CZECHING THE SHOPS
By Antoinette May
It was a girl thing, something we'd talked of doing for years. We'd dreamed of taking a trip together since high school Dreamed, but secretly doubted there'd ever be a time when careers, husbands, children wouldn't somehow manage to get in the way.
After all, there were three of us, and though, as time passed, children grew and husbands changed, responsibilities remained.
Then suddenly, unexpectedly a window of opportunity opened. Ann, Sharon and I seized the moment. We would Go! Deciding where was a no brainer. Thirty years might have altered our individual lifestyles, but we hadn't remained
friends all these years for
We wanted a pretty, romantic environment with lots of Old World charm. We
wanted fairy tale castles to explore, fabulous art to admire. We wanted great music to
sooth and inspire us. We wanted to people watch at sidewalk cafes, and gossip in coffee
houses. But most of all we wanted to SHOP.
Prague was tailor-made. The city, itself, is a jewel box filled with gorgeous treasures.
Christmas was coming, there were presents to buy. Trying not to feel like plunderers, we rendezvoused in New York then flew non-stop to Prague.
The Palace Hotel was our base camp. It's only gorgeous, an art-nouveau town
palace only a block from the very central Wenceslas Square. Each room was a lush haven
of velvety pink and misty green straight out of a Mucha print.
Mucha. Mucha. Mucha. Remember that name. Everyone knows the work of Alfons Mucha (pronounced moo-kah), though maybe we can't all put a name to it. I couldn't.
It was Ann, the artist-fashion expert in our group, who steered us directly to the Mucha Museum at Panska 7-practically across the street from the Palace.
Immediately, I recognized the ethereal, flowing style so reminiscent of an enchanted era. Alfons Mucha was Mr. Art Nouveau himself. Besides a marvelous collection of
the artist's work and a documentary about his life, the little gem of a museum sells all kinds
of art nouveau creations. There's jewelry, china, crystal and the most elegant scarves and--
yes-- tea shirts that any of us had ever seen.
Close by, Art Decoratif, at U Obecniho Domu 2, also has a wonderful selection of Mucha inspired items. The bowls, the plates, the vases are to kill for and then there's the jewelry. . . The pendants, necklaces and pins are what fairy princesses wore in our childhood picture books.
A visit to this store is like a return to little girl land, except that, on closer scrutiny, the designs are very subtle, very sophisticated, sometimes even voluptuous. All of us could think of the perfect people to buy pins for-so many of
them!--that is, of course, after we made our personal selections..
Part of the fairy tale magic was the price. Our buys, at $10 and $15 a piece, were a fraction of what they'd have cost at home-assuming we could find them.
Naturally, we discovered Moser, at Na Prikope 12, the flagship store for the world- -famous Karlovy Vary glassmaker, but Bohemian Mosaic at Rytirka 24 and Bohemian Czeching/may 3 Paradise at Parizska 15, were equally as exciting.
Even if you think you're not in the market to buy, a stroll through their elegant wood-paneled showrooms is a museum quality experience. The Bohemian glass and porcelain are gorgeous. And hard to resist-though
no one really tried very hard.
It was the jewelry that proved our real down fall. Garnet and amber are plentiful and surprisingly inexpensive in the Czech Republic. Ann, a striking brunette, couldn't re- sist the garnets-pins, ear rings, necklaces. Sharon and I, a tawny blond and a red head respectively, were bedazzled by the amber.
We bought a lot of pretty things-no, not just for ourselves but for Christmas gifts, wedding gifts, birthdays gifts. Nearly a year later we're still parceling out little pieces of Prague.
But if you think all we did was shop-guess again. Prague itself is a treasure. Since we couldn't manage to take it back with us on the plane, every minute had to be
savored. Few cities anywhere can match this capital's architectural riches-a symphony of
Art Nouveau facades, Gothic spires, hidden gardens, Renaissance palaces and Baroque
Part of the pleasure of Prague is its accessibility. This is a walker's city, a visual feast of gardens, alleys and churches to be explored in a leisurely fashion. We began with Old Town Square
The double-spired Tyn Church is considered one of the best examples of Prague Gothic while the inside is a Baroque masterpiece. Ann and I were oohing and ahing over the fantastically ornate altar when Sharon found the marker that made the church unfot- gettable.
