Sunday 7 November 2021

1993 Prague


Grey, misty, cold...perfect.

Airport very efficient, the coach outside less modern looking.  On the bus Kr.20 each – about 50p.  Tickets that poor quality pink paper I remember from East Germany and Russia.

The Czech language looks as if the vowels have been crushed out of it – perhaps by the imperialists and oppressors.  Or to create a dense, secret language only Czechs can speak…  On the radio, Spandau Ballet...rediscovered?  Preserved in a time warp?  After changing our room (327 to 209), we now have a spacious double with hot and cold running trams outside…  Very atmospheric ting-a-ling of the bells.  I think we may have been stung with the taxi – and with a meter: Kr.220 – compare Kr.20 for the bus from the airport. 

For some reason, I feel as if I am in Poland.

Dinner in the café here – very cheap (Kr.270), not very good.  Strange: the waitress was dressed in a very short skirt.  Fine legs, but the faces she would pull if you dared to ask her for anything.  A sodium light outside the window goes on and off randomly… On TV, three channels in Czech, CNN, Eurosport etc. (saw my first Indy car racing – can see why it is likely to take over.  Impressed by young Mansell, who clearly has something….)

The light and the trams are like some intense East European film...full of brooding intensity.  The hotel is large and labyrinthine.  Probably 60s originally, through modernised recently.  At dinner, my Czech pronunciation of dishes provokes torrents of near-inappropriate words.  But German seems to be the second language.


The Old Town Square – having bought a Kr.100 five-day ticket for the metro/trams.  Up from Wenceslaus Square to here.  Town Hall – fine doors – carved dogs' heads.  This place really does lack Mozart…   To Charles Bridge – very atmospheric in the mist.  River reminds me of Bath… Up to Prague Castle (stopping off for a glühwein).  Amazingly massy city – full of huge buildings piled together.  And buildings are big here.  Passed Italian Embassy.  The statues on the bridge, in perspective and the mist.  Black…  Autumnal colours everywhere – matching the Baroque oranges and browns.  To the information office – so many concerts – Prague really is a city of music.

Amazing how little English is spoken – in the metro, none, elsewhere some German.  Great.  Now in Staropražská Rychta – cheap, but seems quite good – despite the synth playing bouncy tunes in the background.  We have two tickets for The Magic Flute (in Czech) at Mozart's opera house tonight – Kr.240 – for two.

Visited St Vitus Cathedral – very English in design, but lacking the monumentality, spirituality.  Few tourists around – only schoolkids, really.  Then caught tram #22 direct to the centre – great views, especially from the bridge.  

Various pork obscenities – especially two great fat wobbing phallic sausages – one a blood sausage.  But after the article in Der Spiegel I really feel very unhappy about eating meat… Heavy but nice plum dumplings/pancakes after.  Pity about the music – the music of hell in its triviality – imagine condemned to an eternity of it…  
2 o'clock, restaurant quiet now – probably because offices were busy at 7.30am this morning.

In Mozart's opera house – for Die Zauberflöte – appropriately…  Glorious eggshell blue and gilt here, quite deep the horseshoe – we are on fourth level, there is also a fifth… Pompeian ceiling.  Curtain "up" – and it was already up.  Good programme – in English and German.  "Modern" production – Pamina emerges from the audience.  Papageno – Kabuki, Monostatos – Miles Davis in a samurai outfit.  Sarastro is… Head of a Freemason lodge.  Acoustic tremendous – perfectly audible up here.  Band small – just three double-basses – but loud enough.  Unusual disposition of band – strings to one side, wind and brass to the other.  But just who as the Jesus figures playing the flute?  Great value, though.

Bought "The Prague Post" – US, of course, but interesting glimpses.


Tram #9 and 22 to Prague Castle.  The room of the defenestration.  Fine green-glazed oven – still warm...with history?  Darkness falling at 3.15pm.  Wencelaus Hall – amazing columns – they seem to move away as you pass.  Beautiful wooden door to the north.  Up the stairs then to a room full of coats of arms – whose…?  A room with a cabinet of fat books – blue, green, flowers.  The chapel, smelling of wood and cold and history.  Everything has a real presence in this place, as if so much that has happened here has soaked in to this spot.  Small organ with gilt cockle shells.  I am being photographed, background a misty, cold Prague.  A Union Jack flutters below us.  To St George's Basilica – wonderful pure Romanesque inside with half-raised altar.  Beautiful subdued crypt – six columns, low.  Interesting to note that even here, in the ticket office, a PC (DOS).

