by Patricia Lightfoot
Prague was the first stop on our recent self-guided tour of three capitals of Eastern Europe, the others being Vienna and Budapest. In addition to sharing a history of Habsburg rule, all three cities featured numerous Art Nouveau buildings, beer, amazing home-made lemonade of various flavours, ranging from raspberry to mint and cucumber (I am inspired to try these at home), Segway tours, music and substantial food.
Arriving in Prague, one of our party said that she was there to drink beer and eat meat. Indeed, the first evening featured the classic pig knuckle attached to a chopping board by a small spear. Interestingly, a tour guide in the Old Town Square described the current president of the Czech Republic as looking like a pig knuckle. In contrast to this, I had the most amazingly light and delicate lemon and truffle gnocchi with a bubbly champagne sauce in the Cafe Imperial. I should probably never order gnocchi again, as it’s hard to imagine tasting anything as lovely – fairy-tale food. The tiled walls of the restaurant and the taps shaped like golden birds in the washroom added to the magical atmosphere.
The Jewish community
Tragically, the three capitals we visited all featured the deportation and near-destruction of their Jewish communities. In the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, the walls are covered with the names of Czech and Moravian victims of the Holocaust. I read the names of family after family, many of which were familiar from the Jewish diaspora.
In the gift shops along the walking tour of Jewish Prague, there were Golem-themed souvenirs inspired by the legend of the giant made of clay who would defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks or pogroms. Josef Kavalier, Michael Chabon’s fictional resident of Prague during the German occupation, found the Golem, which had been hidden to protect it from becoming part of a Nazi collection of Jewish cultural artifacts.
The architecture of the city centre, dating from the medieval period onward, is superb.The delicate, soaring stonework of Saint Vitus’s cathedral is particularly impressive. That high level of craftsmanship lives on in the many Art Nouveau buildings in Prague, including the Hotel Paris, the Imperial Hotel, where we had dined, the Hotel Europa in Wenceslas Square, its gorgeous neighbour the Hotel Meran and the post office. The last-named seemed quite Kafkaesque, to reference a non-fictional Prague resident, or at least old Mittel Europe with its remarkably numerous prohibitions.
The museum dedicated to the great Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha contains his posters, paintings, sketches and designs for currency, jewellery and ceramics. The beauty of Mucha’s advertising posters for Sarah Bernhardt’s productions in the 1890s was such that people bribed theatre staff to give them the posters or they would attempt to detach them with razor blades. The unclothed female form is a prominent feature of Mucha’s work, though there was an interesting photo in the collection of Gauguin playing the harmonium while wearing no trousers.
One particularly odd sight in Prague is the Saint Wilgifortis altar at The Loreto. Legend has it that this young woman prayed to be saved from marriage and woke up on the morning of her wedding with a full beard, causing her intended husband to reject her. What might have been a happy ending to the story was spoiled by her pagan father having her crucified. After scanning the church for a bearded statue of a woman, we found the unlucky saint in one of the little chapels around the courtyard. She is wearing a rather fusty-looking dress and has a large beard.
Another unusual feature of the The Loreto lies within the church among the host of plastic cherubs, one of which holds a pair of dental pliers and the other, a large molar. All in all, The Loreto is well worth visiting.
Two of the classic medieval sights of Prague had to be viewed uncomfortably as part of a large crowd, one being the Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava, and the other, the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square. The clock is really impressive, but I had mistakenly thought that there would be a procession of characters across the front of the clock on the hour.
Wenceslas Square, where the world watched the Velvet Revolution unfold on television, looked quite unattractive on a drizzly day amid the fast-food stores. There are, however, some Art Nouveau gems, and it was the presence of all the people on a November evening in 1989, waving their keys as a sign of their freedom from Soviet oppression, that truly mattered.
Photo credit: Phil Lightfoot