Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Must-see in Prague - John Lennon Wall

December 12-16

Part 4: John Lennon Wall

The western side of the Vltava river doesn’t have as many of Prague’s notable landmarks or buildings (the next blog will talk in detail about the main one: Prague Castle). What it does have, however, is a curious homage to a band who were – maybe still are – revered in the Czech Republic. This is in spite of them having no obvious links to the country.

I learnt in Kazakhstan about the global appeal of the Beatles and their music becoming an underground means of resistance to communist regimes around the world, particularly amongst the younger generation.

John Lennon became an iconic figure after being murdered in New York in 1980. Soon after, a portrait of the Liverpudlian was painted on a wall across from the French Embassy. It was later joined by lyrics from Beatles songs.

As you can imagine, this free expression for Western culture was frowned upon by the Czech authorities, who still sympathised with Moscow even as the Soviet empire was coming into terminal difficulties. The wall was painted over and returned to its original form.

Then it was re-painted by young Czechs. The communists whitewashed the wall. Protestors painted more slogans, pictures and anti-government phrases back onto it. Once again, the authorities removed them.

This tit-for-tat came to a head in 1988 when students writing their grievances on the wall and security police reportedly clashed on the nearby Charles Bridge. This was the last battle for the wall, with the government falling soon after. The new, West-leaning powerbrokers had more important things to worry about than to paint walls, so the John Lennon Wall remained.

It remains to this day, though in a completely different form. The wall is regularly graffitied, decorated and coloured with more Lennon images, peace messages and random tourist scrawls.

The Beatles have inspired millions – just around the corner from here is a Beatles-themed restaurant – and their music transcends generations. The wall is just one example of how this group infiltrated the hearts and minds of many who weren’t legally allowed to listen to their songs.

The John Lennon Wall is more than just a tribute, however. It is a strange and fascinating addition to Prague’s art scene. It is a symbol of protest and a reminder of how small, seemingly insignificant protests can succeed with devotion and a strong message. It is a continually-changing construct which is almost guaranteed to look different each time you see it.

Imagine that, John Lennon!

Love you all


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Must-sees in Prague – Wenceslas Square

December 12-16

Part 3: Wenceslas Square

Manoeuvring your way south from Old Town Square, down more packed alleyways, will bring you out at the base of Wenceslas Square. More a long, single and very uphill road than a square, its western shops and international language signs, wouldn't be out of place in New York City or London. To the Czechs, however, it is a place of huge historic significance.

At the top of the boulevard, almost looking over the rest of the square, is a statue of Wenceslas himself. The patron saint of Bohemia, a region of the modern-day Czech Republic, is most-commonly known for the Christmas carol bearing his name. He ruled the area briefly until being murdered, reportedly by his own brother. However, his good deeds and nature are what is remembered today.

Though well over 600 years old, much of its history is derived from the Cold War era. One famous protest was by a student, Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet tanks rolling through Prague the previous year. It was also the place where the Velvet Revolution, which liberated the Czechs twenty years later. You can see from the pictures below just how many people were involved in the latter.

This is arguably the modern centre of Prague, from which anywhere is accessible. A short walk north will take you to Old Town Square. Heading west will take you close to the golden National Theatre (which has been ‘undergoing renovation’ seemingly since we arrived).

If you travel further south along the Vltava river, you soon notice a building which seems very out of style with the rest. These are known as the ‘Dancing Houses’.

One other point of interest in Wenceslas Square is a restaurant called Typovna. Not easily spotted…never forgotten. A young boy’s dream. Drinks delivered…by model trains. 

Wenceslas Square may be old; however, its importance is still tangible today. If that’s not enough for you to visit…beer delivered on a model railway!! Come on!

Love you all


Sunday, 11 January 2015

Must-sees in Prague – Old Town

December 12-16

Part 2: The Prague Orloj and Old Town Square

The Charles Bridge was historically important for permanently linking the two sides of the town. Following the narrow, bustling cobbled path from the eastern gate will lead you to Prague’s Old Town Square. The square is metaphorically walled in by the large clock tower and the Tyn Cathedral. The latter is interesting for having two towers of different size, something which is not noticeable at first glance. The larger turret is said to represent the male; the smaller one embodies the female. 

 Most people flock here to stare inanely at Prague’s world-famous astronomical clock. According to intelligent folk, this clock can provide lots of information. Look at the picture below to tell you just how much it can tell you.

It can tell you a lot…if you understand how that kind of thing works, of course. To the untrained eye – mine – it just looks like lots of randomly assorted angles, lines and circles. I have been assured, however, that it does indeed work, making it the oldest working astronomical clock in the world. It is a little over 600 years old, and known to locals as the ‘Orloj’ (or-LOY).

