Viewing: Prague

Mucha on my mind

How was your Easter weekend? Mine was quiet and laid-back, made all the better by the company of a wonderful guest from home.
Just one last Prague post before I move on. I couldn’t leave Prague without having paid a visit to the Mucha Museum, which houses the major works of one of my favorite artists, Alphonse Mucha.
One of my favorite coloring books when I was a kid was my Art Nouveau stained glass coloring book from Goodwill Bookstore. To this day, I love Art Nouveau, and Mucha is Art Nouveau.
When I started working at GMA, I considered it destiny that I ended up in an office where the glass walls of the pantry were plastered with a huge mural of Mucha’s Dance (above). I managed to transmit my Mucha fixation to my work partner Charlie, an insanely talented art director who also tended to obsession. Mucha’s Dance became the jump-off point for a slew of Art Nouveau-inspired outdoor and print materials for a big account that took over our lives. I wish I kept copies of Charlie’s work, it was all so gorgeous.

Mucha’s work is not high art, but it is beautiful. Though he painted, most of his work was fairly commercial: from theater posters to advertisements for champagne and milk to biscuit tins. Many examples of his work, like Spring, Grapes, the poster for Lorenzaccio, and The Slav Epic (all of which I saw at the museum) today are in the public domain.

It was amazing to come face to face with works that I had only seen as small pictures in books, and realize that they are actually HUGE. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the Mucha Museum. So I had to settle for taking photos outside. That day, I was in “simple girl” mode with the Longchamp bag and ponytail, although I would hope the Marni for H&M top elevates it somewhat.
I took home a few postcards of my favorite works.

My favorite souvenir, though, was this handmade notebook. I love notebooks, so this was perfect for me. But it was also very unusual in that it harbored a few hidden treasures. Click on through to peek inside…

Details from Mucha pieces are stencilled and printed inside.

Random quotes are stamped inside. This one about writing called to me, naturally.

What I really loved, though were the pages from old Czech books, together with vintage Czech photos, that were bound with the blank pages. And at the very end, snail mail from the sixties.

It was the perfect purchase: Mucha’s art and a trip to a Prague flea market all bound up in one neat, locally handmade package. If only more museum shop souvenirs were this creative!

Meat me in Prague

Aside from having amazing coffee and cakes, Prague is also a great city for meat. Sausages and stews are part of the Czech national cuisine, and I certainly filled up my year’s (meager) quota of pork during the three days I was there. 

We kept seeing these vendors grilling huge hocks of ham. There was one a few meters from our hotel, one on the Old Town Square, and another at Wenceslas Square near the National Museum. I swear, the meat drew Marlon like a moth to a flame. “Go for it,” I kept telling him, and he kept saying no (go figure). 

On our last day, he finally gave in and ordered a big plate of ham for himself, along with a bowl of fried potatoes. I can’t take meat in such… meaty form, so I opted for a spicy sausage with mustard instead. This was our cheapest lunch by far (about €6, or Php 240), and we ate it on the street. 
For our last meal, we decided to splurge on Cestr, a restaurant located in the new National Museum building (across the road from the old one).

It’s a modern Czech restaurant that specializes in beef—every single part of a cow, in fact. Ever tried the hanging tender or oyster blade? By referring to the handy diagram folded into the single-sheet menu, now you can.

This was heaven for my meat-loving birthday boy. He declared his roast brisket the best he’d ever had, and excitedly scampered back from the men’s room to tell me he’d seen an entire cow hanging in a meat locker out back. I could have sworn his eyes shone when the waiter who served our meal told us that the meat had been aged for 60 days.

As for me, well… okay. I’m not a big meat person but I did enjoy my meal, which was beef shoulder braised in a pepper sauce. I was more impressed by the bowl of fries that came with the meat. They were absolutely perfect. Best. Fries. Ever. 

What really won me over, though, was dessert. The Czech Republic is known for its beer, so I made sure to get not just a beer, but a beer in dessert form: dark beer ice cream, with plums stewed in rum, caramel whipped cream and crunchy caramel bits on top. It was every bit as good as it sounds (and possibly more).

