We had originally intended to go straight to Prague from Vienna via train but our fantastic hostess suggested she drive us all and that we take a few days in the Czech Republic to explore. The morning of our travels was the first rainy day we had seen thus far on our trip. We had a real vacation-lazy morning, hang about the apartment, taking long baths, and generally meandering. Kathi and I headed back to the market (where at least one of us spoke the language and could read ingredients) before heading north. The trip was slow and rain soaked, but lovely. The landscape was beautiful – and sometimes surprising as we discovered when we crossed the border and discovered Excalibur City! – It seems that Excalibur City is what happens when a DMZ at the edge twixt Empires decides to go all Las Vegas with amusement park rides and the sex trade. Who knew?
Kathi had suggested we spend our first night in Telč so that was our first destination. After trying to help a trio of Rom with a petrolless car that was impeding the road, we finally found our way to Telč and a lovely little inn. We fell asleep to the sound of the pounding rain outside.
The next day we awoke to find the torrential rain had more or less ended and was now merely drizzling. We ate breakfast, read a bit of the delightful Fool on the Hill aloud (before we had to return it to our hostess), sought Kathi out in the square and found her with coffee and cigarettes. We sat for a moment enjoying the square and then were off. First a trip to the west. We could not venture into the castle, as they were using it to shoot a film. But we wandered out the western gates and shot photos among the rainy parkland – the ponds and trees and flowers. We circled out, returned through the gate and meandered in that touristy way for an hour or so. Happily the windbreaker I’d borrowed from Kathi was all I needed. It seemed it was a magic charm for there was only one additional day of rain after I returned it.
From central Telč, the only escape via car was a looping circular route, and we found ourselves making loops outside those we’d already made on foot. A few dodgy signs and directions were no match for the high-tech wizardry of the modern iPad though, and Kathi and Venetia’s combined cleverness got us through so that we were soon en route to Kutná Hora, though we’d not even heard of it before yesterday. After posting the minimal connect-the-dots of this ongoing journey on the internet, both Janine Ashbless and Travis Webb strongly recommended a visit to the Sedlec Ossuary and we were game.
We enjoyed stops in tiny Filipov and bustling Havlickuv Brod, where we adored the architecture (though we couldn’t really translate what the Grim Reaper atop town hall had written in gold on his scythe) and stopped for a fine luncheon of “kabob”. Seeing every pepper in the farmer’s market labeled “paprika” was the most sensible thing I have read here – mostly the signs form only accidental collisions with English (“Darky Gifts” leaps to mind), and resemble nothing so much as that nightmare rack of Scrabble tiles where too many Ys fight the Z and an insufficiency of vowels. But oh the lovely people and architecture!
From there we travelled into the old mining city of Kutná Hora, marveling at its ancient Gothic cistern, sculptures and painted facades before finding some cinnamon-spiced pear juice in a restaurant overlooking the lower park and the cathedral.
Properly refreshed, we began a sunset trip into Prague from the east. I stayed up past midnight talking with Kathi and saying a long goodbye. It’s was so wonderful having her as travel companion and guide – from Bratislava to Wein to Praha. There really is no comparison between the limited movement most travelers enjoy and a proper anything-goes tour guide.
Our first full day in Prague, Kathi left for a meeting with her sweetheart and we dined in the Bar adjacent to the hotel. As the other guests mingled over dubious canned pâté and stake corn flakes, we were entranced by the ancient Czech music video channel – ancient black and white footage of a man who’d made a local hit of Waltzing Matilda, of a group of young men and women wandering down hallways in outfits that Venetia thought better used in Austin Powers movies, and of a local Abba-esque group who made their 80s dream video for what could have been no more than 100 krona.
We paid up and headed to the train on foot, squeaking just enough coinage from our pockets for the trip to Pavlova. A short few blocks later we arrived at the apartment, were let in, and had an an hour or two before Jacob and Henni and Talia arrived from Berlin. After the hugging, some gift-giving and general settling in, we headed out for currency, and to check out what would prove to be the least agricultural “farmer’s” market ever. Our prize? A piece of locally made “malachite glass”. I didn’t even know it existed before, but having done a little research, we ended up on the lookout for some “lapis glass” too!
From there a gander into the Anonymous Coffee Bar (with its V for Vendetta trappings), the massive comics store, and the Tesco – where a great deal of foods were compared, examined and eventually purchased for our week here in Prague. A sublime dinner of gluten-free pasta, sauce and salad followed later after the snacking (on rice cakes and Nutella, among other treats). Life in Prague is good.
