Czech points: Fall for Prague in autumn
The magic of central Europe is manifest in Prague, a city of endless indulgence
Saturday 26 September 2009
My last visit to Prague started with poetry and ended with Kafka. The poetry was from around the world – the wild beat rants of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the laconic love lyrics of Brian Patten, the visionary brilliance of Czech scientist and poet, Miroslav Holub – and it was read, recited, or mumbled in a room overlooking one of the most beautiful town squares in the world. Here, at the Prague Writers' Festival, over tankards of fine Czech beer and more cigarettes than you see in London in a day, literature was discussed and dissected.
This, after all, was the country which boasted a dissident playwright as its President. Between literary sessions in the old town hall, I drank coffee in pretty squares, ate dumplings with poets and wandered through golden streets bathed in sunshine.
It was a taste of Bohemia, in this most Bohemian of all cities, and it was perfect. It was perfect, that is, until the last night, until the moment when I realised my handbag had disappeared from beneath my feet, with my money, air ticket and everything else and until I found myself, at midnight, waiting on a bench in a police station. It was Kafka. Of course it was Kafka. No one spoke English. Why should they speak English? It was a long night. It was long journey home.
This time, 11 years on, I left behind a London in a heatwave for a Prague that was wintry and wet. The traffic was at a standstill. The Golden City was shrouded in gloom.
"We are sorry for the weather," said Renata, the guide who picked me up at the airport and yes, I couldn't pretend, I was sorry, too. But when I finally turned into the little courtyard that signalled the entrance to the hotel, and dashed through the rain and inside, I cheered up. The Augustine, Rocco Forte's newest hotel, is, quite simply, gorgeous. Newly converted from a monastery (and a brewery and a government building and a hotel), it feels like the kind of monastery you'd like to stay in if you'd swapped your vow of poverty for one of – well, luxury. But unostentatious luxury. You couldn't say austere, but you could almost say low-key.
The theme, it soon becomes clear, from the chic red-and-black sofas in the foyer, and the tastefully placed sculptures and prints, is Czech cubism. In the corridors there are black-and-white photographs by Czech avant-garde artists from the 1920s and 1930s, and in the rooms there are reproductions of some cubist classics: angular timber chairs by Pavel Janak and chaises longues by Adolf Loos.
Each room is different. One, in the old monastery tower, has a sitting room and bathroom on separate floors and then, after a final winding staircase, a bedroom with panoramic views over the whole of Prague. Mine, a soothing blend of greens and purples, with a massive marble bathroom and a study area (as if!), had views over a pretty garden and the usual Prague vista of terracotta roofs and spires.
Tempting though it was to collapse on to one of those lovely chaises longues, I had sights to see – and quite a few of them were around the corner. The Augustine is in the heart of the Mala Strana (the Little Quarter), Prague's Left Bank, a picturesque (but where in Prague isn't picturesque?) mix of winding cobbled streets, beautiful baroque palaces and magnificent churches. It's also only a few minutes' walk from Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world. Started by Prince Borivoj in the ninth century and now a dazzling mix of architectural styles, it has been the seat of Czech rulers ever since. You could spend a day here, but I didn't have a day. Instead, Renata, my efficient but rather toneless guide, marched me around the Gothic splendours of St Vitus Cathedral, whose foundation stone was laid in 1344 by Emperor Charles IV, but which wasn't actually finished until 1953. It's a world in itself: the magnificent stained-glass windows, including one by the art nouveau artist Alfons Mucha; the chapel of St Wenceslas, decorated with exquisite medieval frescoes and semi-precious stones; and the kitsch tomb of Jan Nepomuk, a silver casket, overhung by a baroque awning and overseen by floating angels.
Next door was the Old Royal Palace, first built in 1135 and originally used only by Czech princesses. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, it was the king's own palace. Its vast Vladislav Hall was used for banquets, councils, coronations – and jousting. (On one side you can see a special staircase and an extra-wide corridor for knights and their horses.) Around the corner, there are the offices of the Bohemian Chancellory and the window that triggered the Thirty Years' War. Here, in 1618, a Protestant mob pushed two Catholic councillors and their secretary out of the window sparking a war which consumed the whole of Europe. This, apparently, was the Second Defenestration. The first was two centuries earlier, when Hussite supporters tossed Catholic councillors out of a window in the Town Hall. There are, no doubt, theses to be written on Czechs and windows.
