Category Archives: Cities

An evening at Vienna’s Central Cemetery

It was meant to be a search for the final resting places of music legends Schubert, Brahms and Mozart. In two hours, however, the Central Cemetery in Vienna gave us all the trappings of a horror flick with a surprising cast of characters. No, they weren’t the ghosts of music past. 

It all started quite harmlessly. We had earlier visited the St Marx Cemetery that once contained the remains of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and now just had a representative grave. 

 It seemed only right that we follow the trail of his remains, which were resting at the city’s largest cemetery, Vienna Central Cemetery or Zentral Friedhof. His grave was moved in 1891 on the occasion of his 100th death anniversary. Another attraction was the fact the cemetery was home to the graves of over 2.5 million souls. 

There we were, having braved a 40-minute tram ride to the cemetery, situated on the outskirts of the city at Simmering, on a cold and wet evening. On entering, we perused the map, neatly divided and numbered into sections. There was no mention of the grave we were out to find so we decided to start walking, hoping the memorial would be conspicuous enough to spot. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. 

The oldest and largest cemetery in Vienna, much like the rest of the city, is pleasing to the eye. Every grave was different and more intricate than the rest. We spotted the normal angels and religious figures gazing beatifically down; statues of children clutching toys and pets as if they were frozen in time (creepy, yes); canopies shielded scenes from history; busts of people; They were creepy but we couldn’t help admiring the artwork; many tombstones also had the names of the architects who built them. 

Aside: History lesson  The cemetery was built in 1870 and opened on All Saints Day in 1874. It is quite interdenominational – houses a Protestant cemetery, a Muslim burial ground, two Jewish cemeteries, Russian Orthodox Burial Ground – which caused much controversy at the time. At 620 acres, it is the largest in Europe and the dead population is believed to be more than the actual population of Vienna! 

The cemetery was empty but for us, and another couple who walked ahead, frequently taking detours to hunt among the rows. We stuck to the main path, losing them in the bargain, and 40 minutes later, couldn’t find anything; even the tombstones had begun to lose their charm. 

We were ready to give up and return – the light was fading and a slight drizzle had begun – when we spotted the church. It suddenly struck us that the most important graves would be around the structure and so set off towards it. Our hunch proved right when we stumbled on the Music Graves, and there were the souls we had come to see. 

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In the centre was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; to the left was Ludwig van Beethoven, to the right was Franz Schubert and a little further away, Johannes Strauss and Johannes Brahms. 

Suitably wowed – we were in the presence of geniuses, after all – we turned back. It was only after reaching the gate, half an hour later, that we realised it was shut. We were locked in. (I confess, at this point, I had a moment of terror. I’m not a fan of cemeteries and especially not when it was getting dark and we were all alone in). A few tense moments later, we realised there was a sign for an emergency gate so we started walking back the way we had come, this time taking a short cut through the muddy paths between the graves. 

A few steps later, my friend K (who has been laughing at my attempts at stalking all the dogs I saw during my trip) suddenly said, “I saw a dog here”. We were both surprises, stray dogs don’t exist in most European countries and who would bring their pet to a cemetery. We continue walking and then in the distance, the ‘dog’ appears. It isn’t a dog but a deer and it freezes just like the idiom it gave rise to. We pull out our cameras with as little noise as possible, not wishing to scare it away before we get a shot at it. But, it scampered away. We ran into it again, a few metres away but my squeal of surprise scared it. It seemed alone and we couldn’t spot any other deer or any other animal around, leading us to wonder what it was doing in an empty cemetery. 

We will never know. 

Conclusion: After walking through half the cemetery in the rain, we found the tiny emergency gate and made our exit quickly. We don’t know what happened to the couple, we didn’t spot them anywhere.  

At: Zentralfriedhof, Simmeringer Hauptstraße 234, 1110 Vienna (look for group 32A).

 

[A version of this story was published in Hindu: On the Graveyard shift in Vienna on December 27, 2017]

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Telč: A fairy tale town

I fell in love with Telč at first sight. I was looking at day trips from Prague and one of the images opened up to reveal pastel-shaded wooden houses with painted fronts and an empty cobbled square.

