Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Log 430: Visit to Prague (2): Jn 24 2014: The trouble was, I went to Prague as a tourist, so all I did was sit and drink beer

The trouble was, I guess, that I went to Prague simply as a tourist and I have long known I am the world’s worst tourist.
 I see them, these modern tourists, day after day crowding the streets of Dubrovnik, dragooned into groups, sometimes 50 or more, under the leadership of a guide who speaks their own language, marching around the town from one church to another, one battlement to the next, and I marvel that anyone can think that a holiday.
Of course, when I was a kid I was as rubber-necked as the next man, though never in some dragooned group. Like many others I travelled for education, knowledge, experience: every time I bicycled through one of those immense fields of clover they grow in France, engulfed and overwhelmed by the fragrance of it, I was being educated, just as much as when I stood in wonder before those 
two marvellous doors on some building or other in Florence. Every time I cycled as a 24-year-old with my wife on our ancient tandem bicycle around the Place de la Concorde in Paris, I was extending my knowledge of the world and its beauties and dangers;  when I sat in the Edinburgh Church Assembly Hall as the supreme young actors Alan Badel and Claire Bloom finally made Shakespeare mean something in my 25-year-old ears, after years of not getting it, I was being profoundly educated.
But those were the years I spent educating myself, not going to university, fitting my learning in between the long hours spent making a living, getting to work every morning at eight o'clock, moving from one small city, one minor country, to another, making these the most rewarding and valuable years of my life. 
Now I have moved past those gawky years, my legs cannot support the long hours of walking as they once did, and so, when I saw and marvelled at Prague on my first visit after 86 years of life, all I could do was sink into a chair, order a beer, and watch as younger people, tourists undoubtedly, and just as hungry for experience of the world as I was, crowded the beautiful central square of the Old Town, each of them marvelling at what they were seeing as I once did.
How fortunate I have been, and am!
So here are some impressions left with me after four days in this great central European city:

1. The existence of a whole modern city made up mostly of beautiful, ornamented buildings very few of which reach above four or five storeys.  The public building below on the right illustrates the uniformity of design that makes Prague so satisfying to the eye. 

But the line of houses below indicates that within this uniformity of style there is an immense variation in type, each house standing out from its neighbour by reason of its individual colour, ornamentation, or decorative touches on the exterior.

And these, as you will have noticed, are in major streets with plenty of room for cars to park, which is unusual in the Prague Old Town, made up of a veritable maze of tiny streets just wide enough for a car to pass, but allowing no space for parking.  One day we took a bus tour to enable us to have an overview of the central city, and were really surprised to find the bus stuck in a huge traffic jam for more than three quarters of an hour, which just went to show that Prague for all its beauties so carefully preserved, is not immune from the pressures of modern life.
The traffic jam

Some of this ornamentation is bizarre, as the following pictures show, but even when it is rather strange it does aways, it seemed to me, exhibit a sense of humour, which I had always thought the Czechs were noted for lacking. Not so, to judge by this magnificent city, built so laboriously over the last 2500 years, and maintained with the utmost care, as layer after layer of changing tastes have been added and I imagine subtracted when found not to be suitable or in good taste.

Two horrible looking birds support the doorway to the Italian Embassy, but even here there is room for a couple of statues.

2. Other features that we noticed immediately were the pavements and the roofs: whether on the road or sidewalk, all of the Old Town pavements are made of millions of stones of various sizes, cobbled streets in the centre, and the sidewalks with a variety of designs made with small stones of about one inch in diameter, of which the picture below is representative. And the roofs everywhere are of pleasing, slightly worn-looking red tiles, house after house of them which make a wonderful sight especially when seen from above, as is sometimes possible.

This pavement in the city's huge Old Town square is typical of the roads in that district, carefully laid, meticulously maintained cobblestones. The picture above is a good example of the many designs lavished on the sidewalks, in smaller stones, some even smaller than those shown here. 

The above two pictures give an excellent idea of the roofing of Prague. To be noted are  elegantly designed roof slopes, intended no doubt to deal with snow pileup. These were noted when descending from a visit to the immense Castle which lies above Old Prague, and is very much part of it.

3. Perhaps the most bizarre feature of Old Prague is the proliferation of statues. It seemed that every church --- and the guide book identifies more than 50 churches, including Our Lady of the Snows, Our Lady Beneath the Chain, Our Lady of Unceasing Succor, Our Lady Victorious (thank the Lord for that, I thought the Victory would never come!) and quite a number of HolySaviours, as well as St..John on the Rock, and others dedicated to a variety of saints, of whom 56 are named in the guidebook, including rather esoteric ones to me (but then, all saints sound esoteric to me!)  such as St Ludmilla  (doesn't she sound irrevocably suburban?),  St. John Nepomuk, St. Vitus  (he of the well-known .dance, I guess),  St. Ursula, and St Wenceslas (I always wondered about that good Old King, where he came from). 

But not only churches let it all out on statues, many private buildings do as well, and the famous Charles bridge has 20 or more along its quarter-mile length, many of them so disgustingly blackened by age that it makes you wonder what they've been up to to be so shabbily treated. Below is an indication in photos of this strange obsession with saints and statues.

This building seems to be the winner in terms of simple numbers of statues

But here's a church that really believes in its saints, whoever they are

I can't be sure, but I believe the church in the picture is one of those in the Old Square, a magnificent open space surrounded by spectacular buildings, the centrepiece of which is what they call the Astronomical Clock, which people line up to observe every hour as it records the hour. Actually not much happens: the top windows open, and little men peek out as they pass. Meanwhile one of the figures on the right is jigging up and down, and finally there is a clang, and everything shuts down again.

One day I stood in the square and took pictures by turning in each direction. These are what I came up with:

Except for the building advertising Warhol and Dali exhibits (which didn't interest me) most of what I saw were churches. Since I have absolutely no interest in churches, nor even in their great traditional works of art (which I tend to believe are the opiate of the modern intellectual classes) I simply sought out a seat in one of the countless cafes that line the square and ordered a beer.
So that was my view of Prague, and all that remains to record is the fact that there are more fine eating houses than you can shake a stick at: if you can afford their fare, which turned out, on translation, to be not so excessive, you could depend on having a thoroughly enjoyable meal in beautiful, vaulted dining rooms with a long history that they were usually exhibiting  by use of various --- you guessed it! --- statues.
So I leave you with two statues that indicate the Czech sense of humour. The first is a very odd statue to Franz Kafka, to whom I feel I have a tenuous link, since in 1953 the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, who, with his wife Willa was the first translator of Kafka into English became my teacher for a semester. A more delightful couple than these I have never met, Willa a ferocious but kindly Scottish dragon whose mission in life was to defend Edwin, a meek, quiet little fellow from the Orkneys, from the insults of the modern world. Edwin was teaching at Charles University in Prague when the Communists took over in 1948. When the commissars walked into his room to tell him what he teach, he thought it was time to retire to Scotland.
A strange statue  of a strange writer, the Czech Franz Kafka, whose nightmarish stories must say something about his native land
Just around the corner from our hotel, this man hung, a statue among statues, to testify to the sense of humour of the Czechs. The fellow hanging on by one hand is said to be Sigmund Freud, trying to make up his mind whether to change hands!

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