Thursday, 13 June 2013

CZECHS HAVE A CAPITAL TO PRAGUE ABOUT

A dancing building called Fred and Ginger, couples tango-ing in the street, giant babies crawling up a 216m TV tower, and I was still stone-cold sober after six pints of beer. That’s Prague, a city full of surprises. It’s also full of some of Europe’s finest centuries-old architecture and is overlooked by the biggest ancient castle in the world. If you’re planning a city break, make sure you don’t overlook Prague.
BLUE-TIFUL: The 216m Zizkov Television Tower
Bed and breakfast in the Zizkov Television Tower’s one-room hotel costs €1,000 per night. The price is high, and so is the tower. At 216 metres, it can be seen from all over Prague, and all of the eastern part of the Czech Republic’s sprawling capital of 1.26 million citizens is visible from the king-sized bed — and the bath. Fortunately, the giant babies crawling up the tower’s three metal-clad concrete pillars can’t be viewed from the room — the work of Czech artist David Cerny, they’re creepy and could give you nightmares.
For €1,000 they also throw in a chauffeur-driven limo from and to the airport and a butler to serve the bottle of champagne that awaits guests on arrival. Dinner in the restaurant is included in the price, but you’ll need to bring your own parachute if you’re thinking of sneaking out without paying.
CREEPY-CRAWLER: One of the
television tower's crawling babies
The primary purpose of the tower (www.towerpark.cz), built between 1985 and 1992 partly on the site of an old Jewish cemetery, was to transmit TV signals, but many older Czechs had their suspicions, believing it was put up to jam western radio and television broadcasts. They should have been grateful ­— life under Soviet rule was miserable enough without being subjected to EastEnders.
Two lifts travelling at four metres per second convey visitors to the restaurant and cafe bar 63 metres above the ground and the observation rooms (100 metres) that provide panoramic views of the city. There are those who say the tower is one of the ugliest structures in Europe and refuse to darken its doorstep, but I think it’s beautiful.

CIN-SATIONAL: Alphonse Mucha's poster
of Princess Hyacinth 
©Mucha Trust 2013
The original Art Nouveau posters by Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) on the walls of the Mucha Museum (www.mucha.cz) at Panska 7 in the New Town are beautiful too. Mucha (the ch is pronounced as in the Scottish loch) could draw before he could walk, and his mother used to hang a pencil on a string around his neck so he could crawl and scrawl on the floor. This no doubt delighted Mrs. Mucha’s cleaning lady and kept the doctors and nurses busy at the local casualty department, where they were often heard to sigh and say: “Oh boy, it’s the Mucha kid again, with a pencil jammed up his nose. Hand me that crowbar.”
The talented tot grew into the master draughtsman, decorative artist and sculptor whose posters were in great and constant demand throughout Europe and the United States. With the introduction of lithographic printing that allowed for the mass-production of his works, Mucha became a household name, especially in his native Czechoslovakia where many a humble abode was enhanced by the addition of one or more of his affordable and stylised depictions of beautiful women.
In his later years he said: “I was happy to be involved in an art for the people and not for private drawing rooms. It was inexpensive, accessible to the public, and it found a home in poor families as well as in more affluent circles.”

ROLE MODEL: Theatre poster
for the stage play Gismonda

©Mucha Trust 2013
Mucha’s generosity of spirit was matched by his largesse. While living in Paris, where his work had made him a very wealthy man, he had a drawer in his studio that he kept full of money. Less well-off friends were welcome to help themselves, and when the stash ran low he simply topped it up.
Mucha had many influential and famous friends, including the knobbly-kneed artist Paul Gaugin, a photo of whom is on display in the museum. He’s seen in Mucha’s Paris studio playing the harmonium, minus his trousers (he’d spilled wine on them and sent them out to be cleaned) and with his shirt tail almost touching the floor. Speaking as a Scot, all I can say is that with legs like those, I hope he was never tempted to wear a kilt. If you’re lucky enough to take a guided tour of the museum with its charming marketing manager Katerina Cesalova, the experience will be all the more rewarding.