Further research revealed this town square, called Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce, was an UNESCO heritage site. (We all know how much I love heritage spaces. Read Hoi An: The Town that time forgot.)

I knew I had to get there. 

I got off the bus at the town square in this Southern Moravian town, and dragged myself (and my suitcase) over cobbled grey paths before reaching the square. It was bitterly cold and I had two heavy bags with me. And then I round a corner and stop short.

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The town square

The town square

In person, Telč is even prettier than its pictures. The square, often called one of the prettiest in the country, lies at the centre of the town and on all sides, are beautiful wooden buildings – in yellows, pinks, greens and blues. Each of the houses has its own history and distinct style. I spent my first few hours there, just craning my neck upwards trying to understand the artwork. 

Aside: History lesson –  The history of Telč dates back to the 1300s. In the 1500’s, Zachariaš of Hradec rebuilt the town square after a massive fire damaged it. The houses thus had vaulted arcades added to their fronts, creating a covered walkway. Italian architects arrived and the Gothic castle, chateau and town underwent a magnificent Renaissance makeover. The houses are residential spaces or homestays, shops or restaurants and administrative centres; No 2 is a former Jesuit hostel, No 10 is the town hall and No 3 is a study centre. 

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No 61 – In 1532, this house was bought by Michael, a baker and the chairman of the town council. In 1555, he rebuilt it and it now boasts of the sgraffito decorations of the leaders of Old Testament.

The centre of the square had two fountains and a Marian column. The Marian (or Plague) column, dates back to 1717 and has the saints: Jan Nepomucký, Jakub, František Xaverius, Roch, Sebastián and the Guardian Angel; St. Rosalia (in a small alcove), and finally, Maria Magdalena. Atop a column of clouds on the globe stands the Virgin Mary. There’s a small water pump too, at the side. 

It is around the square that tourists and townsfolk congregate, drinking cheap alcohol (hello white wine that costs 20 Kč – Rs 12 approx). Since we landed there late afternoon, K and I had a leisurely lunch and then walked about, stopping to admire street musicians filling the silence with the sweet melodies of the saxophone and trumpet.   

Beyond the square

Away from the square, the town is quite small. It was originally created as a moated fortress so is surrounded by a ring of interconnected lakes. A walk to the north, takes us past a small gate and into a spacious park surrounded by duck ponds. There, we spot horses in a nearby field, duck chasing each other, owners taking their dogs out for walks and spectacular views of the town.  

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A view from the other side…that twin towers belong to the Holy Name of Jesus Church

The northern end of the square is the chateau; Zachariáš of Hradec who transformed a Gothic castle into a Renaissance residence. It is beautifully preserved and there are daily tours  -two, in Czech but with English booklets – of about an hour each. One tour takes us through the different halls: the Golden Hall, which has carvings and paintings on the ceiling; the Knights’ Hall has armory and weapons, and the African Hall has wall-mounted trophy busts. The tour also gives a glimpse into the rooms of the chateau, filled with waffle ceilings, a naked statue of Adam and Eve and oil paintings of the castle’s inhabitants. The Chapel of St George, which has a detailed depiction of St George fighting a dragon, holds the remains of Zachariáš. 

The town’s shops/ restaurants shut by 6 pm, so we amble about, stopping to eat pastries at tiny bakeries, exploring a supermarket before finally settle in at a local bar, Herna (Non Stop Bar). There, we drink Czech beer (14 Kč)  and try to make sense of local music videos. A closer look inside the bar reveals a room full of slot machines!

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Bars with unique entertainment!

Telč is undoubtedly a pretty and romantic town and a well preserved historic square. Itis possible to explore it in a day, since the town shuts down early and there’s no nighttime entertainment.  

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Where to stay/ The homestay

Unknown to me, the homestay I booked was actually part of the heritage site, which meant I was actually living in a piece of history – Pension Stedler was  newly reconstructed Renaissance 16th century building. The house, number 8, was a beautiful shade of pastel green and opened into a dark cool space. It was in the middle of the main square in front of baroque pestilence column an fountains. The bus/ train station is a ten-minute walk away.

