Friday, November 7, 2014

Old Town (Prague, Czech Republic)

Lokál (Prague, Czech Republic)

Our first night in Prague, we had dinner at
Lokál, a restaurant/beer hall which features Czech cuisine. It was very loud and a bit smoky (even in the non-smoking section), but the food was tasty. The table next to ours was celebrating some special occasion, perhaps a birthday, as they brought a cake as well as ordering lots of beer. Sadly, they didn't offer us any cake.

I liked the designs scratched into the wood paneling (lit from behind, they glowed). We decided this might count as an example of sgraffito (a Renaissance technique of creating designs by scratching into a surface to reveal a different color or tone underneath).  Both Q and I remember doing crayon sgraffito as children; I put down colored crayon markings and then covered the entire page with black crayon (a tedious process that kept me occupied
for some time -- looking back, I can see why my mother encouraged this activity).  Then I used a pin to scratch through the black crayon, revealing the colored crayon underneath.  Sgraffito!  (I wonder, would reverse appliqué be a kind of textile sgraffito?)

Church of Our Lady Before Týn

After our dinner, we wandered around the Old Town (Staré město) area, walking by In Utero, a large sculpture of a pregnant woman, one of the many David Černý sculptures in and around Prague.

We found our way to the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), which has been Prague's main public square since the 10th century. We walked through the square virtually every day we were in Prague, and it was always full of people. We saw a variety of musicians as well as some dancer/contortionists, in and amongst the throngs of tourists. That first night we were treated to a women's chorus (which brought back fond memories of when I sang with the Anna Crusis Women's Choir), although I have no idea what the women were singing, as it was (presumably) in Czech.

Church of Our Lady Before Týn, with its Gothic spires, was not only dramatic at night and beautiful inside by day (no photos allowed, alas), but it also provided a terrific landmark to orient us as we walked around Old Town. The church was built in the 15th century. The interior is Baroque in style and contains the tomb of Tycho Brache, the famous Danish astronomer who died of a burst bladder, being too polite to leave the royal table to relieve himself. Let that be a lesson to you.

Trdelnik cooking over an open flame in the Old Town Square

Q discovered this wonderful treat our first night in Prague. Trdelnik are sweet cakes or pastries rolled around a tube (a trdlo) and cooked over an open flame. They are covered with sugar and cinnamon (sometimes also crushed nuts or other toppings). The most important thing, though, is that these are *so delicious*. We had one almost every day we were in Prague, and have searched in vain for a place to find them in our area.

Q is convinced we should just learn to make them ourselves. He found recipes here and here.  So you may find yourselves invited to a trdelnik party sometime in the future.

Note: These are really best when hot -- we had one that was cold and it wasn't nearly as good.

The House of the Black Madonna

The next day we walked around Old Town some more to look at the architecture. The House of the Black Madonna is an example of cubist architecture designed by Josef Gočár (1912). Prague has a number of cubist buildings -- we also saw two cubist houses and a cubist lamp-post. I don't know that much about the cubist movement, but apparently they used pyramidical and crystal forms in architecture and furniture construction. This building now houses a museum of Czech cubism (we didn't go in, though). You can see more examples of cubist architecture in Prague here (the interior stair railing is cool).

While I found the cubist architecture somewhat interesting, the functionalist buildings left us both cold. I didn't even take photos.

The House of the Black Madonna

Here you can see the eponymous Black Madonna sculpture in the corner of the House of the Black Madonna. I do love niches and inset shrines in buildings. I wondered whether the cage around the sculpture was a design feature or for some practical reason. (While walking in Washington, DC years ago, I saw a statue of the Virgin Mary that had chains around it. At first, I thought it was some kind of artistic statement -- the constraints on women in the church? S&M Mary? -- and then realized it was probably just an anti-theft device.)

Church of St. James

The Church of St. James was originally Gothic when it was built in the 14th century, but then made over in Baroque style in the early 18th century. Just look at the complex sculptural ornamentation on this window.

Church of St. James

Apparently, the Church of St. James is famous for having a shriveled human arm inside (the legend is that a thief tried to steal the jewels from the statue of the Virgin Mary and she grabbed his wrist so tightly that his arm had to be cut off). But I was so captivated by the ornamentation of the interior that I totally forgot to look for it.

I don't usually like Baroque that much -- it seems overdone and busy to me, but this was just beautiful.

Ceiling of the Church of St. James

The church had detailed murals painted on the ceiling -- each section had a different scene. The perspective was rendered amazingly well -- when you stood in a particular spot, there was an excellent sense of depth to the paintings, even from the ground level.