FRED-IFICE: Dancing House was
meant to be called Fred and Ginger
I don’t know what architects Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry modelled the Nationale-Nederlanden office building on — most likely a jelly in a gale — or what they were drinking at the time, but they must have caught the town planners on a good day. Approved in 1991 and completed in 1996, it’s better known as the Dancing House, sometimes the Drunk House and was originally meant to be called Fred and Ginger. Located at Rasinovo Nabrezi 80, it’s weird, wacky and wonderfully wobbly-looking and a source of great amusement, though traditionalists still tut-tut when they pass. More open-minded citizens simply smile, and tourists, who can’t believe what they’re seeing, stand and scratch their heads, expecting it at any moment to fall down. Or maybe up.
The Pivovarsky Dum microbrewery and restaurant (www.gastroinfo.cz) at Jecna 14, also in the New Town, didn’t exist when Milunic and Gehry were designing the Dancing House (on the backs of beermats while giggling, I suspect), which is just as well, because they’d probably have set up office near the bar and never got the job done. If master brewer Jan Suran ever decides to expand his business by adding some guest bedrooms, this is where I’ll be staying — full board ­— on all future trips to Prague.

A LITTLE DRINK: Well, I suppose I did
ask for a 'wee' pint in Pivovarsky Dum
I can’t imagine Jan bothers doing the lottery — a big win couldn’t possibly add to the happiness of a man whose cup, or rather pint mug, already runneth over: he owns a multi-award-winning microbrewery; his restaurant, which is open from 11am to 11.30pm, serves 500 meals a day (try the potato dumplings with smoked ham and sauerkraut); and he gets to judge beers at festivals from Seattle to Sydney. Who needs millions in the bank when you have the best job in the world?
Czech beer, and especially the selection on offer at Pivovarsky Dum, has three great things going for it: 1) It contains only natural ingredients — there are no hangover-inducing chemical additives or preservatives. 2) It’s unpasteurised and unfiltered, which means, to steal a phrase from Dr. Frankenstein, it’s alive, I tell you — alive! And 3) You can easily drink six pints at one sitting without feeling even the slightest bit tipsy.
That third piece of information came from Jan himself (the other two were on the back of the menu), and while I didn’t doubt the man one bit — he’s an expert, after all — I thought I’d better put it to the test. Purely in the interests of science. As a service to readers, you understand. Ah, what the hell — I like beer, and it was too good a challenge to pass up. I went about it with an enthusiasm not seen since the greedy fat kid was let loose in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and do you know something? Jan was right. And I was sober.

IT'S MY ROUND: Tasty beer wheel selection
The night, unlike me, was still young, so there was time for eight more beers. These came in small sampler glasses and included banana beer, coffee beer, nettle beer, sour cherry beer and wheat beer. It was then suggested that I should try beer Marmite, but I’d misheard — it was beer marmalade, so I made toast. Or rather, a toast, to a gracious host and his fabulous establishment that every visitor should put on their itinerary.
Wenceslas Square, which is actually 750 metres by 60, is automatically on every itinerary, but more for its recent historical significance than for anything of any great beauty or antiquity. This is where, on January 16, 1969, 20-year-old history student Jan Palach died after pouring petrol over himself and setting it alight in protest at Soviet occupation. The year before, moderate Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary and initiated the programme of liberal reforms known as “Prague Spring”. Moscow was having none of it, and on August 21 the Warsaw Pact occupied Czechoslovakia. Mass protests greeted the arrival of troops and tanks, and more than 100 Czechs were killed in clashes.
Communist rule eventually ended in December 1989 when the non-violent Velvet Revolution saw playwright and activist Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) elected president. In 1993 Czechoslovakia was split in two, creating the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, and in 2004 became a full member of the European Union.

