Sunday 20 September 2015

Prague's Best Bits - My Top Ten

I first visited Prague in 1993, just four years after the fall of communism. Although the city  did not lack charm or atmosphere, it still had a certain greyness about it. Service was generally poor, restaurants offered little choice and many of the most important historical buildings were in need of restoration. I visited again in 2001 and 2003 and saw improvements and a lighter atmosphere each time. In August this year I visited again after a gap of 12 years and was delighted to find Prague to be more beautiful than ever with surprise and delight around almost every corner.

One of the great Hapsburg cities, along with Vienna and Budapest, Prague is often acknowledged as the most beautiful of the three with its gorgeous art nouveau buildings, baroque churches, forbidding castle and series of bridges over the Vltava. It is also a great place to experience old Europe with its historic cafes, classical concerts and passages. How could I have stayed away for so long? There are many guide books that list the city's major tourists sites. This post lists some of my very favourite places in the city, some less well known than others, but all worth a visit and with a story of their own.

Patisserie St. Tropez in U Novaku, Vodickova
Regular readers will know that one of the things I enjoy most about travel is finding great cafes with excellent patisserie and good, strong coffee. Prague is awash with such places, but my favourite is tucked away inside the building known as U Novaku on Vodickova Street. The first choice for my top ten is Patisserie St. Tropez which has been under the management of the Nosal family since 1934. The patisserie is made to recipes dating back many years and includes the famous pineapple cup, said to have been the favourite of Czech present Thomas Masaryk. St. Tropez retains an elegant 1930's style and has tables both inside the cafe and in the passage - where smoking is permitted. As well as sampling the sweet delights, you can see them being made as the patissiers work behind a glass screen separating the shop from the baking area. I enjoyed a passion fruit and cream slice and two cups of coffee on the first of my two visits - a pistachio cream on the second. Delicious.

Works of art in Patisserie St. Tropez!
U  Novaku is one of a number of pasaze  - shopping arcades or passages -  dating from the 1900's to the 1930's that have survived until today. An early version of a modern shopping mall, they are supremely elegant with deco or functionalist fittings, a few shops selling food stuffs, antiques or furnishings, cafes and in several cases, a cinema. Commissioned by entrepreneur Jan Novak at the beginning of the 20th century as Prague's first department store, U Novaku has a stunning art nouveau exterior on Vodickova. Leading architect Osvald Polivka designed the curvilinear window frames and delicate ironwork but it is the Jan Preisler mosaic that dominates. Entitled Trade and Industry it shows scenes from rural life as well as from the labour referred to by its name. Its greens, reds and purples are best enjoyed from the opposite side of the street - especially if you want to photograph them. Look out too for the tiny frog holding up the windowsill!

Preisler's Trade and Industry at U Novaku, Vodickova
Lucerna Palace, Stepanska.
I am going to indulge myself and include a second pasaze in my top ten. The Lucerna Palace which  links Vodickova and Stepanska was built between 1907 and 1920.  The building was commissioned by Vaclav Havel - grandfather of the Czech president of the same name. The Lucerna is home to a famous cafe - Kavarna Lucerna. In need of restoration, as is the pasaze generally, it is still possible to see traces of its original glory including the lighting above the bar and the wonderful decorative covers over the radiators. The coffee was good too. 

The Lucerna also has a concert hall which is used for the Prague Jazz Festival and one of the oldest cinemas in the Czech republic, founded in 1907. Mixing the new with the old, the sculpture suspended from the main atrium shows King Wenceslas astride an upside down horse. It is the work of contemporary Czech sculptor, David Cerny. However, my favourite part of the pasaze is the ornate double staircase with the lower steps leading to the cinema and the upper set drawing visitors to the cafe.

David Cerny's sculpture in the Lucerna Palace.
Steps to the Lucerna Cinema
Prague has examples of many architectural styles, from medieval times to today. The city is particularly rich in art nouveau buildings, so rich that it's hard to pick just one as a favourite. Which is why I've picked two (two and a half really!). Masrykovo Nabrezi runs along the right bank of the river Vltava and has a number of ornate art nouveau works, including the wonderful entrance to the Goethe Institute which you can see here. My favourite building on this stretch is the Hlahlol, the concert hall of the Hlahol men's choir which first performed in 1861 and which in 1888 performed for Tchaikovsky when he visited the city. The hall was built between 1903 and 1906 and was designed by architects Josef Fanta and Francis Schlaffer, the latter a member of the choir. Interestingly the two worked without pay. The facade of the building features typical art nouveau ornamentation including a spectacular mural on the upper pediment, the colours of which are still vibrant more than a century after construction. The interior is equally beautiful and features a mural by Alphonse Mucha - someone we will return to shortly.

