Friday, 8 February 2013

Prague, day 3

For my last day in Prague I had nothing to do but wander round the city revisiting some of the things I had seen with Richard and Petra and taking lots of photographs.  My flight wasn't until the evening so I had the whole day to myself.

The first thing I did was to go and have breakfast in Cafe Slavia, which Petra had pointed out to me the day before.  It doesn't really look much from the outside but it has an incredibly evocative interior. From there I walked back across the Legii bridge to the Lesser Town and walked up towards the castle,   stopping to look in the sumptuous Church of St Nicholas.

I reached the castle via Nerudova Street, which is very pretty and very steep, cobbled and lined with shops and restaurants, still sporting their old signs - most of them in painted plaster set into the walls.

The castle was much busier than it had been the evening before and for the first time I felt like a tourist, in among all the other tourists.  The castle isn't really like an English castle, but instead it is a complex of buildings - many of them huge - including the famous St Vitus's Cathedral that appears in almost every view of Prague.

I bought a 'quick visit' ticket that allowed me access to the cathedral (although I discovered I had to pay extra to take photos).  It doesn't quite live up to the exterior but it has lots of quirky details, huge flying silver angels above the tomb of St John Nepomuk and some very nice stained glass, some of which is my Alphonse Mucha.

The castle also houses a beautiful Romanesque church - St George's Basilica.  This was so so restful after the extravegances of the Baroque churches.  The interior is lovely with some nice frescos.

The castle also houses the famous Golden Lane, once home to alchemists and, for a while, Franz Kafka.  The tiny houses are little museums and shops now, each a different colour.  It is a magnet for tourists of course.  I had been asked several times to take photo of couples - I think having a large camera round my neck makes me look like I know what I'm doing - so I wasn't surprised when two Japanese schoolgirls asked if it was OK to take a photograph.  I happily agreed, only to discover that they didn't want me to take a photo of them, they wanted to take a photo of one of them standing with me.  I think the fact that I was wearing a black suit and coat, a tie and black trilby hat was enough.

After looking at the view, I walked down the Old Castle Steps, across Nánusûv bridge and into the Jewish Quarter - the Josefov.  I had been here already with Petra but I was determined to see the Jewish Cemetery if nothing else.

 I bought a ticket allowing me into all the synagogues and the cemetery and after looking in the Ceremonial Hall and the Klausen Synagogue, I wandered over to the famous Staranova Synagoga - the Old-New Synagogue - which must have the most unprepossessing doorway ever.  I walked past it twice and when I did finally open it, it creaked and scraped the ground as though it hadn't been used in a century.

The Old-New Synagogue is a lovely building.  It is very old and reminded me of St George's Basilica at the Castle.  This may be explained by the fact that it was built for the Jews by gentiles.  It is in effect Gothic, with ribbed vaulting and so on - but it is also a very different kind of space with a totally different layout.

I had a long talk to a guide at the synagogue, and she told me all about the building of the synagogue and about the history and details.  I mentioned the Golem and she told me about Rabbi Löw and the genizah - the storeroom above the synagogue where items of religious significance are kept when they are old or damaged.  Because of their sacred nature they cannot simply be thrown away - instead they are periodically gathered together and buried.  After the Velvet Revolution many treasures were found, forgotten about in the genizah of the various synagogues in Prague.

The Golem was still supposed to be in the genizah of the Old-New Synagogue - though of course many have looked (including, according to Richard, Terry Pratchett when he visited Prague).  The guide at the synagogue said she had a theory about the Golem and I was expecting to hear that she thought it was a story that was meant to be more symbolic, when she told me that she thought that the Golem would have been broken and forgotten about in the genizah, then buried in one of the periodic clear-outs.  She thought the Golem was buried in the Jewish Cemetery.

And indeed, from there I went to the Jewish Cemetery, which was a rather wonderful place, crammed full of headstones, many of which were beautifully carved from different shades of stone, some green with moss.  Rabbi Löw's grave is here, small pebbles left on his headstone.  As with so many cemeteries, the Jewish Cemetery seemed to be separate from the rest of its surroundings, quieter, and with a wholly different atmosphere - not simply melancholy, but peaceful and calm.  I like the idea of the Golem being buried here.

I had a late lunch in Bakehouse Praha on V. Kolkovné near the fittingly odd Franz Kafka monument, and very good it was too.  I had not been inundated with either fruit nor vegetables since I arrived in Prague and it was nice to have a salad.

After lunch I visited the Spanish Synagogue, which is as different from the Old-New Synagogue as it is possible to be.  It was built in the 1850s and seems like the equivelant of one of those English opulent Victorian Gothic churches, with every surface covered in pattern.  It is a spectacular interior, for sure, but I preferred the quietude of the Old-New Synagogue

I set off back to the Old Town and found myself at the clock tower as the hour was about to strike.  I joined the rest of the tourists as rain began to fall and watched the show for the second time.  Light was fading and I proceeded to lose all sense of direction and actually ended up walking in a complete circle, ending up back in the Old Town Square when I was sure I was heading for the river.

I just had enough time to have a browse in the wonderful secondhand bookshop I'd been into with Richard before heading back to my hotel. On the way back I heard shouting and watched with other bemused passers by as a woman strode along the wet pavements, shouting at the top of her voice.  What she was shouting about, I couldn't say.