It all looked melancholically beautiful in the rain, but I was quite relieved to be bustled back to the hotel, to thaw out with a long, hot soak in the marble grandeur of my bathroom and then to hit Tom's bar for cocktails. The angel cocktail, the waitress explained, was inspired by the angels in the 19th-century frescoes in the ceiling of this double-height vaulted former refectory. Not quite sure how that works, actually, but if it wasn't exactly celestial, it was certainly very nice.
"It looks much better than it used to!" said Father William the next morning. He was sipping a cappuccino in Tom's bar, where he used to eat his meals as an Augustinian friar. He lives, with four other Augustinian friars, next door. In a complex legal arrangement, the Augustinians, who had their buildings confiscated by the Communists but returned after the Velvet Revolution, have leased a large chunk of their property to Rocco Forte and watched it metamorphose from disrepair to deluxe. "This used to be the cemetery," he announced, as he took us across the courtyard. He opened a small black door and suddenly we were in a beautiful medieval chapel. From there, he took us to a courtyard and pointed at a well. "That," he said, "is the oldest operating well in Prague and it's thought to be St Agnes fountain, the one mentioned in the 'Good King Wenceslas' carol."
Awed by the mix of myth and history, and by the cenotaph for the 16th-century English poetess who composed poems simultaneously in Latin and Greek I was beginning to think I had no awe left. Until, that is, I saw the library.
The words "hidden treasure" don't begin to do justice to this extraordinary vaulted hall of ancient books, and the musty smell, which you just want to bottle and take away. Here ("somewhere" said Father William) there are first editions of Martin Luther and William Harvey, ancient missals and even the original deeds for the monastery from 1378. This room, a gift from Rudolf II (that great eccentric Holy Roman Emperor, who moved the Habsburg capital from Vienna to Prague in 1583), is a like a microcosm of Prague's complicated, embattled, colonised history. It's a miracle it has survived. You can see why Father William believes in God.
It was time, however, for the God that failed. I was booked on a "communism tour" which you'd have thought might take place in a Skoda, but actually involved squeezing into a German car from 1938. My lovely guide, Helena, pointed out the sights as I peered: Frank Gehry's "Dancing House", completed in 1996 and intendedV
C as a cultural centre, and next to it, the house where Vaclav Havel lived for many years, and opposite it, the watchtower where he was listened to and watched. It is, of course, only 20 years since everyone was listened to and watched. And then, round the corner, there's Wenceslas Square, the place where it all ended, where Havel and other dissidents stood on a stage, and rapturous crowds handed them hot drinks from a stall, and where miraculously, finally, the Communist authorities gave up.
I don't think, under Communism, you'd have been able to get the fabulous roast duck and dumplings that I had at the Bellevue Restaurant, overlooking the river and castle. I don't know, either, how the next treasure survived. This was the home of Alfons Mucha, the defining artist of Art Nouveau, and probably the most famous artist to come out of the Czech lands. The posters he designed for Sarah Bernhardt in the 1890s made him the most talked-about artist in Paris. And here, in this 18th-century house a stone's throw from the castle, they were (or at least some of them were) along with his paintings, his books, his furniture, his rugs. And here, too, was his daughter-in-law, Geraldine.
Geraldine met Mucha's son, the writer Jiri Mucha, at a wartime party in 1941 in Leamington Spa. They married and moved into Mucha's house – Alfons had died after the Nazi invasion of Prague in 1939 – and she has now lived there for more than 50 years. It's not an official museum, but this extraordinary, inspirational woman – a composer, still composing at 91 – allows some private visits. It felt like a precious, secret glimpse into another time and another world. It felt, like so much in Prague, like a kind of magic.