I booked a twin room with private bathroom, common living room with a little kitchenette for 800 CZK without breakfast (870 CZK with breakfast). 

Getting there

There are direct buses from Prague (Florenc bus terminal) to Telč and back; takes about two hours. A cheaper option, which I took was taking a Student Agency bus from Prague to Jihlava (150Kč) and a local bus from there on; took about 2.5 hours and cost much lesser (about 50 Kč).


TL:DR

  • Telc is a heritage town about two hours away from Prague. 
  • It is a perfectly preserved example of a historic town square, and a UNESCO heritage site.
  • It boasts a beautiful town square, surrounding duck ponds and parks, churches, a watch tower and a well-restored chateau.
  • The place is relaxed and quiet and everything shuts by 6 pm; very few places stay open for dinner. 
  • It is good for a day visit, or a night stay if you want to live in a house that dates back to the 16th century.

 

 

Eating Banana fritters in Hoi An

On our first trip to Vietnam, my friend and I found slices of India everywhere. A popular Hindi TV show played on tiny screens in markets, hosts shared notes about their favourite Bollywood movies, and we had in depth discussions about why Indians don’t win global beauty pageants anymore.

At the end of our ten-day trip, we chanced upon a fried street snack that satiated our craving for home food. The Banana Fritters (chuối chiên) were as brown as our skin, and as sweet as they were cheap. The golden brown banana fritter was sticky, speckled with sesame seeds, crispy on the outside and oozing with sweetness on the inside. It was the perfect morning treat, a sweeter version of the fried snacks we eat on Mumbai’s crowded streets when in need of a quick and filling meal.

We discovered it, much like the best things in life, by accident. It was our last day in Hoi An, that heritage town of cobbled paths, ancient shopfronts and lanterns swaying in the wind. We had guzzled cheap beer, munched on grilled meat on the streets and loaded up on cheap trinkets at the night market. We were on the hunt for an authentic eating experience.

A crowd led us to it.

They were gathered around a small cart so, we went to investigate. This curiosity is an innate Indian thing – we see a group of people gathered around something, and we will instantly gravitate towards it. People were engrossed in watching something. A closer look revealed a street cart, and the people around it were brimming with desire.


We heard the sound first, the heavy sizzle that signifies something has been dunked into a pan full of hot oil. It soon relapsed into a melody of crackles and hissing. A young woman stood behind the cart peeling bananas and slicing them into perfect halves. The bananas, swaying in the wind above her head, were no ordinary ones but small and stubby (called chuoi su or chuoi xiem). She dunked these slices into a mixture of rice flour, sugar, salt and water, before popping them into a pan of oil. When they attained
a golden brown colour, she held it aloft for a few seconds before placing it on a stand. As it stood there, dripping oil, us hungry hordes could only gaze at its delicious crunchiness, willing it to cool faster so we could get our hands on it.

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There were also plates of crab fritters and sweet buns filled with mung bean and coconut but we only 
had eyes for that stick sweet snack. Money exchanged hands and soon, we were holding then in our hands, a flimsy napkin protecting us from the heat.

We were soon busy munching on the fritter, enjoying the noisy eating process and savouring the ensuing sugar rush. It was a high that lasted us till lunchtime, and one that was more intoxicating than the local beer.

The piece was first published in Roads and Kingdoms, here.

Brno: To the market

This is the second story in a three-part series about Brno’s underground wonders. Read the first one here: Bone Season 

The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market

There’s a legend related to the tunnels under the vegetable market that I discovered in the book, The Czech Republic – The Most Haunted Country in the world? It says that the beautiful Countess Amalia murdered her lovers – 13 in all – and hid their bodies underground. She still roams the tunnels, ensuring the bodies remained hidden. If true, she is doing a good job, because during my one hour tour of the tunnels, I didn’t spot any bodies.

The Labyrinth underneath Zelný trh (Vegetable Market) is located about eight metres, and 200 steps below one of the oldest squares in the city. The individual cellars, I’m told, were discovered in the last decade. In 2009, they were reinforced and connected via passageways.

I join a Spanish tour group, lurking in the back with my English audio guide, which though informative, is boring. Luckily, the tour is fascinating.

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The Alchemist’s lab.

