Set on a hillside high above the city, the Strahov Monastery has been a quiet presence over the bustle of Prague life for over 900 years. Founded in the 1140’s, by the scholarly Premonstratensian Order, the monastery has recently been reclaimed (in 1990) by the church, after being nationalized by the communists in 1948. Fortunately, the communist rulers continued caring for the jewels of the monastery, the superb Libraries of Theology and Philosophy.
Over the centuries the monks gathered one of the world’s best collections of texts, and the frescoed libraries contain over 130,000 volumes, with a further 700,000 in storage. Although one can only stand at the door and look inside the ornate rooms, there are glass cases of rare texts and illuminated manuscripts displayed along the giftshop walls. I especially liked a tiny gold accented personal prayer book with its lovely miniatures in jewel colors. Another highlight is the jewel-encrusted red leather cover of the oldest book in the library, the Strahov Gospel, from the 9th century.
Continuing the peaceful morning, we walked down the orchard and vineyard covered hillside, and went back to a favorite spot for lunch – the terrace on the garden hillside that we enjoyed on Monday – then a stop at Cream and Dream for Helen’s favorite, mango sorbet.
Helen took time to pack during the afternoon, and I walked through the park beside our hotel, then across the river.
After checking out a few French, Czech, and British fashion boutiques, I stopped at Gourmand for the prettiest café latte I’ve ever had.
Tonight is our final concert – and we’re practically floating with delight as we walk home, one last time over the CharlesBridge.
Russian pianist Andrej Gavrilov wowed us with a program of Schumann, Grieg, and Prokifiev.
I remember being disappointed at a previous piano recital here in the beautiful Rudolfinum because the entire program seemed subdued – the pianist never “cut loose” with a powerful forte.
Well, in just the first selection on tonight’s program, Schumann’s Papillon, we were thrilled with this amazing virtuoso. In addition to flitting light as a whisper around the upper registers, these butterflies got in some powerful action across the whole keyboard.
And then a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, favorites of both Helen and mine.
A delicate Arietta, an amazingly free, rhythmically, To Spring, a scampering and exciting March of the Dwarfs – fingers flying! Breaking the rules of concert performance, the audience exploded into wild applause after this one! After a gracious bow, Gavrilov finished the set with a tender, intimate Notturno, bringing wonderful memories to Helen and me, then Remembrances.
I have played, taught, and listened to several of these pieces for over thirty years, but I have NEVER heard them as I did tonight. Absolutely astounding.
An entre-acte addition of a favorite Chopin Nocturne of Slava Richterovi, to whom tonights’ concert was dedicated, an intermission to absorb the marvelous music, and then the second half of the program. Prokifiev is not one of my favorites, but Gavrilov’s performance of his Sonata in B flat Major gave me goosebumps!
As you can imagine, thundering applause greeted the end of his performance, and after a standing ovation, he returned with an exquisite Chopin Prelude in D flat, then more applause, and some awesome Prokofiev fireworks from his early Sonata, Opus 4.
If you get a chance to see and hear this awe-inspiring artist, don’t’ miss it!
We break up a morning of shopping (Czech standouts are crystal, garnets, amber, and handcrafted marionettes) with coffee and a pastry in the world’s only Cubist café. The Grand Café Orient, upstairs at the House of the Black Madonna (yes, a Cubist Madonna!) was created by Czech architect Gocár in the 1920’s. Complete with a cubist façade, floor plan, staircase, and even chandeliers and furnishings, the cafe serves delicious pastries and coffee throughout the day. Cubism travelled to Czechoslovakia after being introduced to the world by Picasso and Braque. The faceted geometric forms were translated into architecture here in Prague, and no where else in the world. In addition to apartment buildings and this café, there is an actual Cubist lampost around the corner – are you impressed ? ! Helen has been on the lookout for a set of Czech glass miniature musicians, and she found just what she wanted on Wenceslas Square. After a delicious lunch at Kogo – fresh dover sole for Helen (she got the last one !) and plump gnocchi in a silky gorgonzola and walnut sauce for me (as good as any I’ve ever had in Italy) – we dropped off our loot at the hotel before a trip to the outskirts of the city. Peaceful Villa Bertramka, where Mozart stayed with his friends, the Duseks, while in Prague, is a surprising haven of beauty just beyond a major highway overpass and huge new hotels. In Mozart’s time, the villa was surrounded by vineyards, but through the centuries the urban jungle has crept around it. The lovely gardens behind the villa (which now houses a museum and concert salon) are still intact, lush, green and welcoming. You