Intrigued by the most beautiful buildings in Prague?

Interpret the language of Art Nouveau…

Some of us love cities with a past. For their narrow, wobbly cobbled roads and oil-lamp pedestals. For their charming places of worship, old wooden bridges, royal retreats and dark dungeons. For their imperfect half-timbered houses, impeccable tasteful mansions, vibrant tiled courtyards and rough red-brick tiled roofs. Because there’s more to brick, mortar and stone than mere eye candy. If you let them, buildings will whisper sweet-nothings in your ear. The wavelength needs a little more adjusting in a buzzing city like Prague, but you can still tune in to the fascinating narratives. As you trace the evolution of the ‘Mother of Cities’ from 9th-century Romanesque to 14th-century Gothic to 19th-century Art Nouveau and Cubist eras, you may find one of these styles particularly intriguing, as I did.

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 Down with the ugly

But first, flashback to late 1880s to early 1890s. Rapid industrialization and mass production of cheap goods. Depressing times for artists, designers, and architects. But the creative spirit always manages to break free. Revolution of the ‘We-Hate-Uglies’. And rise of Art Nouveau (French for ‘new art’). Craftsmanship and art push back with a sweet vengeance. This time, wiping out the boundaries between elite and public consumption. Whipping up a new fervour for all things beautiful and refined. Art seeps into everyday life, for the first time.

Taking huge inspiration from nature, Art Nouveau unfolds as the first real modern style ever. With themes revolving around elements like leaves, vines, flowers, birds, animals and insects. Asymmetrical shapes, elegant arches, graceful curves, colourful mosaics, dainty stained glass and Japanese motifs become central to design. Decorative and functional emerge as the twin mantras. Curiosity piqued yet? Wait for it…

Much ado about Mucha

Brilliant designer and prominent Czech artist Alphonse Mucha rises to fame, turning Prague into a centre for Art Nouveau. He adorns some of Prague’s finest buildings, including a painted ceiling in the Art Nouveau masterpiece, the Municipal House and the stained glass window of the majestic St. Vitus Cathedral. Mucha’s work is fresh, sinuous and elegant…each composition overflowing with delicate tendrils, swirling lines and gorgeous, bejewelled, flower-decked women in luxuriant gowns. Pale pastels and vibrant accents. Unrestricted celebration of femininity in a overtly masculine world. From textile, paintings, jewellery, clothing and promotional posters to architectural elements like grills, stairways, doors, tiles, window glass, wallpaper and furniture…everything acquires a new status. Anything can evolve into art! The demand for Art Nouveau mushrooms. And Prague neighbourhoods refine. Into eye candy. Go seek. And you shall find!

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On the treasure hunt

The streets of Prague are a visual delight. Identifying Art Nouveau Baroque from among the plethora of Gothic, Neo-Classical, Neo-Renaissance, Cubist or Art Deco structures is a strain for the amateur eye, but the clues are fairly simple. The first and most obvious one is the trio of colours that define Art Nouveau…usually yellow, green and gold. Next look for the delicate, floral motifs and vine trails inspired by nature. Or the extravagant painted frescoes. Then train your eyes to spot the elements that are functional plus aesthetic. Like the iron statuettes supporting a balcony. But the real proof lies in the camouflaged ‘branding’. A snake motif on the doors of a chemist store, an ancient symbol of healing and medicine. Or a ship logo on the roof of a merchant trading house. Or a literary inscription on the front of a book store. Getting the drift?

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Kickstart your Art Nouveau course with the inimitable Prague ‘Pasaz’ experience. Wander through the woven network of ornamental, arcaded passageways belonging to the 20th-century. The epitome of the unconventional, indulgent, prosperous trading city that Prague once was. These temperature-resistant sheltered spaces or welcoming walkways are lined with snazzy shops, cute cafes and often house a Diavolo (theatre) and a fine restaurant or two. Treat yourself…discover a new route, stumble upon a delightful courtyard hideaway, take a break from the bustle of the rushed street outside in these hidden spaces. Or just admire the ornate glass ceilings, unusual sculptures and exquisite floor designs.