The guided tour is actually an exhibition offering insight into the different uses of the cellars. In the early 13th century, the cellars under the Horní trh (Upper Market) were used for storage of food, wine, and beer. My audio guide points out the barrels of wine and beer, which were ‘refrigerated’ by placing them on wooden grates. An alchemist’s lab shows us how medieval doctors functioned, and a wine cellar and tavern are reminders of the local tradition of winemaking. We learn about the different sources of light used back then, from the first torches to oil lamps. Our guide allows us to reference our cavemen ancestors, by trying to start a fire using two stones. She isn’t disappointed when few of us can.  

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The wine tavern.

The most chilling section is saved for last. Here, we are shown replicas of torturing devices and punishments used on dishonest people. In a corner, by itself, is the much-publicised cage of fools. In the olden days, the small iron cage was stuffed with people – the unusual height meant you couldn’t sit or stand in it. A few braver members of the group attempt squatting uncomfortably but give up after a few seconds.

 

At the exit, I ask the guide about the legend of the Countess. She dismisses me with a wry smile.

Information: Located at Zelný trh 21, 65878. Closed on Monday; 9 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost: 80 Kč to 160 Kč

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno

A house for Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) was not just a celebrated French fashion designer, known for introducing the tuxedo to women and creating ready-to-wear chic. He was also possibly the only one from his generation to systematically archive his work since the creation of his couture house in 1961. The 5,000 garments, 15,000 accessories, sketches, collection boards, photographs, and objects make for an impressive collection of international haute couture. On October 3, the Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum opened at his former haute couture house, 5 avenue Marceau, where he worked for almost 30 years. Till April this year, before becoming a museum, the space was the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, which organised art, design and fashion exhibitions.

A walk through the museum begins with a biographical introduction to YSL in the former salons and on to the permanent galleries of the ground floor of the museum devoted to the history of his collections. The stage section has two parts — the first looks at the history of fashion through YSL’s work; the second is an intimate look at his original studio. The ground floor has a room framed on one side by a ‘wall of jewels’ and a ‘wall of drawings’ highlighting his creativity in the field of graphic arts. The tour ends in an enclosed space, the ‘mental studio’ retracing the paintings, literature and music tha influenced YSL.

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The studio at 5 avenue Marceau.

Heritage conservator Aurélie Samuel is the head of collections, and curator of the new museum. Here, she sheds light on what awaits visitors at the museum.

What led to the decision to turn the foundation into a museum?

The desire to create a patrimony first arose in 1964, when Saint Laurent decided to set aside certain designs after each show. In 1982, the word ‘museum’ first appeared in the ateliers’ specifications sheets for these pieces, which were kept in special storerooms beginning 1997. This legacy, composed of thousands of designs and the documents related to their creation, is unequalled in the fashion world. All these elements prompted me to reorganise the conservation of these objects, give them a status and legitimise the creation of a unique heritage museum.

The archive runs into thousands of dresses, accessories, photos, sketches and garments. How were the final pieces chosen?
The pieces of the exhibition have been chosen according to their interest for the public and also according to their state of conservation. The inaugural exhibition aims to show the themes tackled by the couturier, from the iconic to the imaginary travels, through the first collection of 1962. Two rotations will take place in order to preserve fragile pieces.

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Swatches from the Plance collection.

Do visitors get to see the entire creative process that went into designing a garment?
Yes. They are able to see the creative process repeatedly: the first time in the studio, with the presentation of the different workstations, and a second time in the educational gallery, with the films presented. In addition, the sketches, collection plates and bibles in the first room showcase a draft of the process.

What are some of the iconic YSL works on display? As someone who revolutionised fashion for women, can we expect a section dedicated to the pantsuit and women’s tuxedos?
There is a tribute dress to Piet Mondrian in the mental studio called Aesthetic Phantom, as well as other iconic pieces such as the Van Gogh jacket, Matisse dress, Picasso short dress, the Bambara, the bullfighter, the cape bougainvilléers and the Russian. From the inaugural exhibition there is a podium reserved for the tuxedo, the jumpsuit and the Caban. We are thinking about organising a thematic exhibition devoted entirely to the empowerment of women through the work of YSL.

