(Jill writing) Most of today's account has been written by Ian. I was too weary to think straight this evening and felt quite bemused by the history, culture, architecture and language of a country about which I feel woefully ignorant. My knowledge of Czech history starts and ends with the curious custom of throwing a couple of Catholics out of windows every few hundred years. This happened in both the 15th and the 17th centuries and is known as the Defenestration of Prague.
The city was crowded with both splendours and tourists. Too much of our time was spent elbowing through crowds and hanging on to bags. There were too few notices explaining what we were looking at and far too many advertising exchange rates, meal deals, souvenirs and guided theme tours of the city.
Fortunately most visitors arrive in Prague straight from the airport and do not see the unsightly suburbs. These struck me as exceptionally ugly as we took the tram in to the city from the suburban interchange. Blocks of purely functional flats line the route, there are weeds along the tram tracks, and the hoardings and shelters at every stop are smashed, the glass broken and the framework thickly covered in luridly painted graffiti.
Compared to London, prices for food and drink in Prague are very similar. Compared to the rest of the country, most of Croatia and all of Slovakia, Hungary and Bosnia, they are about four times higher.
(Ian writing) It is difficult to approach a large city about which one has heard so much but knows so little. We had received glowing reports of the beauty of Prague, its magnificent buildings and its rich history. We had also heard how crowded by tourists it was and prone to crime. However we knew very little of the history of the city, why it was there, and what nations had made it into such an important place. Our start was somewhat inauspicious. The campsite is some way out of Prague on the southern side and at weekends transport is infrequent. The morning bus from outside the campsite only left at 10.47 and, after a slow journey through quiet villages, landed us at a graffiti-ridden interchange to the tram. After another twenty minutes jolting along by the Moldau (Vltava) we eventually reached the National Theatre and alighted into the swarming crowds of tourists.
A short walk along the embankment saw us at the gated entrance to the Charles Bridge, erected by Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV. He had intended to make Prague into the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and enlisted a team of architects on ambitious building projects influenced by France, Italy and other places with which he had come into contact. The resulting bridge, built by him in 1357, with the impressive gateways at each end and the numerous statues that had been added over the centuries was best appreciated from the embankment or from a boat on the Moldau. Once on the bridge one's attention was absorbed by navigating a way through the milling throng of tourists, caricaturists, buskers and vendors of all types of souvenirs, individuals offering to change money and no doubt pickpockets, which we have managed to avoid so far.
There were impressive views from the bridge of the castle complex high on a hill on the left (west) bank with the twin spires of St Vitus Cathedral. The castle was first built by the Przemyslid monarchs of Bohemia in the tenth century but was extended in the 14th century by Charles IV and later recast in rococo mode. We struggled our way up through cobbled streets and squares lined with ornate baroque and classical houses, a celebration of the art of the plasterer and gilder – and also of the graffiti artist – this time properly commissioned to adorn facades with trompe-l'oeil decorations of stonework or allegorical figures.
After much climbing we emerged in the spacious square in front of the rococo palace guarded by soldiers in dapper pale blue uniforms, to one side the Renaissance Schwartzenburg Palace with its sgraffito decoration and on the other the Episcopal Palace. We explored the series of courtyards which made up the castle complex, in one of which is the magnificent Gothic cathedral of St Vitus - another of Charles IV's undertakings, whose construction was started on the site of a Romanesque basilica in 1344. The mosaic of the last judgement above the main south door provides a fine example of the international influences that Charles absorbed – an Italian technique but in a style very reminiscent of French miniature paintings.
A gateway brought us out of the castle precincts across the deep moat on the north side into a series of parks and gardens with wonderful views back across to the Cathedral, reminiscent in some ways of views across the river at Durham. Here we found an orangery, another fine example of sgraffito decoration with allegorical figures representing the virtues and the sciences, and also a belvedere with extensive views down onto the city with red tiled roofs, spires, towers and bridges spanning the river.
