Friday, July 7, 2017

Prague, again

View of the Vltava from one of the bridges
Just a few years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I would travel to Prague once. Now I’ve been there three times. This time it was with Triple M Tours and SocialBeadia on a trip called Beading through Bohemia. Our mission was to do some sightseeing, visit cradle of Czech beads, and learn some new beading skills taught by Marcia DeCoster. There are several previous blogs that include information about Prague, so if you’d like to read about other visits there (including reviews), take a look at Art, Time after Time, Weirdness in Bohemia, Peeking in on Prague, Review of Viking Cruise from Prague to Paris.

Compared to cities in China, Prague isn’t particularly large (only around 1.2 million people), but when there is a saint’s day or other event, wherever you’re wandering can be jammed
Church of Our Lady before Týn
with crowds. This is a very old city, with evidence of habitation back to the Paleolithic age. Trade routes followed the river, enticing the Celts to establish the hamlet of Boii about 500 BC and attracting the Slavs by 512 AD. Legend has it that
Princess Libuše, the sovereign of the Czech tribe, married a commoner named Přemysl, and founded the empire in his name. From her castle she had a vision that one day Prague would be a glorious city and the envy of the world. And while it is a wondrous city with its gothic architecture, I’m not too sure that it is envied by ‘the world’. However, Prague Castle, built by Bořivoj in about 880, is one of the largest castles in the world and has housed the Czech rulers; it is still the office of the Czech president.

The city thrived in the 14th century under the reign of Charles IV, of the Luxembourg dynasty. King Charles instigated construction of St. Vitus' Cathedral and many other new
The Mucha window
Pictures courtesy of Barbara Schultz-Jones
churches were founded at this same time. His support of the Catholic Church and the bishopric of Prague led to his being crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Rome in 1355 and elevated Prague to the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Although another architect began work on the cathedral, Peter Parler was put in charge. He thought of architecture as sculpture, creating vaulting domes, undulating walls, and windows with their own unique ornamentation. The entire cathedral was finally completed in the 1920s, some 600 years (and a total of nine architects) after it was begun. On this visit to St. Vitus' Cathedral we actually got to see the stained glass windows designed by one of my favorite
Art Nouveau artists, Alphonse Mucha. The colors are amazingly bright and one of the highlights of the church. We also got to go down to the alter area. Walking along the side of the sanctuary, we saw the coffin of St. John of Nepomuk. It is an impressive silver casket with angels above and below; there is also what appears to be a young soldier. There is a legend that if you rub his knee you’ll have good luck. There is also a sign that says not to touch, but the bright silver shows that either lots of folks want to be lucky or that they can’t read.

Another church I had not seen before was the Prague Loreto (or Loreta). This self-contained complex has been a place of pilgrimage for Christians since the 17th century. It is made up
Left and Right:  Monstrances
Center T to B: Exterior of Santa Casa and Interior of Santa Casa
of a cloister, the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord, the Santa Casa, and the clock tower with its famous chime. Construction began in 1626 and the Santa Casa was blessed on in 1631. By the 1680s, the Loreto was receiving so many pilgrims that additional cloisters were built and then an upper story was added in the 1740s. This increase in visitors also called for enlargement of both corner chapels and the Chapel of the Nativity of Our Lord. Most people come to see the Santa Casa or Holy House. Within the house is the story of Mary with emphasis on her life with Jesus. It’s a beautiful structure with interesting artwork both inside and out. One of the highlights of our visit was the ringing of the bells. This tradition began in the late 1690s after the completion of the bell mechanism by watchmaker Peter Neumann who used thirty smaller and larger bells to create a memorable peal. However, our main reason for visiting the Loreto was the treasury. The majority of items on display are artifacts used during church services. For artists working in beads and/or in fabric, this is like being in a candy store. While the visual input is wonderful, the ideas that these works of art generate are myriad.

One area of Prague that never fails to impress me is the Jewish quarter. Once again we
Two clocks, Roman and Hebrew
toured the cemetery and the Jewish Ceremonial Hall that has been turned into an information center. I did learn on this visit that in the 17th century the Jewish community of Prague made up about 30 per cent of the entire population of the Czech Republic and was the largest Ashkenazic community in the world at that time. As you enter the old ghetto area, there is the Jewish Town Hall adjacent to the Old New Synagogue (built in 1594). What makes this meeting house interesting is its two clocks; the one on the tower has Roman numeral markings, while the other, has Hebrew numerals and runs counterclockwise. Jews were persecuted for many reasons; at one time they were thought to be in league with witches. This was because they were fairly untouched by plagues. What people of the day didn’t understand was that the Jewish community had hygiene practices that, although they were religious requirements, were based in sound health practices. One of these was that upon leaving the cemetery people were required to wash their hands. This makes good health sense because if one is working with bodies that have some disease, washing keeps the disease from spreading; at the time this was a ‘little known fact’.