ALL CHANGE: Wenceslas Square packed with
 
demonstrators during the Velvet Revolution in
 
1989 and, below, tourists at the same spot now


TREEMENDOUS VIEW: Historic Prague Castle
The ‘square’ is named after the saintly Good King Wenceslas of Christmas carol fame, though he never progressed past the rank of prince. That wasn’t his fault — in 935, his no-good brother Boleslav had his heavies hack him to bits as he was about to enter church for morning mass. This made Boleslav a mass murderer. Wenceslas’s tomb is in the Wenceslas Chapel in St. Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague Castle. The cathedral, on which work began in 1344, is the heart — or the soul, if you like — of the hilltop landmark that grew from a ninth century fortress into the biggest ancient castle in the world.
Close to the cathedral is the Royal Palace where, in May 1628, more than 100 miffed Protestant noblemen made known their opposition to Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand’s succession to the throne. Ferdinand’s two Catholic governors, Vilem Slavata and Jaroslav Martinic, confronted the protestors, and after a heated exchange were told: “Pick a window, you’re leaving.” Along with their secretary, Philipp Fabricius, the governors were launched head-first into thin air to what should have been certain death 15 metres below. As their feet disappeared through the eastern window, all three yelled: “Oh, shit!” Seconds later, they got what they had unwittingly wished for, landing in a big steaming mound of manure and surviving to tell the tale, though it was several weeks before anyone was brave enough to get close enough to listen to them.

AWE-DIENCE CHAMBER: Magnificent vaulted
main hall of the Royal Palace in castle complex
The castle complex is also home to Golden Lane, a narrow alleyway named after the goldsmiths and alchemists who lived and worked there in the 17th century in pokey little workshops-cum-houses that were previously occupied by the castle archers. By the 19th century, Golden Lane had become a slum populated by the city’s poorest people and a hideout for criminals. The street later regained some respectability when law-abiding families took up residence, but the last tenants were moved in the 1950s when their homes were converted into shops.
One notable former resident was Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) who lived at 22 Golden Lane, which is now a bookshop, with his sister for a short while in 1916 and 1917. The author of such influential novels as ‘The Castle’ and ‘The Trial’, he shouldn’t be mixed up — as I mixed him up and got laughed at — with American singer-songwriter Frank Zappa (1940-1993) of ‘Baby Take Your Teeth Out’ fame.

HOLY SMOKE: A jet leaves a vapour trail in the
sky above St. Vitus's Cathedral and, below, a
street sign and bust of the author Franz Kafka


You need more than the average mouthful of teeth to tackle some of the food served in most of the restaurants, where carnivores rule and vegetarians have to make do with some chopped tomatoes and leaves or a bowl of risotto. If meat is not for you and you want something a bit more substantial than lettuce and lentils, make sure you insist that your veggie option is cooked in vegetable stock, otherwise it will come out tasting of cow. Be warned — vegetarians are not well catered for in Prague.
Nor are some waiting staff well-versed in how to attract a diner’s attention when he’s chatting with his neighbour. I’d have thought a discreet cough would have been enough, but no — the waiter rapped me on the shoulder with a plate full of sausages, beef, pork, dumplings and half a duck, all swimming in brown gravy which proceeded to trickle down my shirt sleeve. I got my dinner, but the waiter didn’t get a tip. I won’t name the establishment, but it’s a cellar restaurant just off Old Town Square, and its walls are decorated with the stuffed stars of the menu.

HOUR WEDDING: A newlywed couple
pose beneath the Astronomical Clock


The Astronomical Clock is Prague’s most photographed feature, and a favourite backdrop for wedding pictures. Every hour on the hour, large crowds gather in front of the Old Town Hall tower to watch and listen as the clock puts on the best show in town. It all centres on a procession of the 12 Apostles — actually, 11 Apostles plus St. Paul. First, a skeleton representing Death on the right of the clock tugs on a rope and raises an hourglass. This is when two windows slide open and the carved figures, led by St. Peter, move slowly round. At the end of the procession, the windows close, a cock crows and the clock chimes the hour. Next to Death is a Turk representing Lust, and on the other side of the clock are the figures of Vanity looking in a mirror and Greed, with what appears to be gravy on his shirt sleeve, though that probably has more to do with the local pigeons than the local waiters.
The main purpose of the clock was to show the supposed orbit of the sun around the Earth, for which you must consult the centre of the highly-decorated face. The clock does also tell the actual time, but be careful not to be distracted, what with so much going on: the outer ring of Arabic numerals shows Old Bohemian time, which is of no use to anyone, while there’s another ring showing the movement of the moon and the sun as they travel through the 12 signs of the Zodiac. If anyone asks you the time, point to the top of the 70-metre tower where there’s a conventional clock just below the viewing gallery, otherwise you might tell them it’s 10 to Taurus or a quarter past Aquarius.
The procession of the Apostles and St. Paul is a spectacle not to be missed, but one that poor old 15th century master clockmaker Jan Z. Ruze got to see only during rehearsals — the city councillors were so anxious to prevent him replicating his masterpiece elsewhere that they had him blinded with a red-hot sword.