After dinner we wandered west, down to the river. Lots of walking and talking. Crossing and crossing back. Coming home and falling into deep sleep.
We awoke to our last rainy day of the trip and headed out after breakfast. After carefully sampling the wares of delicious raw food dessert shop around the corner, we surveyed the pointy dark church at the center of the square a couple blocks up. We then wandered about, shooting reference of the nearby fin de siècle buildings and glorious architecture for an hour or two. When the rain got too heavy, we bid our friends goodbye and they ventured off toward the glorious city center. After a brief stop into the nearer comic store (surreal to see all that pulp printed in Czech), we came back to the apartment and spent the day writing postcards and doing a little drawing. When the trio returned triumphant at 10 pm they made a marvelous late dinner.
On Monday we were out of the apartment at noon and spent a full day meandering through old town: being told that one shall not shoot photos of the sgraffito murals inside the Post Office (really?) finding the Mucha Museum in passing, photographing many motifs and details of incredible buildings, nipping into the astonishing Opera House (while our colleagues ate fortifying sandwiches on the front steps of the fortified Bank building), into shops, down alleys, past the famous Prague clock, across the pedestrian bridge (lined with ancient sculptures and happy generations of spiders), and slowly up the hill to the Castle.
We topped the hill as the sun began to set, walking through the metal gates (featuring a sculptural stabbing on one side and a clubbing on the other) and around the ancient cathedral – so many mismatched textures, glorious windows and flying buttresses.
We quickly figured out that the cathedral was a favorite place for couples to take engagement and wedding photos as we saw no fewer than three well dressed couples taking pictures. While we quite like the bright red gown we saw the first day, later we also saw a frothy pink gown which was a bit overblown.
We explored the area around the Castle a bit more, admiring the views of the city below from the restaurants whose windows we could see through. From there, a short trip down into the orchard where Henni showed us what it means to be in the EU – freely poached fruit! And when none of us was tall enough to reach, Jacob put his years of circus training to use and Henni picked apples from his back.
After passing through the orchard and back onto cobblestone streets, we passed the Embassies of Germany and the US. I was more than a little sad that the central crest (a crown topped by a gold cross) seemed so accurate a representation of the US. We continued downhill to the river, where we saw a line of lit yellow penguins and some of the bizarre black metal babies that climb the giant telecoms tower. Baffling, but hilarious.
We crossed the bridge which I misread as “Most Legit” (let’s face it, I need all the help I can get). Sadly, no further legitimacy was conveyed as the bridge is really “Most Legii” which apparently means “Bridge of Legions”. Returning to our apartment along the Moldaur and up a long street, we were treated to gluten-free spaghetti pomodoro with sunflower seeds (Henni’s secret recipe).
Tuesday started slowly but beautifully, but we got out of the apartment a little before noon for some shopping under a cloudless sky. While Henni and Jacob worked the Farmer’s Market, Talia and I went to Tesco. After we returned, and had a sort of luncheon, we found ourselves out en masse – onto the subway and north – back to the northern peninsula where we’d stayed on our first night in Prague. This time, the reason was Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic. I’d heard tell of it for years of course, but aside from the very occasional, and far too small photo, I’d never seen it. When artist Jesper Ejsing visited it last year, his glowing reportage (in tandem with Jacob & Henni’s desire to meet up in Prague and with the city and Mucha heirs’ indecision about the Epic’s future) convinced me that the time was right. It was.
The Epic is that – epic. Huge canvases, massive mythologizing, and incredible skill. And so worth the trip! I found some (largely those that interpose reality with spirituality and fantasy) better than others, but having surveyed the entirety of the Belvedere’ collection in Vienna, even the most prosaic and documentary pieces were extraordinary. While the Epic rewarded our hours of scrutiny in countless ways, the museum featured none of the photographic reference, thumbnails, cartoons or other studies Mucha made. Further, no mention was made of Mr. Crane, the American who financed this extravaganza of nationalism and, eventually, state-building. The exhibit ends with an almost fantastically slanted film telling the viewers about the ongoing dispute with the Moravian town that had held the Epic safe for so many years. As lawyers circle, money is raised and squandered, and no progress is made toward putting this masterpiece in a proper setting, the irony of Mucha’s efforts intensifies. His massive efforts of love and pride, of hope and union, reduced to a slap fight between incompetent bureaucrats and greedy heirs worried for the loss of copyright licensing. And the Czech book about the epic? A collection of shoddy photographs, massive inaccurate color and tone, loads of words (in Czech only, natch) and plenty of white space (the designer must have been so proud!), it’s an unworthy disaster. Strangely, the postcards of the paintings seem the most accurate to the colors Mucha really employed but are, perforce, the size of postcards.