Hlahol building, Masrykovo Nabrezi.

Grand Hotel Europa and the Meran Hotel, Vaclavske Namesty.
My second art nouveau sélection is the Grand Hotel Europa at Vaclavske Namesty and its smaller neighbour, the Hotel Meran. Both were designed by architects Bendelmayer and Dryak and were completed in 1905. The Europa is currently closed for renovation but I have fond memories of it from earlier visits, sitting in the cafe and enjoying the symbolist art, ornate light fittings and even the efforts of the afternoon piano player as I worked my way through another piece of apple strudel. I understand that the hotel will reopen sometime next year and will be aimed at the high end market. Let's hope that it doesn't lose its character or indeed the remaining original features in the process.

The Europa stands out from its neighbours in this, Prague's largest of squares (although its not really a square), due to its ochre facade, elaborate balconies and stylish letters that bear the hotel's name. The Europa has some interesting literary connections. Franz Kafka gave his only public reading here in December 1912 when he read from The Judgment. At that time the hotel was known as the Archduke Stephen.

Its smaller, slimmer neighbour, the Meran, is easily overlooked due to the Europa's splendour but I like the floral decorative features and its white facade works perfectly beside the more robust colours of the Europa. The Meran was commissioned by the Hajek family who held onto it until World War II when it was confiscated by the German occupiers. It was restored to the family at the end of the War only to be taken away again in 1954 when the communists nationalised it. The fall of communism in 1989 meant that it was once again returned to the Hajeks who undertook its restoration including re-introducing the original lift which had been removed.

Grand Hotel Europa.
As well as having a special interest in coffee and cakes, I am a big fan of jazz and always try to find live performances when traveling. Prague has a strong jazz tradition.  It regularly hosts world class performers from abroad in the city's annual Jazz Festival, and also for showcases local Czech musicians. 

The Reduta Jazz Club at Narodni 20 is the next choice for my top ten. Established in 1957 by bassist Jan Arnet, it has hosted some of the biggest names in jazz including Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea as well as many leading Czech musicians. The club is in the basement of a much larger building which also houses the historic Cafe Louvre and a rock music venue. Performances take place in a long narrow room - try to get one of the forward facing seats near the front if you can, otherwise it can be a little uncomfortable because of the angle of the remaining seats. There is also a small, intimate bar for drinking between sets or for those who are happy to hear the music without seeing the players, whilst the lobby and cloakroom has a CD shop too. 

During the communist period, jazz was discouraged by the regime who viewed it with suspicion and  in the late 1980's the club became one of centres of resistance to the regime, particularly during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1994, sometime US president and would-be jazz musician Bill Clinton played the saxophone in a jam session here. During my recent visit I was able to get to Reduta twice, hearing local pianist Milan Svoboda and his quartet on each occasion. Both gigs were excellent and the staff very friendly and helpful - especially the man running the CD shop who gave me lots of advice on Czech jazz! 

Reduta Jazz Club, Narodni.
For my sixth choice, we cross the river from the modern side of the city and climb the steep hill to the Castle district. The view of the Castle lit up against the night sky is one of Prague's most beautiful sights despite (or because of?) the shadows emphasising the forbidding nature of this part of the city. The spires of St. Vitas Cathedral dominate the skyline and it is in the cathedral we will find the next of my "best bits". Alphonse Mucha's Cyril and Methodius window can be found in the third chapel on the north wall. Designed in his art nouveau style, the window was commissioned by the Slavia Bank and features the child King Wenceslas with his mother Saint Ludmila surrounded by episodes from the lives of Saints Cyril and Methodius who brought Christianity to the Czech lands. Christ and the mythical figure Slavia also appear. The window was installed in 1931 following the completion of renovations to the cathedral in 1929. The window alone is worth the climb and the cathedral can be visited by purchasing a ticket that will also get you into other sites in the castle district including the Basilica of Saint Jiri and Golden Lane where one of Kafka's sisters lived and where he was a frequent visitor.

Cyril and Methodius window, St. Vitas Cathedral.

Detail, Jerusalem synagogue, Jeruzalemska
Until the Second World War, Prague had a large and thriving Jewish community, both secular and religious. The community produced many artists, writers, musicians, academics and even a couple of world class sportsmen and women. It is estimated that there are just 4,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic today - 77,000 having been murdered in the Holocaust. Prague retains many reminders  of a Jewish presence, including several beautiful synagogues in Josefov - the former Jewish quarter. The Old-New Synagogue, completed in 1270 is the oldest active synagogue in Europe and is one of  five in this part of the city that make up the State Jewish Museum together with the old Jewish cemetery on Siroka. 

