Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Beautiful Day in Prague

I woke up early. The sun was shining. I cooked up a pancake breakfast and got myself ready to go. The kids moved slowly. Tom moved not at all. We opted for the divide and conquer move.

I sprinted from the apartment in 16 degree weather, my shades on, feeling fine. I spent the next few hours cruising the synagogues and cemeteries of the Jewish Quarter. Ask me anything. I started with the Pinkas Synagogue. On the walls are handwritten the names of Czech Jews who perished in the Second World War. It looks like wallpaper covering the entire synagogue. When the Russians came in to introduce the communist way of life, they whitewashed over it all and only in the early 90’s were the names rewritten. As you walk through, a voice reads the names aloud. Upstairs is a gallery of art drawn by children interred at Terezin. Terezin was a holding house for Jews on their way to the death camps. The adults set up “school” for the kids to try to keep some sort of normalcy in their lives. Technically, the Nazi’s wouldn’t allow the kids to be educated but they did allow art and drawing. That was how the classes started and then the Jews moved into the illegal language/history lessons later. It was interesting to think that school became a way for adults and children to find a way cope with the terror they were living. The art was only a portion of the pictures produced by the kids and many of the artists died at the death camps.

After the Pinkas Synagogue, I moved to the cemetery. It was really cool. The first bodies were laid to rest there in the 15th century! The Jews believe that the dead cannot be moved because once the body is laid to rest it is waiting for the resurrection. The city would only allow small extensions of the cemetery property so over the past seven hundred years they have covered the whole cemetery over with a layer of dirt and started again…several times. They haul the gravestones up to the new level, however, so there are gravestones on top of gravestones. It gives the place a really creepy feel. It is a wonderful old cemetery.

I wandered through the ceremonial hall looking at images and relics used in the burial process before heading over to the Old New Synagogue. This building was erected in the 13th century. It is the oldest extant synagogue in Europe. It was built by Christians because Jews weren’t allowed to build at that time. It has various legends attached to it but the best one is that there is a “golem”, a small clay figure that sits in the attic and guards the synagogue. It was created by one of the famous Rabbi’s and he must have done a darn good job because the synagogue is still standing today. All the synagogues are connected in one ticket and each houses part of an historical collection of Jewish life. This was compiled by Jewish leaders in Prague for Hitler. He wanted to create a museum of an “extinct race”.

I met up with my family in the Old Town Square at noon and we proceeded directly to the blackened, shriveled hand of the would-be thief at St. James church. The bad news is that the church was not open. The good news is that we persevered and returned during the two hours of the day it was open to bring you this scintillating shot of the actual severed hand of the unnamed thief.

We then went for a stroll up Wenceslas Street and yes, it is named after the good king of Christmas carol fame. I tried singing the carol to the family but couldn’t remember it in its entirety. No one seemed particularly daunted by that, however. Yet another piece of evidence that the decibel level of my voice has been stricken from their hearing. The architecture along the street was simply fabulous. It varied all the way along from Baroque to Neo-everything to Functionalist to Art Nouveau. I actually think I may be able to tell the difference by the end of this trip. The building on the right is communist chic, I believe.

The statue of Wenceslas was fun to see but better was the more recent statue crafted by a Czech artist out to make a name for himself by creating art everyone can talk about. He is responsible for crawling babies up the side of the TV Tower in Prague and this alternative shot of the good king on his horse.

Behind the original statue of Wenceslas is the National Museum. Rick says it isn't worth the visit but I did like the columns out front. Apparently they were damaged during the Czech uprising against the communist regime. After the rebels had been quelled the Czechs were ordered to fix the columns. In a stroke of passive resistant brilliance, the masons did their best but just couldn't seem to find the right match for the columns. You see the result.

We went to the Mucha Museum, a small museum devoted entirely to the work of Alphonse Mucha which turned out to be excellent. He was Prague’s It-Guy at the beginning of the 20th century. He did a lot of graphic art in that familiar “Moulin Rouge” kind of style. Old Coca-cola ads had that style as well. The details were marvelous. My favourite was one of the four times of day, “night”. He also did painting and his most famous work is called, “Slavic Epic” and is a series of eleven HUGE canvases. Most of his work was done in a series or set. The epic is housed in another Czech city so we didn’t get to see it but we did see a video on it and it looked quite awe-inspiring. One thing I found interesting about him is that he used photography as a way of helping him produce his art. He used real models and dressed them up, then staged them and took a picture. He would produce his graphic art or paintings based on these images. His photography was actually highly acclaimed at the time as well. Before this trip, I didn’t realize the great artists didn’t just paint a glorious work. They all produced numerous “practice” sheets first or fiddled with the image in their head in some way. I’m pretty sure if I did that each one of my “practice” images would be so completely different you wouldn’t be able to see a relationship.

After the museum we went to the Municipal Hall, the finest piece of Art Nouveau architecture in Prague. It may be the finest piece I’ve ever seen. The whole building was a delight to the eyes. It was completely different from the other styles we have been looking at over the past few weeks yet fit seamlessly into the square. In fact, all the buildings on the square were completely different. One was functionalist (very plain and severe looking), one was a Gothic tower (very dark and imposing) and then the Art Nouveau building. We went inside to explore but decided to return for a tour on another day. We wandered through the Old Town back across the bridge and up the hill through the park to our apartment. Because the sun sets earlier now, it shortens our days considerably but that may be a blessing for our feet which have not seemed to embrace the whole walk, walk, walk thing.


maryanncart said...

wonderful pictures and commentary...and yes, you have me laughing! Love Mom

maryanncart said...

I LOVE the picture of Julia...

Steve said...

Great photos and commentary. Glad you are enjoying Prague. Looks like the weather has been mostly cooperative which is wonderful for such a beautiful place.