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Enrol in the ultimate ‘tutorial’ at the Municipal House, the most spectacular icon of Art Nouveau in the city of a hundred spires. Setting the stage for a grand entry is an imposing green-copper dome, filigree metalwork and flamboyant reliefs representing history, literature, painting, music and architecture. Certainly, nothing less majestic would have fit the bill for its former avatar as the Royal Court from 1383 to 1483. Inside is abundant proof of a fabulous 20th-century revival…vivid coloured glasswork, stylised light scone fittings, gilded decorations, gorgeous ceramics and super-sized murals. The Mucha stamp too…but of course! Leave supremely educated. Come back for a sumptuous evening…a classical concert at Smetana Hall, Prague’s biggest concert hall beneath an exquisite glass dome or a fine meal at one of the formal restaurants, maybe.

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Craving more? Challenge yourself with a refresher module, hunting for the endless jewels scattered all over the Old Town and Wenceslas Square. Venture into Vinohrady, a posh residential neighbourhood with an artsy, hip vibe where leafy tree-lined streets, lined with graceful villas embody the essence of Art Nouveau. No less impressive is the 13-century old Jewish Quarter, where a crumbling cemetery crowded with 10,000 tombs and six stunning synagogues fight for attention with hundreds of splendid specimens of Art Nouveau.

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Once you get a hang of it, you’ll be hooked, so stop keeping count. A giant flower medallion studded on a wall, pillars wrapped up with leafy creepers, elaborately framed windows, gold painted frescoes, curvy iron grill balconies and a plethora of symbolic emblems. You know you’ve reached breaking point when you start hallucinating…no, those are not vine trails, its your sauerkraut!

 

We explored Prague’s modern architectural wonders on a fabulous ‘Art Nouveau and Modernism’ tour with Riccardo Cacciotti of Context Travel. They deliver what they promise: ‘Tours for the intellectually curious’. All opinions are my own.

 

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Learn how to identify Art Nouveau architecture. The clues are fairly simple.

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The most famous castles of Germany hide dark secrets

Inside Ludwig’s mind and his residences… 

Shy, imaginative, moody teen madly obsessed with classical music composer. Grows to be an eccentric recluse, elusive bachelor and a deeply indulgent patron of the same classical music composer. Harmless. Until you know the full story. That he’s a unwilling regent, hailing from the Wittelbach dynasty, Europe’s longest ruling dynasty. So indifferent to politics, that he ultimately eats into his empire’s financial foundations to fund his larger-than-life castle building projects. Dedicated to his opera god. Richard Wagner. No surprise then, that Ludwig II, (Mad King Ludwig, as he’s nicknamed), takes the crown for being Bavaria’s most controversial historical figure. Ironical, considering his head was perennially uneasy wearing a crown!

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Portrait of Ludwig II (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Make Munich your base to explore two of Ludwig’s most well-recognised fairytale castles. To marvel at their artistic splendour, but also to fathom the folds of the troubled mind of an reluctant ruler, whose life (and death) are shrouded in dark mystery. The castle hunt takes you along the Romantic Road (couldn’t be better named), credited as of the world’s most spectacular drives. (Read my post on “Surrender your hopeless heart to the Romantic Road”). So, enjoy the ride.

The sun washes the hills behind the graceful rise and dip of the deep green landscape. Clouds float softly on the mountain tops, a little rivulet runs along the road. First glimpse of the snowy peaks of the Alps. Try pulling your eyes away. Fail desperately. Ascend the first mountain of about 2500 ft along a broad, comfortable serpentine road, surrounded by dense autumn forests on both sides. And you’re parked at the Linderhof Palace complex. Its an hour since you left Munich. What? Already?

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A languid walk through expansive gardens. Swans skimming over limpid lakes, treetops kissing aquamarine skies and fresh water streams rippling down grassy hillocks. Cool greens of leaves fading into fiery oranges and sunny yellows. Full-blown blazing autumn colours blending roughly, each leaf telling its own story. Tread the gravelly path strewn with dry fallen maple leaves, listening to the music of the crunching beneath your feet. Bend down to pick up a few priceless souvenirs.

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In the middle of this idyllic haven, stands the Linderhof palace surrounded by baroque gardens, terraces and cascades in the Italian Renaissance style. An oasis of calm isolated in the majestic Ammergau Mountain forests. Opulent, yet intimate. A gilded statue shines at the base of a fountain, and a terraced hillock beyond it leads to a small pillared temple dedicated to Venus. Large urns flaunting elaborate flower decorations border the pond and a row of simple white-painted benches with curved legs add a touch of grace. Structured, perfect…like a masterpiece of a painting…each brush stroke alive!

