Friday, 16 September 2016

Offbeat Prague: Petrin, Prague Eiffel Tower, Dancing House, Absinthe and Alchemy.

Prague - a city of red roofs

Right! You have been to Prague (hurrah!), you have ticked all the boxes: you have seen the Astronomical Clock, the Castle, the Gold Lane and the Cathedral, you have taken the stroll along the Charles Bridge and have visited other tourist attractions listed on your guidebook's 'Must Do' list, you have sampled some traditional food such as halusky, klobasa and trdelnik.  But surely there must be more to the European capital of strong emotions, great art and quirk. Certaintly, there is and that is where I come in! I have narrowed my top 10 experiences in Prague:

1) Petrin Hill 

Views from the Petrin Hill are simply stunning.

The hill itself is awesome too: it is full of old trees, lush bushes and ancient stones. Can you imagine finding yourself in the heart of a shady, old wood that is located a stone throw away from the city centre? If you want to run away from the maddening crowds and hordes of tourists Petrin Hill is a lovely natural retreat. Trust me that wondering about the Petrin Hill is an unforgetable experience. There is something absolutely mesmerising and electrifying about this mysterious place: it smells with fir trees, moss, turf, fungi, ferns and other forest decomposers. I call it Enchanted Forest. I have personally found it energetically charged. Do not ask me why. Some things cannot be explained by reason.

If you want to smell the divine fragrance of a real forest, listen to the soothing sound of singing birds and woodpeckers pecking the trees Petrin Hill is a must. It is such a pleasant place for relaxing, meditative walks. It does not surprise me that the place became famous in pagan times. In the past the Petrin Hill was a pagan ritual hill - a place of pagan cult to Slavic gods, e.g Perun.

Petrin and faith have been inextricably intertwined for a very long time. The area is famous for its long religious cult tradition - Celtic and Slavic sacrificial rituals used to be performed in the area. There are several sacral monuments on the hill creating its unique scenery and gently broody atmospehre: St. Lawrence Church , Calvary Chapel and Holy Sepulchre. The foundation of the St. Lawrence Church is accompanied by one Prague's oldest legends. The legend says that the stone quarry workers settled under a large oak tree and kindled a fire. Eerie faces began to appear in the flames and despite the workers' best efforts to put the fire out it kept re-igniting itself. The mysterious phenomenon encouraged locals to revert to pagan rituals. They Praguers interpreted the self-reigniting fire as a sign of Perun's wrathThey began to make sacrifices and burn bonfires on Petrin to pacify the irate god. St. Adalbert advised King Boleslav II to build a church on Petrin and consecrate it to St. Lawrence who died as a martyr and was burned for his faith. 

The originally Romanesque Church of St Lawrence, first mentioned in 1135, was converted in Baroque style by Ignaz Palliardi between 1735 and 1770, who added a dome and two towers. On the main altar a painting by J.C Monnos (1693) depicts the martyrdom of the saint. The legend of the founding of St. Adalbert's Church on a heathen ritual site in 991 is depicted in the sacristy celing fresco (1735). The German name  of Petrin - Laurenziberg - derives from the patron saint of the church, which has belonged to the Old Catholic Church since 1994.

Gardens of Petrin

Petřín Hill rises above the Vltava river between Malá Strana and Strahov and is one of the most extensive green areas in the city, with the highest elevation above sea level reaching 320 - 238 m. The first written reference about it dates back to 1108, when the last members of the Vršovec family were executed in the local execution place. Back then, the hill was covered by a deep forest stretching all the way to Bílá Hora. The name Petřín was probably first used in the 17th century, and it may be derived from the Latin word petrus (the rocks).

Over the course of centuries, Petřín hill was divided into several gardens, the cultivation of which mostly dates back to the 1830s. The largest garden called Kinský Garden, was established outside the ramparts and thus forms a separate unit.
The following gardens can be found at Petřín: Lobkowicz Garden, Nebozízek, Rose Orchard, Park at the Observation Tower, and Seminar Garden.
The oldest one of them is the terraced Lobkowicz Garden, which belongs to the Lobkowicz palace where the German embassy has its seat, and the garden is not open for public.