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The tribute dress to Piet Mondrian.

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Robe Hommage Pablo Picasso.

There’s another YSL museum opening in Marrakech too. How is this one different?
The main theme of the Marrakech museum is based on the intangible link of YSL with Morocco, the country of adoption for the couturier who worked and lived there every year. The YSL Paris Museum has its own collections and the Museum of Marrakech borrows its pieces from the museum in Paris.

Will Pierre Bergé, who recently passed away, be honoured at the museum?
We will honour him through the history of the House and with the movie, An Eagle with Two Heads, devoted to the unique relationship between him and YSL. Together they established and ran a haute couture house that became an empire, with YSL designing and Bergé managing it. YSL described their partnership as “that great eagle with two heads who navigated the seas, transcended boundaries, and invaded the world with its unparalleled scope, that was us”.

Going underground in Brno

The Moravian capital of Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, has much to offer those looking for a break from Prague. Their biggest attractions are down under. There is a has a thriving underground network of crypts, museums, and even a hotel, showcasing bones, Cold War mementos, and torture devices.

This is a three-part story. Read part 2: The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market.

Church of St. James Ossuary

It is the second-largest ossuary in Europe, after Paris. Yet, as I tour the crypt beneath the Church of St James, I’m underwhelmed. The entire place is about 100 metres in length, with just a main chamber and two side passages.  

Then, I take a closer look at the walls and the pillars. They’re made up of the remains of 50,000 people – skulls bones, tinted yellow because of lack of exposure to sunlight. They stare at me, hollow-eyed and un-moving.

In the central chamber, I come across the creepiest chapel – it has a life-size cross and pulpit and ‘walls’ made of bones; in the far corner is a small stained glass mural. Nearby are two glass coffins – one has the skeleton of a grown man, and the other, the bones of a 13-year-old child.

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The central chamber has a small chapel and brackets holding candles, which in the evening, throw light and shadows across the skulls.

There are glass cases and thin railings shielding the bones but, they’re well within reach. Around me, many are surreptitiously touching them. The thought of disturbing the tightly packed bones and have them fall on my head is enough to turn me away. At the end of one passage, is a pyramid of just skulls, some of which still have decayed teeth in them, making it seem like they’re grinning at me.

A few modern sculptures, in black, provide visual relief, including a statue of a guardian angel. The other relief is tonal – somber music composed especially for the especially for the ossuary, streams over the speakers.

The tour is self-guided. I refer to a pamphlet and elsewhere, displays in Czech and English. The sheer volume of the bones does most of the talking. The original crypt was built in the 17th century to accommodate the remains from the cemetery of the church of St James. The initial three rooms filled up quickly and had to be expanded to accommodate more bones. These were victims of the biggest serial killers of the time: plague, cholera, the Thirty Years’ War and the Swedish siege of Brno. Once the ossuary was full, it was covered up and lay in oblivion for 200 years. It was discovered in 2001 as part of a land survey. Researchers spent a decade gathering the remains, cleaning them and rearranging them back. The ossuary opened to the public in 2012. 

It’s not just all bones. Along the passages are tombstones, from the original graves. At the entrance is a mini exhibition, showing old photos of the church and cemetery.

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My tour has taken me just 20 minutes but, I’m glad to leave. As I walk out, I silently say the Latin prayer inscribed on the marble wall outside: Eternal rest grant unto them….

The ossuary is located at Jakubské náměstí; it is closed on Monday; 9.30 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost 70 Kč to 140 Kč. 

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno

Still life in Prague

It isn’t often that I see naked men on the street. These two stand proud in the courtyard of the museum dedicated to Franz Kafka. The tourists milling about aren’t interested in learning about the life of the tortured genius. Their voyeurism is basic. They watch in delight as the men move their bronze penises to spell out quotes from famous city residents. On moving closer, I realise the men are urinating into a puddle shaped like the map of the Czech Republic.

‘The Piss’ is one of the more whimsical works of contemporary and controversial artist, David Černý. When it was created in 2004, many said he was showing his displeasure at his country joining the European Union. Others said it was a reference to the many invaders in Czech history. I soon learn that the artist, like his mechanical figures, enjoys pissing people off.