We crossed Charles Bridge again and strolled through the streets of the Stare Mesto or Old Town until hunger drove us into a café for a salad, coffee and cakes. We were feeling a little at sea, navigating only with the aid of a rough map in a free handout. We spent a little time looking round some of the shops which sold Bohemian glass and eventually procured a guidebook which will guide our steps more purposefully during the rest of our stay.
In the time remaining before our trek back to the campsite we made our way to one of the few places we had heard of in Prague, Wenceslas Square or Vaclavske Namesti, the scene of so many demonstrations during the Prague Spring of 1977. This proved to be more of an avenue than a square, lined with smart shops and restaurants, including Marks and Sparks in a wonderful art nouveau edifice. The avenue rises majestically to the statue of king Wenceslas in front of the National Museum at the far end. It is rather like the Champs Elysée in Paris in its fashionable elegance, but there is still room in it for demonstrations. Today in front of the statue of Wenceslas, at the memorial for the victims of Communism, was a committed group of protesters campaigning against the Chinese oppression of the Falun Gong meditative sect, and the apparent use of organs of executed adherents for transplant surgery – a boom industry in China where there is virtually no waiting time for westerners needing organs. The source of organs for some 40,000 transplants in the period 2000 to 2005 are unaccounted for but appear to correspond to the number of prisoners interned in camps from which nobody has ever been released. See the Organ Harvesting website which Google has apparently agreed to block in China – we have a friend there who may be able to verify this. We signed the petition and returned to the National Theatre to catch our tram back to the bus stop where we rejoined some of the footsore campers who had shared our journey out this morning.
Sunday 3rd June 2007, Jesenice, near Prague
We returned with the bus into the centre of Prague this morning, this time to discover the Jewish ghetto with its synagogues, cemetery and meeting hall. There were enormous queues however and anyway we hadn't realised it was a closed complex so we just visited those areas accessible from the streets and enjoyed the ambiance of the quarter with its Jewish bookshops and cafés and the picturesque members of the community as they passed by in their dark robes and curls of long hair. There are five synagogues, some of them dating back to medieval times, making it the largest surviving ghetto in central Europe.
We discovered the Kafka Café for a coffee near the home of the Czech writer Franz Kakfa. Ian has read some of his works, finding them deep, dark and complex. The café seemed suitably named as it was also dark and gloomy with wooden tables and battered chairs. The old spiral staircase descending to the loos was particularly appropriate. One had the feeling of going down for ever to some darkly sinister place never to return. Outside on the streets the architecture was stunning. Largely baroque, neo-classical and eclectic in style, there was also a splendid array of art nouveau buildings. There was a wealth of caryatids and carved figures, some allegorical, some representing signs of the zodiac, eagles, lions, saints or angels. Every street presented new splendours as we gazed up at these wonderful façades with their stuccoed windows, huge baroque doors and metal gateways. At street level there were generally antiquarian booksellers, antique shops, outlets for Bohemian crystal and porcelain and cafés. There were young men in 18th century costume selling tickets for various concerts taking place this evening in the churches of the city. (Mozart spent time here and his works are perennially popular.)
We found ourselves on the main town square housing the old town hall with its tower and astronomical clock dating from 1410. The square is magnificent and it is like walking around in a huge outdoor museum presenting the very best of the architectural splendours of the city. It is surrounded by palaces dating from medieval times to the 20th century. In the centre is a large statue of the 15th century reformer Jan Hus in process of restoration. There are two massive churches - the gothic Tyn church and the baroque St. Nicholas church. There is the beautiful medieval house of the stone bell and the Goltz Kinsky rococo palace. Just off this square is the Minute house with its sgraffito façade of mythological subjects, once the home of the Kafka family.
During the afternoon we sought out the National Library, housed in the Clementinum, a former Jesuit complex. The national library houses 4,000,000 volumes in beautiful rococo rooms. The rooms are available for viewing but only as part of a wider visit to the entire complex which we did not have time to do.
