I f the world's cities ever have a beauty pageant, Prague may not win Miss Congeniality but will certainly take home the Miss Photogenic crown. Not that Prague isn't a friendly city (more on that later), but it truly is so visually stunning that you cannot take a bad photo there. Bring lots of film.
From the Romanesque chambers of the Royal Palace to Frank Gehry's up-to-the-minute "Fred and Ginger" building, Prague offers a catalogue of over 800 years of architecture. Its many fine churches and buildings from the 1600-1700s make Prague seem at times like a Baroque Disneyland. As you walk around-and Prague is a walking city-always look up to see the statues, cherubs, Madonnas, gargoyles, and sgraffiti staring down at you.
Touring through Prague, you'll cross paths with the ghosts of Mozart, Kepler and Kafka, and discover some wonderfully strange sights, like the statue of two Soviet soldiers seemingly French kissing. What follows is a guide to some of the highlights of Prague.
Hradcany (the Castle District) overlooks Prague from high on its hill. The oldest part of the city, it is dominated by St. Vitus Cathedral which features elaborate tombs, dazzling stained glass windows and a tower well worth climbing for a spectacular view of Prague.
Sections of the Hrad, or Castle, still function as offices for President Vaclav Havel hence the hourly changing of the guard with uniforms by the Oscar-winning costume designer of Amadeus. Close by the Royal Palace is the Convent of sv Jiri (St. George), which now houses the Old Bohemian Art Collection featuring superb examples of Gothic panels and altarpieces. Lovers of religious art and icons should not miss it.
You can stroll down Zlata ulicka (Golden Lane) to see the 400 year old cottages that housed first the castle guards, then goldsmiths and other craftsmen. By the early 1900s, it had become home to many artists and writers, including Franz Kafka. In 1951, a mind-boggling combination of meanness and capitalism led the Communists to evict any remaining tenants and transform the houses into souvenir shops. Kafka's residence (number 22) still stands and in it you can purchase his books along with Kafka mugs, t-shirts, key chains, etc.
The castle walls and St. Vitus' spires are illuminated at night in soft shades of green and yellow, pink and orange. Seen from the opposite side of the Vltava River, it is an enchanting sight, one of the world's most magical.
Visitors to the Hrad now have the special opportunity to see the blockbuster exhibit Rudolf II and Prague. In 1583, the Hapsburg ruler Rudolf moved the Imperial Court from Vienna to Prague and embarked on a buying spree of unparalleled dimensions. He also brought leading scientific minds to his court and elevated Mordecai Maisl, a Jew, to be his Minister of Finance.
Definitely oversexed (nobody knows for sure how many illegitimate children he fathered), possibly bisexual (one court painter depicted Rudolf's stand-in, Hercules, in full drag as an Amazon queen), he ruled in an eccentric manner until 1611 when his brother Matthias declared him unfit and removed him from the throne. Years in the planning, this exhibit allows us to reassess a king in whose realm art, science and religious freedom flourished.
The show's numbers alone are impressive. The $3 million cost brought some 2,300 objects together from over 200 Czech and foreign institutions and private collections. In five separate venues, the full range of Rudolf's interests and influences can be discovered.
The newly redecorated Rudolf Gallery displays paintings and drawings of landscapes, frolicking gods and goddesses, Biblical scenes, as well as court portraits. The interest here lies as much in the works' symbolism and what they reveal about the Court's values (lots of Cupids and Venuses) as it does in their artistic merits.
Next door, in the former Imperial Stables, the Rudolfine Kunstkammer is recreated. This amazing assemblage represents the king's fascination with the world. Separate vitrines contain gems, jewelry, crystal vases, books, minerals, medals, porcelain, goblets carved of nautilus, stone-inlay tableaux, gold chalices, silver bowls, other manmade and natural wonders on and on. Detailed records allow a color-coded tag system to tell you which objects actually belonged to Rudolf, which may have been his and which are similar to those that were in his collection.
Unless you enjoy military regalia and architectural drawings pass by Micovna (the Ballgame Hall) and head directly through the Royal Gardens to the Summer Palace to see where the exhibition's mind and soul meet. In this brilliantly organized section, the scientific instruments that Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler used to make crucial astronomical discoveries play neighbor to the tools with which alchemists tried to change base metals into gold. Rudolf, with one eye on the Middle Ages and the other on the future, sponsored them both. Clear and concise wall texts, in English and Czech, explain the intellectual and religious forces that combined to give the King his enlightened humanism.
The show concludes in the nearby Wallenstein Palace. From an aristocrat's handkerchief to various guilds' wares, religious paraphernalia to weaponry, you will get an exhaustive overview of how Prague functioned as a city during Rudolf's time. Scheduled to run through September 7, I would not be surprised if Rudolf II and Prague is extended.
Just outside the castle walls lies the Sternberk Palace with its collection of 14th-18th century art (Rembrandt, El Greco, Tiepolo, Rubens, etc.) There is one absolute stunner in the museum, all the more so because its creator is so little known. The drama of Jan van Hemessen's "The Weeping Bride" (circa 1540) immediately draws you to it as you enter its room. The painting depicts a woman of a certain age distraught and sobbing. She clasps her hands desperately as mucus runs out of her nose and a crown of berries mocks her agony. To her right, a bald-headed man (Her father? Her intended?), leering at her, grasps her shoulder as though he wants to force her back to the altar. To her left, a cute young man (Her son? Her true love?) solicitously offers her something to drink. An amazing work, it continues to haunt me.
(Veletrzni Palace, a short drive from the Hrad, now houses the works of the 19th and 20th centuries. This museum features Cezanne, Picasso, Chagall and Klimt, among others, in the largest site for modern art in Europe.)
A pleasant ten minute walk takes you from Sternberk to the Loreto, home to the Santa Casa shrine and the Church of the Nativity. The Church contains paintings of Saint Agatha carrying her severed breasts on a platter and Saint Wilgefortis who grew a beard to protect her virginity. It is also the repository for the fully clothed skeletons of Saint Felicissimus and Saint Marcia. If all this is a little too weird for you, go up to the treasury and ogle the monstrances. one is encrusted with over 6,000 diamonds, another with gazillions of pearls. It is a drop dead mixture of the sacred and the secular.
Descend from Hradcany to Mala Strana (the "Little Quarter") with its palaces, churches and gardens. Walk along the same cobblestone streets where Mozart walked when he was in town to premiere Don Giovanni. Explore the charm of Kampa island. Grab a coke at McDonald's. (I generally frown upon patronizing McD's in foreign lands, but unlike other eateries, their sodas are full of ice. And it can get hot in Prague. 'Nough said.)
Two places of interest stand out from the usual tourist sights. In the Kostel Panna Marie Vitezna (Church of Our Lady of Victory, Karmelitska Street) resides the Infant Jesus of Prague. Looking like a plastic doll from Woolworth's, the IJoP supposedly confers miracles on all who pray before it. Its vast wardrobe comes from around the world and is changed each day. It's probably the only kitsch icon that has more dresses than Kitty Carlisle. (Well, maybe Barbie, too.) Fabulous!
Near Velkoprevorske namesti and across from the French Embassy's Buquoy Palace stands the John Lennon Wall. After his murder, this became the place for graffiti commemorating the former Beatle and the peaceful ideals he fought for. "All we are saying..." and "All you need is love" currently poke out amidst posters and Czech phrases. See it soon before authorities clamp down on this alternative form of expression.
Across from the massive church of sv Mikulas (St. Nicholas) in Mala Strana's main square, I had my best meal in Prague. I discovered Restaurant Makarska (Malstranske namesti 2) late on a Friday night after many other restaurants had closed. Its charming atmosphere and friendly waitstaff were just what I needed after a long day of sightseeing. A soup of shredded pancake and wild boar meatballs was divine. I'm still not exactly sure what moufflon is (Sheep? Deer?), but smothered with ham and olives (think of a muffaletta), it tasted delicious. Czech Budweiser beer, my new favorite brew, served as the perfect liquid refreshment. All this for under $16. Highly recommended.
[In our next issue, we'll continue exploring Prague on the other side of the Vltava River and tell you about the city's gay scene.]