Then to the Golden Lane – pity about the bloody graffiti on the walls – this sad urge.  (Heard a snippet of Dvořák's Requiem – never knew it existed – sounds good.  Also very good prices on Czech CDs….)  Overall the castle has grown on me considerably.  It has real character: rather melancholy, what with its defenestrations, but rather touching.  Tram #1 direct to hotel.  I do like trams (especially since they're included in the Kr.100 five-day pass – wonderful).  Ate in the hotel: Kr.240 for filling (pork) food.  Good soup: milk and potatoes, onions and egg.  Plenty of slivovice.

Wandering through the back streets from Charles Bridge to the National Theatre (we have tickets to The Makropulos Affair on Sunday – and ecco another good reason for learning Czech, old Janáček boyo…).  So much in a state of ruin: I had worried that everything would be plastic and capitalist, but too much remains to be done – it'll be a decade before everything is finished.  Went to ask about private rooms: Kr.1200 for a double in the centre – about what we're paying, Kr.800 outside.

Metro very Stalinist – very deep, abstract design on walls – and no litter (yet).  Trains frequent (there is a countdown clock) and fast.  As are some escalators – presumably to cover the great depth.  And yet here too the handrails travel faster than the feet: why?  Is this the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics?  National Theatre a sooty black monster; next to it a modern horror, bug-eyed like Argos.

Queued in butcher's to buy water – very orderly – and a very sweet young lady behind the counter – Slav blonde, not too spoilt by Czech health system.  Streets very animated in the dusk, light rain falling.  Very lived-in feel, the trams thundering past like dinosaurs.  And German, German everywhere.  And Mozart.  In this week there is Die Zauberflöte (twice), Così fan tutte, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and marionette versions of Don Giovanni, plus free interpretation of Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni and Figaro.  And more Requiems than you could shake a stick at.  Vienna/Salzburg, eat your heart out.


To Mozart's house yesterday – closed and daunting, a plaque on the wall.  One day this'll be a tourist mecca.  To Wenceslas Square.  Raining, progressively harder.  A comedy of trams (fine title…) - trying to get to St Agnes, take #5 in wrong direction.  End up past Mozart's lodging near the Old Town, finally find somewhere with 
glühwein.  I like the rain.  Bar looks like the crypt of a church, but has a large Art Nouveau thing in the middle.

In Lidový dům = "Mozart Brasserie" [catchphrase: "walk in, dance out…"?]  We ate downstairs in the restaurant in the north-east corner of Old Town Square, then spent £50 on 10 CDs – old classical, Suk, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů – about £5 each, some £3.  Then to here, which at least is warm and with a high ceiling not too smoky.  Fine chocolate cake.

After CDs, to the National Gallery in the Kinský Palace – rather depressing contemporary graphic stuff – poor Klee etc.  The Bohemian glass: like silver in Bali – miles of it.  But without the push: service is a concept barely known here. Nice in a way – tiresome in others.

The Slav faces – either very box-like, or thin.  The women with thin, slit eyes in both cases.  Strange how in Italy ugly women almost don't exist, but here the reverse is true (relative, of course).  Redheads and blondes quite common.  Eyes indeterminate in colour.  That characteristic Prague sound: the beep-beep of the metro's guides for the blind.

One thing, though.  In "The Prague Post", under Thursday November 4, there is: "Who'd Believe It Anyway, Mr Moody?" (Kdo mi to uvěři, pane Moody?).  In Czech with English text to follow.  Black theatre fantasy with actor Jan Potměšil.  Divadlo Mionor 7.30."
How did they know I was here?


To the Castle (comedy of trams II); to the Gothic and Baroque collection in the cloisters of St George's Basilica.  Free today.  The omnipresent ladies of the galleries wave us through like something out of "Blue Velvet".  The Gothic art has a strange quality: you sense for the peasants these were miraculous images, icons; more powerful than in West Europe, say.  The sense of synchronicity: what happened here, and in Italy at the same date.  The Slav eyes in the pictures.