One of our major disappointments was that The Clementinum, which housed the National Library of Prague, was closed for renovations. However, the Mirror Chapel was open and
Left to Right: Pipe organ,Mirror Chapel
there was a concert one evening. Hot, sweaty, and tired from a day of walking the city, sitting in a cool place listening to classical music was a lovely treat. The chapel was built by Kilian Ignac Dientzenhofer in 1724 but its history begins long before with its dedication to Saint Clement in the 11th century. Once a Dominican monastery it was transformed to a Jesuit college in 1556, which merged with Charles University in 1654. In 1773, the Clementinum 
was inaugurated as an observatory, library, and university by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. When we walked into the chapel, I expected to see mirrors everywhere, but this wasn’t the case. There were two pairs of large mirrors that reflected each other, giving the optical illusion of mirrors reaching into infinity. The rest of the chapel was Baroque with a large pipe organ that is reported to have been played by Wolfgang Armadas Mozart. The concert that evening was performed by two violinists, a cellist, an organist and a soprano. The music was lovely and the acoustics of the chapel were amazing.

On this trip we did get out into the Jizera Mountains near Prague. It was just as bucolic as I
Left T to B: Milk goats, Johnny-jump-ups
Right: Bead warehouse
expected. Up in the mountains was what we came to see: the making of
Czech beads. We actually visited three bead manufacturers. At the first, Verkaufstelle, we got to take a tour of the manufacturing facility. There’s a lot that goes in to making those little glass orbs, including sand. (The Potomac Bead Company has several YouTube videos about the process.) This manufacturer also gives tours to children and at the end of the presentation they get to make a bracelet from some of the beads. Although we would have been happy doing that, we were much happier being turned loose in the warehouse where we got to purchase bags of beads! Also on site is a cheese making facility and a large herd of goats. The goats are in fields that are pesticide free and are not fed anything that isn’t ‘organic’. And, as it turns out, the cheese making business is more profitable than bead making, so this plant will be shut down this year.

Down in the town of Prodejna is another bead maker, but this group produces each bead by hand. Koralky Vinute Perle produced lampwork beads. It was fascinating to watch these
artists take glass rods and turn them into multi-layered beads, each unique yet similar. The owner of the store didn’t realize that we wanted beads rather than finished pieces and that we didn’t want to make the beads, ourselves, but rather to buy handfuls of these bits of fun. Once we got that information to him, he and his helper brought out tray after tray of glass temptations.

Our final bead stop was at the Matura warehouse. Our host, and owner, could not have
Left: Matura sign
Right T to B: Matura warehouse and grounds; Fish plaque
been nicer, offering us something to drink before telling us to dive into the bins of beads. While we didn’t get to see how the beads were made, we did get to spend a lot of time deciding which beads we wanted, how many kilograms we ‘needed’, and just how much we thought would fit in our bags without making them overweight for the flight home. The setting for this company is in the mountains with a small stream running through the property. There were sunflowers all around and I’m sure had we been there a bit earlier in the season, the area would have abounded in other wildflowers. Also next to their property was a fish raising operation. What caught my attention was the plaque with the fish; at first glance it appeared to be beaded.

Once back in Prague, several of us were lured out onto the scenic Vltava River. Although the Czech Republic was experiencing a heat wave, Prague Boats were a cool and
Left: Bridge art
Right T to B: People boating on the river, Swimmers with dogs
comfortable way to do some sightseeing. Commonly referred to as the Czech national river, the Vltava is the longest river within the Czech Republic. There are 18 bridges that cross the river as it runs the 19 miles through Prague. People still use it for recreation, including swimming and it was the main source of drinking water until 1912. It is still the emergency water supply with several miles upstream set aside and covered by strict water pollution regulations. The nine hydroelectric dams not only regulate the water flow but also generate hydroelectric power. As a tourist, I was just glad for a cold adult beverage, a shady place to sit, and an interesting narration about the buildings on the shore.

Ready for more walking, we set off in search of a kinesthetic sculpture. A writer whose work influenced many others, Franz Kafka was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague. His writing is typified by an amalgamation of realism and fantasy, dropping his characters into situations that are at once surrealistic and impenetrable. The story I am most familiar with is ‘The Metamorphosis’ in which a traveling salesman is wakes up one morning and finds he has changed into an insect; and it is quite surrealistic and, to me, pointless. The sculpture is quite interesting, particularly since it rotates in parts and only resembles the author at odd moments.

Next week the blog will be about our visit to Vienna, Austria. I’d never been to this city and it was quite an eye-opener!
The Lennon Peace Wall

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