After years of glowing recommendations from anyone who had been to Prague, Newton and I forced ourselves to go somewhere not on the Mediterranean ahead of his annual fall business trip to Europe. I was jazz-starved and remembered from back in Nyack, NY days that one of the best performers during the summer garden jazz series at the Edward Hopper House across the street was a musician from Prague – a mecca for jazz in Central Europe, I then learned. And I had always been hopelessly jealous that the Czech Republic had a poet/playwright, Vaclav Havel, for its first president. The Czechs must be extraordinary people!
Amidst the elaborate arrangements to get me over and around Europe via award miles from the airlines and Newton over and around via an actual ticket, I ended up not sitting with Newton on the initial flight. The only award ticket available on the way over was in first class, from where I could have maneuvered a seat by Newton in coach, but didn’t…as we left on my birthday! Now before you get bubbly visions of champagne and caviar, let me remind you that this was a flight on TAP airlines of Portugal, sometimes called “Take Another Plane” in Natal. It is so easy to go directly to Lisbon from Natal rather than fly 3-1/2 hours south to São Paulo first, where there are many choices to Europe, that our ex-pat friends join us in grabbing the 6-1/2 hour TAP flight…and complaining later!
Instead of the usual champagne, only water or OJ were offered before take-off. Later, when I was offered champagne, it turns out one guy had requested it before take-off and the staff had left it out…so I got warm champagne, followed by the warm water they offer throughout the flight. The food was OK, better than coach - no doubt about it, but seemingly airline food. We were 6 passengers, 3 stewardesses and almost no service. The only bathroom available was the coach one beyond the galley behind first class. The big pay-off was the reclining seat. No argument there. A nice birthday nap! For the record, I went back to visit Newton several times!
OK; we arrived in Prague and took a taxi to the little pensione we booked online. But one must go ‘around the corner’ to the management office to get the key, so I stood by our bags while Newton went looking for the office. A guy was walking right towards me and I thought, ‘Wow, he looks just like the actor Adrien Brody.” When he got close enough I saw that it was none other than he. Of course, I clobbered him, saying, “That’s you! Do you live here?” “No, I’m just visiting.” Then I grab his arm and say, “You won’t believe what I JUST watched: “King of the Hill” (a wonderful 1993 Soderbergh film based on the Depression memoirs of A.E. Hotchner, in which the teenage Brody artfully plays a very sweet rascal…it had shown recently on Brazilian TV). Brody seemed impressed and friendly, so I, truthfully, went on to say I watched the film years ago with my kids and told them at the time, “Watch THAT guy; we’re going to be seeing more of him!” “The Pianist” and the Academy Award, in fact, followed. He admitted to me, “I’ve done well.” We talked a bit, he recommended the restaurant next to our pensione, asked my name and said to enjoy my stay. It was quite an unexpected welcome to Prague. “King of the Hill” is well worth seeing if you can find it, and also great for young adolescents, as it is the quintessential coming-of-age story.
After taking turns wandering around to find this management office, Newton and I finally got the key and got rid of our bags. Off to a late afternoon pilsner and snack next to the incredibly beautiful Vltava River. We were fortunate to be staying in the very center of the old city, walking distance to everything and particularly close to the hub of activity, the Charles Bridge.
Note the huge Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral in the background of the photo above. The weather was not at all the Central Europe fall weather we expected, but summery…more summery, in fact, than their own summer had been at almost 80 degrees! It is just plain lucky that I had thrown in my flip-flops at the last minute with actually only hotel room use in mind, along with one tank top and summer t-shirt, since I used these to hike through the city every day!
Prague was just exquisite in every way: sweet-smelling air (electric trolleys), a cloudless blue sky that remained blue at the horizon (not smog-brown); impeccably clean everywhere; full of very happy people, whom we joined walking across the bridge on a sunny, perfect evening. I will insert right now that the old center of Prague is a gift the Czech people have given the world, because it is almost strictly about tourists. As much as I mind this in most places, Prague offers its best to the tourists, not the bad food, not the inflated prices, not the predatory hawkers typical of a tourist trap. We could eat anywhere and have excellent food at affordable prices (they kept their own currency, korunas, so everything is reasonable). Obviously the local citizens frequent the museums, theaters and cafés in the old district, but the plethora of tourist shops are for you-know-who. The pristine architecture ranging from medieval to Art Deco enthusiastically distracted me from those shops, and it was a great joy just to walk for miles among the old neighborhoods and, of course, catch a boat along the river. The city is especially breathtaking at night.
The city forged ahead in the fourteenth century when Charles IV reigned (1346-1378). As King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, he transformed Prague into an imperial capital, building the Charles Bridge, St. Vitus cathedral inside the castle, and one of the oldest universities in Europe. An intellectual and cultural richness persisted into the 20th century. Writers, artists and composers thriving here included Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mozart, Smetana and Dvorák. This richness went underground while Hitler and the Soviets had their way. As the Prague Spring in 1968 demonstrated, with pressure from the Writers’ Union (of which Vaclav Havel was a part), even the Czech Soviet secretary wanted democratic freedoms for his people. The tanks came and remained till the Velvet Revolution ended Communism in 1989. Hints of the Soviet era are hard to ascertain because the city’s old beauty and intelligence has prevailed. This surviving richness reminded me so much of reading Roger Cohen of the NY Times when he was in Tehran during the Green Revolution election protests (2010) and writing so movingly about the educated and worldly Iranian citizenry that are subjected to the brutal theocratic regime there. I know the day they manage to overthrow it, there will be a flowering already in place!