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Take a tour of the small palace, absorbing the curious mix of rococo, baroque, renaissance and classical styles. The pure white-stone painted exterior is enhanced by elaborate gold-carved balcony railings and a matching gilded front door. Inspired by Versailles? On the roof, is poised a statue of Atlas holding the earth. More magic awaits inside the French-style palatial residence.

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An elaborate chandelier weighing half a tonne. Gold plated carvings on walls and ceilings, rooms overflowing with expensive dresden china, sculptures, French porcelain and Italian marble. Gold and sparkle. More gold and more sparkle! An ostentatious bedroom made of blue tapestry and gilded gold with a balustrade bed like Louis XV, and even a mini Hall of Mirrors a.k.a Versailles. With a breathtaking view of a huge, cascading Italian Neptune waterfall with a music pavilion on the top! And a trap-door dining table that could be lowered into the kitchen beneath the floor at the touch of a button. Leaving Ludwig in peace to host opulent multi-course dinners with his imaginary guests.

Evidence of more indulgence in the gardens. An incredible Venus Grotto, an artificial cave complete with stalactites, a 10-feet deep lake (and a wave-producing machine), a shell-shaped boat in which Ludwig was rowed around, and a mural depicting his friend Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser’ opera. Lighting in this grotto used to be changed by rotating colored glass disks. Apparently, music performances were held here and vocalists stood in the water (fortunately heated).

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A sumptuous home for a loner who remained unmarried and died under mysterious circumstances at 40 after being declared mentally ill. You’re still trying to digest all the incredible extravagance, even after Linderhof is a speck in the distance. When you gasp at the first glimpse of the Neuschwanstein Castle.

Perched on a high cliff, resting on a carpet of treetops, pointed turrets and towers rising into the skies, a curtain of gently sloping mountains completing the grand showcase. The light-coloured limestone of the palace stands out like a solitaire in a ring, against the copper-gold autumn forests below and the bright blue sky above. Ludwig’s final retreat. The zenith of his fantasies. And the penultimate temple in honor of the object his affection, Richard Wagner.

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Its a steep 1.5 km uphill from the village of Hohenschwangau at the foot of the Alps in the Allgäu area to the to the castle. Take the 11 euro horse cart ride if you prefer the indulgence. My recommendation: work for it. Hike the thickly wooded beauty. The rewards seem sweeter with faster heartbeat, shorter breath and stiffer calves.

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Up, close and personal finally with the most unreal castle anyone every envisioned! The inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. And every die-hard romantic’s dream come true. But first, the fantastic scenic views. Down in the valley below, miles and miles of meadows, a small village with tiny red Monopoly-like houses on a vast green carpet, a church in the distance, carefully laid out roads, a river beyond, and then the high mountain cover. A lookout out from a large steel parapet with a glass balcony. People crossing the small Queen Mary’s bridge suspended precariously over a deep ravine between two mountains, under which gushes a mountain waterfall. Ludwig had great taste. And his never-fail mantra while investing in a home? Location, location, location! Smart guy.

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Graceful lines of the entrance gated wall in soft pink and cream colours, a large wooden slatted gate, and coat of arms above. Windows made of narrow slits and arched tops, arranged symmetrically on the flat walls, and alternately on the towers, hiding a circular staircase perhaps. That red ivy on the gleaming light walls…was it there in Ludwig’s time too? Wait, is that Rapunzel peering out of one of the windows, her wild tresses flowing in the wind, waiting for her Prince Charming? Nah! Just a regular tourist.

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Tour 16 of the 110 interior rooms of Neuschwanstein that were completed by the time Ludwig died. True to its owner’s style, many outrageously lavish elements stand out. And odes to Wagner everywhere. Walls and ceilings decorated with coloured frescos in Romanesque style. A throne room decorated with red silk and gold embroidery. A four-meter high gilt bronze Bohemian coloured glass chandelier weighing 2,000 pounds. A masterpiece floor ablaze with vibrant motifs of animals and plants. A concert hall ceiling with 96 painted wooden cassettes based on designs of zodiac. A Neo-Gothic bed with richly carved wood canopy of pinnacles that resembles Gothic church spires. A swan-shaped sink. A functional telephone, central heating system electricity and modern kitchen. All this for only 172 days that he stayed here!

