“A change of scene is the best tonic in the world,”
The Collection includes not only paintings by Canaletto and Velasquez – the star attraction being Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Haymaking (1565), but rare decorative arts and furniture, and, of particular interest to me, fine musical instruments, and original manuscripts and letters written by Beethoven – one annotated by Mozart.
The Brueghel picture is full of interesting detail and character-sketches, and has an interesting provenance. It is thought to be from a possible group of six paintings – a series commissioned from Bruegel by the wealthy Antwerp merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, apparently as an extensive decorative scheme for the dining room of his suburban home, Ter Beken. The four other paintings of the group are Gloomy Day, Hunters in the Snow, The Harvesters and Return of the Herd, and are now all in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The existence and whereabouts of the possible sixth painting continue to baffle and mystify art collectors and experts to this day, specifically young Princess Elizabeth Lobkowicz (about 28), whom I met graciously greeting visitors to her new palace home. She and her brother grew up in Boston, and continue to research and seek out precious objects and artworks stolen from the family by the Nazis and Communists during the turbulent years of the last century.
A fascinating, modern-day “Holy Grail” quest, to be sure! Although her father, William, eschews the title ”Prince” (I calculate him to be the 13th Prince), and research reveals that this title is actually forbidden by the Czech Government, Elizabeth had no qualms about enjoying the title “Princess”, and proudly showed me her security ID card. Somehow a Princess with an American accent doesn’t quite ring true. But her interest in and passion for her illustrious history is genuine, as is her quest for the still unaccounted-for treasures of her illustrious ancestors. And the Palace is being well-preserved by the current family, along with the sponsorship of a generous American Foundation for the preservation of Czech culture and heritage.
Another interesting painting was a double portrait of her Spanish ancestor Maria Maximiliana Manrique de Lara and her little daughter Polyxena (who became the 1st Princess Lobkowicz) who lightly holds her mother’s finger. Maria Manrique de Lara was married in 1555, at the age of 17, to the Czech nobleman Vratislav of Pernstejn. She gave birth to 20 children, though only eight of them survived to adulthood. She evidently found life in Bohemia “pure suffering”, the cold and damp contrasting miserably to the balmy climate of her native sunny Spain.
At the Palace I also attended one of the daily “concerts”, clearly arranged for the passing tourist trade. The programme was simply excepts from well-known works, and various popular “lollipops” such as Bach’s Badinerie, the Rondo alla Turka from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.11 in A, Dvorak’s Humoresque (remembered by us for eternity as the music accompanying a TV advertisement for Mrs. Ball’s Chutney!) and Beethoven’s Für Elise. Some works were “arranged” for a trio of flute, viola and piano, with the lady flautist quite conspicuously the best of the three. The violist, while possessing a rich, warm tone, was seldom audible, as the pianist banged away harshly on a none-too-well tuned instrument, one string of which sounded tinny and loose to my critical ear. She was no more than a competent practitioner, and I would hope that she does not teach, and pass on her deficiencies to unsuspecting young students.
But I had a beautifully frescoed ceiling to enjoy, in the venerable “Concert Hall” of the Palace – a small salon decorated with blue-edged gold curtains, brass sconces, a polished parquet floor, and a gallery of gloomy ancestors gazing down sternly upon the proceedings. I noticed that the windows were firmly shut, in spite of the heat, against the possibility that passing tourists might enjoy a free concert while on their historical peregrinations of the Castle precincts.
After an exorbitant salad in the Palace Café, Pete and I continued our wanderings through Hradčany.
St. Vitus’s Cathedral, the crowning glory of the Castle complex, a magnificent structure which dominates the skyline, takes one back through a thousand years of history. The original core, the Rotunda, dates from the 10th century, the Basilica from the 11th, and the Gothic cathedral from the 14th century. The last additions, which include the west portal with its rose window and twin spires, were added between 1872 and 1929.
The stained glass windows are, as in most Gothic cathedrals, truly glorious. The rose window depicts scenes from the Creation, and a modern one, depicting Saints Cyril and Methodius, was created by the Czech Art Nouveau exponent, Alphonse Mucha. All we could see from the foyer area were some extremely tall stained glass windows, as the rest of the cathedral could only be seen after a payment was made. In fact this was the case with all the big churches I saw in Prague – limited viewing without additional payment. I’m not sure I remember being charged to enter God’s House in other European cities. Donations for basic maintenance are usually requested, in the form of simple metal boxes or discreet stone receptacles. But this seemed to be the trend in Prague: pay for everything and anything.
