Come here, all you Bohemians, seafarers, dock whores, and ships
unanchored. Don’t you want to be Bohemians, all you Illyrians,
Veronese and Venetians. Play the comedies that make us laugh
until we cry.
‘Bohemia Lies by the Sea‘ by Ingeborg Bachmann
I was staring out of the train window enjoying getting lost in my thoughts. My mind wandered back to the last few days I had spent in Vienna where I had been joyously reacquainting myself with its streets again since my trip last year. This included doing my usual favourites: mooching into small vintage shops, taking pictures of all the shop signs, meeting friends for wine, frequenting those old coffee houses for apple strudel. I did some new things too: visited some new galleries and exhibitions and shrugged off the searing heat by swimming in the public lake just outside the city. Vienna will always be a place close to my heart (some of my pictures of this lovely place are below).
This time though, I had decided to add a trip to a city that many have told me I would love for its architecture, history and general quirkiness. So on an early Sunday morning, I trundled my case to the train station and, after winding through the Czech countryside for three and a half hours arrived into Prague in the afternoon. Before leaving for Vienna I had contacted a friend for tips on what to see in Prague (she had visited often) and where possible, wanted to avoid any tourist traps. When I printed our correspondence out, it had run onto four pages so I knew I couldn’t see everything but wanted to at least get a flavour of the city in my remaining 72 hours. After dumping my bag and freshening up at the hostel I decided to do what I always do get my bearings in a new city: have a walk around and get wilfully lost.
Those that knew me and my tastes had done well to recommend Prague. The city architecture is beautiful, mainly composed of late 19th century buildings and in a similar way to Vienna, painted in different pastel colours with large imposing doors and wrought iron trims. Interspersed across the top of these houses like a decorative pelmet were preserved Art Nouveau murals. We are in the land of Alphonse Mucha after all. Auburn haired goddesses with hooded eyes and long flowing tresses or knights, holding swords and flags about to do battle were tucked beside windows and underneath roofs of these grand buildings.
To begin with I quickly wandered in and out of Wenceslas Square which, while picturesque, was packed with crowds waiting to see the astronomical clock (I gave it a good stare as I hurried past). I then headed further into the old town down the cobbles, past the old Jewish quarter (with its old museums and synagogues, one of which according to legend, is still the home of the Golem). Finally wandering across to see the city from the other side of the water and find some shade in one of the many green spaces that line the river. It is through this kind of strategic urban drifting that you uncover all sorts of gems. I turned into a small quiet park just to take a peek which turned out to be the Vojan Gardens a place with royal lineage, dating back to the Middle Ages and is complete with orchard and regal strutting peacocks, made all the better for its slightly ramshackle appearance. I was quickly warming to Prague and its hidden depths.
The next day, after an early breakfast my first stop was high on my friend’s list: Olsany Cemetery, an ancient place on the outskirts of the city. I don’t think I have written about it much here before, but I do have a bit of a penchant for cemeteries. I am not quite sure why exactly. Rather than morbid, I just find them interesting and love how they give you a sense of social history about a place. Olsany is a sprawling (and very ramshackle in places) graveyard, where the grand Art Nouveau sandstone tombs are now black with soot and dirt, covered in cobwebs, somehow emblematic of Prague’s dark, highly Gothic reputation. I wandered for a while admiring its rundown charm, filing past Kafka’s family tomb before heading back through the wrought iron gates, hopping on a metro and heading to the other side of the city to see Vysehrad, a 10th century fortified settlement, now a collection of green spaces, churches and sculptures. It is free to visit but I popped into the shop at the main gate and purchased a small guide that introduces the place with a suitably dramatic flourish:
The traditions of this mysterious site are bound up with the legends whose literary treatment was worked up Alois Jirasek from the ancient chronicles into his work ‘The Old Czech Legends’. These tell of Princess Libuse, who foresaw the future the future glory of Prague from her seat in Vysehrad, and who sent a delegation to seek out Premysl, the Ploughman, founder of the ruling dynasty, as well as brave Bivoj, the wondrous horse Semik and its leap from Vysehrad rock, and of the War of the Maidens
With these legends bubbling around my mind, I set out to explore its cobbled streets and take in its various panoramic views across the city. I was immediately drawn to the ‘slender spires’ of St Peter and Paul, a church that sits in the middle of the complex, its beautiful bright pink doors, covered with a decorative trellis of iron bars and studs. For the princely sum of £2 I got my ticket and pushed through the turnstile and wasn’t really prepared for what lay inside. High-Gothic frescoes of bible stories and their central characters were crammed onto every single wall and beautiful, brightly painted vaulted ceilings rose above me. I have seem many *many* churches on my travels but never anything quite like this. The painting was so detailed and intricate, the faces of the saints so expressive. My information sheet told me that along with prominent Czech artists, the main frescoes were the work of Viennese painter Karl Jobst and were done between 1885 – 1903. Even better was how quiet it was, only a handful of people were there to take in the beauty of this Czech treasure. After coming out slightly starry eyed, I took a wander into the graveyard beside it which also had beautifully painted tombs, in much better condition than the ones I saw earlier that morning. I took in the views for a while at the different points scattered across Vysehrad then wandered down the hill in search of lunch and a cold beer. If you are in Prague, I implore you to visit this quiet gem that sits on the rock above the river.
