By Dian Hasan | May 18, 2009
There are places that require very little introduction, as the mere notion conjures up images of a very distinctive identity. Prague is such a place.
The capital of Czech Republic lies in the heart of Europe, and its stunning setting of Prague Castle looming over shimmering medieval spires with Charles Bridge over the River Vltava is one of the most recognizable cities in Europe.
Personally, I find it difficult not to be biased about Prague’s captivating beauty, after all I was born just outside the city, and lived in Prague when until I entered grade school. And although I’ve moved around since then, my regular visits have left an indelible personal imprint from an early age. And only in latter years, upon consistently hearing how other visitors talk about Prague, did I become convinced that the city had cast a spell on many a traveler.
From even then, during the clutches of Communism, when Prague hid her beauty behind a sea of scaffolding to keep falling debris from injuring pedestrians, her charm was undeniable. The government simply had neither the wherewithal nor the will to maintain the irreplaceable historic buildings. And even during these iron curtain days, Prague was considered as Europe’s best-kept travel secret.
The Czechs have always been an irrepressible people, a fun-loving, often cynical bunch of intellectuals who love to debate about politics and always question authority. Life during Soviet-era Prague was no different, culminating in the 1968 “Prague Spring” student uprising. Demanding more civil liberties.
Remnants from this period are still evident to this day, bullet holes in the massive Doric columns of the National Museum atop Wenceslas Square, Prague’s main boulevard. When Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the hopes of a renegade nation on the cusp of freedom.
Spring fills the air with classical music:
Prague is a full four seasons city. Winter ushers in snow and a crispy fresh air (January – February), while Summer sees temperatures rise to sweltering heat, exhausting any traveler from their ambition of exploring Prague’s attractions on foot (June – August). The best time to truly enjoy the city is in Spring (April – May) and Fall (September – October).
As her cherry trees blossom and herald Spring, the entire city transforms into a stage of every conceivable music genre – notably classical – permeating through the air. It is not uncommon to be exploring the city’s many hidden small lanes and suddenly interrupted by an a-cappella choir or concerto from a nearby Baroque church. Or the many jazz quartets up and down Charles Bridge.
But the most important is the Prague Spring International Music Festival. An acclaimed annual music festival that showcases world-class talent of performing artists, symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles, and opens every May 12th – as a tribute to the anniversary of the death of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. This year’s 64th event features works by Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Schuman, Händel, Beethoven and Puccini. And as always, a well known roster of heavy-weights will add to the legacy of past performers that include, among others: Leonard Bernstein, Sir Adrian Boult, Rafael Kubelík, Moura Lympany, Jarmila Novotná, Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi, Jan Panenka, Herbert von Karajan, Mstislav Rostropovich, Sir Colin Davis, Maurice André, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Alfred Brendel, James Galway, Leopold Stokowski and Arthur Rubinstein.
And the two venues are as memorable as the music; the Rudolfinum Concert Hall, an ornate Neo-Renaissance building (1885) by the river that is home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. And the magnificent Municipal House – Obecní Dům (1912), considered as Prague’s best example of Art Nouveau adorned by Alphonse Mucha’s stained glass and artwork.
Architecture: the only place where Cubism comes to life:
What unites first-time travelers in their impression of Prague is architecture. The concoction of architectural styles that line the streets is bewildering, from Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Roccoco, Classic, Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernist, Cubist, and Rondocubist. The historic city center – some of which date as far back as the 14th Century – is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Delighting the average traveler and architecture aficionados alike.
Cubism, an avant-garde art movement that was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, spread across Europe in early 1900s, but it was only Czech Cubism (1910 – 1918) that boldly went beyond paintings and sculpture, and manifested in architecture. Prague is the only city in the world with Cubist Architecture, a unique design form that is much like Barcelona’s Gaudi, distinctively different.
The best example of this style is the House of the Black Madonna – Dům U Černé Matky Boží on Celetna Street (ArchitectL Josef Gocar -1912) in downtown Prague. A six-story building originally designed as a Department Store that today houses the Museum of Czech Cubism – Kubista Museum, and a café on the 1st floor. The charming little museum shop carries unique replicas of rare Czech cubist and Art Deco objects. Other Cubist buildings are strewn across Prague – including the world’s only surviving Cubist lamppost on Jungmanovo Square. And in Vysehrad area, where you’ll find several Cubist Villas, of which the most impressive is Kovarovic Villa.
For what could be a better combination than classical music and one-of-a-kind architecture in Springtime Prague. And if Cubist Architecture is not your cup of tea, a plethora of other architectural styles await. All you need to do is look up to check which architectural style catches your eye.