Wednesday, July 26, 2006

In The Land Of Whimsy: Prague and Karlovy Vary

Czechia happens to be the official name of the Czech Republic, even though few people are aware of it. In the recent years Prague has become the proverbial tourist Mecca. At 90 euros all-included return, we decided to follow the herd and visit the city of Hašek, Čapek and Kafka. Three hoorays to SmartWings - the only budget airline that serves free food and drinks!


here have been written so much about Prague so I will just recap the nicest and the weirdest we have encountered.

Many other cities shut their opera houses for the summer, but in Prague Mozart's Don Giovanni is staged every day to cater to the never-ending tourist crowds. It is quite a nice and polished performance in the theatre where it premièred back in 1787. In a suburb on the other side of the Vltava is the house where Mozart wrote it. We went to both to round off the experience.

Outside the city, in an unassuming neighbourhood is the resplendent Troja Palace with an exuberant Defeat Of The Turks ceiling fresco. Renaissance arrived to Czechia early thanks to it being a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Architectural idea travelled faster inside the Western world and the Troya Palace is a good proof of that. In the basement an oenotheque is dedicated to promoting Bohemian and Moravian wines. Made from mostly Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, they are very Germanic in style: light, sweet and aromatic.

Right across the road from it is the Prague Zoo: it is not on a grand scale but very nicely presented. Two years after a devastating flood, it seems to have recovered very well. Most memorably we saw fruit bats gorging on bananas in the dark; mating giant turtles (oh, the GRUNTS and MOANS!); and a close-up of dozing tiger's. Back in the city, nearly equally nice is the Strahovsky monastery with the remarkable ceiling fresco of Christ's Feast With The Righteous.

He's a fictional character alright but it was a huge kick treading in the footsteps of good soldier Švejk: namely the U Kalicha restaurant that he "frequented". The book is very big in the German and Russian-speaking worlds but remains relatively unknown to the Anglo-Saxons. It is considered to be the first anti-war novel ever written but its virtues are not limited to that. The author, Jaroslav Hašek
was part of the big, if at times tragic, adventure of WWI - Czechoslovak Legions. The story of brave and enterprising people caught in the chaos of revolutions, collapsing empires, ideologies and wars but never giving in to circumstances is one of the most inspiring adventures I have read about.

Boat trip on the Vltava river was good fun: three and half hours of unrushed sightseeing and energetic jostling for buffet food with two hundred other tourists. At the end of the day everyone was full if a tad roughed up and battle-weary. The lush colours of the twilight over the Vltava made good for it all.

No place is without a bad apple: horrible modern art in Prague is concentrated around the Wenceslas Square and Vysehrad. This is how being a part of the Western world can at times backfire.

Karlovy Vary

A few hours by coach took us to the Old World splendour of Karlovy Vary where everyone apart from waiters and sales clerks appears to be from Russia. During the heady days of Yeltsin's rule, New Russians discovered that it was safer to invest in property abroad than to keep the money in the country. In the early 90s up to 80% of realty market in Karlovy Vary was taken over by shady characters from the East. They went as far as to building their own airport with daily flights to Moscow.

More known as Carlsbad in the English-speaking world, Karlovy Vary is a very posh and twee spa resort, where even dog kennels are Art Nouveau. Jugendstil extravaganza permeates throughout the whole town. There is a whole neighbourhood of splendid Art Nouveau villas (see the slideshow just below). The legacy of Austro-Hungarian religious tolerance lives in fine Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches.

There is more to these town than fine buildings and healing waters. As it goes, behind pretty façades hides tragic history. Historically, Karlovy Vary lies in the Sudetenland, an area for centuries dominated by ethnic Germans. Upon the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the town was made a part of newly created Czechoslovakia and given its present Slavicised name. Protests by local residents were violently suppressed by Czech police forces. The rise and defeat of Hitler's Germany brought about more mutual ethnic cleansing in the area. Currently, Karlovy Vary is well established as a Czech town but there still seems to be quite a bit of bad blood going on.

Karlovy Vary happens to be a major celebrity destination, the visitors list is a Who Is Who In Culture, Politics and Science during last 200 years list : Mozart, Marx, Paganini, Schiller, Wagner, Chopin, Brahms, Dr. Pavlov, Freud, Kafka, Hitler, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Atatürk, Yuri Gagarin, Henry Fonda, Jackie Chan, Leonid Brezhnev to name just a few, as well as a whole assortment of royal personalities from Ethiopian emperors to Japanese princesses. Beethoven and Goethe used to have walks here together much to the glee of the residents.

This trip finally shattered my illusions of Pan-Slavism. They are just that: illusions. There is no reality to back it up except for linguistic relation. There is precious little culturally connecting Czechs, a Holy Roman Empire Nation, jolly Mediterranean Croats and imperially inclined Orthodox Russians. It is no coincidence that Bulgarians elected themselves a German king right after the Russian army delivered them from Turks in 1878.


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