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Praha ne(známá)

On and off the beaten track in the capital of Czechia

Story by Marcin Konkel August 1st, 2017

revisiting

It's hot. Too darn hot. A cold beer from Vinohradský pivovar goes down my throat and provides me with a long awaited chill. I'm writing this sitting in a small, local but, kind of hipster, place called Žižkavárna located in Žižkov district. I'm writing and thinking..

Prague is a complicated subject for a photographer. There are so many people visiting and so many photographs taken every second that it’s hard not to take a cliché shot. On the other hand, the multitude of people is also a chance to get lost and busy in the streets with your camera.

In the past few last months I’m discovering the art of street photography and finding my own style in this genre. My focus is on the streets, yet, while in Prague, I could not miss the classics. When revisiting a place I have an urge to take this perfect photograph which I was not able to take last time or was not pleased with the effect I got. It was no different this time. Below you will find short, separate stories from my brief stay.

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A LOCAL OR a TOURIST?

When you are in for the classics - you're in the centre. The city centre is connected with a constant influx of people that does not ease. Well, maybe a little bit, in the months of October - March. There is rarely a chance to find a quiet spot. You are bumped into, stepped on and, accidentally, photographed. When you’re shooting street - you are never sure who is going to be in the picture. A local? A tourist? I reckon that 8 out of 10 times it’s a tourist. To my mind, no local would have the patience to use these paths packed full. The statistics tend to agree - 7.07 million people visited Prague in 2016 of which 6.05 million were from abroad as Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ) mentioned.

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It's not different on the Charles Bridge (cz. Karlův most) where all strolls seem to begin or end. It's construction started in 1357 and finished in the beginning of the 15th century. It was the successor of the Judith Bridge which was damaged in 1342 by floods. There is also a good viewing point that, fortunately, is so often missed by tourists - The Old Town bridge tower that was constructed in the 13th century. There is very little space atop but the views often are rewarding.

It's sundown and there is no space left in the Old Tower bridge. People do not move, leaning against the metal dome of the tower and waiting for the light spectacle to end. Others try to, somehow, go round the tower to catch different perspectives. While looking from above on the bridge I think to myself that the only way to take a comfortable stroll through it needs to get up before the sunrise (in the summer period). Only then it is possible to walk freely without the hustle and bustle of people stopping all the time to take photographs or buy knick-knacks.

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A pleasant view that can also be seen is the multitude of small boats and pedalos with lanterns attached at their end so these water vehicles can see one another. There is an abundance of them moving rather slowly, taking their time. That is another way of looking at the city fortunately being more popular. Fortunately because some time ago the waterways seemed unoccupied and, somehow, made redundant. There is an adverse trend nowadays to use them once again for moving people. Perhaps it's due to the other means of transportation to being fully accommodated or we are rediscovering the old ways of moving.

The sun went down and I was tired with the crowded spaces around me. I decided to move to a more secluded spot.

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a visit to Senate

Wallenstein Palace is a palace in Malá Strana (en. Lesser Town) district with adjacent garden that, currently, is the home of the Czech Senate. Surprisingly, it was built to rival Prague Castle. It is quite extraordinary and, in a way, secluded from the main tourist routes. One of it's features is a well-kept garden (cz. Valdštejnská zahrada) that includes a fountain, an artificial cave with stalactites and a wired aviary designed for keeping exotic birds. In summer the garden is the venue for concerts and theatrical performances.

When there are no events in the garden it is rarely full and is a perfect place to unwind. It's well isolated from the outside by it's high and thick wall.

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DANCING STALIN

There is a place in Prague that has undergone an 180 degrees change in the last 50 years. Once a memorial place surrounded by unwanted pathos - today it's a party site for the young. Some of the best views of the city are located outside the old town. You can go to Žižkov Television Tower, Petřín Lookout Tower or National Memorial on Vítkov but the most impressive one is located in Letná Park. That is where a huge metronome is located and the party begins. The metronome was erected in 1991 in the same place where an enormous monument to former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in was constructed in 1962. The monument of Stalin and his followers was the largest group statue in Europe. The sculptor of the giant statue killed himself the day before the unveiling of his work.