SQUARE MEAL: Alfresco dining is popular in
Prague's beautiful Old Town Square, below

The Old Town Hall itself, which dates from 1338, was heavily damaged by the Nazis during the Prague Uprising of 1945, but has long since been restored to its former glory. It’s one of the principal attractions of Old Town Square, which is invariably full of visitors enjoying the talents of street performers and musicians. Nearby, outside the Neo-Classical Estates Theatre in Ovocny Street, a young couple who had been strolling hand in hand stopped to listen to a guy with an accordion. When he began to play a tango, the couple danced up and down the street to the delight of passers-by.
On October 29, 1787, Mozart’s opera, ‘Don Giovani’, had its world premiere in the Estates Theatre, with the composer conducting. The previous January, in the same venue, he had conducted ‘The Marriage Of Figaro’. Mozart, who was revered in Prague, also composed an opera, ‘La Clemenza di Tito’, to celebrate the crowning of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in St. Vitus’s Cathedral in September 1791.

DANCING IN THE STREET: A couple tango
as a busker plays and, below, Charles Bridge

Work on Prague’s most famous historical landmark, Charles Bridge, which spans the Vltava River between the Old Town and the Little Quarter with two towers at one end and one at the other, began in 1357, 15 years after the Judith Bridge (1158-1342) was destroyed by floods. When it’s sunny — the city can be sweltering in summer and is freezing in winter — Charles Bridge, which is 520 metres long, is where painters, quick-sketch artists and caricaturists ply their trade to a day-long procession of scores of thousands of tourists (Prague is the sixth most-visited city in Europe).
One of the most popular features of the bridge is the relief depicting the Jesuit St. John Nepomuk’s martyrdom, which can be seen beneath his statue halfway across. The ill-fated vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Prague was arrested in 1393, along with the archbishop and several others who had incurred the wrath of Wenceslas IV (Bad King Wenceslas), who sentenced Nepomuk to death by drowning. His ‘crime’ was given as “displeasing the king”, but Catholics believed he was killed for refusing to reveal what the queen had told him in confession. For a man more used to handing out four Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys, it was a harsh penance.
The figure of Nepomuk being dangled upside down over the side of the bridge before plunging into the water has been rubbed bright by people touching it for good luck. I hope they enjoy more luck than he did, though I suppose being raised to the sainthood (he was canonised in 1729) made up for being dropped in the river.

DRAW BRIDGE: Many talented portrait artists
ply their trade daily on Charles Bridge, below 

Three dozen statues of saints, including two of St. Wenceslas, line each side of the bridge. Most of the old reliables are there — Francis of Assisi, John the Baptist, Christopher, Joseph — plus many I’ve never heard of, including Cosmas, Cajetan, Ludmila and Ivo, who sound like a Real Madrid back four. The statue of St. Luitgard, based on the blind Cistercian nun’s vision of Christ when he appeared to her and she laid her lips on his wounds, is considered the finest. My favourite, though, is the wooden cross with a gilded figure of Christ near the Old Town end. Until the figure was added in 1629, the bare cross was the only ornamentation on the bridge. A later addition was the golden garland of Hebrew words arcing down from one nailed hand and up to the other that reads “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord”. The gleaming legend was paid for by a Jew as punishment for blaspheming — a case of being forced to put his money where his mouth was.
CLOUD-PLEASER: The crucifix on
Charles Bridge with Hebrew legend
in gold draws camera-toting tourists
Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Josefov, which was only officially incorporated as part of the city in 1850, is named after the 18th century ruler Joseph II, an enlightened man who had little time for the discrimination that was rife throughout Europe, and is a short stroll from Charles Bridge on the Old Town side of the river. Joseph wasn’t alone in his abhorrence of the appalling way in which Jews were treated (in the 16th century they were forced to fix yellow circles to their coats as a symbol of ‘shame’). A predecessor, Rudolph II, who was similarly sickened by discrimination, appointed the fabulously rich Jewish Mayor Mordechai Maisel, a money lender and philanthropist after whom a synagogue is named, to the post of chief financial advisor.
By a perverse irony, the Maisel Synagogue houses a host of treasures, among them much silverware including exquisitely-wrought Torah crowns that were looted by the Nazis — who murdered 250,000 Czech Jews — from synagogues throughout Moravia and Bohemia and brought to Prague with the cynical, sickening intention of displaying them in an “exotic museum of an extinct race”.
PACE OF WORSHIP: A tourist strolls
past the Old-New Synagogue and,
below, the Old Jewish Cemetery


The ghetto in which Prague’s Jews had lived for centuries was razed in the 1890s because of the lack of sanitation which made it a breeding ground for spreadable disease, but the Town Hall, the Old Jewish Cemetery and several synagogues were spared and attract visitors of many faiths. The cemetery, founded in 1478, incorporates the Pinkas Synagogue and provides a fascinating and peaceful escape for a while from the hustle and bustle of the tourist hordes.
The curiously-named Old-New Synagogue dates from 200 years before the cemetery and is the oldest in Europe, and one of the earliest Gothic buildings in Prague. It was originally called the New Synagogue, but then another one was built not far away, meaning the new synagogue was newer than the New Synagogue. For a while, confusion reigned between the congregations of the new synagogue and the not-so-new New Synagogue until some bright spark hit on the idea of calling the older New Synagogue the Old-New Synagogue.

HALL-ELUJAH: Jewish Quarter Town
Hall and, below, local street scene


So now Prague had an old synagogue that was once called the New Synagogue but was renamed the Old-New Synagogue, and a new synagogue that became known as the new New synagogue. Everyone was satisfied and praise was heaped on the elders for their wisdom in making a bamboozling situation crystal clear, but the elders (who were still as bamboozled as everyone else but wouldn’t admit it) said no, no, we were only doing our jobs. However, they let it be known that for the foreseeable future — and for the sake of sanity — they had more than enough synagogues to go round, and the bricklayers and masons could go back to building houses.
Which would have been fine, but then, just to throw the cat back among the pigeons, the new New Synagogue burned down, meaning the Old-New Synagogue was now the . . .
Tell you what — let’s move on to the Little Quarter.

STREET AND NARROW: Little Quarter street 
The men who built Prague’s Little Quarter (founded in 1257) on the slopes beneath the castle hill are responsible for some of the city’s most elegant streets, churches and grand houses. Many of the mansions and mini palaces are now home to embassies (curiously, Ireland has the biggest embassy in Prague, but it’s in  another part of town) and, as in most diplomatic districts, local restaurants tend to be posh and expensive — if the price list isn’t displayed outside, be wary of stepping inside.
Hardly a thing has changed in the Little Quarter since the latter years of the 18th century when building virtually ceased. It’s as if the head masons had stood back, surveyed what they had created, agreed it would be pointless trying to improve on perfection and trooped off to the pub. If ever a guild of craftsmen deserved a beer for a job well done, it was the stone workers.

SIGHT ON THE TILES: Church of St. Nicholas
The High Baroque Church of St. Nicholas dominates Little Quarter Square. The foundation stone was laid in 1703, but it wasn’t until 58 years later when the final brush strokes were put to the frescoed nave that it was declared completed. The beautiful nave fresco and the painting of St. Joseph beneath the high altar are the work of the appropriately-named Johann Lukas Kracker. Peaking at 70 metres, master builder Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer’s windowed dome is the high point of the church in more ways than one, and its interior is filled with Frantsiek Palko’s fabulous fresco, The Celebration of the Holy Trinity (1753-54).

ART AND SOUL: Dome fresco in St. Nicholas's
Church and, below, the Wallenstein Palace

