Month: September 2010

9 things you’re most likely to miss when you visit Prague

9 things you’re most likely to miss when you visit Prague

Letna park
When you stroll around the center in the summertime you might begin to wonder where all the Czechs are. Well, they might just be enjoying themselves in Letna Park. Praguers go here all year round to walk dogs, jog, roller skate, skateboard and, during the summertime, also for a beer after work and sun-tanning. Letna is a real Czech historical landmark: where you now see the gigantic Metronome, until 1962 there was a 15m monument to Stalin, and in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution it’s been the theater of the biggest demonstration, attended by nearly a million people.
Namesti Miru
In spite of its central location, Namesti Miru (Square of Peace), is another one easy to miss spot in Prague. The beautiful neo-gothic church of Saint Ludmila by Josef Mocker at the center is surrounded by a nice garden. On one side of the square is the beautiful Art Nouveau Vinohrady Theater. The escalators of Namesti Miru’s metro station are the longest in Prague, taking more than 2 minutes to climb to the top.
Cubist lampost
Right in the middle of tourist Prague, tucked away in a corner behind the big Bata building in Wenceslav square (Vaclavske namesti), is the only cubist lampost in the world, designed in 1913 by the cubist artist Vatislav Hofman; something you can definitely brag about with friends.
Petrin hill
Wim Winders made Paris, Texas and Vratislav Pasovsky brought some french charm to Prague when in 1891 he designed a replica of the Eiffel’s tower to be placed on the top of Petrin’s hill in occasion of the Jubilee’s Exhibition. Despite the many entrances to Petrin hill, my favorite place to climb it is from the entrance near Ujezd, at the border between Prague 5 and Mala Strana. From here you walk past the ceramic museum and follow the path passing in front of some fountains and artificial falls to get to a big contemporary fountain where, if you made it thus far, you might want to enjoy some well deserved rest. On the same side of the hill, going in the direction of the funicular are some ruins from which one can enjoy one of the best views of Prague Castle.
Vysehrad: the other Prague Castle
The hill of Vysehrad is where Prague was born. Dominating Vysehrad is the beautiful neo-gothic Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul that, thanks to a clever lighting, makes for a truly enchanting view at night. Next to the church is Vysehrad’s cemetery where many famous Czechs, including Alfons Mucha, Capek, and the composers Dvorak and Smetana, have their final resting place. The view from Vysehrad’s garden on a nice summer evening can be spectacular: with the glittering lights reflecting on the river’s surface and the tram-line passing under a very old tunnel in the mountain.
Cerny’s horse
Probably millions of people pass by it every year, yet very few notice it. Those who do don’t miss the chance to snap a picture at this odd statue beautifully framed by Lucerna’s  decorated roof, just off Wenceslav square. The author of this piece is the controversial artist David Cerny and the sculptur mocks the equestrian monument of St Wenceslav, patron of Czech Republic.
Dancing House
Despite its fame and tourist guide coverage, this building, being outside the main Prague tourist routes, is one that doesn’t get many visitors. Nicknamed Ginger and Fred and designed by the canadian architect Frank Gehry, its construction was subject to much controversy, due to it being a modern building in an otherwise late 19th century setting. For what it’s worth i think it contributes to the charming and fairy-tale atmosphere that Prague can express. Nowadays the building is rented out to some multinational companies and its roof is home to Celeste, a fine french restaurant.
Palackeho namesti
Just a couple hundred meters from the Dancing House is one of my favorite squares in Prague: Palackeho namesti. The square in itself is nothing amazing but the statue at its center is incredibly haunting and dramatic especially if you have the luck to enjoy it against a gray cloudy sky. The man at the center is of course Frantisek Palacky; around him double headed deamons, a beautiful female fallen angel and other figures in a setting that reminds of the Apocalypse. The statute, in Art Nouveau style, was designed by Stanislav Sucharda.
Veletrzni palac
Of this short list I saved the best for last. Would you have thought that, tucked away in Prague 7 you could have seen the famous Picasso self-portrait, several Braque paintings, Van Gogh, a huge Klimt, a collage by Guttuso and some incredibly good Czechoslovak arists such as Kupka, Schikaneder, Panuska, Mucha? My recommendation is to skip the top floor and go directly to the meat of the museum (the 3 middle floors, plus the Slav Epic room) where all the best stuff is kept. Veletrzni Palac could easily be the best gallery in Prague… if only people knew about it!
9 things you didn’t know about Czech Republic