can just imagine Wolfgang strolling on the lawns, humming as he developed a new piece of music. Bertramka’s concert theme for 2007 is Mozart Meets Beethoven at Bertramka. The series of concerts, from April to July, will present the complete string quartets of both Mozart and Beethoven, the first time that they will all be performed in one venue in one concert season. Today, the Talich Quartet plays Mozart’s String Quartet in B flat major, K 458, and Beethoven’s in D Major, No. 3, Op. 18. It’s fun to experience the contrasts of these two landmark composers – Mozart’s jaunty, lilting Allegro, followed by an elegant Adagio with a gorgeous violin melody – almost an accompanied solo, and a mad scramble of an Allegro to complete his marvelous quartet. Then Beethoven, more impassioned and powerful, letting the individual instruments shine with intricately beautiful melodic lines, finishing with a racing presto with duets of violins, then viola and cello. Helen and I were right near the front, and loved watching the gifted performers, and hearing so clearly in the intimate space. Let’s have dinner in a palace tonight ! Set in a garden beneath Prague castle, the candlelit splendor of Palffy Palace is a dreamy setting for a delicious meal: rack of veal poached in chianti, risotto with fava beans, and roasted sea bass with pumpkin puree, accompanied by elegant flutes of sparkling champagne. The streets of Mala Strana – « Little Town » by the Vltava River, are never more lovely than at night, rosy by the light of old-fashioned street lamps. We walk home, planning when to meet for more adventures tomorrow.
Crowning castle hill as the seat of government in Czech lands for centuries, today’s glorious Renaissance edifice provides hours of face-to-face history lessons, peeling back the onion-skin layers of time from the 21st century all the way back to the 9th.
A tram ride up the switchback cobbled road, then a short walk into the complex, and we meet our guide, Dana, by the massive flagpoles in the first courtyard. She walks us over to the ramparts, where we look over the city as she reminds us that Prague, a Unesco World Heritage site, is the largest preserved city in the world, with 3670 palaces listed within the designated area.
Founded sometime around 870, the Castle’s impressive collection of buildings includes dozens of houses, a grand palace, three churches, towers, courtyards, and evocative Golden Lane.
From the third courtyard the oldest and most important site, St. Vitus Cathedral, towers over the complex. Begun in 1334, the cathedral was not completed until the 1920’s, and the finest craftsmen of many centuries contributed to its beauty. From the jewel-inlaid walls of Wenceslas Chapel to the exquisite stained glass windows by Alfons Mucha, a 20th century artist, the Cathedral is truly the glory of the castle hilltop. It’s a constant point of reference for us, day or night, from the city below.
Inside the OldRoyalPalace, exquisite ribbed vaulting traces the ceiling high above the 16th century Vladislav Hall, still used for presidential inaugurations today. In the past it was used for jousting tournaments, and the specially designed “Rider’s Steps” allowed knights to enter the building on horseback.
The large windows in an upper room bring a story of a form of political protest unique to Czech people – defenestration.
The first such act occurred in the early 1400’s, and the most famous one, in which Protestant nobles threw three pro-Hapsburg Czechs out this third story window, began the Thirty Year’s War in the 1600’s.
The colorful houses of Golden Lane, Dana tells us, are so called because King Rudolf II, devotee of alchemy, housed his scientific and magical researchers in the tiny cottages,
eagerly awaiting the discovery of the secret of gold.
Tucked up against the protective walls of the fortress, they are just a few feet deep, and look like children’s playhouses.
Petals of history continue to unfurl during our evening – from the stunning 20thcentury Art Nouveau Obecni Dum (Municipal House), where we stop for a bite to eat, to an early Gothic cloister from the early 1200’s, where we listen to music from Bach of the 1600’s and 1970’s compositions of Czech contemporary composer Jan Novak.
Monika Knoblochova has crafted a program of contrasts, using two harpsichords, one for the contemporary, and the other for the baroque. She began with two Novak inventions – non-stop baroque rhythms, but full of dissonance and quirky, unexpected melodic progressions. Then she turned around and played Bach on the opposite harpsichord – back and forth, a couple of Novak inventions, then Bach.
Before her performance, the audience was asked not to applaud until the end of the first half of the program, in order to not detract from the contrasts between the masterpieces, separated in composition by 240 years.
Sometimes, as she played a Novak invention, you could guess which Bach was up next…the popcorn bursts of Novak followed by, sure enough, Bach’s Invention in F Major.
What an apropos finale to a day of intriguing discovery of the layers of history in this fascinating city!