After the demolition of the statue, Vratislav Novák erected the red metronome as a reminder in the area to memorialise the Czech struggles under communism. The city has long thought how to revitalise the space around and, recently, it seems they coined an idea. During summer, it hosts DJ sets, opens beer gardens and lots of locals and tourists come to dance in the open air. The former bunker underneath the metronome that was serving as the HQ for pirate radio Stalin is now operating as a small pub. Visualisations supporting the sets are screened on the main pedestal of the red symbol. There is also the smell of pot all over the place that somehow adds to the liberating symbol of the construction and history. The park itself is also the host of Prague Metronome Festival - an international music event that hosts local and international music bands.

A less popular fact is that the metronome is a treat among skaters from around the world who come and visit. As expats.cz informs:

"Stalin Square, up by the Metronome in Letná Park, is one of the skateboarding meccas of the world, comparable to the MACBA in Barcelona and Pier 7 in San Francisco."

When people from around the world visit the space it's customary that they leave their sneakers hanging from the thick and long power cord that makes the metronome work:

"The shoes have been a tradition for twenty-some years, and skaters always throw their shoes over the wire. People will travel from all over the world just to skate the park and leave their mark with their shoes. All sorts of familiar skate brands can be found there—DC, Converse, Vans and the like, with the occasional average shoe of a curious tourist. It’s an interesting tradition that shows that the skateboarding scene in Prague is internationally recognised."

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the streets

My coffee was just served. I'm sitting and thinking what's drawing me to this city and people on constant basis. Surely, it's not the old buildings or museums that are, of course, appealing but I've seen them quite a few times already. It's also not the thing that it's a popular destination as I tend to avoid crowds and tourist spots in my travels.

I think it's the vibe. The free spirit, the nonchalance and unconventional character of this city. I can rest mentally and recharge. Gather new ideas, absorb the sort of Boheme atmosphere that's somewhere in the air or just sit down and admire the view in Riegrovy Sady park. Unwontedly, I receive the nonchalance in the less known, more local venues. Rather the old ones than the new ones where I'm not the štamgast (a frequent visitor). It happens to everyone - even the immigrants that are visiting often. It's not that easy to earn this label and be treated as one. There is a pub that gained worldwide attention which made it's owner nervous and angst when non-locals (and not frequent visitors) visit. The place is based in the middle of one of the most tourist district (close to Malostranské náměstí plaza) and is called "U Kocoura". It was the favourite pub of Václav Havel, the former president of Czech Republic. It was also the place where he invited Lech Wałęsa, former Polish president and Nobel laureate in 1991, for a beer.

Havel once said:

"Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not."

It seems that the whole country lives by these words - especially David Černý. Černý is a world renown artist known for his many sculptures placed around Prague. To name a few one could refer to "Peeing Statues" that represents two men peeing on a resemblance of map of Czech Republic or a statue of Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand from atop a building. There is also a statue of St. Wenceslas riding a dead horse located right next to Wenceslas Square and the original statue or the famous "Tower babies" placed on Žižkov Television Tower in a large number. These all are legal installations that still exist around the city. There were much more artworks by David but of temporary character like "Gesture" seen in October 2013 showing a huge floating hand with an ever larger middle finger in a worldwide known character. Another quite provocative work "Nation for Itself Forever" (cz. Narod sobe navzdy) shows a huge (10m high) pissing statue installed on National Theatre building. Some take it for controversy while others are fond of David's humour.

A rather more serious personality is Josef Koudelka - a world renown photographer for whom Prague was a playground for his street work. He became famous, first anonymously, by his photographic reportage from the invasion of, back then, Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact which entered the country to halt the reforms. His works were shown by the prestigious Magnum agency and in a later album titled "Invasion 68 Prague". It was only one year, at the time, when he started working as a journalist and never covered a story of this calibre. It was to be his first, and only, coverage on a military action. His photographs made history and impact on the world scene showing the brutal reality of the uncovering events. That being said there is a lot more from this artist to show. He depicted the Gypsies community and the building of a 9 meter hight kwall by Israel in the West Bank between the country and Palestine (see more in "Koudelka Shooting Holy Land" movie screenings worldwide). Last, but not least, he is a member of the prestigious Magnum agency.

There is a lot more to Czech artists than Černý or Koudelka and I encourage you to browse through the interwebs.

