One of the best parts of living in the UK is that I’m only a short flight away from some incredibly beautiful European destinations. This weekend, I finally made it to Eastern Europe, and visited one of my dearest friends in a city easy for both of us to get to: Prague.
I left our flat around 4:50am for the train, and was at the airport for 5:20am. By 5:35am I had cleared security at Stansted – getting the Ryanair FastTrack security pass is such a great value for only £5! I had plenty of time prior to my 6:45am departure, so I wandered around the shops and started mentally planning my day ahead…
By 11am local time, I was in Prague and so hungry for breakfast. We met up at The Farm in Letna, an adorable little brunch spot with amazing Pumpkin Pancakes and French Toast. The flat white coffees were just the perk I needed for a cold, drizzly day.
After brunch, my friend and I had a stroll through the city. As we’ve both been really busy with work lately, neither of us had a chance to plan a proper itinerary. Sometimes the best trips are completely relaxed though, with no concrete plan in mind. We just walked and talked and walked some more…
I think there’s something quite beautiful and atmospheric about cobblestones and rainy days. The chill in the air, coupled with the overcast skies, really drew out the city’s architecture in my mind. It was so easy to get lost in thought, wondering about the Soviet history of the Czech Republic as contrasted with the ornate medieval buildings.
Later in the afternoon, we headed over to Charles Bridge (Czech: Karlův most), the famous historic bridge which crosses the Vltava river. Construction started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished in the beginning of the 15th century.
Regarding the 30 statues which line the Bridge, I was struck by how overtly religious they were. Perhaps this says more about me as an atheist than anything else, but it’s worth some reflection on the mores, and religious influences within Central and Eastern Europe.
People in what is now the modern-day Czech Republic began to convert to Christianity from Slavic paganism between the 8th and the 10th century. There was then a forced conversion to Roman Catholicism under the Habsburg Empire and from what I’ve read, something like 95% of Czechs identified as Catholic up until WWI.
The Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia from 1918 – 1990) was brought under Communist rule by the Soviets in 1948. As a result of State atheism (see Marx’s thoughts on religion) and increasing secularisation trends today, the influence of the Catholic church has dwindled substantially, and today most Czechs consider themselves non-religious.
But walking across this bridge, I was reminded by how many rulers have left their etchings on this ancient city: from Pagan worship to the Pope, from the Soviet Empire to the European Union, and everything in-between.
Unfortunately, it’s also worth noting that the Charles Bridge itself was almost uncomfortably overrun by tourists. There were so many men (most of whom were British or Irish), or as they’re usually called, “lads on tour.” Beer is incredibly cheap in Prague (70p for a pint!) as are flights from the UK, so you can imagine that this makes Prague quite an attractive city for people to go and get drunk for a weekend. But alas, the views were stunning.
After a stroll through the old part of the city, we made our way to Kampa Park – an upscale restaurant on the banks of the River. Two mains and two glasses of wine came to about £60, which is totally acceptable especially when compared to London! We then headed off to Cash Only Bar, a sweet little cocktail place that specialises in creating bespoke drinks.
The next morning, we had a nice lie-in at the hotel before heading off to Veletržní Palace, which is one of the exhibition spaces of the National Gallery. In the gallery’s atrium is a bright and airy cafe called Cafe Jedna, which – unlike the hotel, sadly – had really nice coffee!
After sipping a few flat whites and cappuccinos (as always) we toured the Alfons Mucha exhibit to see his monumental 20-piece cycle, The Slav Epic. All that I know of Slavic history, I know from the context of pre-Revolutionary and Soviet Russia. Although I am someone interested in Russian literature and history, I have never taken the time to look at it from the Czech or definitively “Slavic” perspective.
My understanding is that Mucha intended this series to inspire and educate the Slavic people in the hopes of galvanising a common cause of independence, as well as grander visions of Pan Slavism.
I won’t pretend to be an art historian or an art critic, but the conversations I had with my friend mostly circled around the fact that we didn’t find the paintings to be too aesthetically pleasing, save for The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia – Work in Freedom is the Foundation of a State. Despite it’s grim undertones, it was a visually soothing piece to my eyes, at least.
The Slav Epic is also clearly, unapologetically patriotic – it is a celebration of the Slavic peoples which, given the history of subservience and subjugation, is really powerful. When Mucha painted these canvases, popular mandates, collective activism, and power made legitimate through democratic/republican systems were still relatively young political concepts. While Mucha does portray some important Tsars, Generals and religious leaders in the cycle, the paintings which left the most impact on me were those that honoured the anonymous Slav: the peasant, the soldier, the artisan, the merchant.
Today, I think these themes feel a bit anachronistic. In a world in which we can’t go anywhere without our mobile phones, it seems as though experiences are validated only once shared: I have to snap a selfie in order to carve out a moment for myself in history and in time. But, above all, it is the experience of me as an Individual which is elevated, not the context.
In Mucha’s Apotheosis of the Slavs – Slavs for Humanity, a sort of Slavic triumph is imagined as an exemplar for all of mankind. Words like “globalisation,” “borderless society,” “information age,” and “millennial” simply don’t fit in the scheme (or regime?) Mucha likely would have preferred. A lot of art gallery talk (hmmm-ing and nodding) ensued.
After spending a few hours at the gallery, the sun started to break through the clouds and we explored the city centre again.
We even had these little cone-y things, which were soft and fluffy and not too sweet – a bit like brioche with heaps of sugar and whipped cream for good measure! Highly recommended, especially on a cold day.
We concluded our little weekend trip in the only appropriate way – by drinking beer. While I was a bit discouraged by the loud swarms of tourists (viz. lads on tour) I felt so grateful for the opportunity to have a nice little weekend away with one of my dearest friends.
The things I’ll remember most about this trip are: the weather and how the sunshine (or lack thereof) so dramatically impacted the vibe of the city, the medieval and baroque architecture juxtaposed with Soviet Plattenbau, and of course, the long hours of meandering conversation while walking along the river or through cobblestoned streets.