7 November 2009 – Wenceslas Square and getting ripped off

Wenceslas square

Wenceslas square

Saturday 7 November

The bed situation was a bit of a pain. Yes it was very comfortable but Commando’s habit of sleeping nearest the door (I think it’s some kind of primeval protecting the cave thing) meant I had to more or less climb over him when I wanted the loo in the middle of the night. Breakfast was down the grandly winding stairs in a basement dining room. Like all the rooms it was long and thin but with a low arched ceiling. The furniture was all dark wood, more sideboards and fancy chairs with tapestry seats and backs, very eighteen century. There was even a beautiful old wooden globe on a stand and candelabras on the sideboards.

The plan for the day was to go to Wenceslas square. Luckily we had map. Unfortunately all the street names are in Czech. We couldn’t make head or tail of the seemingly unpronounceable words, they seemed to have way too many consonants and lots of odd accents. Czech must be one of the most difficult languages to learn. To us there was nothing familiar about it, no resemblance to any language we knew. Eventually, with the help of Google and the wifi in the hotel lobby we managed to work it out. In Prague Wenceslas square is actually called Václavské náměstí, which seemed pretty silly to us but what do we know?

Wrapping up in practically every piece of clothing we had with us we stepped out into the bitter air. In a very uncool, touristy, manner we walked along looking at the map, going up Ječná in the same direction we had last night. In daylight the street looks even more down at heel, there’s graffiti everywhere, the pavements are patched and uneven, even more than English ones which is saying something. Just the act of walking was difficult what with the map checking, pot hole watching and the street and shop signs with all their strange letter combinations and squiggly accents. The only way we knew what shops we were passing was to look inside.

Sensibly I was trying to make a mental note of landmarks so we had some vague chance of getting back to the hotel. The first turning was at the junction with the Casino on the corner. This meant crossing the road which was easier said than done. Not only was the road very busy, the carriageway on the opposite side had trams to contend with too and then there was the remembering which way to look. We managed to get across and, with a landmark check, Potraviny Midi (a mini supermarket) we set off down Stepanska.

Here the rather grand cream stone and pretty pastel buildings with beautifully ornate tiled roofs stood cheek by jowl with ugly concrete monstrosities. I was still taking note of landmarks, trying to remember names I could pronounce and trying to work out what kind of shops I was passing. Interestingly Salamander turned out to sell shoes and handbags rather than the expected lizards. Every so often the treacherous pavements had a stretch of cobbles which were, if anything, tougher on the feet than the pot holes.

The further we went the grander the buildings became although there was still the odd concrete monstrosity here and there. Finally we were there, Wenceslas Square which, it turns out, isn’t a square at all but a long boulevard with a central Island of small rectangular gardens, trees, paving and seating along with the odd, parasol festooned, pavement cafe. The actual cages are across the busy road so, presumably the waiters have to cross with their trays, they deserve danger money. The building on the opposite side of the boulevard caught my eye and I made a mental note of this for the journey back. So far it hadn’t been too difficult, straight roads, one turn, but who knew what we were going to remember by the end of the day?

The building was the Grand Hotel Evropa, painted a warm ochre with an arched frontage, blue green balconies and an over the top roof with a huge arch sticking high into the skyline, statues and ornately decorative finials. Built in 1889 by the architect Belsky, it was originally called Archduke Stephan but it was remodelled in art nouveau style less than twenty years later by Bendelmayer, Hübschmann and Letzel. The statues on the front were designed by sculptor Ladislav Saloun. How do I know all this? Ask Google.

It was the art nouveau theme that attracted my attention. The style and the font of the hitel signs reminded me of the Alphonse Mucha prints I love so much. Mucha was born in Prague in 1860 and began his career painting theatrical scenery but rose to fame for his lithographs of Sarah Bernhardt. The term Art Nouveau was coined for his prolific work, paintings, posters, book illustrations, jewellery, even wallpaper in pale pastel colours. His work decorates the Theatre of Fine Arts in Prague amongst other city landmarks and he even created stamps and banknotes. In 1939 he was one of the first people arrested but the Gestapo when the German troops entered Czechoslovakia and, although he was released, he died soon afterwards. Ironically, by this time, his work was thought to be old fashioned although even today his posters are popular and his work has influenced many modern artists.