An Annunciation with a wonderful cubist angel – wings everywhere, and a fractal sky.  A gargoyle dog, baying at the rain.  A Christ of Master Theodoric, almost twentieth-century naive.  Many more pix here than in UK for this time (dissolution of monasteries later?).  A crucifixion: with a man leaning on a shield in the form of a face – fine pic.  Amazing abstract Madonna and Child.

To St. Vitus Cathedral, where there is mass.  Rather dull – sermons in Czech are worse than in Indonesian.  Cold too.  Interesting trying to read the service book "Otčenáš".  Good organ, so to speak.  Then to self-service restaurant for unsatisfactory meal.  Sky lighter now.

Back to the cloisters of St George's Basilica. – and the world's first hologram – a painting that changes as you move round it: 1603 painted, Maximilian I and Ferdinand I, by Paulus Roy.  Some brilliant portraits – many by Jan Kupecký.  Landscapes of Vaclav, Vourinec Reiser, not bad.  The vignettes of Norbert Grund – cross between Pietro Longhi, Gainsborough and Guardi.  

Tremendous gargoyles on the cathedral, now slobbering after the rain.  The stuff of nightmares.  Did I see one move…?

To Kinský Palace, national collection of European art.  Familiar ground.  Lovely Vivarini, also fine icons – some from Benátky – Venice and Řecko (Greece).  St Luke drawing the Virgin – with another image deep in the background.  Dürer's Feast of the Rosary – very heavy, virtuoso but not moving.  Stunning view of London by Canaletto (1746).  Westminster Bridge spanning Thames, Westminster Abbey to the left, Lambeth Palace to the right – used by Canaletto as his viewpoint.  Also visible Banqueting House, St Paul's in the distance.  Rembrandt – The Scholar in his Study.  And even a Willem Kalf – with peeled lemon…  Two fine Kokoschka's of Prague.

Dinner in Bistro Mozart – good but expensive.  To National Theatre for The Makropulos Affair, Kr.160 for brilliant seats II balcony, first row, seats 15 and 16.  Lots of gilt and maroon and sumptuous naked ladies on the ceiling.  The orchestra desperately practising the tricky bits.  Not very full, alas, for such a great work.

Fine music indeed.  And the singers not bad.  Indeed, the only real difference between them and better-known names is that the latter...are better known.  That is, in some sense Prague is a pre-television world.  But for how much longer?


Thoughts about The Makropulos Affair: consider, a woman who travelled Europe for 300 years, spoke Greek, Spanish, French, Czech, and searches after a document, written in an obscure language: surely a symbol for Europe and the Maastricht Treaty.  Also Charles Burney's travels through Europe, musically, and the Grand Tour.

To the Ghetto – amazing jumble of gravestones in the cemetery.  The graves with small stones balanced on them.  Very peaceful with the autumn colours. (And pieces of paper, coins, stamps, chestnuts, majolica.)  Amazing effect of the higgledy-piggledy gravestones – a sea of them – like the view from the plane in Kashmir.  Also the trees add something – especially in the middle of the city.  A tomb with lions – with pieces of paper in every crevice.  Some graves pitch black, others pink, white.  To Pinkas Synagogue – amazing to see the wall of names being re-created, one by one.  What a task – painful to see.  77,927 names – the only such memorial.  

We pass two Italians we sat opposite at lunch yesterday·  Prague is small: you really do keep crossing paths (like in Venice, Piazza San Marco).

To the exhibition of children's and adults' drawings for Terezin.  What a waste of life and creativity there.  Into antique shop – sewing machine: Lada.  Underwood typewriter with Czech keyboard.  To the Rudolfinum – in the empty café – very grand, as is the main entrance hall.  Drinking 
glühwein and grog (supplied as rum, very perfumed, and a glass of hot water).  Grog (if put together correctly by me) – no great shakes.

Over in the old part under the castle (over Charles Bridge, still very romantic) – to a fine restaurant – U Modré Kachničky (The Blue Duck) – three rooms, very luxuriously done out – walls painted plus turn of the century pix – heavy credenza, floral carpet, crystal glass.  We are in the back room – glass roofed.  Soups – quail's eggs and potatoes, venison consommé and vermicelli.  To follow, carp and caviar (the real stuff).  Behind me a fine white heating oven (as in the castle).  (Address: Nebovidska 6, Praha 1, Mala Strana).  

