Prague Past & Present
Getting familiar with Czech Republic architecture, glass, food, beer and angst at an annual design fair in the country’s most famous city.
“PRAGUE NEVER LETS YOU GO. This little mother has claws,” author Franz Kafka said about his hometown when Czechoslovakia broke away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, and that may still be true.
After a hundred years of travails that also encompassed the country’s breakup 25 years ago into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Prague is blossoming — and celebrating — once again. The jaw-dropping, elegant European capital on the banks of the Vltava River is awash with spectacular crystal chandeliers and some of the most astounding Gothic, baroque, art nouveau and cubist architecture spanning more than 1,000 years, but it also has a vibrant restaurant scene, ever-flowing and literally cheaper-than-water pivo or beer — especially along the riverbank — and new design that pulls you back again and again.
I felt the tug.
Within the span of a month I went first for the 19th annual Designblok fair, which this time had food as its thematic conceit — think gigantic cakes and carousels and joyrides with Vitra furniture as seats — held at the late 19th-century steel-and-glass Industrial Palace (inspired by London’s 1851 Crystal Palace), on the Vystaviste Fairgrounds, in the Holesovice area. And then, I returned for a voyage of architectural discovery, spas and, of course, more food.
Paces away from the spare, nicely restored, functionalist, Soviet-era 10-story Park Hotel, whose comically stiff staff still seems to suffer from a Soviet-era hangover, Designblok, founded by Jana Zielinksi and Jiri Macek in 1999, in 2017 featured internationally and locally renowned modern talents, including Dutch industrial design impresario Richard Hutten, Vienna-based artist and furniture designer Patrick Rampelotto, and Czech designer Maxim Velcovsky, who recommended the food theme and is the award-winning, mold-breaking art director associated on and off with ace crystal lighting companies Preciosa and Lasvit. With over 300 exhibitors and events at this unique window into Central European design, there was a lot more to see and do, but a freak storm blew a section of the roof off the Industrial Palace and after day three brought the five-day fair to a screeching halt.
With time to spare, I left town. Two hours west of Prague, near the 12th-century Loket Castle, the Bohemian spa towns Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary were getaways in the late 19th century, when rejuvenating hot thermal springs bordered by raised colonnaded walkways were the rage.
Karlovy Vary, named after king Charles IV, who founded it around 1350, is seeing a major revival, with the Imperial Sanatorium as a standard-bearer for potentates’ spending a few weeks regrouping. Spas are of course intended to be therapeutic and so the no-nonsense style of the nurse-like masseuses I encountered at the Savoy Westend Hotel was fitting, but if you are unused to such brusqueness, a shot of the local Becherovka liqueur and a bit of the paperthin Karlovarské oplatky wafer sets you at ease. The town is also where an international film festival takes place, but a courtyard outside the Grandhotel Pupp adorned with names of Hollywood stars still comes as a surprise. The incredible Moser Glass factory nearby is a design destination with its own gallery.
Back in Prague, taking streetcars and walking the cobbled streets was a good way to explore famed Wenceslas Square, where half a million protesters gathered to shed the Communist yoke in 1989; discover the Soviet-era Zizkov Tower, intended for surveillance; and, not far from it, see the 1920s National Monument on Vitkov Hill, a World War I memorial and former mausoleum that once displayed the macabre embalmed and refrigerated corpses of Czechoslovak Communist leaders as propaganda. Now it is a history museum abutting a park with one of the city’s best vantage points, offering views of the Zizkov neighborhood just below as well as the ninth-century fairy-tale Prague Castle complex with its ancient cathedral atop a hill in the distance. Likewise, because of its location, this modernist memorial, identifiable by the 30-foot-tall equestrian bronze statue of 15th-century dissident Hussite warrior Jan Zizka in front, is also visible from all parts of Prague. The memorial museum’s grandiose columns and fine marble staircase are intimidating and its exhibits unsettling, but it is all worth a visit.
A statue-lined late-14th-century pedestrian- only bridge is another gallery of sorts, linking the castle to the Old Town, and one walk across it is never enough, as innumerable tourists who stroll back and forth at all hours across the Vltava will attest. I also headed across it to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the Malá Strana area. The remarkable hotel is housed in a 14th-century monastery that has been restored, and its odd-shaped historic rooms, some with views of the castle, combined with the hotel’s stellar restaurant and seamless service, bring Prague into a new era of five-star quality and design.
For more 21st-century hospitality and style, head back across the river and check into the Hotel Josef near the Old Town Square; the boutique design venue has chic top-floor rooms with views of medieval streets and sinister-looking Tyn Church’s twin Gothic-spired towers. Walk from there into the square to find the ever-popular 600-year-old astronomical clock, whose mechanized figures enact a pantomime every hour, along with innumerable bars and cafes, especially the one upstairs at the so-called House of the Black Madonna, a former department store designed in 1912 by Josef Gocar. In the Staré Město area, it is Prague’s first cubist building but obligingly incorporates into its facade a baroque Madonna figure that belonged to an older structure on the site. The building now contains the Cubist Museum on the third and fourth floors, but the fully restored cash-only Grand Cafe Orient on its second floor is the place to be. It offers attentive old-fashioned service and great coffee and pancakes amid Gocar’s interior, which is better than any museum exhibit.
For an insider’s view of Prague, I joined two walking tours. The first, Alternative Prague Tours, gave an offbeat view of graffiti art, underground hangouts, a cafe where bitcoin is the only currency, and Communist-era shopping (when you got Western jeans, our guide informed us, you had to wear them in secret, indoors only). But it was Taste of Prague, a walking food tour, that shone a light on what it is like to eat in and be in modern-day Prague.
Our energetic host, Jan, zipped us through some of the best cooked meats, served at a butchery; through 20th-century Lucerna Palace, a performance hall off Vodickova Street where a tongue-in-cheek sculpture of St. Wenceslas riding an upside-down dead horse by David Cerny is suspended and where Jan went for his prom dance; into Lokal, a gastropub serving basic Czech fare and pilsners; and past another enigmatic David Cerny sculpture, a bust of Kafka. We also dipped into Jan favorites such as the cafe Místo and visited the burgeoning Karlín neighborhood, where some of the city’s hippest restaurants are. Eska, recommended by glass company Artel CEO Karen Feldman, an expat American and author of a definitive Prague guidebook, was a streetcar ride away from the center of town; here modern Czech food and a spare Scandinavian sensibility were fused to perfection. Both design and food junkies will find much to love.
Yes Prague, I will be back.