Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The famous city of Prague - Part 2

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Illustrated by Henry George Hine

Part 1



The Hradschin and Kleine Seite communicate with the Alt Stadt, or Old Town, by the venerable stone bridge built by Charles IV., about the middle of the XIVth century, and the finest structure of its age and purpose remaining in Europe. Each pier is surmounted by colossal statues or groups of various modern periods. One only co-eval with the bridge itself now remains; this is an armed figure resting on his shield, above one of the land piers abutting on the Kleine Seite. The rest are all sacred, or ecclesiastical subjects; a fine work in bronze of the Crucifixion, the statue of St. John Nepomuc, the patron saint of Bohemia, and effigies or groups from passages in the lives of men celebrated in the service of religion or humanity. It is much to be regretted that the general effect is greatly degraded by the vast ice fenders formed of solid oak trunks projected in angles against the stream, but which, however unsightly, are necessary for the protection of the structure at the breaking up of the ice in spring. At the foot of the bridge is a fine statue of Charles IV., recently erected, whose memory is still venerated in Bohemia for his great and patriotic character. The first remarkable building which strikes the eye, after crossing the bridge, is the Clementinum, a vast college, containing five courts and two churches. At the highest state of its prosperity, this college numbered 30,000 students, but the Thirty Years’ War reduced them to 5000, and since they have decreased to a still more inconsiderable number, particularly after the insurrection of 1848, in which the greater part of their body was concerned. The library is rich in magnificently illuminated MSS. of the early and middle ages.

The Town Hall in the Grosse Ring is a striking building, dating from the XIVth century, but the entire façade, with the statues of the kings and heroes of Bohemia, was re-edified in the modern Gothic style some ten or twelve years ago; the clock is peculiar from having ceased to go two hundred years back, nobody since that period having been discovered clever enough to set it in order.

The objects of most interest to many travellers are the hotels; of these there are several of superior order; the original principal Gasthof was the Schwarzen Ross (Black Horse), in the Graben, the Grande Rue of Prague, the breadth of which emulates Regent Street; at present the reputation of this house is entirely traditionary, as it is dirty, noisy, and most remarkable for the imposition of its charges and the badness of its attendance. The best are the Hotel de Saxe and the Blauen Stern, or Blue Star.

The Town-Hall, Prague.

For comfort in sleeping, an Englishman could hardly be worse off in Kamschatka; the bedsteads are the breadth of an ordinary sofa, and not calculated for any person exceeding five feet eight inches in height: indeed they more nearly resemble a box without a lid, having neither curtains nor valance, than any idea we are accustomed to attach to a bed in England. The coverings are as uncomfortable as the bedstead, consisting, in severe cold weather, of a feather bed thrown over you, and when that becomes too warm, its place is taken by a small, wadded, prettily-quilted cover in blue, green, or red silk, or twilled cotton, with the sheet attached to it, each only the breadth of the mattrass, and so short and narrow, that except in a very contracted position, either the feet or the shoulders must remain uncovered, and whichever way you turn the opposite side of the person must be exposed. In hotels beds are generally found in all the rooms; it is, therefore, difficult to get a sitting-room not fitted up to serve the double purpose of a saloon and a sleeping apartment.

The climate being very severe in winter, all the houses are fitted up with double windows, with cushions laid between them, which in spring give place to plants and flowers; when summer sets in the outer frames are removed and jalousies are fixed in their stead. In the houses of the wealthy, the stoves are made very ornamental objects by their shape and decorations; they are sometimes formed with vases for water on the summit, a certain portion of moisture being necessary, or the health would suffer from the extreme dryness of the air. Apartments are let in suites on the different floors, and all unfurnished; the furniture, if hired, being generally supplied by the Jews. The rate of apartments varies according to the situation, of which the Neu Allée, the Graben, and the Ross Markt, are the most fashionable. A superior apartment of eleven or twelve rooms with a kitchen, varies from 60l. to 90l. a year, according to their magnitude and style; in the Hradschin larger may be obtained for half the money.