Of course we had to go inside the cafe of Grand Hotel Evropa, just to have a look. We sat, me gawping at the amazing interior, all arches, dark wood, marble architectural plants and murals, with a coffee and a cake. My eyes were darting around trying to take it all in. The gallery running around the top of the room, the lamps, the tables, it was like stepping back in time to the beginning of the last century and I loved it.

Suitably refreshed and warmed we strolled up the central gardens towards the museum. Everywhere there were yellow taxis, pastel coloured buildings and fancy designer shops. There were also cobbles. They may look nice but I’m not sure I like cobbles very much, not only that but it was all up hill. Right at the top of the square, in front of the Czech National Museum we came to the famous statue of Saint Wenceslas, patron Saint of Bohemia, mounted on a horse. This was sculpted by Josef Václav Myslbek. The base of the statue was designed by architect Alois Dryák and is ornately carved with other Czech patron saints. The horse is quite fitting as the square was a horse market during the Middle Ages.

We did look at the front of the National Museum Building, designed by Czech architect Josef Schulz. This is another very grand building. The central section has steps leading to pillars above which is a domed tower. At either end of the building there are smaller domes and there are, of course, the obligatory bronze statues. Right in front of it, behind the Wenceslas statue, is a metro station. Perhaps if we’d had more time we’d have gone inside the museum.

Wenceslas square has been the scene of many historical events. At the end of October 1918 Alois Jirásek read the proclamation of Czechoslovakian independence in front of the Wenceslas statue. It has been the scene of public demonstrations, celebrations and gatherings. Most notably two young Czech men set themselves on fire here. On 19 January 1969 twenty one year old Jan Palach was the first. His self immolation was a protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by The Soviet Union a year earlier. He was taken to the Charles University Faculty Hospital where he eventually died. A major protest against the occupation followed and, on 25 February 1969, Jan Zajíc, just nineteen, followed in his footsteps, mercifully he died almost instantly. In front of the museum there is a memorial to the two young men. We stood and looked at their faces, etched in marble slabs. In front of it there was a glass jar filled with water and a sprig of red berries along with bunches of fresh flowers laid on the marble.

It was a moving sight and we stood for a long time thinking about those two young men and the events that followed. In 1989, on the twentieth anniversary of Palach’s death there were protests. These escalated into a series of anticommunist demonstrations that would be later dubbed Palach Week. The police used force, beating demonstrators and using water cannon. It was the beginning of the end of communism. It fell in Czechoslovakia ten months later. Jan Palac and Jan Zajíc finally got their wish.

Feeling rather maudlin, we turned and had a quick wander along the green area in front of the railway station for a while but fear of getting lost soon took us back to the cobbles of the square. At least this time we were walking downhill. The shops were a mixture of indecipherable Czech and disconcertingly familiar, Orange, Debenhams, H&M and Next cheek by jowl with Zlatnictvi and Knihy. Commando dragged me, protesting, past Starbucks and I did the same to him with MacDonalds. When we came to the very bottom of the square I spotted Café Liberty on 28 října and, as reward for missing out on Starbucks, we went inside. By this point I could hardly feel my fingers so it was more about holding a warm cup and thawing them out than actually drinking coffee. It was also about using their toilet facilities, public toilets in Prague are not free and leave quite a lot to be desired so restaurants and department stores are the best places to go.

Of course, getting out of the cold was all very well but the searing heat inside the cafe meant it felt even worse when we went back outside. The only thing for it was to keep moving so we did. At some point 28 října turned into Národní, the boundry of the old and new town. This was at least a name we would remember, it made us both think about Rodney in Only Fools and Horses. We walked on sniggering and occasionally muttering, “you plonker Rodney,” to each other childishly.