Fed and watered after lunch I decided to keep on the ecclesiastical theme and took a tram to the other side of the water and passing the castle, headed up to the Strahov Monastery. The place is still active, so you can only explore certain parts but they have a lovely medieval art collection and the cloisters are a haven of peace and quiet. Like Vysehrad, this place is ancient and was founded in 1130. I was taken by other exhibitions there too, in particular their collection of embroidered robes, gilded chalices and the reliquary plates, studded with gems as well as small pieces of bone and fabric.
Feeling deeply relaxed by the hushed tones of the monastery, I decided to end my day with a last bit of wandering around the city and find some of the public sculptures on my list. I had actually seen a number on my travels, some more traditional, others less so as part of the Kampa Museum grounds on the castle side of the city. I found what I was looking for and both were by prolific artist David Cerny. The first named ‘Man Hanging Out‘ is a bronze statue of Sigmund Freud dangling from an iron girder, cocking a snook at male-centred intellectualism. The second was hard to miss, a huge rotating head of Franz Kafka, placed outside the insurance building where he used to work representing the fragmentation of his mind when writing. I was so impressed with the amount of public art on display that isn’t afraid to be bold and bizarre in its commentary on politics and public life.
On my second day I had planned an art tour around the national collections, as I had read that there was one ticket that would get you entry into six of the main galleries and their exhibitions. In the end I plumped for four at the guidance of the woman selling me the ticket (who looked at me slightly incredulously when I said I planned to do them all in one day, as the ticket lasts for ten and they are located at each end of the city). Anyway, I handed over my 500 CZK note (about £19) and started my morning at the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia, which although based in the city was a beautifully preserved and peaceful compound with manicured gardens, a collection of iron sculptures outside and inside, one of the most extraordinary collections of medieval paintings and statues I have seen since my visit to Italy. Many of the artists here were unknown but their work was exquisite nonetheless. I spent an hour staring at the finely painted panels in various gold surrounds that would have once adorned churches and monasteries across Bohemia. The also had some original Durer woodcuts, that were are as finely detailed up close and in person as they are in the books I had seen them in before. After lunch I ventured to the two galleries that were clustered together: the Sternberg Palace (renaissance collection) and the Salm Palace (contemporary collection). The latter I was less taken with, although the building is spectacular and I enjoyed seeing the photography of Nan Goldin and the bright colours of Keith Haring’s work. The Sternberg Palace, despite its name is actually hidden down a lane, nearby the Parliament building. The square outside was heaving however there was only three people in building when I entered this grand old palace, which reeks of old money. You enter the rooms through walnut doors with ornate brass handles and a lovely collection of awaits. They have a particularly nice set of paintings by Dutch artists, crowned with a beautiful Rembrandt. Look out for the giant Rubens too, that fills one of the walls. Equally worth a visit is the arty cafe on the ground floor with mismatching vintage chairs and various books scattered on the coffee tables. For extra points when I entered, they were playing The White Album at full blast. The staff were really friendly, the coffee was strong and I sat for a while writing in my notebook.
My last stop of the day, and for me, the best, was the Trade Fair Palace, which specialises in 20th century art and its collection was as staggering as the building, built in 1928. If Functionalism had a cathedral, it would look like this. The huge space inside meant that there was plenty room for the work and the visitors to breathe. I started on the top floor and worked my way down, taking in new collections of contemporary photography, video, and sculpture. However the showstopping exhibition was ‘First Republic’ showcasing Czech art from 1918 – 1938 which was beautifully curated and guided the viewer through this hugely productive period, showcasing not only paintings but books, pottery and film posters. It really gave a flavour of what an exciting time it was for the Czech scene and introduced me to some artists to find out about at a later date including Alois Wachsman , Max Svabinsky and Vaclav Spala.
The end of the exhibit had a vital epilogue that showed the artistic response in Czechoslovakia to the rise of Nazism. As a country between 1933 -1938 it sheltered approximately 10,000 refugees from Germany and Austria and the artists and writers that were part of this diaspora made work that protested against the rise of fascism. They first showed their work in 1934 and some of the images that were made as part of this original exhibition by John Heartfield were on display. He used photo montages with layers of humour and surrealism to skewer the politicians and reveal their hypocrisy.
The images drew large crowds and so incensed the German government, they were taken down by the police. One critic at the time commented on the images displayed as:
The wall where laughter gets stuck in your throat
Indeed, you laugh at images of Goring as half man half fish, then think about what happened next and it feels hollow. Given the current global political climate, this description really resonated and showed the vital role art has in raising awareness of the insidious nature of fascism. If you see any exhibition in Prague when you go, make it this one. I stayed in the gallery until it closed its doors, not before buying a couple of art postcards then hung around the neighbourhood (Letna), read my book in a bar with a beer then went to a local favourite, Salt ‘n’ Pepa kitchen, for a delicious homemade burger, thick cut chips and a spot of people watching. A perfect way to spend my last evening before leaving early in the morning.
If you haven’t been to Prague, I urge you to go. Avoid the tourist traps, delve into its rich history and you will uncover a beautiful city with huge character. It is Gothic, playful but with a serious, contemplative dark side, characterised by Bachmann’s poem at the start of this post. After being here a couple of days, I definitely want to be a Bohemian. It suits me very well indeed.