cerny was added along its pillar supports in 2001.

The Ginger and Fred
Frank Gehry's controversial addition to the Prague skyline is located at one end of Jirásek Square. Gehry's Rasin Building, part of the tradition of deconstructive architecture or "catastrophe architecture", has two cylindrical elements, one of double-layered, flared glass and one solid, supporting a wave-patterned facade. Dubbed the "Ginger and Fred" because it is reminiscent of two people dancing. To me it looked like wobble with a barbed wire ball on top. Best viewed from nearby Jiraskuv Bridge.

The Myslbek Center
Another controversial modern addition is this commercial development just off Wenceslas Square. Designed by French architect Claude Parent, it stands on the former site of the ancient city walls, which are symbolized in the design. However it has blocked the historic sight line to the Gothic Tyn Cathedral in the Old Town square.

Prague Cafes
An Armenian merchant opened the first café in 1714, since when the café culture became a huge part of Czech life. The culture suffered a good deal during the communist regime (when the only coffee available was Turkish) but is now witnessing a tremendous revival. Two to consider:

Hostel Imperial

Na Porici 15/1072,110 00, Praha 1.
This cool, jazzy Art Nouveau café is located in the "Hostel Imperial" in the city centre and features mosaic celings and wonderfully ornate ceramic walls. The building was erected in 1914 as a luxury hotel. It was renovated in 2000 and retains the luxurious atmosphere. The hostel is good for students, individual travelers and small groups. Full bar. Live music on Friday and Saturday evenings helps to create the atmosphere of the Old Times.

Café Slavia:
Smetanovo Nabrezi (in front of the National Theater), Prague 1
This café was founded in 1800 as a meeting place for artists and intellectuals since it is just in front of the National Theater. During the Communist Era it became a meeting point of the opposition, and Vaclav Havel, later elected President, was a good client at that time. It was closed in 1991 because of an ownership argument but thanks to a petition it was re-opened in 1997. The windows by the riverside offer you the best panorama of Prague with the Castle and Charles Bridge.

Restaurants
Municipal House:
Built between 1905 and 1912 and restored in the mid 1990s, this Art Deco masterpiece lies on a site of the former king's court, a seat of the kings of Bohemia from the end of the 14th century till 1438. The rich interior and exterior decoration is work of A. Mucha, M. Svabinsky, J. V. Myslbek, etc. The monumental Smetana concert hall forms the centre of the building and serves as HQ for Royal Prague Orchestra. It has been a major social and cultural centre since its construction. Restaurant, café, wine bar, games and billiards room, concerts and dance halls. Sleepy by day, alive by night.

Palffy Palace
Located in Mala Strana and built by the Lamintger family in the 17th century, the Palffy Palace has had a remarkable history embracing an extensive baroque restoration in the 19th century and it's use as a propaganda centre during the communist regime. Restaurant opened in 1994 in former school dining room. Terrace view overlooks Prague Castle, the Palffy Gardens, the Maly Furstenbersky and Kolowratsky Palaces. International cuisine. Award-winning. Very romantic. Ozzy Osbourne and Sigourney Weaver ate here.

Stoleti Restaurant
Universally praised restaurant, owned by Antonin, Count Kinsky, cheap and cheerful with dishes named for the likes of Gloria Swanson and Louis Armstrong. Located in the picturesque neighbourhood of the Prague´s Old Town, close to the National Theatre on one of the quietest streets near the river Vltava.

Perle de Prague
French restaurant located on the 7th floor of Frank Gehry's Dancing Building, "Ginger and Fred", offers magnificent panoramic views of Prague´s skyline including St. Vitus´s Cathedral and the presidential palace. Opened in August 2002.
Gardens

Wallenstein Gardens
Set in a gorgeous enclosed courtyard, this magnificent Mannerist garden was created in 1623-30 by Albrecht of Wallenstein, reshaped in the 18th and 19th centuries, given a touch of the Marxist flourish in the 1950s and reconstructed in the last two years. The geometrically designed gardens incorporate a small lake, fountains, sculptures, an artificial cavewall and plenty of roses, rhododendrons, magnolias, beech hedges, chestnut groves and Japanese cherry trees. There is a restaurant too. The Stalactite Wall is a particularly hallucinogenic metamorphosis of strange coralesque shapes that ultimately turns into a large aviary. The statues are copies of originals by Adrian de Vries from 1626-27. The Equestrian Centre has now become a trendy art gallery. Wallenstein, one of the leading Generals of the Thirty Years War, was murdered by an Irishman, Walter Devereaux in 1634.

Belvdere Palace

At the Hradschin Emperor Rudolf II found a particularly fine castle, called the Belvedere, built by a pupil of Sansovino, and unquestionably the greatest building of the Italian Renaissance on this side of the Alps. Bruce Chatwin (in Utz) wrote of 'the gloomy palace-fortress, the Hradschin' where the Emperor 'spoke Italian to his mistresses, Spanish to his God, German to his courtiers and Czech, seldom, to his rebellious peasants'. Now houses an excellent exhibition of African art.

Places to Visit

Strahov Monastery
Begun in the 12th century, when Christianity first reached Prague, the monastery is located on the upper slopes of the city and offers exceptional panoramic views of the city. Don't trust the money-grabbing telescope. Pear trees, groaning with wholesome fruit, and young vines with baby grapes, surround the monastery. There is also an excellent Neo-Classical Library here, the Philosophical Hall, with some 900 thousand volumes and 300 thousand works of expressive art set in and around richly gilded walnut cupboards. Remarkable art, jewellery and manuscripts dating back to the 10th century are now on display.