The Royal Palace was also only seen from the outside, as by now it was late in the afternoon, and we had run out of both time and energy. Prague Castle was first fortified in stone during the 11th century, since which time it became the seat of the Princes of Bohemia.
In 1618 this Palace was the scene of the defenestration by Protestant nobles of two Catholic Governors, in protest against the succession to the Bohemian throne of the intolerant Habsburg ruler, Archduke Ferdinand. Falling upon a dung heap, they survived their 15 m fall, but the incident sparked the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. (Fought from 1618-48, and involving at various points most of the countries in Europe, the origins and goals of this destructive Catholic-Protestant conflict which took place in what is today Germany, were highly complex. But it impinged on much European history during the 17th century, and affected in some way all the artists and composers of that period that I have ever studied.)
On making our descent back towards the city, we were surprised to find our path winding through vineyards which graced the southern slopes of the hill, complete with terraced restaurant and wine bar. This picturesque spot also offered magnificent views of the city.
We decided to alter our course back to the hotel by taking the Manesův Bridge through Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter, instead of returning via the Charles Bridge. Along the way we passed the Old Jewish Cemetery, and the Pinkas and Maisel Synagogues. The former was founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas, and the latter in the 1590’s, as a private house of prayer for Mayor Mordechai Maisel and his family. Maisel had made a fortune lending money to Rudolph II to finance wars against the Turks, and his synagogue was the most richly decorated in the city. Many of the Jewish treasures therein today were ironically brought to Prague by the Nazis from synagogues throughout Bohemia and Moravia, with the intention of founding “a museum of a vanished people.”
Supper was again a disappointing affair (chicken stir-fry with an Oriental flavour) along an avenue lined with well-known designer boutiques such as Zara, Dolce and Gabbana, Dior and Louis Vuitton.
Further searching for sconces to accompany my little Bohemian crystal chandelier in Johannesburg proved fruitless. Not only was the style thereof no longer in evidence, but I found, when confronted with a myriad different designs, that I could not remember the exact pattern of the original. I became dazed by the countless tiny stores overflowing with sparkling treasures and tourist tat, from T-shirts, fridge magnets, tea spoons, to clocks and thimbles, and other ornamental memorabilia that would one day present an onerous task to our heirs when we eventually shuffle off this mortal coil.
Tuesday morning was spent at the Prague Museum, which contains displays recording the history of the city from primeval times. Some items include samples of Prague china and furniture, relics from the mediaeval guilds, and paintings of the city through the ages. Disappointing compared to the Museum of London, one exhibit was, however, remarkable: an extraordinarily accurate wood and paper model of the city, made by Antonín Langweil in 1834, and covering 20 m sq. (The scale is 1:1500.)
After a delicious tuna salad at a restaurant on the Old Town Square, (where I resented being charged extra for the bread which I did not eat, and oil and vinegar for the salad), I wandered past the permanent stalls of real Czech fare, making a note of all their delicious foods: Staropražská simka (Old Prague ham – ham in Swedish is skinka), Klobása (sausage), Halušky (a rich stir-fry of diced pork, potatoes and shredded cabbage), Tredelník (rotisserie pastry grilled on sticks over glowing coals, then rolled in spiced sugar while still hot), Langoše (large deep-fried pancakes), Palačinky (crêpes), Babiččina plaka (crêpes rolled up with jam, curd, cinnamon, butter, sugar, garlic, tomato purée, cheese, or “grandmother’s mixture”).
Colourful too were some of the bizarre and unusual sights seen during my wanderings, such as a man busily scouring the sidewalks with a metal detector, presumably in search of dropped coins, dark-skinned Romanies digging road trenches, and stoned locals begging for “food for their dogs”. For once I was grateful to sport a little-known language, and declare Jag förstår inte!
For the footsore tourists there were numerous Thai massage parlours, offering, apart from the usual whole-body treatment, piscean pedicures with tiny dead-skin-nibbling carp in tanks of cool water!