To the right of the altar, is the grave of the Tycho Brahe, the city's "Imperial
Matheticus" of the 16th century.
Tycho not only taught Kepler (another resident of the Prague court) a thing or two
about planetary motion, but kept the town talking for 500 years.
According to the story, the astronomer, an avid dueler, lost part of his nose. (Take a good look at the marker!) He sported a wax nose for everyday but had a silver one fashioned for festive occasions. After more than thirty years, none of us had forgotten how to giggle.
Just down the street is the pink and ochre Kinsky Palace, a wedding cake if there ever was one. It's considered Prague's finest example of late Baroque architecture and well worth seeing even if the National Gallery's graphics collection wasn't housed there.
Kafka held a grim fascination for me. I had to
see his birthplace just down the street. Poor guy, he was not a hero in his time.
What government wants to celebrate themes of bureaucracy and alienation? The communists surely didn't!
Only after the 1989 Revolution was this fascinating little museum opened in the home of his birth.
For my part, the jewel in Prague's illustrious crown is the Municipal House at Nam Republiky 5.
Originally built in 1905 at the full flowering of the Belle Époque period for six million crowns, then reconstructed in the late 1990s for 2.7 billion, the
magnificent edifice embodies the pride and passion of the nation. Not only are some of the
greatest artists of 20th century represented but hundreds of unknown glass workers,
plasterers, ironmongers, carpenters and other craftsmen who merged their very souls in the
The center of the Municipal House is Smetana Hall, a concert hall with unique - acoustics credited to its domed ceiling. During the past century, the organ fronted by 4,400 pipes witnessed not only thousands of concerts given by world famous musicians, but grand balls where generations of young ladies and gentlemen learned their first dance steps.
Today the Municipal House has three excellent restaurants. We liked them all, but
for a leisurely lunch surrounded by Art Nouveau details, Francouzska Plenzenska, the
charming tea room, can't be beat.
After fortifying ourselves with crepes we viewed the Primator Hall where wall paintings, stained glass and decorated curtains by our old favorite Alphons Mucha endow the massive room with a magical, mystical quality.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Municipal House is its sense of history. On Oct. 28th, 1918, after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an independent Czechoslovakia was declared here. In the same place, 71 years later, dissidents led by
Vaclav Havel met for the first time with communist Prime Minister Ladislav Adamer to
lay the foundation for a peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy.
We got lucky. Listening to Smetna performed at the Smetna Hall by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and Dvorak played by the Czech Philharmonic at Dvorak Hall was a feast for the ears. The "frosting" was "The Queen of Spades" at the at the State Opera The cheapest opera tickets are $5, the most expensive under $30. Symphony tickets sell for under $20. An opportunity to see those stunning 19th century halls is worth far more.
It was fun to explore Prague Castle-a city within a city. Among the sites were St. Vitus's Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace and the 10th century
Basilica of St George. The
Castle also has a neat store that sells all kinds of goodies. Did you think all that culture
made us forget our true mission? Not likely.
One of Prague's most delightful sites is Havelska Street in the Old Town. We were enjoying a standup lunch of sausage and beer in what's essentially a fruit and vegetable market when Sharon spied one of the best buys of the whole trip. Czeching/may 6
A kindergarten teacher with five children of her own, Sharon is always interested in toys. Among the marvelous wood carvings offered for sale on Havelska Street are charming, original and engaging marionettes of all kinds and shapes. I'm sure that Santa does his major shopping right here and gets a
bulk rate. We paid about $15 a piece.
Back in the wonder days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when bewhiskered officers swaggered, ladies fluttered their fans and absolutely everyone waltzed, more than 2000 castles, manor houses and chateaux flourished throughout what is now the Czech Republic.
We wanted to sample a little of that rich countryside and explore a village. Our time was limited: one day, one night, one town. Our choice was Cesky Krumlov (chess-kee kroom-lav). The town calls itself "the jewel of central Europe" and for once the brochures don't lie.