Storch House

Here we are, back at the Old Town Square. There were so many buildings with elaborate painted murals in Prague -- I'll just let this one photo stand in for them. In many cases, some part of the mural had been damaged, so when the building was re-painted, they painted around what remained of the mural, leaving intriguing patches of the past amidst a newer paint job.

This Art Nouveau mural, though, was in excellent condition. It depicts St. Wenceslas (of the Christmas carol fame). St. Wenceslas (or Václav) was a duke of Bohemia who was murdered by his brother. He became a patron saint of the Czech lands, where every year, St. Wenceslas' day is celebrated.

Astronomical Clock

This is one of the major tourist draws in the Old Town Square in Prague. Crowds begin to form long before the hour is struck. I can't do justice to the complexity of the clock display here.

Suffice it to say that the upper clock face is keeping time according to a traditional noon/midnight-type clock, Bohemian time (a 24-hour clock counted from sunset), sidereal (stellar) time, the phases of the moon, and the houses of the zodiac. The bottom face is a calendar wheel with scenes of rural Bohemian life and the names of the saints associated with each day of the year.

You will also see that there are carved statues around the clock. Those on the upper clock face represent the major fears of residents of Prague in the 15th century: Death (the skeleton), Vanity (with a mirror), Greed (with the money bag), and Pagan Invasion (a Turk). When the clock strikes the hour, Death rings a bell and inverts his hour-glass, and statues of the 12 Apostles move past the windows above the clock.

The clock is in the Old Town Hall, and we got tickets to go inside. There was quite a bit of information about the workings of the clock and how it has been repaired, renovated, and reconstructed over time. While the original clock was built in 1490, little of the original remains, as the workings have been improved over time and the clock faces and statues had to be rebuilt after damage from the Nazis following the Prague Uprising.

You can see more about the Anatomical Clock here.

View from the top of the Old Town Hall Tower

The hike to the top of the Old Town Hall wasn't that intensive, but it took a long time to get through the lines and it was very crowded at the top. But hey, we are so high up that the people gathering to watch the clock look like ants! (This is still not particularly close to the hour -- it would be way more crowded at that point.)

View from the top of the Old Town Hall Tower

The large, dark building is the Powder Gate. It's not really that tilty -- I was just getting creative with the camera angles. I blame the crowds and the elevation.

Anyway, the Powder Gate was built in the 15th century on the site of one of the original 13 gates surrounding the Old Town area. It was used to store gunpowder in the 18th century. The steeple was added in the mid-19th century. It currently houses exhibitions of medieval weapons and instruments. We walked past it pretty much every day we were in Prague. Two of the nights, as we were walking back past the Powder Gate, we got to hear a lovely violin duo of Pachelbel's Canon, one of Q's favorite pieces of music.

Church of Our Lady Before Týn, as viewed from the Old Town Hall Tower

Here you can see the gold sculpture of the Virgin Mary with a big halo. The gold was originally from a huge Hussite chalice. The Hussites were a group of Protestants led by Jan Hus in the 15th century (they were responsible for one of the many defenestrations in Prague -- seriously, don't stand too close to the windows there). After the defeat of the Hussite movement, the chalice was melted down to make the statue of Mary and the church was recathologized.

History aside, it is a very pretty statue; I like the spiky halo. It reminds me of some milagros I've seen.

Mural in the Town Hall Tower

As we came down the stairs in the Town Hall Tower, we saw a room full of pretty murals, so we ducked in to look at them. From a distance, these look painted, right? But they are actually mosaics, made from tiny tiles. I was really impressed with the level of detail achieved -- the artist even signed his name in tile.

Detail of a mural in the Town Hall Tower

See? I told you -- tiles. And look at the sinuous lines and variegation. Really well done.

The House at the Minute

The House at the Minute is just to the left of the Town Hall Tower if you are facing the Astrological Clock. It is an excellent example of sgraffito -- the figures are from Greek mythology and biblical and Renaissance legends. It houses a pizza place now, as you can see.

Apparently, Franz Kafka lived here as a boy. He also stayed in our hotel (not while we were there, of course), and ate at the cafe in the hotel. You'll see -- this guy was everywhere in Prague.

Sunset from the Charles Bridge

From the Old Town Square, we walked to the Charles Bridge. (You can find out more about the history of the bridge and see better pictures than mine here.)  This is a major tourist spot, but it wasn't quite so mobbed in the early evening. We looked at the statues on the bridge, admired the view of the river Vltava, saw the work of the artists who sell their wares on the bridge, and heard the Dixieland jazz band that plays on the bridge. We rubbed the statue of St. John of Nepomuk, too, which is supposed to mean that we will return to Prague. 

In short, I think we had the full experience.

Next up: Municipal House and the Jewish Quarter

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