We had planned to do a full Mucha day but after five hours at the Slav Epic, we were quite worn out. Our friends stopped at the V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes decorated Anonymous Cafe for coffee on the way back while Venetia and I returned to the apartment. I drew while Venetia slept, and eventually our colleagues returned with presents – slabs of goat cheese so delicious that they barely lasted the night (don’t worry, we went shopping for more on Thursday!) Eventually, the kitchen horrors were vanquished by Jacob and Henni, and a splendid meal of rice patties and beet/zucchini compote was served. As we finished the meal, Henni’s friend Weibke arrived from Germany and Jacob entertained us with wax painting.
As a side note, Prague has a cherub problem. Excepting Mucha’s glorious cherubim (haloed, with neither wings nor incipient diaper rash), Prague is positively infested with the wee bairns, getting up to all manner of theoretically-lovable mischief. The ones across from our apartment were especially noteworthy, as it is not every day that you see anatomically correct chubby cherubs of both sexes cavorting about.
Wednesday, the theory was early-to-rise. The practice? Well, out-of-the-house-by-noon is good enough. A walk to the Mucha Museum proved less direct that planned, but we tacked well enough and got to our destination in time – crossing over several routes we’d enjoyed the previous day.
Jacob and I both wore Mucha-inspired mermaid shirts we’d designed to the Mucha Museum. The museum itself was far smaller and less extensive than one would wish. Some posters, a few paintings and possibly 20 drawings. That’s it. No wall paper designs, no reproductions of the other sites in Prague and elsewhere throughout Europe and the US. Little discussion of his seemingly idyllic home life (given his spectacular output, it seems he did little but paint and attend parties – supported by wife and children. Did he have staff? Apprentices? Assistants?) And, for that matter, why Gaugin wasn’t wearing trousers in that photo. The notion that Mucha’s works have until recently been protected by copyright, and that the estate must have made a fortune, makes their treatment of Mucha all the shabbier. Largely shoddy poorly-printed and inaccurate products, no reproductions of Mucha’s photography, his rare “le Pater”, or any of his illustration work for that matter. Sad that such glorious work should be so poorly respected.
Having learned that Mucha designed Prague’s Municipal house, we went back to that building but were disappointed that the Mucha room was only viewable by tour ($$) and not for another hour. We did take a few more pictures around the edges, but missed the main attraction.
We walked by the first north facing (and park facing) bridge, crossed the second, and found ourselves in “Peacock Paradise”. The Peacock was a heraldic symbol of the Slavs, as seen on several helmets in Mucha’s Slav Epic, and they roamed the grounds freely. We came across a peculiar building – small, weirdly textured, and made of a dark concrete. No idea at all what it was or why it should occupy this spot. Is it a tool shed? With a might heraldic crest on its face? Bizarre.
Though we could have walked over a different bridge each trip over the river, only four were central to the area we were walking so on our way back we walked back across the bridge of sculptures. This time we were startled to see a mob of Hari Krishnas blocking the far end. It seems forever since I’ve seen them in the states. Funny world.
After a long trip home and a few hours to rest, we were overcome with hunger and traveled about the neighborhood – first stopping at the kabob house for travel provisions, and then moving on to the Blue Wagon, where a fantastic deer sirloin with a coffee demiglace (accompanied by Parmesan polenta with asparagus) made us very happy indeed.
Our last full day in Prague started with breakfast, some runaround with the landlord about checking out and other arrangements kept us in the apartment until…. Noon. Apparently that’s just how we roll here in Prague. Of course we had to go get more delicious goat cheese (a marvelous variety with herbs and an aged slab piquant and salty).
Because our first trip to the palace and cathedral had been too late in the day for entrance, we returned on our last day to view the inside of the cathedral and the stained glass window Mucha designed. We headed to the station north of the Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral, happy to let the massive escalator (not our aching feet) get us to the top. What we didn’t expect was a sealed-off street detour and a ravine twixt park (with its stylish modern oragerie) and the Castle hill. And while we were, accordingly, 20 minutes late to our destination, we were pleased to find our colleagues 30 minutes late. Punctuality is not this vacation’s hallmark.