During our wanderings we discovered the impressive exterior of the State General Theatre where Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed and the Rott House where the first bible in the Czech language was printed in the 15th century.
Finally we visited an exhibition of panoramic photographs by the Panhorama.CZ group established in 2002, displayed in the cloisters of the Franciscan Monastery. The photos intrigued us primarily because of the interest our friend Ralph (from Salies-de-Bearne) has in panoramas.
At 6pm we left the city for the hour's tram and bus ride back to our campsite where we have spent much of the evening recovering from cultural indigestion.
Monday 4th June 2007, Jesenice, near Prague
We felt there were still things to be seen in Prague, so decided to stay an extra day. Waiting for the bus outside the campsite this morning our French neighbours complained to us that President Bush is due in the city today and they feared many of the streets and tourist sites would be closed off. They also speculated on where he would be staying. This evening we were back at the campsite before them so put up a notice beside their camper van stating that the pitch had been requisitioned for President Bush! It caused them much amusement when they returned from a futile attempt to visit the castle – as they had anticipated, the area was closed to visitors. They invited us into their big motor home to join them for a pastis before supper and we had a very sociable evening.
Almost everyone else on the campsite is Dutch. They are a lovely nation but there are so many of them! There is a saying amongst campers that the last one to leave Holland in the summer turns the lights off before they go! Our French neighbour actually asked them who was back in Holland running the shop. Over the last couple of days the other nationalities here have all fallen victim to synchronised Dutch douching as they arrive en masse in their clogs and dressing gowns at the shower block. On the bus into Prague this morning we had to stand as it was so crowded with Dutch campers squashed three to a seat, all chattering happily together. Ian commented rather loudly that he didn't think this bus was actually going to Utrecht. Fortunately they are all very good natured and don't seem to mind being teased.
Once in Prague we all went our separate ways.
To begin with we filled in the first entry in our "I-Spy defenestration" book by visiting the new town hall and photographing all the windows in the hope of getting the one through which the Catholic advisors had been tossed in 1419. Next we made our way up to Wenceslas Square where we visited the National Museum, it being free on the first Monday of the month. Its collections were good but as they covered geology, zoology, palaeontology and anthropology they were not collections unique to the Czech Republic. Our interest today was more in the building than the contents. And it is certainly a magnificent building, constructed at the end of the nineteenth century and worthy of housing the national collections. From its galleries, inlaid with lovely mosaic floors and lined with frescoes, it is possible to look down the full length of Wenceslas Square.
We enjoyed a very nice lunch of chicken schnitzel and salad with a couple of beers in the museum restaurant before continuing our exploration of the city taking in the museum of Alphonse Mucha. We'd always assumed that he was French but he was actually Czech. He is famed chiefly for his brightly coloured, flowing posters of Sarah Bernhardt. He was also commissioned to produce similar advertising posters for various companies during the 1890s.
Mid-afternoon we stopped for coffee at a street café attached to the Museum of Czech Cubism. The chairs and tables were in the cubist style and there were exhibits of household furnishings from the period. Upstairs the restaurant was appropriately fitted out in cubist style but the museum itself was unfortunately closed.
Our visit was nearing its end so we gave ourselves up to the pleasure of strolling through the streets and taking in as much of the atmosphere and architecture as possible while searching for a suitable gift for the forthcoming retirement of our friend Genevieve in Caen. We decided on a set of Bohemian sherry glasses and are delighted with our purchase. We only hope we get them safely back to France. We know they will be useful. Before we left Caen we'd been reduced to drinking our aperitifs from water tumblers as all her small glasses had been broken. (You see what a hard life it is for us!)
It has been a brilliant few days here and a relief not to need to drive. Tomorrow we plan to move on to Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) the most renowned spa in CZ. It should surpass even our experience last year in Marienbad.