It wasn’t until the Hapsburg rule of Maria Theresa in the late 1700’s that houses in Prague were numbered, by her command. Before then, homes were identified by a distinctive symbol – an ornate sign or heraldic beast, and Nerudova street, named after Jan Neruda, beloved Czech author, is the perfect spot to step back in time and enjoy these unique house signs. Neruda lived in the House of the Golden Suns, near the top of the street near PragueCastle. Scattered down the cobbled lane, along with the grand embassies of Romania and Italy you can find the House of the Red Lion, the Green Lobster, the Two Violins, and many more.
Just before noon, we grab a prime spot in the first courtyard of Prague castle to watch the changing of the guard. A brass ensemble appears at the first floor windows, and the ceremony begins with pzazz as the band plays Czech rock-star Michal Kocáb’s jaunty fanfare.
Below the castle, terraced gardens cascade down the steep hill, and we stroll through the beautifully designed areas to the House of the Golden Well (U Zlaty Studne), where we stop for a delicious lunch on the terrace.
More gardens surround us as we descend the hill, and just before we get back to the hotel, the long-awaited raindrops finally start to fall. We’re ready for a break in the warm weather !
After a couple of quiet hours, it’s time for dinner. In days of old, Bohemian King Rudolph II had a fanatical interest in alchemy, and imported magicians and scientists from the known world in hopes of discovering the long-sought method for turning base metals to gold. We like to experience the magic of The Alchymist Restaurant when in Prague, and it did not disappoint this evening. In an Arabian treasure chest of a room, Helen and I toasted another successful day with champagne, and enjoyed melt-in-your-mouth foie gras, vitello tonato (a northern Italian specialty of thinly sliced veal in a creamy tuna sauce – sounds weird but it’s delicious !), parmesan dusted ravioli, and a refreshing salad. No room for dessert tonight. We’ll have to make up for that tomorrow:)
Sunday, 27 May 2007 Prague This morning Hana, a lovely lady who has led walking tours for us before, met us at our hotel and took us on a wonderful ramble around the city. Our focus today was Prague’s musical heritage, and Hana explained that the origins of the Czech Republic’s rich musical tradition were in monasteries and churches of medieval times. We stopped by a few churches, where masses were just beginning. First was the Church of Our Lady Victorious, a favorite pilgrimage spot, especially for Spanish and Italian visitors, who come to see the "miracle-working baby Jesus doll" ensconced in a florid gilded baroque altar on the side of the church. I could hardly glimpse the elaborately robed figure within the massive gold setting. Then the simple-on-the-outside church of the Knights of Malta, where the organ serenaded the faithful. It was about 9:45 when we crossed Charles Bridge, and the pedestrian bridge was already filling up. A thirsty tourist cuddled up to a statue to take a break. We strolled by Estates Theater, where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in the 1700’s, then took the underground to hilltop Vysehrad, crowned with the ancient church of St. Peter and Paul, surrounded by parklike lawns and gardens – a favorite spot for local families on a sunny Sunday morning. Graceful statues of Czech mythological figures are scattered around the greens. The hilltop cemetery behind the church is reserved for honored Czech luminaries, such as composers Dvorak and Smetana. Noon churchbells rang out as we walked among the memorials, and an artist’s recent grave with a lovely sculpture, seeming to glide up to the heavens, brought a smile to my face. Hana took us to a typical pub for lunch, where she and Helen enjoyed a local beer, joining in a toast to absent Kirk! The pub reminds me of past Prague tours, where we got to know wonderful Music and Markets guests that have since become dear friends. What fun it is to share things we love – music, beautiful places, delicious food, intriguing discoveries – with others of like mind, who then add such pleasure to our own enjoyment! On the way back to the hotel we stopped by Rive Gauche, a favorite French bakery and café, and picked up a couple of treats. After an afternoon break (much needed after what seemed like miles of walking!), we dressed for the opera, and walked to the opulent National Theater. In our gilded box, we felt nearly on top of the stage, as we watched and listened to Puccini’s story unfold. We laughed as the curtain came up on a goldrush-era saloon, and cowboys sauntered up to the bar and began to sing. "Girl of the Golden West" is certainly different from other operas we’ve seen, with its California setting (Helen is from the San Francisco vicinity, and my mother grew up in the area, so there was a lot of familiar history for us both). Sung in Italian (with Czech and English titles unobtrusively above), it brought to mind a spaghetti western or two – "Your Johnson from Sacramento is a bandito de strada!" the sheriff informs Minnie, the title character. Other aspects were typical of any opera – the starcrossed lovers duets, the rival’s conflicts, the near death, the threatened separation – but this one (I hope I’m not giving anything away here!) ends with the lovers riding off together into the sunset. Imagine – a happy ending! And our happy ending was a walk across the Vltava River, looking downstream to the evocative Charles Bridge and the Castle, lit up on its hilltop, few bites of a Rive Gauche pastry, and off to bed.
A day full of beauty – beautiful places, beautiful music, beautiful (and delicious!) food, beautiful sights – the perfect first day of Music and Markets Prague Spring Tour. The domes of St. Nicholas church, nearby on Little Town’s main square, gleam in the sunlight as Helen and I walk to a late lunch at Kampa Park.
Our riverside table gives us an upfront-and-personal look at party boats and pedal boats on the water and walkers shoulder-to-shoulder on Charles Bridge. After our delicious lunch – dover sole for Helen, and a seared scallop dish for me – we stroll around Mala Strana, the "little town" on the castle side of the river that is our home for the week. Later, we walk across Charles Bridge, where it’s a very rare time of day when you don’t encounter a crowd, and stop to listen to some musicians. There’s usually a blind woman singing opera (following the Braille score with her fingers), a Dixieland band, and a jazz combo – today it was 1920’s jazz, and sounded like an old-fashioned record. We take a quiet avoid-the-crowds shortcut through some peaceful courtyards, and come out close to Old Town Square, where the ancient astronomical clock is striking 6 pm – more crowds! You can’t avoid ‘em. We walk down Parizska Street (yes, it looks like a Paris boulevard, lined with Chanel, Hermes and sheltered with leafy trees), towards Josefov, the Jewish quarter, and stop at Café Colonial for a bite to eat before the 8 pm concert – my tuna in sesame seed cried out to be photographed – and was as delicious as it looks! St. Simon and Jude Church boasts a gorgeous renaissance interior, complete with Bohemian crystal chandeliers lighting the ornate balconies and altars. The 100-voice Houston Symphony Chorus filed in, followed by the featured soprano and baritone soloists, the two pianists, and the conductor. Brahms wrote the two-piano accompaniment for his German Requiem, and the two concert grand Bosendorfers provided such a full and rich foundation that I sure didn’t miss an orchestra. From the sopranos beginning with a whisper – "Blessed are they that mourn…" - their gentle tones making me imagine I was listening to angels in heaven, to the goose-bump producing thunderous full choir "But the word of the Lord endureth forever" every minute was a thrill. The acoustics in the glorious church were perfect, and we were in the very first row, with great views of the soloists, pianists, and chorus. The tender and lyrical "How lovely are thy tabernacles" brought to mind the composer’s lullaby, and the powerful "O death where is thy sting", resounding and full, rang through the church like a vocal Bach fugue, with altos, basses, sopranos, and tenors in competing and complimenting melodies. What a superb start to our week of music!
Friday, 25 May 2007 Prague What keeps me going on arrival day, after only a few hours restless sleep on an overnight flight? How about two stops at Cream & Dream, my favorite Prague ice cream shop (crème caramel, with chewy stripes of caramel, first, nocciola, rich with hazlenuts, second), interspersed with walks through the lovely lanes of old Prague? I much prefer traveling with Kirk, rather than alone, and the disappointment of not being with him had greatly reduced my usual anticipation of a trip. At take-off from Dulles, I was glad to finally start to feel excited! I know it’s crazy, after all the hours we’ve spent waiting for delayed flights, sitting on tarmac, rushing to make a connecting flight, but I still get excited even when we drive by our home airport of Washington Dulles, and the excitement didn’t fail to kick in this time as we rose over the green fields of northern Virginia. Connection through Frankfurt to Prague went smoothly, a driver holding up my name met me at the airport, and we were soon winding down the high hill crowned with Prague's castle, and pulling up to our riverside hotel. I stashed my big suitcase in the room, changed into cooler clothes (near 90 today!) and started on my errands – picking up concert tickets, weekly transportation passes, and just enjoying beautiful Prague once again.
Each street holds something delightful – a golden angel,
a fisherman with his hands full (carp has been bred commercially in Czech lands since the Renaissance),
a flowery balcony, a lovely façade.
Back in my room, I set up my workspace by the window and arrange my "nest" for the week. Dobry den (hello – good day) Prague!
Knowing that Karen plans to sell this house and we’re not likely to ever return to this memory-packed home of our friends, we took a long last look and lots of pictures. Maybe if we return to the area and tell the new owners that Vic is “buried” under the olive tree, they’ll let us stroll through and pay our respects if we promise not to pick any pears in the garden.
Our first stop is at Gigondas on our drive to Marseilles. We pull in the driveway of the Domaine de Tourelles and find out why the two towers are on the bottle. The chateau on the edge of town looking west over some of the Rhone’s best vines is framed by two cylindrical 40 foot stone towers topped with inverted cones. We followed the signs to the retail shop and rang the bell, but the vignerons must have been in church. So, though we’d rather buy a bottle from the vineyard, we settled for the wine shop about 100 feet away in the heart of Gigondas.
From Gigondas, we went in search of Venasque, heading southeast through Carpentras. Ensemble Morandi, the string quartet whom we’d heard Friday night at the Domaine de Mourchon in Seguret had a concert Saturday night at the Auberge de la Fontain in the center of Venasque, so we thought we’d check out the venue. We’d heard the name before but have never been there. When we were about a mile from the village, we could see it was dramatically topping a very high hill. So from the foot of the mountain we zigged then zagged while we salivated thinking about the views we’d enjoy from the top. We parked French style (wherever we wanted to) by the fountain and Kirk stayed with the car while Anne and Jill got a tour of the hotel’s concert venue.
We’d never driven north to south through the entirety of Provence like we were about to today. We usually either spend all our time in the haute Provence or below the Luberon mountain range; but today we’re going to connect some previously unconnected points. From Venasque, we emerged from the forest at the Abbaye de Senanque, about a month away from any lavender blooms, but we could use our imagination to see the purple rows, hear the near roar of the bees, and smell the fragrance rising in the valley.
Within minutes, another photo-stop at Gordes. The hilltop villages of Tuscany have nothing on these high altitude villages and Gordes is one of the most picturesque.
From Gordes, looking almost due east we could see our next stop, Rousillon, the village beside the multicolored cliffs whose rocks were crushed, sifted, and sold as pigment for paint for all the famous French painters. The pigment was also used for coloring plaster and almost every house in Rousillon is one shade or another of the ochre/rust still visible in the cliffside adjacent to the village.
We had a quick salad lunch on what used to be a home’s patio then drove past a poppy field and the hilltop town of Lacoste, crowned with the fortress/castle of the Marquis de Sade, to Bonnieux.
Between Bonnieux, and Lourmarin we stopped for a half kilometer hike down a path beside an old mill trace to a stone bridge built by the pre-Luther Protestants called Vaudois. They leftItaly where they were known as Waldensians and where they developed considerable skill as stone masons. This low, short bridge over the insignificant Aigue Brun stream has as an anchor on the right, a stone concave fan. Those Vaudois cut and laid those stones with such skill that the bridge still stands after about 500 years.
Loumarin is always worth a stop and walk around. Lots of other people had the same idea but we pushed through the upscale crowd to get a Loumarin specialty, Le Gibassier de Lourmarin. It’s about a foot long and looks like a fougasse – a hand-shaped flat bread - but is sweet like a cookie. It contains lots of olive oil which makes it sweet in a sophisticated sort of way. We also stopped at the wine shop and got a couple bottles of rosé from the region to fill out our six-bottle Styrofoam case.
From there the very familiar drive south through Cadenet and Rognes to Aix en Provence. We did an informal high-level tour of Aix for Jill and took a little break in the lobby of the Hotel des Augustins before dinner at Jacques le Croquant featuring specialties from southwestern France. After duck, goose and rabbit, we drove south to turn in the rental car and check in to the airport hotel at Marseilles. We reluctantly asked for a Monday morning wake-up call for our early flights to Frankfort and Paris then on to Dulles by mid afternoon.
As always, we've gotten more than we had hoped for in a short week's visit - some planned adventures, and some wonderfully serendipitous surprises! We can't wait til the next time!
Slip into the window seat in our aisle and join us on our search for a symphony of views, flavors, culture, sounds, and friends. We'll let you know when we hear the harmony we seek - whether in a WOW classical concert, an awesome night of jazz, a magical vineyard or olive farm, or an outstanding bistro, trattoria, wine, garden, or experience. From our delightful maison de village near a Languedoc beach* to a canal-side string ensemble in Amsterdam, you'll read and feel like a real local.
Contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
The best way to describe us (Kirk and Anne Woodyard) is that we're interested in the stories that make the places we visit come alive. We've visited Europe more times than we can count, learned some entertaining stories there, and met some warm and helpful people who also enjoy the wonders of music and life in Europe. Between our music-related travels, we split our time between our homes near Washington DC and in the the south of France.
We look forward to sharing these stories and friends and experiences with you.
While both of us have experience in organizing travel and music groups Kirk's background is in project management and competitive writing, and Anne is an accomplished pianist with over thirty years of teaching experience, and a travel and food writer specializing in France and Italy.