I was offered as a surprise for my birthday to spend the New Year of 2008 in Prague.
With all the traveling I have done , it would be my first time in the Czech Republic. I knew it would be a different experience from anything else, but I had no idea the emotional impact the city would have on me.
I arrive on a cold morning, leave my luggage in the pretty garden room at the Mandarin Oriental — a carefully restored 14th Century monastery in the Baroque district of Mala Strana (“Little Quarter“), for centuries known as the home of artists, poets, boozers, dramaturges, novelists and photographers. It is situated at the foot of the Prague Castle and opposite to the Vltava River and Staré M?sto or Old Town.
My almost vintage Louis Vuitton backpack is so heavy, filled with all sorts of Italian, Brazilian American guides on the city. It seems like everyone that has come to this old city has different advice to give you. I read everything on the plane. I’ve only got a few days and really don’t know where to start… Maybe breakfast. We were advised to go to Cukrkávalimonáda, a cute place nearby with lime washed interiors where you can eat delicious hot honey and butter croissants and a wide choice of pastries under 17th Century beams.
Warmed up by the early breakfast we decide to go for a walk crossing the Bohemian Malá Strana, into the most popular Karl?v most or Charles Bridge where blind folk singers perform and a man plays Beethoven concertos on finger bowls. You can get your portrait painted in a few minutes to pair it with the one sketched by the New York Central Park Koreans last year. You can take advantage of the view to take great photos of the Castle and then move to the Old Town and finally the Josefov or Jewish Quarters.
The city’s architecture is fully built since the Middle Ages. A flavor of every period from Romanesque to Post-modernism, passing through Gothic, and Neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Neo-Classical, Revivalism, Art-Nouveau, Modernism, Communism and Post Communism, is proudly displayed. It’s as if you’re at an epic building buffet, all within a half hour walk of Old Town Square.
The same happens with churches, synagogues, temples, monasteries, cathedrals, cloisters, basilicas, convents and chapels. They are all part of the city’s architectural fairytale written in cycles of repression and strife, but indeed managed to resolve most of them after a great deal of suffering and sense of loss, with happy endings. Most Czechs today admit they believe in something — they just don’t know quite what.
It’s 1:30 pm and I am hungry again. I just visited the city’s Baroque Magnum Opus, the Church of San Nicholas, dominating Malá Strana. My feet hurt, my neck even more, attempting to photograph the immense dome and bell-tower, this monument to the money and effort that the Catholic Church sank into the Counter- Reformation.
The rich facade by Christoph Diententhofer was completed around 1710 and conceals an interior and dome by his son Kilian Ignaz, dedicated to high baroque at its most flamboyantly camp-bathroom-suite pinks and greens (see it in the photo gallery) swooping golden cherubs, swirling gowns and dramatic gestures.
Commissioned by the Jesuits it took three generations of architects, several financial crises, and the demolition of much of the neighborhood between presentations of the first plans in 1653 to final completion in 1755. Inside a Trompe-l’Oeil extravaganza, created by the Austrian Johann Lukas Kraker, covers the ceilings seamlessly blending with the actual structure of the church below. The church tower also appeared to make a favorite spy roost for teams of secret police.
I convince everyone after this strenuous walk to take me to Kavarna Slavia, the cafe situated at the left of the remarkable restored Art Nouveau foyer the Obecindum or Municipal House (I speak six different languages and it’s absolutely impossible to associate any to the Czech, so hard!). Dark wood paneling and green leather banquettes sit serenely beneath the ornate ceilings and mirrors. It’s a very busy place but everyone is in a hurry, too many things to see so tables quickly become available. We decide to eat a salad at the counter of the American Bar.
It’s getting colder. Many of the tourists are turning me into a zombie. We are now at the Staré M?sto, the Old Town on our way back to the hotel. It’s three o’clock sharp on Monday, December 31; the tick-tocking sound of a magnificent clock, called the Prague Orolj or Astronomical Clock is pulling in the crowd. Apparently since 1490 every hour on the hour wooden statuettes emerge from trap doors while, below them, a lesson in Medieval morality is enacted by Greed, Vanity, Death and the Turk.
The clock shows the movement of the sun and the moon through the zodiac, as well as giving the time in three different formats ( Central European, Old Prague and Babylonian time. While I try to read my love horoscope for 2008 through those movements I am told a particularly resilient legend concerning the fate of the clockmaker. Master Hanus was blinded by the vainglorious burghers of the town to prevent him from repeating his horological triumph elsewhere.
This city is full of mysteries and legends. As I walk almost alone with my own thoughts, among them the one of Master Hanus, wondering what could be the next city legend about Kafka? Mozart? Mucha? I hear a whisper in my ear… “Wouldn’t you like to know what is part of your surprise for this evening?”
Part of the surprise happens in two hours at the church of San Salvador. I just have time to quickly get a massage at the hotel’s magnificent spa and get ready for the Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons Concert Autumn, Allegro-Adagio, Winter Allegro- Non molto, W. A. Mozart Ave Verum, J.Pachebel Kanon, J.S. Bach Air, G.F. Handel Allegro, Passacaglia, Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, W. A .Mozart Church Sonates A, F Major, F. Shubert Ave Maria all performed by Chamber Ensemble Musica Pragenesis. Ah I forgot… with heated seats!
After that, dinner in one of the romantic river’s edge terraces of Nils Jebens’ chic Kampa Park with unrivaled views of the Charles Bridge while sampling the appropriately fishy menu, oysters and Iranian Caviar. The delicious dining together with Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte will leave us in the hands of Prague’s world famous fireworks for us to welcome the new year to come.
Master Janus forgive me but honestly this year, I will pass on the horoscope!
The Hotel :
Mandarin Hotel Prague: Nebovidska 459/1, 118 00 Praha 1
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· Telephone: +420 233 088 888
· Facsimile: +420 233 088 668
· Online Reservations
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The Cafes and Restaurants:
Cukrkávalimonáda: Lazenska 7, tel 257 530 628
Kavarna and American bar: Plzenska Restaurace, tel 222 002 784, namesti Republiky 5, tel 222 002 763
Kampa Park : Na Kampe 8b, tel 257 532 685
Church of San Nicholas: Malostranské nám?stí Prague open p am-4 pm daily. Adm 60 kc
Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock: Starom?stské nám?stí Prague 724 508 584 open 11am-5pm adm 50 kc