The Baroque organ, which has 2,500 pipes and 400 registers, was completed in 1746 and played in 1787 by Mozart, who couldn’t pass a church without popping in and treating the faithful to a tune or two, the show-off. No record exists of what he played in St. Nicholas’s, but we can rule out that haunting organ classic, “Oh We Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”, because it wasn’t written until 1907.
Mozart wasn’t the only show-off. Deluded General Albrecht von Wallenstein (1581-1634), the scourge of the Protestant forces in the 30 Years War, built himself an outrageously opulent palace bearing his name in the northeast corner of the Little Quarter. It was here that he began to entertain notions of overthrowing the emperor, Ferdinand II, and entered into negotiations with his enemies. However, Wallenstein, a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece — the Holy Roman Empire’s highest order of chivalry — couldn’t pull the wool over the eyes of Ferdinand who soon heard of his treacherous plans and sent a group of mercenaries to cut him down to size. In their zeal, they cut him up in bits.
The palace, now the home of the Czech Senate and open to visitors, still bears testament to Wallenstein’s fatal ambition: the ceiling fresco in the main hall depicts him as Mars, the Roman god of war, charging through the clouds in a triumphal chariot.

SMALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL:
The revered Child of Prague effigy
The Carmelite Church of Our Lady Victorious in Karmelitska Street houses one of the most famous and most revered images in the Roman Catholic world. The Infant Jesus of Prague, better known in English-speaking countries as the Child of Prague, is a little wax-coated wooden effigy with which I’m very — and painfully — familiar.
On our mantelpiece at home when I was small stood three framed photos: Pope Paul VI, President John F. Kennedy and the Child of Prague. The framed photo of me was on top of the TV next to a flamenco dancer doll. One day, armed with a magic marker, I thought in my childish innocence that it would be a good idea to add moustaches and beards to my Irish Catholic mammy’s three objects of devotion (I couldn’t reach the picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall above, but that was OK, because the adult Jesus already had a moustache and a beard).
“Look, Mammy!” I said when she came back into the living room, and pointed proudly to my handiwork. Well, it was the only time I’ve ever heard my mother curse — and in front of the Sacred Heart picture! And it was the only time I’ve ever had my backside tanned without exposing it to the sun.
The Child of Prague (www.pragjesu.info), which dates from the 16th century and was given to the Carmelites in 1628, resides in a glass case on an altar and is believed, especially by expectant mothers, to possess miraculous powers. It’s this belief that attracts hundreds of thousands of devotees each year to what was originally the German Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity (completed 1613).
PARIS MATCH: Prague's answer to
the Eiffel Tower on Petrin Hill


Looking down on all of the Little Quarter’s splendour from its lofty perch atop Petrin Hill is the Observation Tower, a scaled-down imitation of the Eiffel Tower that was built for the 1891 Jubilee Exhibition. At 60m, it’s a quarter the height of the Paris original, but on a clear day from the viewing platform 299 steps up you can see as far as Snezka, the highest peak in the Krkonose (Giant) Mountains, 150km away. Less able visitors will be glad to know there’s a lift.
For views of a more manufactured kind, the Mirror Maze is a must-see. Housed in a wooden pavilion near the Observation Tower, it too was a feature of the Jubilee Exhibition, though in a different location, and attracted massive crowds who were happy to queue for hours to see this curiosity. Children love it for its distorting mirrors, which are always good for a giggle, and overweight people can see what they’d look like if they laid off the cheeseburgers.

AMAZEING: Kids at the Mirror Maze
Prague’s New Town, established by Charles IV in 1348, is twice as big as the Old Town but has nowhere near the number of attractions. Wenceslas Square, which was originally a horse market and is now full of shops, restaurants and hotels, is the main feature and is dominated at the top end by the bronze equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas in front of the National Museum. The museum, completed in 1890, is an impressive building, but content yourself with a look at the outside unless you’re really keen on mineralogy, anthropology and numismatics (I had to google that last one to learn that it’s the study and collection of money, but as I don’t have any to study or collect I took a photo of Wenceslas on his horse and moved on).
The Grand Hotel Europa halfway along the square is an outstanding example of the Art Nouveau style in which much of the New Town was built following a massive redevelopment in the late 19th century. What you see is the new New Town (but we won’t be going down that new-old-older-newer road again that they were so fond of in the Jewish Quarter). The Europa is little changed from 1906 when it first opened its doors, and retains most of its original ornate fittings. It’s worth going in for a coffee to admire the interior, but be warned, the food isn’t up to much and service can be a bit brusque.