Černý’s art is a social commentary and the city of his birth, Prague, is his playground.

The Czech capital is rich in historic imagery, from the Baroque statues that line Charles Bridge to the horse-riding monument at Wenceslas Square. The public art at Prague’s squares, parks and streets is alternative and experimental, amusing and irreverent, playful and provocative.

A troubled past

On a narrow alleyway near the Old Town Square, a glance upward reveals the figure of a man about to commit suicide. This is the ‘Man Hanging Out’, or what the locals call ‘Hanging Man’. Another Černý special, it has a bearded Sigmund Freud hanging by his right hand, at the end of a beam. This sculpture hints at the hopelessness of the psychoanalyst’s life and his phobia of dying. The other meaning is more symbolic. Černy called Freud “the intellectual face of the 20th century” and perhaps, this is the artist’s way of pondering the role of intellectuals in this century.

Hanging man

The Hanging Man is such a lifelike figure that when it was first put up, local police got a lot of calls about a man committing suicide.

I leave Freud hanging and head out in search of another troubled genius. Self-doubt and depression had plagued Kafka all his life. Černý represents this through an 11-m, 45-tonne stainless-steel kinetic bust of the writer. The ‘Head of Franz Kafka’ rests near the office where he was a clerk. The head consists of 42 motorised layers that move independently, metamorphosing into the writer’s face only for a split second.

Another strange tribute to Kafka lies in the old Jewish Quarter, in the neighbourhood where he lived, worked and wrote. In it, sculptor Jaroslav Róna has a mini version of the writer riding on the shoulders of an empty suit, a reference to a passage in Kafka’s short story, Description of a Struggle. It’s a surreal tribute, slightly ruined by tourists touching the statue’s feet and sitting on each other’s shoulders, mimicking the pose. I wonder if it would depress Kafka to see this base devaluation of art.

Kafka monument

“I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot..”

In the streets of Mala Strana or Lesser Quarter is a monument that truly does depress. At the base of Petřín Hill, I climb the stairs to find six naked figures. Unlike the gleeful naked men in ‘The Piss’, these men are zombie-like, their faces a mask of pain and despair. This is Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek’s ‘Memorial to the Victims of Communism’. The six figures, in different stages of disintegration, descend a flight of stairs. A bronze strip tells us of the losses — 205,486 arrested; 170,938 forced into exile; 4,500 dead in prisons; 327 shot while trying to flee and 248 executed. Only one figure is whole; the rest are missing body parts, and the last one has just limbs. For a monument that’s a sombre reminder of the perils of despotism, the setting couldn’t be more picturesque — the surrounding garden and paths are blooming with colour.

Local legends

The most scenic view is at Prague’s oldest bridge, the Charles Bridge. I weave my way through street musicians, artists and selfie-sticks to admire the 30 Baroque statues lining its balustrade. I’m searching for a legend, which I find at the feet of the statue of St John of Nepomuk. John was a priest in Prague, under King Wenceslas IV. He was thrown into the river for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to the king, who suspected her of having an affair. It is believed that touching the plaque commemorating his martyrdom brings good luck. The brass portion I run my hand over is smooth, and gleams bright against the blackened surroundings. Nearby is a plaque of a dog, whose shining body indicates that it also receives attention.

St John statue

Locals dismiss this legend associated with the statue putting it down to a tourists phenomenon.

My favourite legend in the city involves a statue of a ghost. This creepy cloaked figure sits outside the Estates Theater in the Old Town, where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the première of his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. The creation of Austrian artist Anna Chromy, it is said to represent the opera’s character, Il Commendatore, who appears as a ghost.

The cloaked figure has no face and is empty inside, possibly an allusion to the emptiness of Don Giovanni’s soul. Local legend has it that pictures taken without a flash reveal the image of a face inside the empty cloak. My photos reveal nothing but a black hole but I revel in the possibility of a spectre haunting this ghostly figure.

Il Commendatore

The artist created a similar Cloak of Peace (Pieta) in Salzburg.

 

It’s what makes Prague a fascinating city. Every statue has a story to tell, even if some are more believable than others.