My main destination was Wenceslas Square, a long rectangular area which is not square at all, lined with hotels, restaurants and boutiques, and the usual churches and “palaces”. This magnificent avenue is reminiscent of the Champs Elysées, but a shorter, more jaded version thereof. Familiar brand names were again conspicuous, from H&M and M&S and Bata, to Debenhams and Bulgari. At first glance some of the pretty garments in the Czech boutiques appeared most attractive. But a closer look revealed poor quality fabrics and workmanship. Familiar with impeccable but staid Swedish couture, poor finish is anathema to my spoiled eye.
This city is totally geared to tourism, which is not surprisingly the main source of income of the young Czech Republic (since 1993). To this end all the locals speak good English, or certainly the sales people do. All the other foreign tourists have to speak English to them, or struggle to communicate. Like Swedish, Czech is a minority language, and sometimes, with its Slavic intonations, too similar to Russian and the other Slavic languages for me to discern the difference.
But the active preservation of their language and culture highlighted again for me the intense and competitive nationalism exhibited by all these little countries in Europe that we are engaged upon visiting while we are stationed relatively nearby in Sweden. Their language, culture, history and heritage are actively nurtured, sometimes at astonishing expense. But it lends a colourful distinction to our travels, and awakens feelings of South African patriotism, otherwise normally dormant within my bosom (- the embarrassment of our buffoon President notwithstanding).
In spite of the numerous first-world manifestations in the Czech Republic, there are still many visible vestiges of the Communist Era: beefy “dragon ladies” with beetling brows and hairy upper lips guarding toilets and church entrances with Cerberus-like ferocity, dreary grey apartment blocks suffering from “concrete cancer”, and chain-smoking, skinny young girls (in spite of the fatty diet) with badly dyed and cut hair. Distressing to see were the numerous beggars, bent to the ground, their faces almost touching the hot, dry roadways.
Too often, over-friendly American tourists accosted me for uninvited conversation, and were almost as bothersome. I have never experienced this on my travels before, and sometimes struggled to get rid of them, without appearing impolite.
Supper that night was at a pre-booked, “ethnic” Czech restaurant, Staromáček, just off the Old Town Square. Also clearly geared for tourists, it, too, was rather disappointing: tough pork steaks with a rich, creamy mushroom sauce for me, and “Good Czech Grub” for my delighted husband – an over-lavish serving of duck, pork, bacon and dumplings (a Czech staple) served with herbs and thick slices of bread. I had by this stage reached the conclusion that vegetables are singularly lacking in Czech cuisine, at least so far as our experience was concerned. There is much meaty (and fatty) protein and starch, but very few fruits and greens.
On Wednesday we wisely escaped the madding crowds and city heat, and went on a minibus tour to the Rückl Bohemian crystal factory (founded by a German family) in the picturesque Czech countryside. Having seen glass blown in Swaziland (Ngwena Glass), at a wine estate near Stellenbosch (Seidelberg), and at Skansen in Stockholm, this was nothing new – except for the addition of lead which makes the objects heavier and more sparkling. But the actual cutting process, of the crystal bowls, decanters, vases and glasses, upon diamond cutting wheels, and with immaculate precision, was fascinating indeed. There was of course the attached shop, selling all these gorgeous glittering goods.
On our return to Prague, we had the best meal of the entire trip: grilled chicken and mushroom kebabs and sausage respectively, bought at one of many new stalls erected in the Old Town Square for a festival, which was accompanied by blaring pop music and announcements in Czech. Served sandwiched within long white rolls, with lashings of ketchup or hot mustard, and eaten standing at nearby tall tables, this meal was quite simply, delicious.
Suitably fortified, we decided, with our disparate interests, to go our separate ways for the afternoon. Pete headed to the Museum of Technology, while I, dodging the tourists on speeding Segways, sought out the Smetana Museum. The latter is housed in a Neo-Renaissance building, which was formerly the Prague waterworks. It has an attractive, sgraffitoed façade and Cape-Dutch-styled gables, and faces the source of much of Smetana’s inspiration – the Vltava River.
The museum contains documents, letters, scores and instruments detailing this Bohemian composer’s life and work. Regarded as the Father of Czech Nationalist music, it is tragic indeed that, deaf towards the end of his life, (and driven insane by incurable tinnitus) he never heard his enduring masterpiece, Má Vlast (My Fatherland). The most popular of this cycle of six pieces is The Moldau (Vltava River), became a melody permeating almost every museum, shop and palace in Prague, rather like a second national anthem. The Museum was hot and stuffy, and generally rather small and disappointing, though some plaques were in English as well as Czech.
