Dvořák, the Moldau, and the Cubists

The Czech capital Prague – with its hundred spires, its music, and its beer – is a magical city waiting for one more tourist

Prague

(from left to right) A view of the Old Town from the Charles Bridge in Prague; unique to the city; The National Monument Square on Vitkov Square, with some of the finest views of the city; and an example of Czech cubist architecture which had a meteoric rise and fall in the 1910s | Photos: Cynthia Peck

The only time you can see Prague’s Charles Bridge is at dawn. At all other times of day it is hidden by a mighty stream of tourists, as well as trinket vendors, buskers and reputedly, the occasional pickpocket. But at daybreak, the beauty of the mediaeval bridge, built in the second half of the 14th century, is breath-taking. It is empty and quiet, cloaked in the mist rising from the Vltava River below. The expanse of paving stones seems a mystical link between the two sides of the sleeping city; the rows of saintly, silent statues on either side seem to watch and wait.

As the river moves slowly below, the undulating melody of The Moldau floats through my head, Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic tribute to the Vltava, often better known by its German name, Moldau.

But a mere two hours later, the world has arrived. The Vltava continues its graceful curve through the city, with the castle and St. Vitus’ Cathedral high above the left bank, the city’s spires – claimed to number a hundred – on the right. But the diesel engines of sight-seeing boats have smothered the river’s melody. And the bridge’s 600-year-old stones have surrendered themselves to the onslaught of thousands per hour.

Prague has become a tourist trap. Its best-known sights – the Old Town, the Jewish quarter, the castle hill – are all burdened with souvenir shops, fast food joints, and huge numbers of camera-wielding culture vultures. On some streets, the currency changers, “authentic” Czech restaurants, and stores of gaudy glassware seem never-ending.

 

Antonín Dvořák – a Czech native son 

Each September, though, the scene changes slightly, with the Dvořák International Music Festival, this year from 8 – 22 September, with a total of 20 concerts. As the festival’s name implies, works by Antonín Dvořák predominate. The traditional opening is his ninth symphony, performed this year by the Orchestre Philharmonique Luxembourg. Also guesting will be Zubin Mehta with the Staatskapelle Dresden, and the Youth Orchestra of Caracas.

The orchestra “in residence” is the splendid Czech Philharmonic, performing core concerts from 14 – 16 September and the final evening on the 22nd. Tickets are reasonable, from €6 to €65. Young listeners (under 26) pay only €4 (Kč99) for the entire festival.

Prague’s main concert venue, the Rudolfinum, after Austria’s (and Bohemia’s) Crown Prince Rudolph, contains Dvořák Hall, where Dvořák himself conducted the inaugural concert of the Czech Phil in 1896. The hall, with its lovely Neo-Renaissance gold and floral ceiling and slightly fan-shaped seating, has excellent acoustics and good proximity to the performers.

But of course there are other reasons to go to Prague. For example, the sidewalks. Here they reveal centuries of geometric inspiration: small white, black and red cobblestones forming continual variations of checkerboards, zigzags, and diamonds.

You also might go to shop along the Na Příkopě, Prague’s Graben. In Friedrich Torberg’s Tante Jolesch, a wonderful collection of anecdotes about the (bourgeois Jewish) world between the wars in Vienna and Prague, it is described as a place to promenade, with a highly refined codex of whom to greet or not to greet. Today the pedestrian street has been taken over by tiresomely familiar names (H&M, Zara, Benetton) and is thronged with tourists. So look up: Ignore the masses and admire the architecture.

 

Buildings and beer

Prague is an urban collage of magnificent buildings. Particularly striking are the examples of Czech Cubism, a style prickling with points and crystalline shapes that had a meteoric rise and fall in the 1910s. In Old Town there is a small Cubism museum (Ovocný 19) in the handsome House of the Black Madonna, designed by Czech architect Josef Gočár as a department store. The magnificent Grand Café Orient on the bel étage reopened after eight decades in 2005, and is Cubist down to the coat hooks and the vase of (angular) magenta lilies. In the same building is the store Kubista where you can buy a map leading you to all of Cubist Prague.

And then there is the beer: The Czechs are famous for their pivo. While there are plenty of chic restaurants and bars, it’s best to go to a traditional Czech pub, a pivnice. Beer in Prague often costs less than a Coke, and most has merely 3 per cent to 4 per cent alcohol, like cider. Which means a normal glass, half a litre, can leave you refreshingly tipsy, but far from sloshed.

I have three favourite pubs, full of locals, and mostly men. But despite being a single woman, I received a friendly welcome and generally fell into a comfortable conversation. The tables are long, the benches crowded, and there’s not much in the way of food (there are no English menus anyway). But the beer is delicious and cheap (0.5 litre about Kč28, or €1.10).

U Černého vola (“At the Black Ox”) is up by the castle (Loretánské nám. 107/1). The sign is simple and there are no sidewalk tables outside, so it’s easy to miss. It nearly closed last year, but luckily a petition made the owner change his mind. “At the Hippo”, U Hrocha (Thunovská 184/20), is a hole in the wall directly under the castle, on a quiet side street near the parliament. It seems full of regulars, but when you come twice, the guy serving beer smiles: He already knows you. The third is U Zlatého Tygra (“At the Golden Tiger”) in Old Town (Husova 17). If you arrive when they open at 15:00, you might get a seat. Learn how to say “hello” (dobrý den) and “thank you” (děkuji) and you should have a great time.

Enough beer? Right across the street from the Tiger is (according to locals) the best zmrzlina in town. Don’t worry, that’s ice cream (Cremeria Milano, Husova 12). And a café scene also exists – not quite as pervasive as in Vienna, but nice all the same. Indeed, at the turn of the last century, Vienna and Prague were close sisters: A third of Prague’s population spoke German, and up to a quarter of Vienna spoke Czech.

Café Slavia, on Národní Třída, is across from the golden-roofed National Theatre at the river. Its Art Deco interior, with massive amounts of wood veneer, is gorgeous. Across the river is Café Savoy (Vítězná 5). Its beautiful ceilings were thankfully protected by a dropped ceiling for over eighty years. They were re-found and renovated only in the last decade.

 

Tourist-free history

There are a couple of traditional scenic viewpoints: the two fortified hills, Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) and Vyšehrad (the seat of the earliest Czech kings). But go to the National Monument on Vitkov Hill. Built between 1925 and 1932, it is guarded by a colossal equestrian statue of a 15th-century Czech hero; inside is the museum of modern Czech history. Despite English labels and an original of the Charter 77, the exhibit can be confusing. But the roof has a 360° viewing platform and a terrace café. Empty, breezy and pleasant, and no tourists!

Yes, please, prosím, that’s just what I’m looking for.

More information:
Dvořák International Music Festival
www.dvorakovapraha.cz/en

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