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Neuschwanstein Castle is the dream world of an reluctant king, living in a fantasy world of myths and legends from an early age. A fanciful retreat overflowing with excesses and romanticism…think damsels in distress, dragons, and knights in gleaming armour. Recreating the region’s medieval past in an enchanting way. What Germany has done for his unfinished home is far more than he could have ever bargained for. Since 1990, 11.2 million euros have been spent to renovate and maintain this most frequently photographed spot in the country, which 1.3 million visitors frequent every year. A mad king’s extravagances have become a vital source of income for the state of Bavaria. All’s well that ends well.

 

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Make Munich your base to explore two of Ludwig’s most well-recognised fairytale castles. To marvel at their artistic splendour, but also to fathom the folds of the troubled mind of an reluctant ruler, whose life (and death) are shrouded in dark mystery.

 

How to have the best gastronomical experience in Prague

Let your inner foodie loose…

Pick Praha for all incredible prettiness. Pick Praha for its immaculately preserved past. And pick Praha for your palate. Surprise yourself with the diversity of food culture in the Czech capital. Sip a cappuccino in the Old Town Square under the shadow of the Astronomical Clock or experiment with an artisanal kava somewhere in the warren of its cobbled medieval streets. Squeeze into a tiny bistro or perch on the window-sill of a specialty taverna. 

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Experience the sensory explosion of vegan dishes or marvel at centuries-old Bohemian meat-rich recipes. Gratify your taste buds with home-made sweets at a local food market or drown in the buzz of a hip art cafe. Relish the flavours of fusion food at a stylish restaurant under the shadow of impressive Art Nouveau buildings. Or gulp down deeply sweet raspberry lemonades in the charming courtyard of a hidden cafe.   

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And the ultimate luxury? Take a food tour. For the love of all things flavorful…do take a food tour! Discover charming cafes and iconic restaurants. Savour traditional and contemporary dishes. Dipped in an exquisite cuisine-culture concoction. Sprinkled with personal contextual anecdotes and food recommendations. Served on a platter of historically significant landmarks. 

Down to favorites, then. With a dollop of history and a swirl of authenticity to add that extra zing. Make sure you Czech out all this food!!!

Try this: Apple strudel (German for ‘whirlpool’)

Trace its ancestry: The Austrians are possessive about the lineage of the strudel (proof of their pudding lies in a 17th-century recipe filed away in the Vienna Town Hall Library). But the origins of this comfort confectionery lie further East. One good look at those filo-like layers and tell me you’re not visualizing Turkish Baklava. A sweet gift of the Ottoman Empire to Central Europe, which possibly flowed into Austria through Hungary. Deeply rooted in the Czech culture since the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Omnipresent on menus in restaurants and cafes.

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Taste the goodness: Belies its sturdy appearance. Spoon up the first surprise. Impossibly delicate, fine layers of dough. Baked to burnished golden perfection. Dusted with snowy icing sugar. Sweetest chunks of tart apple in every bite. Every slice will have you craving for more.

Treat it right: Enjoy with a generous dollops of whipped cream or vanilla custard. A strong cup of espresso, to balance the flavours, if your heart desires. Amnesia-wipe the term ‘calorie count’. Just memorise the word ‘indulge’.

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Try this: Medovnik (honey cake)

Trace its ancestry: Want to believe Wikipedia? Then this cake was a successful creation of a Russian chef trying to impress an empress. The Czech legacy though…is pure fact. Kicked off in the mid-nineties with an immigrant Armenian, Gevorg Avetisyan, who made one last-ditch effort to provide for his family by selling honey cakes. Twist in tale. Fallback turned to fame! Today, they produce over 100,000 cakes a month! And Medovnik gives stiff competition to apple strudel as a universally favorite dessert in the Czech Republic. For all the right reasons, too.

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Taste the goodness: Layers of soft, flaky biscuity discs. Sweet, whipped cream filling. Creamy brown icing. Light dusting of fine honey cake crumbs and chopped walnuts. Fair warning…eyebrows will rise, eyes will close, trance-like states will be induced. Consume with care. Can be highly addictive.

Treat it right: Order a hefty slice as the fitting finale to a satisfying meal. Or as a mid-afternoon extravagance with kava (coffee) or tea (caj). And gorge it down to the very last delectable morsel. All of it. Every little scrumptious crumb. Nirvana!

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Try this: Gingerbread (transalated ‘pernik’ or black pepper).