Tuesday 5th June 2007, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
Perhaps distance lends enchantment. Karlovy Vary reminds us very much of Marienbad but does not really seem so very much superior. The town was founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV around 1350 and over the centuries has been frequented by famous names from more than eighty different countries including Peter the Great, Goethe, Dvorak, Paganini and Sigmund Freud. It is certainly a very beautiful town lying on the winding River Teplá within a deep wooded valley. There are several spas offering treatments and fountains supplying water of up to 73 degrees centigrade. Within the modern Vridelni spa complex a geyser shoots a permanent fountain of steaming hot water high into the air and the water running beneath the streets is so hot that warnings have to be displayed on the manhole covers! There is all the elegance and luxury one would expect from such a select thermal establishment, with smart shops and restaurants and over ninety hotels to accommodate the curists who were walking around the town, moving from spring to spring with their curiously shaped porcelain containers which they were filling from the steaming hot springs and drinking through a small spout on the side of the elliptical beaker.
The buildings are simply wonderful and include a range of architectural styles dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries but each style expresses the ultimate extravagance of its genre. The French architect Le Corbusier apparently said the town, built up the sides of the valley, resembled tiers of beautifully iced cakes. During the years of Communism the buildings were sadly neglected and fell into serious decay. There are still many on the edges of the town awaiting restoration, but in the centre the buildings have returned to their former state of flamboyant exuberance, their pink, lemon, white and apricot façades picked out with statues, mouldings and stucco.
Beside the river are pleasant gardens with beautiful trees and rose gardens and the shady arcades of the Mlynska Kolanada today offered a free concert by members of the Karlovy Vary Symphony Orchestra, featuring works that included light classics such as a Strauss waltz and one of Brahms's Hungarian dances. The acoustics beneath the colonnade were excellent and people walked around sipping their water as they listened, exactly as they would always have done when the spa first became fashionable. Strangely, signs around the town are all in Russian as well as Czech. Presumably, even during the Communist ere, the town was used as a health resort and the Russians are continuing to frequent the spas! (We have since learnt that the town has been practically taken over by the Russian "Mafia" and the nouveau riche who have become fabulously wealthy in recent times have bought up the properties in Karlovy Vary as investments.)
The town map indicated a campsite but we were informed by the tourist office that it no longer existed, so this evening we drove to the one they recommended. It is rather awful and very basic. Better than Bosnia and safer than Bratislava but very run down and neglected with missing shower heads, toilet seats and light bulbs. There is a German couple here with us, otherwise it's deserted. Everyone else is staying in the luxury hotels back in the town. The Germans came to admire Modestine and stopped to chat. They are here paying privately for a cure for the husband who has to drink the waters several times a day. We have the impression it is a matter of desperation and they cannot afford to stay in town. He told us that he is retired but his wife still has several years to work before they could ever consider travelling for long periods and in any case he does not know whether he will still be around by then. We've always been rather sceptical about the curative powers of the spas that are so important to the people of Central Europe, regarding them as an excuse for a nice little holiday paid by their health insurance provider, but we realised this evening just how psychologically important they can be for those who are really seriously ill.
Apart from Karlovy Vary, our day has been spent travelling. We left Prague mid-morning and took the faster route here rather than driving across country on tiny roads all day. At one point our route joined up with the same one we used last year for a few kilometres, but in the opposite direction. We passed across boundless acres of wheat stretching to the horizon. Collective farming methods do create rather monotonous landscapes. Czech beer is considered among the best in Europe and from time to time we passed large fields of hops, where they are just starting to climb the wires along the high wooden frame that supports them. At lunch time we stopped at a roadside restaurant where we ordered dish of the day along with the various truck drivers who had also pulled in there. We were served a garlic soup with croutons and cheese followed by a sweet pepper pork goulash with steamed potatoes. With it Ian had a large beer and Jill a fizzy mineral water which we followed with a couple of coffees. Our total bill was 162 kroner (£4)! It would have been four times the price in Prague.