The Pinkas Synagogue is particularly poignant as the names of all known deportees from the Czech lands to the death camps have been inscribed on the internal walls. The Spanish Synagogue houses an exhibition on the history of the Czech Jews and is also used for concerts and other cultural events. Completed in 1868, it was built in the Moorish style and has a highly decorative interior. My favourite of the Prague synagogues however, and another choice for my top ten, is the Jerusalem (or Jubilee) synagogue in Jeruzalemska, a brief walk from Josefov. I have already posted separately about this stunning building which is a riot of colour both internally and externally and which like the Spanish is in Moorish style. You can buy a ticket from the box office beside the Old-New and this will get you into all of the synagogues. The ticket is valid for a week so you don't have to do it all in one day.

Detail of remembrance of the Czech Jews, Pinkas synagogue, Siroka.
Interior, Spanish synagogue, U Stare Skoly.
Back in 1993, the highlight of my first time in Prague was visiting the Obecni Dum, or the Municipal House on Namesty Rebuliky. This next choice for my top ten is a huge art nouveau building completed in 1911, built in part as a symbol of nascent Czech nationalism and the very best craftsmen were involved in its creation. The architects were Osvald Polivka and Antonin Balsanek, whilst amongst others, Jan Preisler, Karel Spillar, Karel Novak and our old friend Alphonse Mucha worked on the stunning interiors. Inside, there are two restaurants, a cafe, a bar there and two concert halls including the main Smetanova Sin where every year the President attends the opening of the city's Spring Festival to hear Smetana's Ma Vlast (My country) played to open proceedings. 

Back in 1993, the building was very run down after decades of neglect. It had suffered the familiar fate of many if Prague's most beautiful buildings - confiscated by the Germans and mis-used by the Soviets who at one point wanted to demolish it. On my first visit the cafe was thriving but really operated as a beer hall and several parts of the building were closed. My birthday fell during the visit and I attended a performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. It was a wonderful performance of a very emotional piece, with Japanese American soloist Anne Akiko Myers and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra playing. Since then I have always associated Prague with this piece.

There are daily guided tours of the building in English and Czech and occasional tours in other languages. Photography is allowed for a fee and without flash.

Interior, Obecni Dum, Namesty Republiky.
Detail, Obecni Dum, Namesty Republiky.
In the 1930's the then Czechoslovakia was one of Europe's most modern and forward looking states, a newly establish democracy with a thriving cultural community and an ultra modern industry and design sector. This was also reflected in the architecture of the period and there are several examples of this around the city, including the Baba Estate in the 6th district, the delightful former Brandeis department store in the city centre and of course, the Adolf Loos designed Villa Muller also in the 6th district.

The villa is a box with a stark white exterior relieved only by the contrasting yellow window-frames in line with Loos' philosophy that the exterior of the building should be simple and that one's wealth should only be on display in the interior. Guided tours are available but you must book ahead a numbers are restricted - and don't expect to take any pictures as this is strictly prohibited - you must leave your camera in a locked cupboard! However, this leaves you free to enjoy the beautiful interior with its open plan living, green and white Cipolino marble columns, mahogany panelling, state of the art 1930's kitchen, the then ultramodern use of lino in the children's quarters and even a built-in aquarium in the main living area. The Mullers were cultured as well as wealthy and one of the smaller rooms was used for regular musical recitals by a string quartet! I intend to write separately about Villa Muller so will keep further details until then.

Villa Muller, Nrad Hradnim Vodojemen.

Former Brandeis Department Store, off Na Prikope.
My final choice for Prague's "best bits" might seem both obvious and a little surprising. The Charles Bridge, one of several linking the two sides of the city, is a major tourist attraction and for most of the year is completely packed with visitors. It can be a very unpleasant experience trying to make your way across the bridge through the tour groups, hawkers and selfie-takers during the peak months. However, if you make the effort to get up early and reach the bridge by 7.30 you will not be disappointed. Strolling across the bridge in the early morning light it's possible to gaze up at the Castle district, admire the sculptures that line the bridge and look down into the majestic Vltava at your own pace and then find somewhere on the opposite side of the river to enjoy a coffee and breakfast. The bridge is a real symbol of the city but make sure you go when you can have it pretty much to yourself for a real Prague experience. 

The Charles Bridge, early morning.
And that concludes my Prague top ten. it could easily have been a top twenty or even thirty and the challenge has been to narrow it down - even if I did cheat a bit by referring to other places too! You can see more pictures of Prague here.

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