It's easy to understand why UNESCO selected Cesky Krumlov as a World Cultural Heritage city. None of the charming towns and
villages we passed on our bus ride from Prague
prepared us for the beauty of this unique place.
First of all there's the river-the lovely Maldau swirls its way in a complete circle around the town. Then, across the river, there's the proud castle-right out of a story book.
The 500 year-old Town Hall in the center of the main square is memorable for its Gothic arcades and Renaissance friezes. Fanning off in all directions are tiny alleys filled with-you guessed it-shops.
Our hotel was the Ruze, once a 16th century monastery. If you think that sounds austere, guess again. The ancient building has been totally renovated without losing any of its Old World charm Each of us had a spacious room with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the town and river below.
including four poster canopied beds--was
museum quality, the bathrooms with their throne toilets a trip in themselves
Krumlov Castle has a tower dating from the12th century and two playful bears
guarding its moat. There are picture galleries, rooms full of historic furniture, exquisite
medieval stonework and a baroque chapel. Its all absolutely lovely, but for us the two highlights were the cyber café and a glassware store.
Imagine posting your emails from a castle.
And as for the store! It had the prettiest things of all. None of us could resist buying handmade reproductions of glasses, steins and mugs used hundreds of years ago. They're beautiful, fascinating and
inexpensive--$8 to $15 a piece. Fortunately, they're sturdy too for all survived the trip
home in checked through suitcases.
Cesky Kumlov is crammed with beguiling shops, landmark architecture and delicious places to eat. We hated to leave and vowed to return--this time with a flying u-haul trailer. The next night back in Prague--our last night in the Czech Republic-we decided to eat where the natives eat. Or try to eat. It had taken us a week to get a reservation at the trendy Bazaar Mediterranee. Its an enormous brick-lined Gothic cellar with dozens of tables, intimate lighting and employees wearing headsets.
Too soon the tinkling melodies of a
live pianist gave way to pumping disco tunes
while exotic dancers (of both sexes) gyrated on a small raised stage. It was a little loud
even for a "girls last night on the town."
To the right of us was a spiral staircase. "Let's see if it's quieter up there," I suggested. Feeling a bit like Nancy Drew, I preceded them up a maze of steps. At the top was a charming roof garden. "More like it!" we agreed, sitting down at a table with a glorious view.
Obviously, Bazaar Mediterranee, like Prague itself, has become a happening.
Looking out at the exquisite multi-faceted city below, we decided that the Old World is is still within reach. The ultra trendy upper terrace is only a stone's throw from the Castle.
THE PALACE ,on Panska 12, was a delight. We'd return in a heartbeat. Phone: 02/2409-3111 .
BELLEVUE provides a sweeping view of both the Castle and the Charles Bridge from its elegant dining room. Besides delicious continental and Czech dishes, you can enjoy live jazz during Sunday brunch and dinner. Reservations advised Smetanovo Nabr. 18. Phone: 2422-138
requires reservations. If you want to see where the "in" people eat, . Phone:9005-4510.
THINGS TO DO
Mucha Museum at Panska 7, open daily, 10 to 6.
Municipal House Namesti Rupubliky 5, walk through and check out the splendid art nouveau deco and the restaurants.
The Castle You really can't miss it, cross the Charles Bridge and climb Nerudo va Street A $3.50 covers admission to everything.
Don't miss the Old Town Hall on the Old Town Square for its 15th century astronomical clock, a spooky spectacle right out of the Middle Ages-appears every hour on the hour.
The tower also makes a fine vantage point for a panoramic view of the city's red-tiled roofs and
the Castle across the river.
Tickets for the opera and symphony may be obtained from Ticketpro Salvatorska 10 or Ticket Centrum, Rytirska 31.
Our hotel The Ruze, (Jorni ul 381, Phone: 420 337 772 100) was a delight, but the Na Louzi (Kajovska 66) also looked inviting and had good food.
We loved the cellar atmosphere and excellent Czech food at Tavern Satlava, Horni 157. An added treat were the gypsy violinists.