By this time we were walking quite fast, well as fast as the cobbles allowed. Commando, with his long legs was hard to keep up with and I found myself half running for fear of being left behind. We both stopped short to gawp at a strange piece of graffiti on the side of a building through. We’d seen our share of graffiti in Prague, most of it the usual tags and squiggles, not interesting and not pretty, this though was different. Khaki coloured tanks chasing yellow bulldozers around a figure of eight on the side of two buildings. We stood and looked, wondering what it meant. Of course I’ve Googled it now and it turns out this is the work of an Italian graffiti artist, similar in some ways to England’s Banksy. He is known simply as Blu and has been painting street art all over the world since 1999. This piece, entitled Gaza Strip, was painted in 2008.

A little further on we stopped again by a beautiful arched doorway set off by Art Nouveau copper screens. the door was set between a book shop and a cafe but, looking up at the second floor we saw beautiful friezes. I made Commando cross the road to get a better view and, higher still, owls and angels sat on the corners of window frames. At the very top five small round windows were decorated with lavish murals, laced with gold and the letters PRAHA, the Czech word for Prague. This was Divadlo Viola, designed by Osvald Polívka, and formerly owned by the Prague Insurance Company. These days it is, more fittingly for such an impressive building, a theatre.

We were coming to the end of the road and the river. On the corner one more building caught my eye and this time I knew exactly what it was. The National Theatre built in 1883, is one of Prague’s most famous landmarks. The original was funded by private donations but burned down within weeks of completion. Amazingly, more funding was found and it was lovingly restored by Josef Schulz, now it is used for ballet and opera performances. The building is an imposing, darkly ornate series of arches and pillars. On the corner of the roof verdigris covered copper horses seem to be about to gallop over the side of the building and a row to statues stand on guard. Personally I’d rather have the Divadlo Viola.

So we’d reached the river Vltava, right opposite one of the bridges. Scaffolding covered with screens helpfully painted with the statues being restored beneath guarded the entrance. In the distance I thought I could see the castle. This was Smetanovo nábreží the right riverbank and Legií bridge, at least that is what the map and Google tell me. The river and the castle were for tomorrow though so we turned back the way we’d come.

Back at the bottom of Wenceslas Square our stomachs told us we needed food so we thought we’d try the Hotel Prague Inn, mostly because it was there, it boasted original Czech Cuisine and it looked interesting. Inside and down some stairs we were in a cellar, vaulted ceilings, all brick and stone. It reminded me of a Hammam but without the smell of essential oils. We managed to make ourselves understood and were shown a table and a menu. The stripped wooden floors, modern bentwood chairs and minimalist style, not to mention the large TV screen on the wall gave it a surprisingly modern feel.

Thankfully the menu was in English as well as Czech and it said prices include VAT. The main meals were a touch on the expensive side and we really only wanted a snack so I quickly chose a sandwich, salami and hot pepper, Commando chose an omelette with potatoes. There was a bit of a wait which was surprising as the place was empty but the food, when it eventually came was good. The problem came when we asked for the bill, they added a 30% service charge. The menu most certainly hadn’t said anything about that and, given how long we’d had to wait, it wasn’t something we were exactly enthralled with. There didn’t seem to be much we could do about it though, especially as we don’t speak any Czech. We paid but it soured our experience. I would not go there again and I wouldn’t recommend it. If we’d been warned beforehand we’d have had a choice about it and, in the great scheme of things, it wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it felt as if we’d been ripped off.

Back out in the freezing cold we walked, quite crossly, in the opposite direction along Na Prikope, a kind of precinct with a more modern feel. This seemed to be mainly clothes shops, all neon signs and English writing, New Yorker, Ben and Jerry’s, Subway, Mango, Zara, L’Occitane and H&M. All shops you could see on any English high street. We wandered along, looking for something more local. When the precinct came to an end and the shops ahead showed no sign of getting any more interesting we turned back. Time was getting on and it would be getting dark soon so we retraced our steps back to Wenceslas Square. Thankfully all my taking note earlier in the day paid off and we found the right place, opposite Evropa to turn back towards the hotel. We made it back just as dark was falling. My feet hurt!

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