Friday, March 8, 2013

More Prague, please!

We were all set to go to Prague the previous weekend (Feb 23-24) to celebrate Terezia's birthday, but a day before the trip, Terezia slipped on a patch of ice while walking to the bus stop at night after work, and fell in such a way that left her legs knotted up like a pretzel and she injured her knee. It was not a spend all night in the emergency room kind of injury, but bad enough to make walking around a bit painful, and her knee was a little swollen and purplish. So, we canceled the trip because Terezia didn't want to spend the weekend cooped up in a hotel room while gazing sadly out the window at the city which her knee would prevent her from seeing.

But at (quite literally) the last minute, we decided to go the following weekend, and it worked out perfectly, as the weather was much nicer, and we got a sweet last minute deal on a great room at one of the b&b's that we usually stay in. Terezia hadn't been to Prague in nearly a year, and I hadn't been since going with my father back in July, so it was high time for another trip.

We both love Prague, and we will happily go there any chance we get. It's nice to get away to a city that's much larger and more visually stunning than Bratislava. The gorgeous architecture, whether gothic or 19th century historicist, never fails to amaze us. Prague also has more of what you could call a pulse. Of course, while in Prague you do have to dodge tourists (especially in summer), on weekends in Bratislava at this time of year, you're dodging tumbleweeds. Prague, by contrast, is still nice and bustling.

I never get sick of the place. We could walk around the city endlessly and not get bored. Plus, I love visiting Prague in the winter because there are fewer tourists, and you can actually walk across Charles Bridge in a straight line. Hotel rates go up considerably after March as well, when tourist season starts its 6-7 month high.

The beauty of a non-congested Charles Bridge during the off season

We strolled through our favorite places, went to our favorite haunts - a walk up to the castle is obligatory - and ventured into some new (to us) areas. I've always wanted to go up to Letná Park, which is a hill overlooking the Vltava river just north of the old town, and which is home to a giant metronome. What's fascinating about this spot is that back in the late 1950s and early 60s, it was home to a colossal Stalin monument. Completed after Stalin died in 1955, it was torn down in 1962 after Khrushchev came to power and publicized Stalin's crimes, as part of the process known as de-Stalinization. Today it's simply a great place to take in more views of Prague's glorious, spire-studded skyline.

We also went to the Veletržní Palace for the first time, which houses the Prague National Gallery's modern art museum. The palace is actually a hulking, oppressively nondescript, functionalist glass and steel office-style building, so its name is a bit misleading. This world class museum is sprawling, so much so that we really just had to focus on the genres we were interested in and breeze through or skip entirely some of the other stuff, because you could easily spend an entire day in this place. The third and fourth floors are where most of the action is, with loads of great 20th and 19th century works. Lots of Czech cubists (a pretty robust cubist section overall) like Kubista, Filla, Čapek, etc., but also a pretty impressive Picasso room, and a nice Braque section, as well as some pleasant surprises like a vibrant Miro, a Van Gogh, and an interesting piece by Klimt. Lots of lesser known works by famous artists like Klee, Sisley, de Chirico, Matisse, and Monet as well, and some sculptures by Rodin. It's not quite the Pompidou, but it's definitely a worthwhile place.

Joan Miro painting in the Veletržní
A Kubista painting in the Veletržní
Inside the Veletržní: this place really is sprawling.

I wasn't able to get any photos of the Picasso or Braque rooms, sadly, as a few of the security folks in characteristic ill-fitting grey suits were watching that area like a hawk, and there are "no camera" signs on each floor.

The Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 enormous paintings by Alfons Mucha, was seriously impressive. It's currently housed on the ground floor of the museum (after being moved, quite controversially, from the town where they had been on display for several decades), and the giant paintings are truly stunning. I've only really seen Mucha's more well known art nouveau pieces (we went to the Mucha museum on our first trip to Prague back in 2010), so it was interesting to see him branching out a bit with this cycle. The paintings all weave together the narrative of the Slavic people, covering important moments in their history, touching on different areas from the Czech Republic to Serbia to Bulgaria and Russia.

The light in these paintings reminded me of Maxfield Parrish - very soft, glowing, and atmospheric. The two were contemporaries, so I can't help but wonder if there was some kind of mutual influence. And I can't emphasize enough what an impact the sheer size of these pieces had when seen in person. It almost felt as if you were engulfed by them. Of course you have to know a bit about the history for these paintings to make sense, and thankfully they had a brochure in English that described each one.

Slavs in Their Original Homeland
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia

The Oath of Omlandina under the Slavic Linden Tree

Very cool communist-era building across the street from the Veletržní

As for food, well, on the last couple visits we tried two Thai places, one of which was godawful, while the other was strictly mediocre. This time we stuck to Czech food, and U Parliamentu is still our favorite. With its cool ambience, nice big windows with views onto the historical street, its predominantly local clientele (all of whom smoke like chimneys - yes, the Czech Republic has yet to ban smoking in restaurants), and most importantly the food - which is pretty darn good - we always come back to this place. Their duck is a must-try.

We also managed to hit my favorite cafe, Kaaba, which is way off the tourist path in the Vinohrady area, on the hill a just few blocks behind the main train station. Good coffee with seriously cool kitschy vintage-modern decor. I wish there was something comparable in Bratislava.

I'd love to spend an entire week here, as we never have time to see everything we want to see, but at least we can still get away there for the weekend via a four-hour train ride, something we obviously couldn't have done from San Francisco.

1 comment:

  1. I'd really like to see Mucha's Slav Epic paintings one day!