GRAND-IOSE: Grand Hotel Europa
If you’re colour-blind, forget about visiting the State Opera (150 metres from the National Museum), which was originally called the New German Theatre, as the auditorium is a ravishing riot of red velvet seating and gilded stucco. I think country singer Charley Pride got the inspiration for his 1967 worldwide chart-topper during a visit here, because the crystal chandeliers light up the paintings on the wall, and marble statuettes are standing stately in the hall. The State Opera was built (on the site of the New Town Theatre, which was demolished in 1885) to rival the equally-exquisite riverside National Theatre which opened in 1883. It would have opened on August 12, 1881, but it was gutted by fire a few days before the curtain was due to rise for the first time. However, six weeks after the flames were extinguished, enough money had been donated to start again.
Close to Charles Square in the southern part of the New Town are the Botanical Gardens with their huge greenhouses full of rare plants and trees and exotic birds; and the Baroque Church of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, which was built in the 1730s. In May 1942 the church was the scene of a siege when a team of Czech and Slovak paratroopers and Czech resistance fighters who had assassinated the Nazi Governor, Reinhard Heydrich, hid in the crypt. Rather than surrender to the German soldiers who had the church surrounded, the freedom fighters took their own lives. A plaque outside honours their bravery, while the machine gun bullet holes below it provide a stark reminder of events that happened only 71 years ago.

A LIGHT AT THE OPERA: The State Opera
Alphonse Mucha was not immune to the attentions of the Nazis. When Hitler’s henchmen swept into the then Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, the almost 79-year-old ailing artist was high on the list of ‘reactionaries’ who were to be rounded up and interrogated because of his Slavic nationalism. While in the hands of the Gestapo he became seriously ill with a lung infection. Within weeks of being released he died of pneumonia, and was buried in Prague’s Vysehrad cemetery.
Mucha, who was a decent and kind man, believed that through the creation of beautiful works of art the quality of life would be improved. He was right. Prague is a beautiful work of art, and having wandered its ancient and modern streets until I couldn’t take another step (which was nothing to do with the beer), it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the quality of my life was improved, even if only for a long weekend.
So, to everyone who made my recent visit such an edifying experience — except the waiter who decorated my shirt sleeve with gravy — thank you very Mucha.

FLY/STAY
I travelled to Prague from Dublin with Sunway Holidays and stayed at the 4-star Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, two minutes’ walk from Flora metro station (the city’s public transport system is superb) and a 20-minute stroll from Wenceslas Square.
Sunway operates flights to Prague from Dublin until September 23. Seat only, including 20kg checked-in baggage and taxes, starts from €56 one way. Four-night packages including accommodation start from €219 per person sharing. Four nights including flights, staying at the Courtyard, starts from €269pps.
˜ See www.sunway.ie or call 01 288 6828.

LOKAL FAVOURITE: Restaurant
Ambiente Lokal is hugely popular
EAT/DRINK
Ambiente Lokal, Dlouha 33. Always busy, never disappointing, this is where the locals eat, which suggests that it’s good and it is. There’s no such thing as a set menu here, as it changes every day depending on what the chef comes back with from the market. Having said that, the old favourites of sausages or neck of pork schnitzel with creamy mashed potatoes or dumplings are always available, and the goulash is so popular that it often runs out by early evening. One thing that never runs out is the ice-cold beer — they brew it on the premises, and eagle-eyed waiters are constantly circling with trays of full pint jugs. Don’t expect a romantic dinner for two in a candlelit corner — diners eat at communal tables and often have to slide along the benches to accommodate newcomers. Great food, great fun and a great place to make new friends (http://local-dlouha.ambi.cz/en/#index).
The Dubliner, Tyn Courtyard (100 metres from Old Town Square). I popped in here at 10pm for a pint, asked the barmaid to pour another and three hours later I was poured into a taxi. I blame the cover band they were so good that I stayed until they’d finished their set, but on checking my notebook I couldn’t find their name, so I emailed The Dubliner. Back came the reply that the three lads have been together for 18 months but still haven’t decided what to call themselves, so they’re known as “The Band With No Name”. They’re regulars at The Dubliner, which serves Desperate Dan-sized portions of great food day-long (try the fry if you’re up in time for breakfast) and shows all the big sporting events, including GAA, on TV (www.aulddubliner.cz).