Back at the hotel, in the Brewery Bar, I encountered a magical process of a different kind. Here, in this city of alchemy, surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites dating back to the 17th century, I was told about the alchemical process whereby grain becomes a golden nectar that people travel great distances to drink. The monks at the monastery have been brewing beer since 1352. They stopped in the 1950s, but now the hotel has revived the St Thomas beer, a rich, malty, dark lager – and it's delicious. The hearty Bohemian tapas were, however, perhaps not the best idea before an 11-course degustation dinner, with eight wines. The recipes for the Bohemian menu at La Degustation are all from an 1894 cookery book (which the chef passed around) called Good School: For Young Cooks. Just starve yourself first.
On my final day in Prague, I was panicking. I hadn't seen the big museums. I hadn't gone back to the old Jewish cemetery. And I hadn't done my favourite thing, which is to sit in cafés and wonder and wander. So I started round the corner, at the edge of Prague Castle, at the Lobkowicz Palace. This private collection of art, acquired over centuries by a leading aristocratic family, was, like so much private wealth in the Czech lands, confiscated by the Nazis, and then the Communists, but restored to the family after the Velvet Revolution. It's breathtaking: paintings by Breughel the Elder, Canaletto and Piranesi, original scores by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn and, to steer you through, a charming audio guide, full of personal touches from the owner, William Lobkowicz.
From there, I ambled over Manes Bridge, through the Old Town Square, Prague's main square since the 10th century (now full of buskers and tour leaders wielding umbrellas) and found another oasis in the Museum of Czech Cubism, otherwise known as the House of the Black Madonna. Designed by Josef Gocar in 1912, it's the best example of cubist architecture in Prague and has three floors of cubist paintings, sculpture, furniture and ceramics. There's also a delightful café, pretty much unchanged since it opened, where I forced down coffee and a little cake.
I just squeezed in a quick saunter around the real Mucha Museum (not a patch on his house, of course) before joining the throng on Charles Bridge and getting back in time for my facial at the hotel spa. It was stupendous. My skin was glowing days later – and my skin very rarely glows.
It was time to leave the city for the countryside – for Chateau Mcely, in fact, an elegant 17th-century castle, once visited by Mark Twain and the poet Rilke, now restyled as a "club hotel and forest retreat". Each room has been designed along themes such as "Orient", "Africa" and "Southern Seas". There is, I think we can safely say, no shortage of gilded furniture or chandeliers. Owned and run by a Czech property developer married to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur (one, strangely enough, with a serious interest in alchemy), it's a tale of the new Czech republic: of entrepreneurialism, aspiration and dreaming the dream.
The chateau provides a beautiful setting, tranquil and soothing after the Prague crowds. It's all very luxurious and, for a honeymoon or anniversary or special weekend away, no doubt fantastically romantic. Yet it all seemed a little laid on with a trowel. Waking up in "The Legend Suite", according to the brochure, "is more than just a pleasant way to start your day, it speaks volumes about who you are". Or perhaps it just means that you're rich.
But I was dreaming of Prague. Artistic Prague. Mystical Prague. Melancholy Prague. Monastic Prague. Medieval Prague. Habsburg Prague. Mozart's Prague. Magical Prague. The Prague that survived occupation by the Austrians and the Nazis and the Communists and stands, a golden, gleaming monument to history and art and architecture – and life.
Travel essentials: Prague
* The writer travelled with BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies from Heathrow to Prague from £83.70 one-way. Prague is also served by Bmibaby (09111 54 54 54; bmibaby.com), Czech Airlines (0871 663 3747; czechairlines.co.uk), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).
* The Augustine, 12-33 Letenska, Mala Strana, Prague (00 420 266 11 22 33; theaugustine.com). Doubles start at €270, room only
(bookings: 00800 7666 6667; roccofortecollection.com).
*Chateau Mcely (00 420 325 600 000; chateaumcely.com). Doubles start at CZK3,710 (£117), B&B.
* Prague Castle, Mala Strana (00 420 224 373 368; hrad.cz).
* Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle (00 420 233 312 925; lobkowiczevents.cz/palace).
* Museum of Czech Cubism, 19 Ovocný trh (00 420 224 211 746; ngprague.cz).
* Mucha Museum, 7 Panska (00 420 224 216 415; mucha.cz).
* prague-info.cz; 00 420 221 714 444
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