Cafe culture

One of the major ways I’ve changed over the years has to do with the way I travel. As I get older, the more I prefer a laid-back pace. Although I can be meticulous about researching and planning an itinerary for each trip, I get stressed out by careening from one activity (or “tourist attraction”) to another. Instead, I enjoy the spaces in between, the times spent doing just nothing. 
Maybe it’s because I’m not 19 anymore and have less energy. Or maybe it’s the European influence. They are very good at doing nothing and simply enjoying the moment. I used to laugh at Europeans sprawled in the sun on any available patch of grass. Before our tour of Prague Castle, Marlon and I “wasted” a good half-hour just sitting on a bench by the Vltava river, enjoying the warm sunshine and the view of the castle across it.
Another European “time-waster” that I have happily embraced is their cafe culture. I was actually craving for it in Prague: to just sit down and take my time to enjoy a good coffee and pastry. Luckily, the Cafe Louvre on Narodni Avenue combined my craving for some downtime with a piece of Prague’s history.
Similar to the Belle Epoque in Paris, prominent intellectuals and artists of the day would gather and mingle in cafes like this one. Opened in 1902, the Cafe Louvre was frequented by the likes of Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein. 
Thanks to its strong Austro-German influence, Prague is an amazing place for cakes and pastries. It was hard to choose, but eventually we ended up getting a poppy seed cake with a fine dusting of sugar and a serving of caramel ice cream. We also got the thickest, most delectable hot chocolate, so thick it couldn’t be sipped and had to be licked off the spoon. My favorite kind!

I cherish these lingering times. That to me is what makes a vacation (or as the Europeans say, a holiday). I treasure the luxury of not having to do anything. I embrace the gift of simply enjoying each other’s company, and of shared pleasures like reading and drawing (hence our Mucha-inspired collaboration).

And I take delight in savoring the little differences that are just interesting as the big sights—like how coffee is served with a little glass of sparkling water, for example. No idea what it’s for, but I thought it was quirky.

How do you prefer to travel? And have you noticed it change over the years?

Prague, then and now

If you couldn’t already tell from my previous posts about it, touring Europe with the Ateneo College Glee Club was a life-changing experience. There is nothing like being 19 and traipsing all over Europe for free, getting to see and experience things tourists don’t, and doing what you love everyday with people who will become your friends for life. 
My memories of Prague from over a decade ago are all tour memories. And those memories were so good, I couldn’t help but try and retrace our footsteps.
The Philippine Embassy organized a concert for us inside the National Museum, which was pretty awesome. 
It was kind of hilarious to go back to the National Museum and find another bunch of lost, badly dressed Asian tourists carrying plastic bags in front of it, exactly where we were 11 years ago. 
I had to take a picture of the KFC in front of the museum because we all have memories of nearly dying of hunger there while waiting to be served by the slowest, rudest, most disinterested staff of all time. Working for an American fast food franchise must be the kiss of death for proud Europeans. 

We were the Glee Club “kiddies” back then. We all went up to Prague Castle but didn’t go inside because it was already closed. Rehearsals and performances took first priority, and we tried to do what sightseeing we could after official business was over.

Me in the same spot overlooking Prague, sans kiddies. We all live in different places now: Manila, Singapore, the US, Amsterdam. Miss you guys and wish you were all here with me.

Another guardia civil. This one is not allowed to move or smile, unlike the friendly one at Charles Bridge. P.S. I remember being very worried about looking fat in this outfit 11 years ago. I was very conscious about my arms. Pakshet.

This time I actually got to go inside Prague Castle on a walking tour with Sandemans New Europe. We had a very enthusiastic, entertaining and knowledgeable guide, a Czech student named Filip. Here he is passionately questioning why the biggest pillar-less hall in Europe (on left) is no longer used for its original purpose: indoor jousting.

Filip also pointed out that the immense St. Vitus Cathedral was started in the 1300s, but remained unfinished until 1929. That’s the reason why, quite bizarrely, the likenesses of four men in business suits are carved into its Gothic exterior (top right). They were the committee who spearheaded the completion of the church. Very quirky, and almost… Pinoy. I kind of like it.

A young, pre-bangs, pre-hair color, pre-upper lip wax moi on Charles Bridge. Rina had just chopped off four inches off my hair that morning. Incidentally, Rina also brought me to get my first dye job and upper lip wax at Azta Salon many years later. Haha! Also, note all the high waisted mom jeans in the background.

Eleven years later… I think I actually look better, although I wish I had stayed skinny. Or maybe I just have a better camera now!

Aside from the 30 statues lining Charles Bridge, there are also a number of bronze plaques that are supposed to bring you good luck if you rub them. At the time, all of us rubbed them with the aim of winning a big international competition… that we subsequently lost. But I also recall there was one you rubbed if you wished to return to Prague. I think it’s the one I’m rubbing in this photo.

Well, I don’t know if I rubbed with the wrong intent. But it worked… I did return to Prague! (I have also done this in Paris and Brussels, and returned each time.) I made sure to rub another one just in case. And I made Marlon do it too.

I don’t know exactly what we were rubbing them for. But if they grant me either good luck or a return trip to this beautiful city, I won’t complain!

Sunset on Charles Bridge

A short distance from the Old Town Square is Charles Bridge, named after the Czechs’ most beloved king. On our way there, we passed this courtyard with a very intriguing large-scale installation. It turned out to be a contemporary art museum. 

But we weren’t interested in that. Not when we could catch the sunset on Charles Bridge.

The old buildings at the foot of the bridge are stunning. Too bad they were photobombed by the glaring neon of THE BIGGEST MUSIC CLUB IN CENTRAL EUROPE!