Here is the famous astronomical clock in Old Town Square. Charles IV also gets credit for this, though legend has it that after the astronomer/engineer had completed the clock, Charles IV either 1)had him blinded OR 2) burned his hands (we heard both versions)…so that no other monarch would be able to have such a clock. Apparently, the clock creator threw himself on the clock in revenge to throw it off, and it took 100 years to get the clock working again. Guess Charles IV had a bit of an ego.
We climbed to the top of the clock tower!
We liked seeking out the grand old cafés of the city, having acquired a list from Maurizio, the Italian owner of our neighborhood Zen Bar in Cotovelo, who lived in Prague for six years. Here is the magnificent Kavarna Obecni Dum café in the Municipal House theater:
And this is the famous Café Slavia, which dates from 1881, but has been restored to its 1930’s Art Deco décor. It is across the street from the National Theater and has always been a meeting place of artists and intellectuals, including Vaclav Havel during his dissident years (between imprisonments):
My favorite was the Grand Café Orient in the wonderful Cubist Museum, also known as the House of the Black Madonna. The building was designed by Josef Gočár and demonstrates the role Prague played in the early Cubist movement. This café was closed for 80 years, not because of the Soviets, but because cubism fell out of fashion in the twenties. This was one of my favorite stops in Prague, as the structure and the decorative and fine arts within evoke the essence of Kafka’s era.
Speaking of the Soviets, how about the Lennon Wall (as in John)? This wall became a magnet of self-expression in the ‘80’s and, despite the Communists’ constant effort to paint over this outpouring, the wall was apparently filled again by the following mornings! It continues to attract people who can imagine a better world.
Prague Castle, while crowded with tourists, does have an ongoing governmental function as the seat of the Czech government and the site of many international summits. Besides the glittering example of high Gothic that is Saint Vitus Cathedral, there are numerous buildings and squares from many eras in this gigantic complex. Already a big fan of Vaclav Havel – both the first president of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia in 1989 and 4 years later of the separate Czech Republic, I was very moved to see the balcony from which he heralded the people’s victory after 40 years of Soviet rule. He remained president till 2003 and since, though now old and sick, has been a scholar, humanitarian, and playwright.
We also made it to the Reduta Jazz Club, where Clinton played his sax in the ‘90’s as Vaclav Havel’s guest (Havel was a big jazz and rock fan). We thought the musicians and the compositions were marvelous and truly appreciated an evening of sophisticated, even challenging jazz…at last! What’s better than Brazilian music?…but the Brazilians in the Northeast don’t quite have their jazz down pat.
I will end this lengthy travelogue the way we ended each and every day in Prague: at the Hemingway Bar in the ground floor of our pensione. Yes, the collection of photos of Hemingway in Cuba is extraordinary; yes, the intimate size, yet quiet-buzzingly populated interior with the warm, glowing lighting that bounces off the crystal and silver accoutrements are irresistibly inviting; but it was the Zen master bartenders that stole our hearts! The bar sign touts “fine mixology and luxury spirits,” but that is an understatement. We always sat in Milos’ section – just a sort of journeyman bartender at the moment, which explains why he did not participate in the mixology competition that took place while we were in town, of which his two co-workers took first and second place. But Milos is the kindest, most gracefully dexterous, knowledgeable and conscious bartender I’ve ever met. He recommended Prince Charles’ favorite gin for a martini, then over-filled the stainless steel shaker with ice so that the domed lid was also full, then he shook it and shook it…and shook it with utter concentration until there was actually frost forming on the outside of the shaker. THAT was a martini. He introduced Newton to Glenmorangie single-malt scotch and me to the delicious Czech herbal liquor called Becherovka, served on the rocks with a slice of fresh orange. For our last night, he voluntarily demonstrated the preparation of a cocktail of absinthe with the beautiful, vintage pieces that also set this place apart. Here is the ice water dispenser and the “see-saw” water dripper that were traditionally used back in the day when absinthe was the preference of bohemian artists. It was outlawed around 1915 in many countries, having been mistakenly touted as a dangerous spirit, but was reinstated in the 1990’s when the claims were proven false. The taste is of anise with the intricate dilution by water…I felt like Rimbaud or Van Gogh! This special something about Milos and his intelligence, diligence, agility and attention in this beautiful space seemed to explain something to me about this special city.
I recommend both our inexpensive pensione and the incomparable Hemingway Bar, in case you find yourselves in Prague!
Borsov Pension – Boršov 279/Prague 1 Hemingway Bar – Karoliny Svetlé 26/Prague 1