Across the bridge to the island (complete with pink carnations courtesy of the Blue Duck restaurant).  Beautiful park in autumn, and stunning views across the Vltava.  Charles Bridge, the weir and in the distance the sugar-loaf form of the National Theatre (trams passing).  Subdued roar from the weir.  Swans glide gracefully below us.  The black forms on the bridge like frozen pilgrims, or the gargoyles on the cathedral.  The swan ringed on its right foot.  A beautiful island to the right, its trees a fine spray of yellow.  Raining slightly, but not too heavily.

Walk back under Charles Bridge – fine piazza to the west.  Then up to St. Nicholas Church, massive from the outside (one of my favourite squares).  Inside much lighter – partly because of the sheer size.  Fine trompe-l'oeil on nave roof – with St Nick very palpably swept away.  Mozart played on the organ here, and after his death the Requiem was sung here.  Wonderful organ – covered in scrambling, tumbling putti (gilt).  And each pillar ends in a huge cardinal's beret, with sharp diamond points.  The ceiling's fantasy is rather fine: a tower with a ship moored behind, a triumphal arch at the crossing of the nave.  Everywhere gilt and fine marble.  Organ banked in three tiers on each side, and three tiny ones in the middle.  Glass in windows mercifully clear.  And the whole of the altar very effective – the crescendo of pillars, statuary.  Has to be one of my favourite Baroque churches now…


Our penultimate day – and already sad at the thought of leaving this hospitable city.  To the St Agnes Cloisters.  Exhibition of Chinese wall paintings – very simple, very effective.  And I think of all the beautiful things that exist, and wonder why there is so much ugly suffering.  To the picture gallery.  Fine portraits by Machek.  Curious allegory from the ceiling of the dining car of Franz Joseph I.  Amazing effect of light.  Evening in Tyrska Lane by Jakub Schikaneder (1855-1924).  In the last room, a tiny Caspar David Friedrich – a jewel whose magic is instant.  Robert Russ – Mill in the north Tirol – amazing effect of light, and of the trees.  Quite a rich gallery – if you're into Czech art – and quality surprisingly high.  Again just goes to show that it's history/choice/fate that decides who is great/mainstream/famous.

Heard the clock-tower strike – gawping with hundreds of others… not very impressive – either spectacle.  Eating downstairs at one of the restaurants neaby .  Poor meat again.  Upstairs to Café Mozart...two espressi.  Outside a jazz band – and a man blowing the biggest, softest soap bubbles you ever did see.  The most wonderful rainbow-coloured wobbling gyrations as they miraculously rise (why?).

Walking around Můstek – buy book on Mozart – then metro, tram #22 to the Baroque St Nicholas church (fantastic fish shop on the corner on the way – with caviar).  Buy cassettes. now in Fruit Café with great view of this contrapuntal square.  Very noticeable that Czech magazines use every inch of the paper.  Old-fashioned design, too.  Poor half-tones.  Seeing the banner across the square for the Dubuffet exhibition up by the castle reminds how little France/French culture is in evidence.  Apart from the boulevards, this is the land of the Teuton, Slav – increasingly, obviously of the Anglo-Saxon…

To Beriozka for a minimally Russian meal (really for caviar).  Now in the Old Town Square – beautiful.  The Tyn church looms blackly over the sodium-lit buildings.  On the Bridge.  Prague Castle lit up in green and yellow – a wonderful slab of light on the hill.  Below us improbable seagulls squawk.  "Young people" play guitars and sing; the weir roars untiringly.  The church is orange ahead of us.  Trams cross by the National Theatre, which is lit green.  Everywhere domes and steeples and statues and facades and pillars.  Behind us, the Rudolfinum.


Sad to leave.  In "Der Spiegel", the President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, says "Eine Grosse Bibliothek ist ohne Wörterbuch nutzlos.  Wir wollen der Wörterbuch für Europe sein" – speaking of Estonia's position in Europe.  This morning, a final walk from tram #26 to the Old Town Square, across the bridge to the other bank.  Bought caviar.  Fine city.  

Now at the airport – outside, following an "explosives" alert.  Ironic for the country famous for Semtex...

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