Trace its ancestry: Ancient Greeks and Egyptians used it for ceremonial purposes. Till 11th-century crusaders got expensive ginger to Europe from the Middle East. Gingerbread graced the tables of the rich till ginger became more affordable. Religious and nature themes gave way to decorative motifs like bells, birds, hearts and snowflakes. The multifarious-cookie now dressed up homes on festivals and even became used as a declaration of love. Bohemian gingerbread has been a tradition since the 14th century. In fact, its artistic and intricate patterns are a unique art form!

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Taste the goodness: Spicing it up are ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and anise and sweetness comes from brown sugar, molasses, light or dark corn syrup or honey. Variations include thin, crisp cookies or dark, spicy cake.

Treat it right: Feel like a child in a candy store. Choices, choices and more choices…so many delightful colors, shapes and sizes. Chomp down sample after sample. Go greedy, packet after packet. Gingerbread stays hard and dry and the spices act as preservatives. Hoard away to your heart’s content.

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Try this: Svíčková (marinated tenderloin served with dumplings)

Trace its ancestry: Czech’s national dish is dowsed in history and pride. Every family has a highly-guarded secret recipe. Every notable restaurant offers one variation of svíčková on its menus. The sauce even has its own Wikipedia page!

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Taste the goodness: Thick, rich, smooth cream gravy cooked with an assortment of root vegetables, vinegar, lemon juice, sugar, few herbs and spices. Accompanied with big fluffy dumplings. Served with whipped cream and tart cranberry sauce. Substantial, savoury and flavorful.

Treat it right: Smother and lather the dumplings in the sauce before you dive in. Squashy, squidgy? Meant to be. Slice the beef with your fork. Melts in your mouth? Full marks. This is comfort food. Chances are you will be reminded of your mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen. Big meal. Bigger smile.

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Try this: Chlebíčky (open-faced sandwiches)

Trace its ancestry: In the early 20th century, a painter commissioned Prague deli owner Jan Paukert to create a bite-sized snack. He created the Chlebíčky and it took the country by storm. Open-faced sandwiches make a delicious, versatile, quick and filling meal, any time of the day. Finger foods loaded with fatty ingredients to get you through the country’s cold weather. Think mayonnaise, herring paste, ham, red salami and cheese.

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Taste the goodness: Paukert’s famous shop is not in business any more, but the open sandwich has become a Czech legend, crowding counters at delis, delicatessens and butcher shops all over the city. Toppings are as endless as your imagination…beetroot, egg, ham, salami, pickles, capers, olives, cucumber. Classic or with a gourmet twist.

Treat it right: Order two or three snack-sized sandwiches. Crunch and munch through the fresh, wholesome, finger-licking, standing lunch. Keep a few extra paper napkins handy. You’ll be going back for more!

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Try this: Kyselica (sauerkraut soup)

Trace its ancestry: Romania shepherds must have cooked up this mouth-watering cabbage soup sometime between the 14th-17th centuries. The hearty breakfast that once fuelled the stomach of men who laboured in the woods of the Wallachian Kingdom in Moravia, has become a much-loved staple of authentic Czech cuisine. Its Slovakian cousin ‘Kapustnica’ is made with fresh grated cabbage and flavoured with red paprika.

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Taste the goodness: Kyselica sports chunks of potatoes, shredded sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and cubes of smoked meat or bratwurst in a thick beef broth. Optionals include mushrooms, bacon, onions, sausage. One big steaming bowl can leave you satiated. Lunch sorted already?

Treat it right: Sip it slow, let it trickle down your throat as you identify the individual flavours of the fermented cabbage, potatoes and meat. Maybe a warm, crusty bread roll on the side. Oodles of nutrition. Ready to chop some wood now?

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We sampled most of the above culinary delights as guests of Eating Prague Food Tours as part of an unforgettable, four-hour long glorious gastronomy tour, with guide Eva Brejlova, ex-journo, food enthusiast, passionate patriot, mushroom hunter and raspberry lover. All opinions are my own.

 

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Glorious gastronomy in Prague

Do you know why Antwerp is timeless like its diamonds?

Sparkling like a diamond, forever…

Two hours by bus from Brussels will land you in Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port. Fascinating records of legacy. 12th-century centre for tapestry wool import-export. Napoleon’s favoured base for easy access to attack England. Commercial capital of the world with a humungous population of 100,000. And home to the world’s first stock market. Beat those!

Continue reading “Do you know why Antwerp is timeless like its diamonds?”