There was no way to pay one’s way into the Cathedral (to better view the Mucha window) without paying to see a bunch of other things that would have kept us indoors on this glorious day. So we did our best to shoot what was visible and moved on.
Wandering straight down the steep eastern stairs involved a stop at the overlook and, more crucially to our survival, a spiral-cut potato on a stick (essentially one long bag of conjoined potato chips) and a paprika-seasoned sausage which we ate in the park at the bottom of the hill. When our friends caught up to us, we wandered past the couple blowing enormous bubbles, and west into the Czech Senate.
We consulted a map and wandered a bit before finding the doorway to their courtyard to find the peculiar dark wall we’d seen from the Castle above – a dark wall that seemed related to the bizarre potting shed we’d seen in Peacock Paradise the previous day. The first part of the curious wall is an astonishing aviary holding 9 owls. The sculpted wall then ran on for a great distance – part nouveau fever dream and part concrete folly.
While our friends (and the handsome German Goth couple that had been mirroring our touristy viewings through the afternoon) ate their lunch on the benches, Venetia and I did a little yoga on the well-manicured lawn. Until the guard shooed us off, of course.
Afterwards, our party split up again, with our friends going to the “Meat Factory”, a modern “art” gallery/museum, and us going home via a gorgeous woolen shop and the Tesco. I cooked up dinner in the form of a beet, carrot and mushroom sauce over the last of the gluten-free pasta we’d brought from Austria. Fortunately friends were timely, and dinner was served at 7 – in part that Henni and Wiebke could head out to a Czech punk club thereafter. While they gallivanting about, Venetia and I greatly enjoyed our visit with the Leftons left behind. And when I saw the message from a bellydancer we’d met months back (when she joined our friends from Winnipeg in Rachel Brice’s masters class) and who is moving to Portland and seeking a place to land, I mentioned it to Venetia as she’s continued packing in the other room. Imagine our surprise when Talia asked if it was her friend from Mass Arts. It was.
An aside amid the discursions: I have to wonder at the sheer bloodymindedness of the foreigners who cannot seem to call Praha by its name. It’s not rocket science after all, so why Prag, Praga, and Prague? Ah well, humans will be humans I suppose…. Though the corporate spelling of “Segway” (instead of Segue) is a mercy in Prague (which is overrun with them as a tourist conveyances), lest all pronunciation enter a black hole from which there is no return….
Leaving Prague, we were up at 8am, a speedy breakfast, some final raiding of the kitchen, and quick goodbyes followed. Talia stirred and got hugged even as Wiebke slept through some mighty alarms, but Henni (also out until 1am) and Jacob rose and helped us out. The first two will be off to Vienna while Jacob and Henni get a ride back to Berlin. We took a cab to the airport, and found it worth every penny. What a relief not to be schlepping bags from street to subway to rail to bus to airport!
We were first in line at the Brussels Air kiosk, and our two hour wait went speedily. The trip to Brussels as a short hop, and the layover seemed scarce a blink as we transferred to Iceland Air. Whereas sharing films wasn’t really possible en route to Europe, I chose the modern silent film ‘The Artist’ this time around and found we could both enjoy it (though only one of us got the musical soundtrack at a time). After our brief stopover for customs (and sushi) at Keflavik, Venetia followed the silent movie theme with ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. And while I could not hear it, there was no shortage of goodness in it – from the period pastiches in Technicolor France, to Cyd Charisse’s turn in green (Starstruck’s Verloona come to cinematic life). Glorious. The views over the Atlantic were nothing but clouds, so as Venetia enjoys the X-Men on film, I’m typing this final dispatch of our trip to Europe. What a long remarkable trip it has been!
Addendum: Upon arriving in DC we discovered that Iceland Air had lost our bags. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing (especially as our bags were returned a few days later) because we were in DC for a wedding and therefore spent the afternoon before the wedding running about visiting friends and stores assembling items that were wedding appropriate. I borrowed a suit from Mark Barker which fit admirably, was gifted a colorful shirt from my dear friend Helen, and Venetia bought stripped heels that were an absolute hit at the wedding. We were thrilled to see my beloved friend Della marry Kevin and while we don’t know the groom well, we got to know his family at the reception and they were so absolutely splendid that we believe the groom must be a quality person himself.
We are now safely home in Portland until our next trip to DC in November. And it only took us an additional two weeks to get these blogs up!