Bearing in mind our need to make our way to the airport later that afternoon, I then hastened to the Mucha Museum to explore the beautiful works of the Czech master of Art Nouveau, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). Housed in the 18th century Kaunicky Palace, this Museum is near Wenceslas Square. It contains a selection of Mucha’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and personal memorabilia. A lovely museum shop offers exclusive gifts with Mucha motifs, posters, books, cards and gifts.
Art Nouveau originated in Paris in the 1890’s, but soon became international as the major European cities responded to its graceful, flowing forms. In Prague it was called “Secese”, and reached its height during the first decade of the 20th century, but sadly died out during the WW I when it seemed frivolous, and even decadent. There is a wealth of Art Nouveau in Prague, both in the fine and decorative arts, and in the architecture.
As for my general impressions of this beautiful city:
Transport is excellent, with a simple, user-friendly metro system of only three lines, buses and trams. Loos were surprisingly spotless and modern for an ancient city, but, like everything else, charged for the use thereof (- if one can endure the “communist” loo paper: brown, tough and totally non-absorbent).
In fact I often had the distinct impression of being ripped off, that the purveyors of Bohemian wares were out to get me. Most were friendly enough, some fractious, with barely concealed irritability, (understandably, with the onslaught of demanding tourists), while others were downright sullen. I could not shake off the uneasy feeling of being cheated, somehow, in my dealings with sales people – a sensation I don’t recall experiencing anywhere else, apart from the Moroccan souks.
It’s not exactly common to bargain for ones purchases in a European capital. The rapid finger-word performed on a calculator, while purchasing gifts for the girls, was accompanied by deliberately bamboozling fast-talk, which left me unsure as to whether a bargain had been struck or not. There seems still to be an element of harsh-eyed, avaricious money-grasping there, undoubtedly rooted in the years of Communist spartanism and deprivation.
I also felt overwhelmed by the staggering quantity of places to see and things to do in Prague, requiring a lifetime to explore. This is certainly a city where much research needs to be done in advance, to decide upon the places of one’s personal interest, as well as the obvious focal points. It is simply impossible to expect more during a brief visit.
I was sorry not to have heard more music, but most concerts at that time seemed to be low-key, semi-amateur events aimed at tourists who would be none the wiser if the performances were poor: “The Best of Mozart and (Johann) Strauss” (ghastly combination!), with ballet and singers at the Municipal House Art Nouveau Hall, “Popular Classics” at the Rudolfinum, “Exclusive Concert in Old Prague – Virtuosos and Famous Works”, “Spring Concert Season” at St. Nicholas Church (more excerpts of well-known concertos and organ works), “Romantic Music by candle light – the Best of Classic and Opera”, (more excerpts), “Gala Concert in the Estates Theatre” (famous arias from Mozart operas), “Star Night with the Best and Most Famous Musicals” at St. Michael’s Monastery, “Gala Organ Concert” at St. Martin-in-the-Wall Church, “Concert in Gallas Palace” – all advertised by means of flyers in poor English pressed into our hands by eager students.
There was no shortage of “gala” concerts – in fact it was definitely a case of quantity rather than quality – and all excerpts and arrangements of popular Classics, performed by students and amateurs making extra pennies during the summer recess.
Warning bells rang the minute I saw ”Best of”, which reminded me of an unfortunate, amateurish nightmare concert in Vienna some years ago, performed by “artists” in period garb, eagerly photographed by undisciplined Oriental tourists who kept leaping out of their seats and flashing the poor musicians captive on stage in their hot, sweaty red velvet tuxedos.
The only full-length opera I seemed able to find was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but performed with marionettes!
I fear that, rather like Florence, London, Athens, Rome, New York, and many other highly popular tourist destinations, that there is no “off-season” period in this City of Spires, and that peaceful and leisurely exploration thereof will simply never be possible.
But, it was nonetheless a wonderful “city break”, the weather glorious and sunny throughout, and it was with happy exhaustion that we finally collapsed onto the flight back to Stockholm, whilst watching our neighbour doing crossword puzzles in Russian, and the meadows and forests of mainland Europe receding far beneath us.
This article was first published in Showcook.com.