So much beauty out there

June 24, 2009

All I want for Christmas is a Prague away trip

Filed under: All,Dear Diary,Travel — Josh @ 4:35 pm
Tags: ,

First evening productively spent on the computer following England’s exit from the cricket world cup and catching up on this journal’s backlog. The latter appears to be a recurring theme and I’m wondering if “blog” is actually a shortened form of “backlog”. Out into the city the next morning and immediately accosted by a drunken (maybe 17) who is on a school trip from the provinces. Clearly looking to improve his English he barraged me with questions – most problematically = where did you finish school – to the great amusement of his friend and increasingly passers-by on the tram. Sadly my knowledge of Czech doesn’t extend to “performance art, ladies and gentlemen, please give generously.” Actually my Czech doesn’t even extend to “yes” and “no”. Another thing about Prague trams, particularly the older ones is that when pulling away they make a sound just like the opening notes to Piece of Me by Britney Spears, before making a screeching sound for most of the rest of the time. I’m sure you can all think of your own punchline here, but I think Piece of Me is awesome.

Began my process of orienteering by striding confidently in the wrong direction but found the river and was able to navigate myself up to the Charles Bridge. A combination of renovation, street hawkers and massed tourists mean that the bridge itself isn’t much to look at, but it has great views from either end looking into the city.

Heading onwards I was liking the look of Prague a lot. The architecture is different enough from that of Spain and Italy (and even Vienna, though there are some shared charecteristics, notably green domes for some of the bigger buildings) to re-awaken my jaded palate, while places like Malostranske Square manage to be both grand and picturesque.

View from Hanavsky Pavilion

View from Hanavsky Pavilion

Then went for a really great walk along the west bank of the Vltava, starting by climbing the hill opposite the Svermuv bridge then heading west up to the attractive Hanavsky Pavilion which also has amazing views down the river. Then carried on walking into the castle gardens, past the gorgeous facade of the ball game room to a superb view of St Vitus Cathedral over the moat. I really recommend this walk. it was a lovely June day, yet I barely saw another tourist which is pretty much unheard of so close to the centre.

As for St Vitus itself, not that impressed. The stained glass is decently designed, but the colouring choice seems to have been entrusted to a small child. Vivid isn’t the word, shocking might be. Although the light effect inside is nice enough. Not even fake candles, but just light bulbs, a new low. The only really attractive bit is a the little chapel of St Wenceslas.

Then up to the Strahov Monastery for a quick look at the library with some fabulous medieval manuscripts, plus random oddbits that the monastery had picked up over time, including for some reason lots of sea creatures. You can pay for an audio-guide, but while I was there sales were slow as one of the old ladies working there attached herself to visitors and told them all about the exhibits.

Rather tasteful 2nd Worold War memorial. Note the date!

Rather tasteful 2nd World War memorial. Note the date!

Some cool people in my dorm here, but also some snorers and at 5am after a much disturbed night I decided I couldn’t be arsed failing to sleep anymore and that I was going to follow the advice of the guide books that optimistically urge people to experience the Charles Bridge at dawn. It does look better without the crowds (and what places don’t look better at sunrise) but the real revelation is the Stare Mesto square. Normally filled not just with people but horse and carts and all the other accoutrements of the tourists trap it is very pretty. With just the buildings and an empty square, it’s something truly special (this photo doesn’t do it justice).

Although the old town and the castle get the headlines, I like the new town too which manages to blend tradition and modernity nicely, while the old town is becoming submerged by souvenir shops. However, my favourite area is the Mala Strana area just down the hill from the castle which has just as many pretty buildings but also has the parks and greenery that are lacking on the east side of the river. If you head up towards the Petrin observatory there are even some woods.

One area Prague does fall a bit short in is museums and galleries, at least in the ones I went to. The Museum of Communish manages to offer a detailed narrative of communist Czechoslovakia in 6 languages, which is a decent achievement, but the educational value of that is negated by the reductive caricature of communism it repeatedly presents. I wrote down a couple of examples early on, but could have replicated ad infinitum.

“A small faction of the Czech prisoners of war in Russia succumbed to Bolshevik agitation”

“From the very beginning, Lenin pushed forward the tactics of extreme perfidiousness and ruthlessness, which became characteristic of all communist regimes of the time.”

The actual record of communism in general and in Czechoslovakia in particular is appalling and an effective and affecting account could be made just by telling it straight (as they do for instance with Jan Palach’s self-immolation) but rarely can they resist the cheap shot. The museum is redeemed by the communist era artefacts it displays, particularly some brilliant propaganda posters.

Jerusalem Synagogue

Jerusalem Synagogue

More traditional museums are also a little disappointing. The Sternbersky Palace, Prague’s Jesus Museum is fairly thinly populated and has little out of the ordinary, though tradition dictates I should share some links: El Greco – Praying Christ, Lucas Cranach the elder – Saint Christina. I can’t find a picture of it online, and in fact the painting wasn’t extraordinary but I really liked the thought processes that might have underpinned Frans Snyders Still Life with Monkeys – “Hmm, nice food, but perhaps needs something to liven it up. I know, monkeys!”

The contemporary art museum is much bigger and somewhat better. With many of the big names of the 1900-1920 period represented, eg Schiele, Klimt and a fine selection of Picasso and Braque’s early ventures into cubism. It is bulked up with a considerable amount of Czech artists, most of whom’s work sadly is underwhelming and which appears heavily derivative – particularly Emil Filla, the destitue man’s Picasso. This may be unfair though, for all I know these artists may have been contemporaneous or even ahead of the more famous artists their work resembles.

Overall I love Prague though. It’s such a stunning city to walk around, but it has plenty going on too. While some cities *coughFlorencecough* seem content to rest on their laurels preserving their undoubted beauty in aspic, Prague is willing to have experimental architecture and sculpture. Even the hordes who descend on Prague to drink and drink, tedious though they can be, help give the city some vitality. And they aren’t coming for no reason. Prague remains a great city to drink in, which is why I’ll be slowing down for a couple of days in quiet Olomouc.



  1. I’ve often had the exact same thought about Lenin and his tactics of extreme perfidiousness…. i love it.
    I remember the museum by the bridge over the river kwai stated that “on August 6 America dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima and millions of people were killed in a jiffy” who translates these things?!

    Comment by Kate — June 24, 2009 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

    • Oh man, I shouldn’t laugh but that’s brilliant.

      Comment by Josh — June 24, 2009 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

  2. Awesome translations. I’m reminded of one I saw in Malaysia which described a important and solemn traditional scene whereby a toddler’s hair is shaved and weighed, and the value of the equivalent weight in gold is given to charity. However the solenmity and dignity of the occasion was somewhat ruined by the plaque describing it as ‘the shoving ceremony’.

    Comment by Taff — June 29, 2009 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

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