Saturday, July 15, 2006

Shabbat in Prague (July 15)

Today has been a truly delightful day.

I slept in until almost 8 am! The cool, dry air from yesterday evening continues to grace Prague, making a stroll through the city a wonderful experience.

After breakfast I headed to the Altneuschul for Shabbat services. According to the schedule, they were supposed to be held in the High Schul, but for reasons no one knew, they switched them to the Altneu, the oldest synagogue in Europe.

The main schul, built in the early 13th century, is gothic in style, with an extra decorative rib added to the vaulted roof to prevent it from forming a cross. The stone bimah is in the middle, with straightback wooden benches lining the wall and the exterior of the bimah. The aron ha-kodesh is also stone, and the walls are plain, except for abbreviations, such as the one that read "dalet, lamed, mem, aleph, ayin" -- i.e. "da lifneh me atah omed" (know before Whom you are standing).

Almost all the seats were taken when I arrived 25 minutes in (as I said, I slept late), but I found one on the far wall that no one wanted because its view was obstructed by one of the stone central pillars. I would guess that there were about a 100 men in the minyan, with an unknown number of woman (but I would guess substantial), in the women's section next door (there were windows in the 2' thick walls, allowing them to hear what was happening in the men's section). Needless to say, the service was stricly orthodox and all in Hebrew.

Given the limited ventilation (one open door), it got stuffy and warm pretty quick, but the service was over by 11. It was nice and cool as soon as I left (though, it was an unpleasant surprise to walk out into three separate tour groups standing outside discussing the synagogue). I wandered to the main old town square and noticed an exhibition of Mucha. I had wanted to go to the Mucha Museum (I know, doesn't it sound like the name of a lounge-lizard latin band?), and figured this was it.

Actually, it was a private gallery, but it was interesting anyway. The first floor exhibit was on Czech bad-boy photographer Jan Saudek, whose controversial work would probably get him arrested if shown in the United States (it focuses on the human body, including children). Much of his work is disturbing and meant to be so.

Afterwards, I went upstairs to the Mucha exhibit, which is mostly some posters and postcards of this most prolific of Czech art nouveau artistis. (To see an example, go to )

In fact, I would say that the most characteristic style of Prague architecture is art nouveau. Oh, there are the occasional baroque or beaux art style building, but in the center of town, it is art nouveau that predominates.

After lunch, I went looking for the House of the Black Madonna, which was a cubist-inspired building in Stare Mesto. Unfortunately, it is closed for the time being since its air conditioning disasterously failed two weeks ago, but it turns out I had already seen much of their collection of cubist furniture, as it was transferred to the National Gallery, which I visited yesterday. Cubism had an enormous impact on Czech artists and architects, and the building has a variety of cubist-elements, including oddly angled windows and pediments.

From there I decided to see if I could find the Frank Gehry designed building offically called "the dancing building," but more colloquially known as "Fred and Ginger." Part of the building is straight and erect (that's Fred), the other part is angled and sinched at the waist (Ginger). It really is an interesting building and it doesn't clash at all with its surroundings.

I decided to head to the Petrin Park to enjoy the nice weather, but they've decided to renovate their funicular during the height of the tourist season. No problem. I'll just walk up the hill. At least that meant there were a lot fewer tourists. At the top of the hill I found the "Mirror Maze" -- mostly designed for children, but also for children of all ages. There's also the Petrin Tower. It seems that the Czechs were so impressed by the Eifel Tower that they built one of their own using disused railroad ties. Hitler hated it so much he ordered it torn down, but no one ever got around to destroying it. I decided to trudge up the 300 steps to see the fantastic view of the whole city from the top (where I discovered, there was a small elevator, but given the way the tower swayed in the wind, I think I was better off schlepping).

From there a nice walk back down, a tram ride to Mala Strana, and a very nice salmon dinner at the grill restaurant I ate at two nights ago. The salmon came with a shrimp cocktail appetizers, in which the little shrimps were drowned in thousand island dressing, but it was still pretty good.

All in all, a very delightful day.

No comments: