|'Post-Praha' by Remy Dean (photograph, 2013, Prague)|
Then, just a short walk to our first destination. The ArtBanka Museum of Young Art announced its temporary closure earlier in the year, so we were not sure what to expect. The gallery has now re-opened under the grand name of Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace. The visit provided an experience far beyond any expectations – which is strange considering that most of the gallery was empty… the exhibition was the gallery itself. Not as ‘challenging’ and Post-Modern as it may sound when you realise that the gallery occupies a slightly dilapidated, yet spectacularly cinematic, Baroque Palace. The exterior had not really given any indication of the crumbling splendour within. The ascent up broad flights of creaking stairs takes you past little, lovely compositions created by the removal of paint and layers of thin plaster to reveal squares of original paintwork from various historic periods. They fascinated me before I realised this was the exhibition. The fantastic, filmic interiors are in the process of being restored by a team of painter-decorator archaeologists. The grandeur of the main hall with its two-storey mantelpiece and car-sized chandelier is beautifully counterpointed by the areas of floor marked out as not load-bearing, so you really have to watch your step whilst gazing up at the ceiling fresco… It felt a bit like we had stumbled across an abandoned mansion that just screamed out for a period play to be written for it, or perhaps to be a location for a some stylish, high gothic horror…
|ArtBanka - the gallery is the exhibition...|
The changing of the guards starts as we arrive at the main gates of the Prague castle. Smartly dressed soldiers parade through the ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ catalogue, only they do it with impressive severity and focus, marching ceremonially to rousing bursts of brass and drumming that evoke expectations of ‘Thunderbirds’. Their precision is admirable and at the exact moment that they eventually hand over their banner, a resonant bell strikes the hour.
Inside the Castle complex is vast and, as you might expect - complex, but you will find a helpful little map on the back of your ticket. Points of interest include the imposing St Vitus Cathedral (you don’t need any map to find that), the jousting hall, the gallery of paintings, the toy museum… and after getting some lunch in one of the castle cafes, which was a fantastic mushroom risotto, I head for Golden Lane – where once great alchemy was wrought.
Last time I had visited Prague, going on four years ago, this section of the Castle had been closed for restoration work and I had only glimpsed it from a small window in the back of the Toy Museum. That was the trip when I had befriended Sparky, my erstwhile guide for this tour – he had wanted to return to his home city for nostalgic reasons and to seek out Abby and Cynthia, two of his little friends that had shared some good times but since lost touch. So he knew his way about, and his point of view was always from a refreshingly different perspective to my own. Although he is a dog of very few words, his constant state of surprise and wonderment at the world is a lesson in itself.
|L - R: tiny houses in Golden Lane, Sparky, Apothecary|
I was overcome with awe, excitement, perhaps longing. This was once the epicentre of the occult world. Back then, the Great Work stood in proud place of Medicine and Science. The corporeal and spiritual overlapped and interacted. Philosophy and Magick guided the search for Knowledge and Wisdom. There was apparatus set up on the table, a book open on the reading stand near to the small window, a grand canopied bed and an age-darkened chair pulled close to the small fireplace. I could picture Prague’s Alchemist Royal sitting there, in deep, world-changing discussion with Doctor John Dee, the visiting envoy of Elizabeth I, Queen of the far away British Empire… but in the chamber below, down the crooked stairs, greater wonder awaited…
|Golden Lane - as above, so below - the Alchemist's chambres|
Feeling suitably transmutated, we strolled down the length of Golden Lane, absorbing the sense of history stretching back from now to then, popping in to the more interesting houses… The Vitalis Bookshop occupies number 22, the house once owned by the sister of Franz Kafka where he often stayed and wrote, and where I purchased a beautiful little book about the Prague Golem and other Stories from the Jewish Ghetto.
|Matylda Prusova's kitchen cabinet and Madame de Thebes' writing desk|
|Wonderfully cluttered with film regalia, the home of Joseph Kasda|
|The impressive Prague Castle Armoury|
|St Vitus Cathedral and the Mucha window|
|In the Toy Museum, Prague Castle... those were the days...|
The castle complex is at our highest point and commands great panoramas of the city as we leave and head back downhill towards the river, where we visit the Museum Kampa. Situated near the Charles Bridge, you cannot miss it - it’s the one with the glowing yellow penguins filing along the jetty outside and David Cerny’s giant bronze babies in place of garden gnomes...
|Sparky engages with some Czech art at the Kampa|
|Don't worry, Sparky...|
Almost as an afterthought, we pop in to see the temporary exhibition of work by Zdena Fibichova, a Czech artist whose sculptures elevate the everyday into totemic forms, ephemera into ‘archaeological’ artefacts. The lines in her drawings crackle with bright, colourful energy. Powerfully simple abstracts, in cement and ceramic are pushed to the point where they may be about to become recognisable animal forms. A ripped out page from a spiral-bound notebook is immortalised in bronze-patina clay… and nearby has been remodelled in concrete. You get a few glimpses of the exhibition in the curator's intro video above.
Night had now fallen and the open air roof terraces of the Kampa afford views of the Charles Bridge and along the river where the reflected golden lights shimmer across the water. If you are feeling brave, then the top of the stairwell has a load-bearing glass floor as its roof where you can look directly down at the ‘mobile’ that hangs through several floors of the atrium. I only managed to set foot on it in order to rescue poor Sparky, who could neither move nor bring himself to look down…
The night crossing of the Charles Bridge was moody and Romantic and soon we were back in the Old Town Square, where I remembered a fine restaurant near the astronomical clock. It had been a long day of intense stimulation and we had been on our feet for most of it. Time for some hearty Prague food! At U Zlaté Konvice, down several flights of stairs, we dined in a vaulted cellar surrounded by stuffed bears, boars and badgers. A starter of carp fingers and smoked mackerel was followed by a big plate of smoked ham with Prague style potato pancakes, pickled cabbage and a chilli, all washed down by a hefty glass of local beer. It was a rich and satisfying meal, the ham was glossy and very smoky, the pancakes were dense and herby, the beer was strong, dark and handsome, the lively live music was a ‘cheesy’ accompaniment… the price very agreeable. Just what we needed to round off the day!
|Mmm... Sparky hams it up!|
|Olde Prague at night... Romantic, with a capital 'R'|