My recent post about pumpkin soup got me thinking. I said at the time my mum makes the best soup in the world. And while I think it’s safe to continue saying she makes the best soup in Australia, with all respect to my mum, I might need to concede that I have had better soup. In Prague. That said, the soup in question was helped along by setting, hunger, and quite possibly the most perfect day ever, so I think memory has possibly made it marginally more special than it was. Mum can retain her crown. At least until I can go back for a second tasting.
Much like my previously discussed experience in Spain, Prague took me by surprise. I don’t think I had any concept of the Czech Republic at all before I left Australia. I was thrilled for Vienna and primed for Budapest, but hadn’t given Prague a second thought. People kept telling me how amazingly awesome it was, but I didn’t take it on board at all.
Here’s the thing. I still can’t tell you what’s so awesome about Prague. If I was to describe my day there to you, like I did in version one of this post, it would sound kind of boring, I went for a walk, sat in a park and read, walked some more, strolled along the banks of a river, crossed a bridge, wove my way up cobbled streets to the top of a hill, looked at an old church (with some stunning stain glass windows) and wound my way back down again. It’s not a day filled with punch or adventure. It was marvellous.
I had thought to abandon words all together. But I’ve looked and my pictures don’t capture the magic at all. There’s nothing for it, you’re going to have to go and experience Prague for yourself. But in the meantime, here’s my best effort to tell you what’s so fantastic and what you absolutely must go see.
I don’t think I really understood the Belle Époque and Art Nouveau until I wandered the streets of Prague. I had never imagined that a city like this had ever, let alone still, existed. It’s somewhat like walking through streets that have appropriated the aesthetic of a Klimt painting. It’s compellingly as if you’ve been transported back a hundred years. Except it’s not. Because the ravages and hardships of the last hundred years, the wars, the occupations, the Soviet Bloc are faintly there to see and the whole reason why this marvellous architecture remains.
Cities reflect not just where the money is, but when it was. In Hobart where I grew up, most of the architecture in the city is colonial, with some sprinklings of Art Deco government buildings. At one time, the abundance of convict labour made construction cheap and the trade winds and abundance of whales made Hobart a regular stop on the trade route of the world. When technology (and morals) changed, so did Tasmania’s economic importance, and a lack of finances stoped old out-dated buildings from being torn down, until they were old enough that no one could. I haven’t read anything on the subject, so this is just conjecture, but I got the sense that Prague had a similar story. The late nineteenth early twentieth centuries saw a boom of money and culture and a blitz of gorgeous, innovative, arresting buildings. Then the wars, the occupations, the Eastern Bloc. By the time anyone was in a position to consider tearing these buildings down, why on earth would you want to.
The Old Town is equally lovely, though in a much more anticipated way. Cobble streets, red roofs, a fantastic Cathedral. I was very happy to get lost on this charming hillside for a few hours. And equally charmed by the antique stores filled with treasures and bohemian crystal.
This is pegged as the big attraction in all the guidebooks, and rightly so. Its medieval sculptures inspire curiosity, and if appropriately informed are rich in legend and superstition, it affords lovely views down the river and up to the old town, and it’s the hub for things that are aimed at tourists, but which tourists want to see. And by this, what I really mean that there was a fantastic, rotating group of musicians playing fantastic, rustic, jazzy standards that transported me to another time. It was marvellous and I stood on that bridge in the cold much later into the night than was sensible, and again in the afternoon crush much longer than was comfortable. There was also a market in the afternoon, however I had shopped a great deal by that stage so didn’t pause to peruse.
The Water Colours:
Sure they’re tourist kitsch, and everywhere, but of all the tourist art I accumulated these are the purchases that still make me happy.
The lady who sold me this watercolour was friendly and full of advice on how to make the most of my day. Her big tip was to cross the road, turn left, walk 2 blocks and take an early lunch at her favourite cafe. “Like Paris” she said. And it was.
But it wasn’t like the Paris I’d just been too. If I squinted, twisted my head the right way and was willing to commit to it, it was the Paris of my dreams. The interior took the nostalgia architecture the step further, I was transported: beauty, glamour, the Belle Époque.
I ordered pea and potato soup with croutons, but it was just a wee bit more special than what I was expecting. My soup arrived with a flourish, a mould of fluffy potato, three long elegant croutons, a jug of frothy pea soup poured at the table with a dash of drama. It was all very simple and elegant, but dining with a touch of theatre made the experience so memorable and the day (and Prague) that bit more magical.