There, that’s better.

This costumed guard must either really hate his job or enjoy being photographed with girls. These giggly teens liked my idea, so they followed suit after I had my photo taken with him.

Charles Bridge is one of the biggest attractions in Prague, so tourist traffic is heavy. In places like these, I revert to a favorite photography trick that helps me from getting frustrated at all the people in my shot. Find out what it is, after the jump!

Instead of waiting for a clear shot in high-traffic areas, I try to work the crowds into the picture by switching to a very slow shutter speed. This creates motion blur.

Motion blur ensures that the things that don’t change—the things you really want to see in your photo—remain sharp, but that clothing and faces fade into atmosphere. I like doing this because it gives a sense of how these timeless structures are so impervious to the comings and goings of so many people over so many years.

From somewhere on the bridge, strains of jazz drifted our way. Then, a soulful, gravelly voice began to  rumble, a dead-on Louis Armstrong sound-alike singing in Czech. The rumbling drew us in closer and closer, until we happened upon this fantastic little band of buskers.

I’ve heard some really bad buskers in tourist areas (in fact, there was a dirty Rastafarian with a tuneless digeridoo just a few meters away), but these guys were fantastic. They had the audience (including this adorable pup!) enraptured. The sunset, the bridge, the music… it was utter perfection. What more could you want?

Oh, how about… a castle?

The last time I was on Charles Bridge, there was nothing romantic about it. It was midday in sweltering July, at the very peak of tourist season, the bridge was mobbed with loud tour groups and I was with a bunch of gay friends (haha).

But this time was completely different. With my husband’s hand in mine, a cool breeze blowing in from the river, the sunset sky all aglow and Prague Castle beckoning from the other side of the riverbank, it was pure romance.

There was much to see from this bridge, from small tucked-away treasures like this old mill wheel, to grander sights like the National Theater gleaming golden from further down, in the New Town.

I could have stayed for hours, but we came to the end of the bridge all too soon. 

The street lamps came on, winking goodbye, and night fell on our first evening in Prague. 

Whisked away to Prague

Marlon’s birthday weekend was one of the high points in my short “career” as a wife. Continuing our private tradition of birthday whisking, I decided to whisk him away to one of the most beautiful cities in Europe: Prague. 
The best part was that Marlon had absolutely no idea where we were going until we were actually inside the plane! No, I didn’t blindfold him—I just checked us in online, did the bag drop myself, held on to the boarding passes and documents so he couldn’t see the gate number, and shepherded him past the sign on the gate. KLM cooperated by not doing any kind of boarding announcement (surprising). I also think men can be really dense when they want to! So, to see his face light up when the purser announced our destination was a huge payoff for me. Worth every penny and every minute of secrecy!
I kept the surprise under wraps since December, when I found a great deal for a flight+hotel package on KLM. Without it, this lowly freelancer wouldn’t have been able to afford three nights at the 4-star Art Deco Imperial Hotel in Prague’s Stare Mesto, or Old Town. The room we got was small, but after a year of budget travel in Europe, it was such a luxury. 

It’s also been a while since we enjoyed a good hotel buffet, so breakfast in the stunning Cafe Imperial (frequented by the likes of Kafka) was a real treat. 
The hotel was also superbly located, just a short walk from everything you could want to see in the Old Town, and not too far from the New Town either. Just on the same street, we found a great Czech restaurant called Kolkovna Celnice, where we celebrated the birthday boy with a very late (and very Czech) lunch of local beer and spicy sausages.

It was a gorgeous day, sunny but with a slight chill in the breeze—perfect for walking and exploring the Old Town. We passed gorgeous buildings like the Gothic-era Powder Tower…

… and the House of the Black Madonna (where there is in fact a Black Madonna, well protected, on the right), a Cubist building from 1911.

It was only a few minutes before we reached Prague’s Old Town Square. Click on through to see one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe.

I’d been to Prague once before, with the Glee Club in 2001. More than 10 years later and the buildings on the Old Town Square are still as stunning as I remember them.

This is no little town square. It’s expansive and grandiose in scale. 

It has not just one, but two massive cathedrals: the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, and the St. Nicholas Church.

I couldn’t remember where the famous Astrological clock was supposed to be. Then I saw this sea of people massed in front of the Old Town Hall. Of course!

It was just about to strike five o’ clock and everyone wanted to see the famous clock in action.

The four figures on the clock—Vanity, the miser, Death and the Turk—are set in motion at the turn of the hour. The last time I was in Prague, the clock was being repaired. And this time, we missed it by just seconds! This means I really have to come back to Prague and see it.

There’s also a trumpet player who plays a short fanfare every hour on the hour, from the top of the Old Town Hall. This is a fairly new “tradition” and is also done from one of the towers on Charles Bridge—and Charles Bridge deserves its own post.