Seminar Gardens in full bloom (March, 2016)

Gardens of Petrin spread throughout the hillside of Petrin from the north to the south-east and west. Vineyards covered the hill from the 12th to the 19th century. The Kinsky Garden was laid out in the southern part of the park between 1825 and 1830, with a little pleasure palace. A 2 km scenic walk begins in the garden of Strahov Monastery and leads via the Seminary Garden to Kinsky Garden.

Whilst walking up the Petrin Hill I lost myself in the Seminar Garden. It is full of gorgeous fruit trees. I was lucky to visit Prague in early spring and to capture the beauty of blossoming fruit trees. I can still remeber how fragrant and sweet the air was.

A bit of history:

The Seminar Garden (originally called Gryspek Garden) became a monastery garden of the Carmelites at Virgin Mary of Victory in the 1st half of the 17th century. When the monastery was abolished in 1784, the place was turned into a garden. In the years 1912 - 1914, a lot of fruit trees were planted here; the plan of the reconstruction being carried out by Svatopluk Mocker. In 1927, the garden was purchased by the Prague Community, the enclosure walls were demolished, and it was opened to the public on the 1st of May 1930. There are approximately 2100 fruit trees and 150 shrubs in the Seminar Garden. 

From the peak of Petrin Hill, the fortified city wall which was erected between the years 1360 and 1362 runs down to the foot of the hill. The legend says that the king Charles IV had it built by the poor to allow them to earn their daily crust. This where the name Hunger Wall originates from. 

Hunger Wall

2) Prague Eiffel Tower

While exploring the Petrin Hill, this funky structure bearing close resemblance to the Eiffel Tower cannot be overlooked. Petrin Lookout Tower, one of the most prominent landmarks of Prague, was built as a part of the Industrial Jubilee Exhibition in 1981 as a copy inspired by the Eiffel Tower (at a ratio of 1:5). The iron structure is 63.5 metres high and has got 299 steps. It exemplifies the engineering and building skills of our ancestors from the late 19th century. Until 1990 the tower was used for telecomunication purposes

If you are willing to climb nearly three hundred steps to the top of the tower, you will be rewarded with a stunning view of Prague. Nearby the Petrin Observation Tower you will come across the Mirror Maze. Built as an exhibition pavilion for the Prague Jubilee Exhibition in 1981, this unique structure was inspired by a former Gothic gate of Vysehrad. The maze is a home to 35 ordinary mirrors and 15 distorting mirrors.

3) Dancing House

You can't miss Dancing House when you walk along Vlatva River and admire historic architecture of the Old Town. Dancing House is home to a luxurious hotel, a cafe and a top floor restaurant. The design of the building is unique, and creates particularly striking image in the old part of city. The Dancing House is one of the most interesting Prague architectural structures built at the end of the 20 th century. It represents a man and a woman dancing together. Dancing House was deemed controversial several years ago, but on the other hand, it has become one of the most acclaimed modern buildings in Prague: it was awarded the Design of the year 1996 award by the American Time magazine.

Original shape, subtle dynamism and fluidity of the structure, makes the building stand out nonchalantly from the historical panorama of Prague architecture.  

4) Absinthe

Prague is one of the most popular places in the world to buy and drink absinthe. The city’s charming, cobblestone streets are lined with shops, bars, and restaurants peddling the Green Fairy, as the drink is lovingly nicknamed, offering curious tourists and refined connoisseurs alike a chance to consume the near-mythic spirit. Vilified and outlawed for much of the 20th century, absinthe has undergone a modern revival in Europe, where Prague has quickly distinguished itself as the continent’s new absinthe capital.

If you give a quick glance at the picture above, you will spot fancy murals bordering the the window of one of the numerous absinthe shops in Prague.  Notice the emerald green devils with cheeky grimaces on their faces and a big eye in the left top corner. Not sure if the eye represents the evil eye or the third eye (third eye as the symbol of spiritual englightement and awakening of knowledge, wisdom and higher consciousness). The shop boasts a rich array of absinthe based prodcuts including hot absinth beer and absinthe ice cream.  Needless to say that the esoteric and somewhat diabolical decorations of the shop attract tourist attention. This peculiar green alcohol continues to be a source of inspiration and creativity. The legacy of the Green Fairy as a mysterious and mind-altering spirit perpetuates to this day. It has long had a reputation for boosting creativity, which is probably why its most famous devotees are artists, writers and poets, even in this day and age.  For example, today's most famous absinthe drinker is Marilyn Manson. He has claimed absinthe to be a key part of his creative process. Manson’s fascination with absinthe is so strong that he has gone on to develop his own brand, Mansinthe.

