Prague: Where beauty steals your breath

By Liz Light

Prague is famous for its medieval art and architecture but it's the Art Nouveau that delights Liz Light

Prague's old town, beside the Vltava River, is blessed with a rich mixture of medieval and Art Nouveau architecture and artworks. Photo / Liz Light
Prague's old town, beside the Vltava River, is blessed with a rich mixture of medieval and Art Nouveau architecture and artworks. Photo / Liz Light

It is often the totally unexpected that pleases most. When I thought of Prague I imagined castles, cathedrals, cobbled lanes, old stone bridges and spires. Prague is rightfully proud of a thousand years of art and architecture. The surprise is the plethora of Art Nouveau buildings, stained-glass windows, paintings and applied arts.

Initially, it's not Art Nouveau I notice. I begin exploring the city. Soon I'm lost in the maze of lanes that veer off at unusual angles. It's a pleasant kind of lost, passing stone buildings, bars in basements, dinky shops and centuries-old solid wood doors.

The lanes lead to Old Town Square, Prague's main public place since the 10th century. It's expansive and edged by neoclassical architecture. Behind, tall spired towers of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn thrust into the sky.

Charles Bridge, the city's proudest possession, crosses the Vltava River, around which the city has grown. Its stone pillars and arches have withstood 600 years of floods and traffic.

Each of the 15 pillars is topped with a baroque statue. The most famous, and the one whose feet the locals casually kiss, is of John of Nepomuk, the queen's confessor who was flung off the bridge by King Wenceslaus in 1393 when he refused to divulge the queen's confessions.

I'm a dutiful tourist and hotfoot to Prague Castle on the hill above the river. The walled hilltop is like a small town and has numerous castles, a tiny medieval village and a cathedral. The castles are now museums and art galleries, the medieval village is mostly tourist shops and St Vitus Cathedral, though undeniably magnificent, seems to be too busy for God. Brilliant stained glass windows flood colour into the vast airy space and I forget the crowds.

One of the cathedral's windows is a glowing, modern jewel in contrast to the dark intricacy of this medieval cathedral. It was made in 1930 by Alfons Mucha, Art Nouveau's venerable granddad.

I have always loved Art Nouveau, the luscious precursor to Art Deco, and this window is an epiphany. From this moment my explorations of Prague have an Art Nouveau focus.

Art Nouveau washed through the western world from 1895 until it was squashed by the austerities of World War I. The flowering of this style coincided with an explosion of artistic, architectural and intellectual activity at a time when the Czech Republic was asserting its national identity and culture.

There is, I discover, a Mucha museum. It is curated by Mucha's grandson and explores his art, family and life and his contribution to the Art Nouveau movement. Though Czech, Mucha made his name in Paris where his 1895 posters for Sarah Bernhardt's plays were a sensation that announced this new artistic style.

Besides the St Vitus window, Mucha was involved in decorating the Theatre of Fine Arts and Municipal House plus illuminating books and designing the stamps and money for the Czech Republic.

Municipal House is an exuberant building. The tone is set at the entry where I walk under a glorious iron and stained-glass canopy and through heavy, ornate doors. Besides Mucha, some 30 Czech artists worked on the project.

Mucha's style became associated with Czech National Revival and numerous architects, designers and artists were enthusiasts. New Town, south of the old city, was built at the turn of the 20th century and is heavily infused with Art Nouveau buildings.

Along the Masarykovo Embankment are striking, richly decorated apartment buildings. Vines crawl over doorways, luscious women whose hair is entwined with foliage adorn walls, owls guard arched windows, angels fly, marble cupolas overflow with fruit and there are sheaves of wheat, stylised flowers and knights of old.

The streets around Karlova offer a feast of Art Nouveau. Many buildings have been beautifully restored since the dour, dingy days of Communism but some are neglected with falling stucco, faded paintings and broken statues.

Communism, brutally imposed by Russia after World War II and lasting until 1989, was an architectural blessing in a cruel way. The Czech Republic was kept poor, privately owned buildings were communised, and the centre of the city was left to gently decay. Art Nouveau was out of vogue and a wealthier city would have destroyed many of these buildings.

In the late afternoon the Vitezna Bridge makes a fine viewing platform. Charles Bridge, the next one downstream, is bristling with people. Couples row romantically in small boats and swans have built nests under riverside willows.

Yes, Prague has the famous 600-year-old bridge, castles, cathedrals and history seeping from every cobbled lane. It's as pretty as can be, has cafes galore and supposedly the cheapest and best beer in Europe. But, for me, it's the love affair the city has with Mucha and Art Nouveau that makes it exceptional.


Info

At Leisure holidays have a relaxed pace and offer two or three nights in each location and plenty of time to explore. trafalgar.co.nz

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Frankfurt every day via Hong Kong and offers easy connections on to Prague.

Stay in Hong Kong: JW Marriott Hong Kong is in the heart of the city, close to Hong Kong's best shopping.


Liz Light visited Prague with Trafalgar's At Leisure 10-day Prague, Vienna and Budapest guided holiday.

- Herald on Sunday

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