CZECH MATES: Bohumil Hrabal, Vaclav Havel
and Bill Clinton enjoying At The Golden Tiger
U Zlateho Tygra (At the Golden Tiger), Husova 17. This is where Vaclav Havel, who was no stranger to a hangover, took Bill Clinton during his visit to Prague in January 1994 for a night out with Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. The famed author died three years later when he fell from a fifth-floor window of the city’s Bulovka Hospital while, apparently, feeding the pigeons. Curiously, Hrabal lived on the fifth floor of his apartment building and wrote in several of his books about people taking their lives by leaping from . . . a fifth-floor window. The Golden Tiger, which can’t make up its mind if it’s a pub that serves food or a restaurant that serves drink, is a Prague institution and always busy, so visit early or you won’t get in. It opens at 3pm (www.uzlatehotygra.cz).
Aromi, Manesova 78: There’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in Prague, but this is by far the best, and then some. The genuinely-friendly staff clearly take pride in their work and are very engaging no grumpiness from these guys and girls. The menu changes regularly, so it’s hard to name a signature dish, but Aromi prides itself on its seafood and the pasta is superlative. As for the desserts, especially the panna cotta, those of you on a diet will be severely tested. Will you succumb? You bet you will. It’s not the cheapest, but it is cheerful, mainly thanks to the staff. You’ll leave satisfied and smiling (www.aromi.cz).

FINN’S FOUR FAB FAVES
My good friend and travel/food/wine broadcaster and writer Ed Finn has been a regular visitor to Prague for years, and recommended the following restaurants that he goes to time and again. If Ed says they’re good, that’s good enough for me, and I’ll make a point of dining in his four fab faves next time I’m there.

ADOORABLE: Restaurant La Belle Epoque
La Belle Epoque, Krizovnicka 8. Award-winning restaurant with a nice Bohemian atmosphere whose speciality is steaks from the lava grill (www.labelleepoque.cz).
U Fleku Brewery and Restaurant, Kremenkova 11. Fabulous and filling Czech dishes washed down with beer from the in-house brewery (http://ufleku.cz/).
Kolkovna, V Celnici 4. One of a hugely-successful chain, this one is just off Republic Square and serves Czech specialities, including the really special homemade Pilsner goulash (www.kolkova.cz).
V Zatisi, Betlemske nam, Liliova 1. If there was an award for super-cool restaurant decor, this place would win it every time. Oh, and the international menu is the envy of many other top-end establishments. If you’re going to propose marriage to the one you love, take them here for a guaranteed ‘Yes’ and don’t forget to invite Ed Finn to the wedding (www.vzatisi.cz).

ZAT IS NICE: The very plush interior of V Zatisi




Tuesday, 4 June 2013

TITANIC TENDER SS NOMADIC IN PICTURES


The SS Nomadic, tender vessel to the Titanic and the last existing White Star Line ship in the world, was officially opened last Friday, May 31 at her Hamilton Dock berth in Belfast.
Over the past seven years, the SS Nomadic — known as Titanic’s little sister — has undergone a £7m restoration programme which has seen the Cherbourg-registered vessel which conveyed 1st and 2nd class passengers to the ill-fated liner restored to her former glory.
The SS Nomadic was built on slipway No1 at the Harland & Wolff yard in Belfast alongside RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic and was launched on April 25, 1911.
The vessel is permanently moored at Hamilton Dock, adjacent to the £97m Titanic Belfast exhibition centre in the Titanic Quarter and is now open to visitors.
On board, a series of audio visual presentations traces the history of the ship, introduces different characters from Nomadic’s past and provides insights into what it would have been like to be a passenger or crew member.
The virtual barman, whose image is projected on to a wall, is a terrible gossip and tells titillating tales about the rich and famous who boarded Titanic, but unfortunately he serves only virtual drink.
Visitors can also find out about some of the vessel’s passengers and experience and interact with the history that surrounds the ship.
Tickets for pre-bookable tours of SS Nomadic can be bought online at www.nomadicbelfast.com Prices are £8.50 for adults and £5 for children, and family passes are available from £22. You can also buy tickets by calling 0044 (0) 28 9024 6609; from the Belfast Welcome Centre (47 Donegall Place); and on board.

See also www.discovernorthernireland.com for details of holidays in Northern Ireland.

SS NOMADIC IN PICTURES