The painting presents The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva. It hangs on the wall of historical Cafe Slavia in Prague. Viktor Oliva (1861-1928) was a Chech painter and illustrator. The Absinthe Drinker is his most famous painintg. 

Though psychoactive effects and chemical makeup of absinthe are contested, its cultural impact is not. Absinthe has played a notable role in the fine art movements of impressions, post-impressionism, modernism and in the corresponding literary movements - (for more information go to Cultural references to absinthe, Wikipedia. 

 Absinthe Bourgeois. Absinthe loving black cat became the symbol of Bourgeois marque, and was reproduced in several poster formats.

In the second half of the nineteenth century,  absinthe became a symbol and a fuel for a caravan of creative individuals including Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, van Gogh, Degas, Manet, Rimbaud, de Maupassant, Wilde, Hemingway. Artists and poets painted and wrote about their experiences with the Green Fairy themselves. Wilde referred often to absinthe as a boost to the creative process. One of Wilde’s most famous quips about absinthe goes as follows: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” 

Too many to chose from. Sampling absinthe is a part of many travelers' Prague experience. Absinthe is available at most bars in Prague. The drink usually contains between 60 and 70 percent alcohol. Some absinthes advertise by thujone content, which ranges from 10 to 100 mg/l. The highest thujone-content absinthes include Bairnsfather at 32 mg/l and King of Spirits at 100 mg/l. Both of these drinks are popular and widely available, though some absinthe connoisseurs don’t necessarily recommend them.

 Prague literally swarms with shops that sell absinthiana - tools, accessories, and accoutrements of the absinthe ritual. The picture above illustrates a collection of absinthe spoons of different shapes and sizes. Absinthe spoons are used for dissolving a cube of sugar into your emerald absinthe pour, hence their perforated surface.  They look so charming and magical, don't they? I purchased my precious absinthe spoon two years ago in Paris. It is one of my most treasured possessions. 

5) Alchemy

The long history of Prague is steeped in magic and mystery. And if you happen to catch a glimpse of Charles Bridge shrouded in morning fog, if you wander through the dark labyrinth of narrow Old Town streets, or get lost in the old wood on Petrin Hill, it isn’t hard to understand why. In fact, there are so many tales of alchemy and ghostly legends that Prague may literally be the world’s most magical city. 

In the year 1600, Prague was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Bohemia and the geographical, political and intellectual centre of Europe. It was also the greatest centre in Europe for the study of alchemy. Its ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, a connoisseur of the bizarre, was himself deeply involved in esoteric pursuits and encouraged his alchemists to turn base metals into gold.
"The concept of a substance that could turn inexpensive metals into valuable gold naturally attracted the attention of many entrepreneurs of all sorts - learned and amateurish, skeptical and gullible, honest and dishonest. An example that illustrates the spirit of the times is that of Rudolf II (1552-1612). Rudolf II created possible the most active period of alchemist and occult practice in the history of Prague. Since the days of Emperor Rudolph II –  who in the late 1500s summoned alchemists and magicians from all over the world to his castle on Hradcany Hill – it has been a place of mystery and intrigue. This king of Bohemia, having found himself in financial difficulties, decided to invest heavily in the search for the philosopher's stone. He thus attracted to Prague a large number of alchemists, who were given ample material and financial support, and promised rewards if they could solve the problem. This "virtual gold rush" may have involved even the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, then at Rudolf's court, who had an alchemical lab built on the grounds of his observatory" (The Philosopher's Stone). 

If you want to learn more about Prague's darker side and get to know its greatest masters of alchemy and magic,  visiting The Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague is a must.  The museum presents the history of occult science and alchemist practices, it gives an insight into old esoteric experiments and rituals popular in the 16th and 17th century Prague. (click here to go to the museum's website). If you are interested into esoteric and history of magic you  can also join a walking tour: Prague's Mysteries: Alchemy, Myth and Magic (Click here to find out more).


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