At the pedestrian crossing by Cafe Slavia - the crossings tick in Prague, rather than bleep, by the way - I set off across the road to see a car turning right across into the stream of pedestrians.  It paused momentarily and then floored the accelerator, the tyres spinning on the wet cobbles, before racing away along the riverside.  It was pure luck that it didn't kill someone.  It was the only display of aggression I had seen in Prague.

It was dark now, and raining.  I checked out of my hotel and David Kočár arrived to drive me to the airport.  He was the partner of one of the cast and it was incredibly kind of him, given that the airport is not exactly close and he told me in the car that this had been his second trip there that day, having driven his mother there in the morning.  David was yet another young, clever, witty, creative type - a filmmaker this time - and again spoke fluent English.

I saw a lot while I was in Prague, but it was the people I met there who made it such a great experience.  I want to thank them all and wish them well in all their endeavours.  I hope to be back one day soon.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Prague, day 2

My second day in Prague started with bright sunshine, something I really had not expected to see at all (and neither had anyone else seemingly). I had a quick coffee and went out with my camera to the river and took some photographs across to the castle and of the buildings in the neighbourhood of my hotel, before coming back to meet Petra Jišová, who had very kindly offered to be my guide for the day.

As with Richard, her English was incredibly good and we talked as we walked.  Like Richard, she was very, very good company.  Petra had come armed with a piece of paper listing all the things she hoped she would include in the walk.  I don't know if we ever covered them all, but we saw a lot and I am very grateful to her.

We walked over the Legii bridge and up Národni to Wencesclas Square and the Old Town.  I took some more photos of the famous clock - looking all nicer with the gilding glowing in the sunshine.  There were surprisingly few people about, given what a lovely morning it was.  We went into the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, which dominates the square.  That is a solid gold effigy of the Virgin Mary between the towers, apparently.  The most memorable thing about it was that it was many, many degrees colder inside than out.  We could see our own breath in there.

We went to the Jewish quarter, although we did not go into anything, and then walked back along the Charles Bridge with its famous statues (although few of them are original) and crossed the river to meet Kristyna Kamenická for lunch.

We visited a church - which I think was called the Church of Our Lady Victorious - in which there is a statue of the infant Jesus that has a seemingly unending wardrobe of clothes.  Some of the older ones are in a little museum above the nave.

This church and many others around town had their Christmas nativity scenes still in place.  I said that in the UK we have a tradition that Christmas ends at Epiphany and Petra said it was the same in the Czech Republic.  She was as surprised by it as I was.

Lunch was in the Kolkovna Olympia restaurant in the Lesser Town.  I had email contact with Kristyna and it was nice to meet her in person.  She told me how nervous everyone was in the theatre company.  I'm not sure why they had allowed themselves to care so much about what I thought, but they clearly did.  I tried to explain to everyone that I was very pleased to have them choose my work to perform and I really was happy for them to make any creative decisions they felt they had to.

We wandered over to the theatre - Divadlo Kampa - stopping on route to look at some bizarre giant bronze babies by David Černy.  Incidentally my guide, Petra, gave herself a very hard time because she confused, momentarily, sculptor with sculpture.  This was just about her only mistake during the whole day.  I just wished I could speak any language so fluently.  We also looked at the John Lennon wall - a wall of ever-changing graffiti.

Much as with the signings, my default expectations were set very low, and I was surprised to see a queue and people apparently being turned away.  We took our seats and I was so happy to see Richard, Milan and Alena from Argo, as well as Dominika, my interpreter from the book signing.

Here I am sitting next to Petra.  I don't look very happy - but the play hadn't started yet! The theatre space was small and intimate and seemed perfect for the play.  I could not make any judgement about the adaptation because I speak no Czech, but audience contained many children and they seemed completely enthralled by what they were watching.

Visually I thought it looked great.  The cast were very good - even without being able to understand the words, I could tell that - and there was a clever device used throughout, which consisted of a video feed being projected onto a screen behind the actors.  The screen showed a dolls house separated into different rooms all related to the action.  The interiors of the rooms were genuinely odd and unsettling, a mixture of objects, furniture and photo montage.  It worked really well.

The cast were Lucie Radimerská, Lenka Vahalová, Jana Valentová, Petr Florián, Josef Horák, Michael Hnátek, and Dušan Sitek.  Petr played Edgar, and Dušan played Uncle Montague.  The director was Ewa Zembok and she is sitting on the right dressed in black.

 After the performance Petra took me up to the castle, heading up the hill by tram.  It was very cold in the wind up there but it was great to see the cathedral at night, bristling with gargoyles.  There were very few people about and we passed very few on the walk down the hill to the party the theatre company had kindly invited me to celebrate the opening.

We sat in a back room around a long table and drank some wine and ate some very nice food.  I had a chance to talk to the Ewa, the director, and members of the cast, as well as other friends and family.  I had a long talk with René Nekuda, a young playwright, whose work Theatre Puls will be performing next.  It was great to be in the middle of such a lovely group of young, creative and intelligent people, all trying to make their way in the arts - a difficult thing in any country.

I was exhausted by about eleven o'clock and decided that I'd forced these people to speak English long enough.  I said my goodbyes and went back to my hotel, hoping very much that I will get to come back and meet up with some of these people again.