Sunday 13 July 2008

Back to Prague

Have just returned from a ten-day visit to Prague and Karlovy Vary (pictured), in the Czech Republic. I had last been to Prague thirteen years ago and the city has certainly changed, not all for the better. We enjoyed an excellent performance of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre where Mozart conducted the opera's premiere, and the theatre exudes the atmosphere of the era. We saw some great jazz funk from Madfinger at the Agharta cellar club (pictured below) and had an excellent dinner at the Bellevue restaurant. We also visited - aside from the obligatory walks around Old Town and the Castle - a sobering if straightforward new Museum of Communism and a fascinating museum dedicated to the life of the great Czech decorative artist Alphonse Mucha. We also visited the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius where the brave parachutist assassins of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 went into hiding before being betrayed by a supposed comrade: the sobering exhibition in the crypt tells of not only their last days but the consequences for the Orthodox priests who concealed them and others whom the Nazis killed in revenge.

In Karlovy Vary, where the 43rd film festival was in full swing, the attractive spa town tells the story of the Czechs' changing fortunes in microcosm. The Festival itself started in 1946, but went through a dreary phase until the early sixties when it reflected the opening up of Czechoslovakia under Dubcek, before reverting to a shared staging with Moscow until the Velvet Revolution. We saw two excellent films introduced by the directors: Marion Lane's Un Coeur Simple with a riveting performance by the wonderful Sandrine Bonnaire in Flaubert's fable; and John Sayles's Honeydripper, with Danny Glover also in attendance. Though both films have had their UK premieres already, it was great seeing them in very glamorous festival settings. The town itself has long been a Russian favourite, and the relationship has continued since 1989. Parts of it are ridiculously over-priced, but the best meal in town by far was at the Embassy restaurant, which was also probably our best meal of the holiday - authentic Czech food at a fair price.

And money is the biggest change in Czech society. For a British pound-spender, the prices are often absurd as the Koruna has become even stronger than the Euro. But it is also the attitude of many to making a fast buck which seems different. Unless you use a reliable company like AAA in Prague, taxi drivers will rip you off with dodgy meters. And the mark-ups in many restaurants make Italy in August seem like a bargain. That said, there is so much that remains attractive about the Czech Republic that one hopes such attitudes don't deter visitors. After all, there are few cities that can match Prague in Europe for their sights.

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