In my first blog on Prague, I quoted Milan Kundera about the centrality of Czech culture to that of Western Europe. We experienced some of that in our three days in the city, focusing on the art and that historical anomaly, Soviet (Russian) domination. A traumatic episode, but one that, in the end, did not destroy the true culture of the Czech people.
And of course there is beer. That’s very central to the people of Prague as far as I could see! In our parlance, it’s lager, but in many varieties, dark (which is a bit sweeter) and pale, and sometimes unfiltered, which takes away much of the fizz and makes it a bit more like an ale. Many of the names are familiar – Budweiser (the proper beer, not the American variety), Staropramen, Pilsner Urquell, Lobkowicz, Kozel – but there are many great local brews too, often brewed (or finished off) on the premises. We stopped at one such example not far from the main station, which was called Ferdinanda – the brew was Ferdinand. Near to where we were staying in the north of the Old Town was a pub called Lokal, which served frothing pints in heavy, behandled glasses. There was a huge restaurant attached, which was jam-packed on a Friday evening – the place was jumping. Another pub I liked had been recommended by a friend, Simon, who knows his beer. It was called Jama and was just in the New Town. The walls were covered in photos of rock stars and posters advertising gigs. It gave the place a good vibe, and the music complemented that. Good food too – we ended up having a burger there, which was top notch.
Prague is the only city I’ve ever been to which has organised pub crawls (though I suspect they’ll have them in Dublin too – I’ve just never noticed). There were loads of young men in green shirts (over their coats!) touting for business. They were getting customers too, especially all the Chinese/Japanese who were over there, and were maybe a bit less familiar with pub culture. This is not a problem for us Brits!
Prague is well known for its jazz clubs too. Kath and I tried one, called Jazz Republic, on Saturday night. It was down in a basement (of course) and had a really nice atmosphere. It was hot – all those winter layers had to come off. There were piles of coats and jumpers and scarves everywhere. The entertainment was provided by a guitarist called Roman Pokorny and his band, Dark Side of Blues Royal – a bit of a mouthful. The music was bluesy, but straddled the genres, and Roman, in his scruffy plaid shirt and jeans, was a real ace. A master of his craft. I particularly loved his version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. I noticed that a lot of the jazz clubs were advertising blues bands – maybe that appeals more to the average tourist – and I guess tourists will make up at least half the audience in most places.
One of the highlights of Saturday was a trip to the Museum of Communism. A colleague at work had recommended it, and I will do the same! It’s near to Wenceslaus square, and situated above a McDonalds and next to a casino. It advertises itself as such – the irony is enjoyed. The museum is a mix of Soviet artefacts, propaganda, socialist realism art and all the rest. It’s amusing, instructive – and shocking. You keep on asking yourself, how did this happen? What happened to humankind? To an extent the Czechs overcame the worst of Communism with humour, a sense of the absurd and detachment. But there was huge suffering and loss still, and the trauma of the 1968 invasion. Czechoslovakia almost lost its soul, but its strong culture saved it – just. And its revolution in 1989 was Velvet. There was relatively little violence – the regime simply capitulated. The imposters ran away. The poet, Vaclav Havel, became President. A beautiful moment – a triumph for decency and culture. It’s all there in the museum. It’s a bit more knowing, wry, than, say, the Stasi museum in Berlin, but no less fascinating for it.
And so to the art, as in painting. We couldn’t see everything in such a short stay, but experienced some of the richness that is on offer. On the Friday, we wandered up to the castle and St Vitus cathedral, and then spent a couple of hours in the Sternberg Palace, which houses part of the Prague National Gallery collection, from the Renaissance to the Baroque. The international flavour of the collection reflected Bohemia’s position in the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires. There were a lot of what I think of as Maria col Bambinos, the description which stuck in my head from my first trip to Italy back in the mid-80s. Familiarity combined with fatigue from being up since 4.30am started to get to me, until I had one of those moments when your body jerks you back to alertness. I was almost falling asleep on my feet in a museum full of great treasures which was practically empty – we must have seen less than ten other customers. What a contrast to the heaving masses in most of London’s art museums at the moment.
On Saturday we took in the Kampa Museum of Modern Art, situated on the site of an old mill on the banks of the Hvlata river, on the castle side. It’s a haven of peace and beautifully designed. There’s a collection of mainly post-war Czech and other central European artists, featuring the likes of Frantisek Kupka and Otto Guttfreund. I can’t claim to have known any of the artists previously, but the art was striking – vivid, abstract, pretty wild at times: reflecting, I guess, the times in which they lived, under the Soviet yoke. Art was an expression of angst, anger, defiance. And it was tolerated to a greater extent in Czechoslovakia than most of the Soviet empire, it seems. No doubt viewed as a harmless pressure valve. Really fascinating though, and highly recommended if you are in Prague and have time to wander just a little off the beaten track. Not far – it’s ten minutes to the Charles Bridge.
But the highlight, the most exciting place, was the National Gallery’s Museum of Modern Art in the Trade Fair Palace, a 1920s “functionalist” block situated over the river from the Old Town/Jewish Quarter. It’s a residential area – looks like one for Prague’s well-off citizens. Reminded me of bits of Paris out towards Bois de Boulogne. Not quite as flash, but in the same vein. The building was ugly from the outside, but was impressive inside. There was an inner ring of contemporary works, and then through the doors into vast rooms full of great art from the 19th century onwards, from all over Europe. There was so much of it, that we couldn’t take it all in; but as well as all the key Czech and Austrian artists, there was an impressive collection of the French impressionists, of Edvard Munch, Picasso, Braque, Miro and more.
The Klimts attracted a lot of interest. I watched two women striking poses – for the selfies of course – in front of the paintings. I wondered why at first, and then realised they were recreating the scenes in the pictures. It’s art. It’s inspiring. Why not? There was room to do it. The place had a decent number of customers, but it wasn’t overwhelmed. Actually, it would be hard to overwhelm, it’s so large.
So, if you enjoy art from the 19th century onwards, including the more radical stuff, then this is definitely the place to visit in Prague, even if it is slightly out of the way.
Yeah, Prague is definitely a place I’ll be revisiting. More to see – and much to see again. More beer to drink, pork knuckles to consume and jazz to groove to. My kind of place!