People come to see the clock’s hourly animated display, during which the four things despised at the time of the clock’s construction (you can see one above) all shake their heads and the apostles glide along through hatches. Considering the hype and volume of people coming to watch, the ‘show’ seems to be a bit of a let-down. Whether that’s because our modern minds are used to seeing the spectacular on television or film is another matter.

What may be more fascinating, if a little bit gory, is the legend that accompanies this clock’s construction. It was believed that a man called Hanuš created the clock, astounding the city’s councillors with its wonder and beauty. So much so, in fact, that they blinded the poor man so that he could never make one just as impressive anywhere else. The price of success?

The square itself is always packed with throngs of eager, wide-eyed people. However, the volume increases drastically at this time of year. Many people visit Prague in December to experience her Christmas markets, the biggest of which dominates the Old Town Square.

The highlight of the markets isn’t the tacky, clichéd and overpriced souvenirs: it’s the atmosphere. The twinkling lights from the large tree illuminating the wooden stalls and their red roofs. Families of all ages cupping their hands around hot drinks and huddling to feel warm.

Many of them will also be sampling the ‘traditional’ Czech snack called Trdelnik. This is a hollow cinnamon roll, cooked and rotated slowly on a long tube before being dumped repeatedly in a mound of sugar. The ‘traditional’ snack is actually recognised as Hungarian and, though created and brought to the Czech Republic two centuries ago, has only recently come into fashion. As in the last decade. Hardly a ‘tradition’, but very tasty nonetheless.

Prague’s oldest district is a delight for all of the senses, especially when the Christmas markets are at their busiest. Just a short amble from the old takes you to the new: find out all about that district next time.

Love you all


Must-sees in Prague – Charles Bridge

December 12-16

Part 1: Charles Bridge

As I’m sure you’re aware, Prague is a lovely place and a very popular tourist destination. Whether it is part of a central European cruise, the cheap stop after Germany on a great backpacking adventure or a romantic weekend, Prague is able to satisfy the full variety of traveller. Even the stag parties find something to do, though I can’t possibly think of what that may be…

A benefit of living somewhere close and known is that Hannah and I receive many more visitors than in previous places. Our final full weekend in Prague for the year was occupied by two different invading parties. My parents continued their tradition of visiting the random, remote outpost I am working in at the time, whilst Hannah’s cousin and part of her family also came to sample the delights of the Czech capital.

It was the first time in Prague for the vast majority of our visitors. This allowed us the opportunity to become tourists for the weekend and see the ‘must-visit’ attractions of the city, in addition to the hidden gems we’ve discovered over the last 16 months. If you ever consider visiting Prague (let’s face facts, why wouldn’t you?), you have my permission to use the following blog entries to guide you instead of forking out lots of money on a guidebook.

The most popular attraction is undoubtedly the Charles Bridge. Though I still can’t quite comprehend why it is so popular with tourists (it wasn’t even the first bridge to cross the Vltava), it possesses an impressive and quirky history.

Like most places in Prague, there is a Czech legend attached to the creation of this stone bridge. Apparently the King himself, Charles IV, placed the first stone at 5:31am on July 9th, 1357. If you fiddle with the order of the time (year, month, time) then it becomes a palindromic number: 135797531. I’m sure you know that palindromically-constructed bridges are renowned for being sturdy. Particularly if eggs are used as cement, which is a popular belief held about the Charles Bridge.

For all my cynicism, the bridge is still standing, even surviving floods and wars, and can withstand tens of thousands of feet pounding across it each and every day. As well as using the bridge to take romantic photos, listen to classical music ensembles and stare at overpriced earrings before not buying them, tourists will often gawp vacantly at the 30 statues of saints which line its low walls.

Many people go as far as touching a select few statues. The main recipient of grubby hands is the statue of St. John of Nepomuk. He was a priest in Prague under King Wenceslas IV, the son of Charles IV. You know, the one who place the first stone of this bridge. Still with me? Good. ANyway, the King was a very suspicious man and he wanted to know the content of the Queen's confessions to him. Nepomuk's honourable refusal to bow to royal pressure resulted in him being executed by being thrown into the Vltava River from the bridge. Ah, the good ol' days...

People rub a certain part of this statue - specifically, the falling priest at the bottom - to bring them luck. And possibly infection from all those other grubby hands, but I digress...

I may not have struck the most persuasive tone, but don’t be put off by what you have read. The Charles Bridge is chaotic, yet an integral part of any visit to Prague. Consider this: without it, moving between the castle and the main centre would have been very bothersome indeed. The next blog will tell you about the destination you reach if you head through the eastern gate of the bridge. Staré Město: Old Town.

Love you all