The Castle
Main notes in other file. Multi-windowed. Go and make faces at the blue-coated sentries as they stand in their soldier's boxes trying not to get spotted checking us all out. Or join in the guards crocodile marches. The entrance to the castle has an impressively gruesome sculpture of a man with a club and a man with an axe murdering two unfortunates.

Museum Kampa
U Sovových mlýnu 503/2, 118 00 Prague 1
Opened in June 2002, the Kampa Museum was badly damaged by the August floods but fortunately damage to the modern art collection was minimal. The converted millhouse is located on posh Kampa Island and owes its origination to the Czech Foundation of Jana and Meda Mládeks and the City of Prague. Inside, a permanent exhibition of works by Czech painter František Kupka (1871 - 1957) cubistic sculptural works by Otto Gutfreund from the period 1911 - 1914 a permanent exhibition from Jirí Kolár and also present day Central-European art complemented with other short-term exhibitions. It was from here that the celebrated Zidle (Chair), by Magdalena Jetelova, once displayed on the embankment in front of the museum, disappeared.

Museum of Decorative Arts
Housed in a newly renovated fin-de-siècle building which is itself a work of art, the Museum of Decorative Arts was founded in 1885 to display exquisite examples of European decorative arts that tread a fine line between fine and applied art. Only a fraction of the museum's collection is exhibited, but the pieces on display are superb, including a range of beautiful Bohemian glass and ceramics. The Library is now the biggest Czech public scientific library, specializing in the creative art and related art fields.

National Technical Museum
Located at Kostelni 42 in Praha 7, the grim exterior of this structure belies an outstanding collection within the steel-roofed glass block galleries. Founded in 1908, the collection now numbers some 35,000 items, including several stream-lined vintage racing cars, a 1933 Skoda fire engine, an entire locomotive with heavily ornate dining carriage, a suspended Bleriot XI airplane and an air balloon. Next door are rooms devoted to the evolution of photography and music with hundreds of cameras and gramophones. Closed Mondays.

Shops

Botanicus shops
The Botanicus shops are an off-shoot of an organic village set up outside Prague in 1992. This is a classy, "home-grown" chain of stores selling organic personal care products, spices, candles, soaps, and other items. For information on their hours, locations, and about the company's historic working village see www.botanicus.cz

Districts

Mala Strana
This preserved compact town area contains a number of Renaissance and Baroque churches, palaces, houses and park gardens. The complex of the Vallenstein Palace, where the residence of the CR senate is at present, the Church of St. Nicholas, which is decorated in baroque style and is also used for concerts, and the Church of Our Lady Victorious with a wax statue of the Prague Christ Child, are among the significant buildings of Mala Strana. Also home to the Palffy Palace Restaurant and the Square Coffee House (built in the 1870s and now upgraded to a nouvelle cuisine restaurant).

Zizkov
Harriet's area. Very working class district but increasingly popular with Prague's student and artistic population. A district of underground pubs where workers met to rally one another for and against the Communists. Gypsies like it but now Italian and Greek restaurants sprouting up. Cool hospodas. The Miminka Babies. The Acropolis, one of Central Europe's hot-spots. Great junk shops for unearthing excellent art. Go easy because this is still a place where the Romany Gypsy and the skinheads are likely to meet for a fight.

Places to Stay

No. 46 Prague
No 46 Prague is a striking, discreet and privately-owned apartment superbly located in Vinohrady, Prague 2, a ten minutes stroll from the city centre’s Wenceslas Square. The owners, an interior designer and interior photographer, have travelled extensively around the world. The 19th century apartment has been designed to match what they believe people want – maximum comfort, absolute peace, creative inspiration and absolute attention to detail. The interior offers elegance and stimulation, from the rustic heirlooms to the giant photographs of the stunningly beautiful city of Prague adorning its walls. No. 46 offers an outstanding base for exploring one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The Alcron Hotel
The five-star Radisson SAS Alcron Hotel, Prague is located just off the famous boulevard, Wenceslas Square, in the heart of the commercial district surrounded by historical monuments. Originally constructed in 1930 as the Alcron Hotel it enjoyed the enviable reputation of being Jazz-age Prague's 'in' hotel. Today under the management of the Radisson this luxurious hotel can once again command centre stage.

Josef Hotel

The hotel is situated in a quiet part of the city center , in the old Jewish Quarter - Josefov.
The building is a relaxing counterpoint to Prague's active, urban lifetsyle. Designed by the great innovator Eva Jiricna, the Josef is set around a peaceful landscaped courtyard and offers spacious and immaculate room. Stone-clad bathrooms with glass partition walls add a sense of style to the comfortable bedrooms, fully-equipped with efficient communications facilities and the latest technology.

Drinks

Absinthe drinking is alive and well in Prague where it is taken with a spoonful of caramelized sugar to improve its bitter taste.
Becherovka.
Slivavitza.
Irish whiskey makes a good gift as its one of the few drinks that costs more in Prague than Ireland.
Best bottled water: Mattoni.

Food can be stodgy but is improving fast.
Car hire is cheap.
Getting There
Aer Lingus and Czech Airlines both fly direct to Prague.

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