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Devil's elevator

Prague hosts a machine that you have little chance of seeing anywhere else in the world in such a pristine condition. It was invented in the late 1800s by Peter Ellis, an architect from Liverpool, and it's construction was halted in the mid-1970s due to safety concerns. Some call it the devil's elevator due to some accidents that took place. According to Patrick Carr, of the Elevator History Museum, every department store in Germany used to have one. They have been banned by the European Union. The paternoster elevator is a rare sight these days.

Sources vary but, supposedly, there are around 230 of these lifts left in Germany, 60 in Czechia and few in Poland. Outside Europe they were only two. Some are wooden whereas others are metal. One thing that they have in common is that they are in constant operation. There are no buttons to choose the floor, there are none to order the elevator. The cabins are moving slowly in a 0,30 – 0,45 m/s pace. You just jump on and jump off on the floor that you want. This jumping makes it the reason why they were banned. Some people loose their limbs when tripped or getting caught in between floors. Some that did not exit were caught in the mechanisms switching the elevators. Yet, that does not stop people from using them - especially when they get accustomed to them.

As the creation of new paternosters is banned and there are such a small number left they get old and replaced with regular elevators. There is only one I heard of that was recently (April 2017) renovated and is located at Prague’s New City Hall at Mariánské náměstí. It covers four floors and has thirteen numbered carriages. A press release from the City Hall states:

The paternoster in the New City Hall is among the unique monuments of engineering that anyone who comes to this public building should try and admire. At present, there are not many places where a circulating elevator is in operation. I am very pleased that the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in cooperation with Prague conservationists helped prepare this delicate reconstruction. The result is truly remarkable.

The name paternoster comes from Latin and stands for "our father". That's how the Lord’s Prayer starts for Christians and refers to the way the chain of cabinets moves like a rosary in a person’s hand. Some people risk not getting out on the last floor but travelling with the cabin sideways to start another circle. Depending on the construction it might be safe or it might end up deadly. There are many videos on YouTube showing how the mechanism works if you're curious.

There is a kind of relief in the notion that there are people and communities that take pride in revitalising the ideas of humankind and preserving them for new generations. Although the "devil's elevator" might not be the world's best invention it can survive and not only tell it's story, but also be experienced by generations to come.

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bill, play us a song

I'm sitting in a small club located in the basement of a larger building. It was a spontaneous decision to walk in. The atmosphere is dense due to the heat this day and anticipation. All seats are taken, together with Natalia, we get the last two. We later learn that this is the most famous jazz club in the city and one of 10 most renown in Europe. To tourists, it's most known for the former president Bill Clinton playing his new saxophone that he got as a gift from Václav Havel (former president of Czech Republic). For connoisseurs, it's the place where such legends as Glen Miller Orchestra, B.B. King or Louis Armstrong have played and jammed.

The concert begins. A big band consisting of 17 artists including 2 singers and a conductor starts playing. The crowd sitting in the red lounges slowly drifts away with the sound of music and their eyes directed to the singer. The audience - a mix of tourists and locals inhale the classics such as "Too darn hot" by Ella Fitzgerald (written by Cole Porter) or pieces by Glenn Miller Orchestra. All musicians are perfectly synchronised in this tiny space with its roots reaching 1957.

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KAFKA WAS RIGHT

“Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws.”- Franz Kafka.

There is something in the words of Kafka that personifies itself each time I visit. No wonder some of the worlds most brilliant minds were visiting for longer periods to work creatively like, for instance, Albert Einstein when he took a post teaching at the German University in Prague. He wrote in an introduction to Czech translation of "About the Special and General Theory of Relativity in Plain Terms":

"I am pleased that this small book ... should now appear in the native language of the country in which I found the necessary concentration for developing the basic idea of the general theory of relativity, which I had already conceived in 1908. In the quiet rooms of the Institute of Theoretical Physics of Prague's German University in Viničná Street, I discovered that the principle of equivalence implies the deflection of light rays near the sun by an observable amount."

My glass of beer in Žižkavárna is empty. It's time to catch the train to Poland. I think one does not need to take into account what Kafka or Einstein said. A simple view may suffice.

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Footnote: X100F + 50 mm teleconverter / July 2017
Prague, Czechia