9 things you didn’t know about Czech Republic

Although the groundwork that lead to the invention and creation of contact lenses was done elsewhere, modern soft contact lenses were the outcome of the work of two Czechs: Drahoslav Lim and Otto Wichterle.
Alberto Moravia changed his surname from the Jewish surname Pincherle. His paternal grandfather was a moravian Czech. Alberto thought he wouldn’t stand a chance to break through the Italian literary scene with his real, somewhat funny, surname.
World famed Italian writer and legendary lover Giacomo Casanova spent the last years of his life at Waldstein’s castle in Duchov (Bohemia) where he worked as a librarian, wrote his most famous book (The Story of My Life) and died at the age of 73.
As you can’t talk about Italians without mentioning food, it’s hard to talk about Czechs without pulling beer in the discussion. Until 1839 the normal style of beer, brewed after the German tradition, was dark and cloudy. Then the Bavarian brewer Josef Groll, who had already been experimenting by bottom fermenting beer was hired to work at the Plzen’s town brewery. A mix of Plzen’s soft waters, paler malts, better hop clones and this new bottom fermenting technique gave birth to the world’s first clear beer, which is still one of the best.
People (like me for example) sometimes forget that until 1918 there was no Czechoslovakia. The whole region here was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; so it should be of little surpirse that, a number of famous Austrian people was, in fact, born within today’s Czech borders. One of these is none other than the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, born in Příbor in Moravia.
Meine Prager verstehen mich (My Praguers understand me) this is what Amadeus Mozart said of Prague, a city that brought him luck and support as opposed to Vienna. The relationship between Mozart and Prague has very deep roots and Don Giovanni, one of his masterpiece, was premiered in Prague in 1787.
The word robot was invented by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, who later credited his brother Josef (a famous cartoonist) for coming up with it. Karel wrote the play Rossum’s Universal Robots about a factory producing robots and explained that he wanted a name for these creatures that had something to do with the latin labor (work) and his brother suggested roboti (from the Slavic word robota, meaning labor).
Ivana Trump, or Ivana Marie Zelníčková Winklmayr was born in the town of Zlin, Czech Republic, and was even selected as an Olympic athlete in the Czech Ski Team. This gave her the opportunity, even during communism, to travel outside Czech Republic, where she met here first husband (a Canadian citizen). Eventually she moved to Montreal, then to New York, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jakub Kryštof Rad was the director of a sugar factory whose wife got injured while trying to cut sugar loafs in smaller pieces; she then suggested he do something about it and the sugar cubes were born.
Top 10 signs that you’re in Czech Republic

Top 10 signs that you’re in Czech Republic

Socks and sandals Karl Lagerfeld could have a heart attack if he saw this. They even ain’t strictly indoor or a fair weather thing: some people are so used to them that they wear them even when it rains a little. Most people treat their shoes as something to get off at the first chance, which might explain the reason why there isn’t a great deal of good shoes on offer in Prague shops. Usually people have sandals wait under their desk at work and kiss them good bye when it’s time to go home and wear these dreadful things with laces called shoes.

Beer is cheaper than water Mineral water, although popular now, is still a recent introduction and considered somewhat superfluous. Being a man, I get the at least occasional odd look when I don’t order beer and instead order Mattoni (a specific brand which here is really a synonymous of sparkling water). A small bottle of Mattoni goes for an average of 35kc at most places, while half a liter of beer still averages at 30kc.

Colza fields Take the train from Prague to Bratislava and you’ll see kilometers and kilometers of beautiful yellow colza fields for almost half of the journey. Colza oil has been used extensively for public lighting in Central and Northern Europe for ages and it’s now being used to produce bio-diesel.

Poppy seeds Guess what?! They are legal and used for baking. Yeah, I hear you, what a waste! The use of poppy seeds is banned in some countries due to the opium alkaloid content that can cause false positives in drug tests. In Czech Republic you can find them in pastries, bagels, cakes and they taste delicious. Don’t worry, they’re safe, you won’t develop an addiction. Now sorry, but I have to go get my daily fix!

Monster in the bathtub It’s almost Christmas and you’ve been invited for a party at a friend’s place. You already had a few beers and need to use the bathroom, so you stand in front of the toilet bowl, aim, lock the target and release; but immediately you have the weird feeling you’re not alone, you look around, then look in the bathtub: a 10kg carp has been staring at you all the time! As Christmas approaches you’ll see loads of places at street corners selling monstrously big carps: they’re thought to bring luck and they’re part of the dinner menu and, while waiting unfed for their destiny in the bathtub, they’ll clear out of all the mud.

Keen is the new Nike You never know when it’s time to go mushrooming, that’s why very few people wear normal trainers, while the majority wears trekking shoes. Keen is one of the popular brands and in Czech Republic these represent the standard sport shoes, complemented in the summer by the atrocious trekking sandals, supposedly worn for their comfort and durability, certainly not for their look.

Tram etiquette Someone even wrote a book about it, taking it as a starting point to discuss about the Czech’s national character. Nowhere else I’ve seen people so promptly give up their seats to elderly or disabled people; and I’m not talking just about the reserved seats assigned to them. But what happens quite often is that, even with no disabled in sight, on a full tram, most hesitate to sit on a free seat, failing to realize that it could save everybody some space.

An Easter-n nightmare If you’re a woman don’t be surprised if on Easter Monday men will wake you up by pouring a bucket of water over your head and start whipping you with a pomlázka; this is a very old pagan tradition in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia. Usual targets are unmarried girls and the whole ritual has to do with fertility and although generally conducted in a playful way I’ve heard the odd report of it being performed by the grandpa, with heaps of water and hard whipping. Ouch!

Shoes on the doorstep You know those Southern Europeans that never take their shoes off when entering a house? Well, here you’ll find that not only you have to take off your shoes, but it’s even more appropriate to do so outside the door. When someone throws a party it’s easy to tell: there’s a mountain of shoes outside the door, which are sometimes the easy target of petty gypsy thieves.

Knight Templars around town You have this picture of Knight Templars on their horse… but time have changed, and now they take the metro too. Medieval reenactment here is a sport and people go around on public transport with full length swords and other weapons and then go train in some public park, such as Letna. Don’t worry, it’s all normal here, it’s not some kind of highlander freak that goes chop people’s head off until there’s only one.