Living was, before the insurrection of 1848, one-fourth cheaper than since that period, and the same may be said of servants’ wages. In Bohemia, as in most of the Germanic countries, servants are hired and paid by the month. A good footman could then be had for 14s. a month, and 22s. additional for board wages; when, as is the case with so many families on the continent, it is not the fashion to keep a table at home for the domestics, but their meals are taken at a table d’hôte kept purposely for servants at different restaurateurs, where all the lacqueys of the neighbourhood assemble—a custom attended with inconvenience, as for security during their absence the principal doors are locked, and persons calling on business or pleasure may ring without effect, till their own patience is exhausted, and the bell broken, and be reduced at last, to make their call known, to slip a card under the door, or in any crack presenting itself: this of course does not apply to the noblest and wealthiest houses, where a regular porter is kept, who is never absent from his post, any more than the sentinel from his beat. The prices are so much increased, that a servant who received formerly 1l. 16s. a month, cannot now be had under 2l. 8s., a difference which has caused an immense diminution in many establishments. In the lowest class of servants the love of fine names is truly laughable; kitchen maids are frequently called Victoria, and a female without shoes or stockings, a red and yellow cotton handkerchief bound tightly round her head, carrying bundles of wood, or buckets of water, nine times out of ten answers to the name of Apollonia!

Charitable institutions are very numerous in Prague; there are large establishments most admirably conducted for the deaf and dumb, the blind, and indeed for almost every ailment to which flesh is heir; besides convents devoted according to their several orders to every description of good works. The nuns of the order of St. Elizabeth are vowed to the care of the sick, and the ground floor of their immense establishment is an entire hospital, none ever being known to be turned from their doors who stand in need of their aid. Here they are nursed, doctored, and tended gratuitously till fit to return to their own homes and occupations. The Ursuline nuns educate and feed hundreds of poor children, who but for their care would neither be able to read or write, and most probably be idle beggars at best, if not prowling thieves about the streets. Les Dames Anglaises, so called because their foundress was an English lady, is another educational establishment, and the best female servants in Prague are those brought up from their earliest youth under the eyes of these ladies; their order is of a much less severe rule, as they may frequently be seen passing to and fro enveloped in the long black mantle and veil, rendering their person as indistinguishable as though they wore the celebrated iron mask.[1]

The Invaliden Haus, for retired soldiers, is an imperial establishment of a similar nature to Chelsea Hospital.

Protestants were not very numerous in Prague some few years ago, but they are much on the increase of late; they have a good-sized but ugly church.

Jews are very numerous, and live together in what is called the “Jews’ Town,” a part of the city appropriated to them exclusively, and within gates, which were formerly locked on them at eight o’clock in the evening; but Austrian policy has undergone great changes of late, and, among other things, “the Israelites” (as they prefer being called) have had many privileges granted them; this rule is therefore no longer enforced, and they are likewise now free to choose their own place of abode.

The love of amusement amongst all classes is very great. The theatres, of which there are two, are always full; for a Bohemian would as little like to lose his play as his dinner. It is the old story—“Panem et Circenses.” In one of the theatres the performance is entirely in the Bohemian language, in the other in German. The latter is par excellence the theatre of the beau monde. The building itself is plain and unostentatious, but the dresses and scenery are so admirable that they might compete with Vienna or London; the acting also is not to be despised, for we have seen “King Lear” as well performed on these boards as at the theatres of our own metropolis. After the opinion commonly received in Great Britain of the great musical tastes of the Bohemians, the stranger on entering society at Prague feels infinite astonishment at the absence of all music from their entertainments except as an accompaniment to dancing, and a piano is nowhere to be found in the houses of the great but in the young ladies’ own boudoirs; from the apartments devoted to society, and the rooms of the elder ladies of families, all music is chasséed as an infliction. So extraordinary are the ideas of the beau monde of Prague on this subject, that when the amiable Archduke Stephen gave a soirée, and with more enlightened taste and expansion of ideas than those by whom he was surrounded, provided eminent professional artistes for their entertainment, two ladies of the highest rank were overheard inveighing against “the impertinence of that Archduke in presuming to ask them to sit in a room with professional people;” a trait which likewise exhibits the difference of character between the imperial family and a large portion of the nobility. The only music having any charms for them are polkas and waltzes, and they are little worthy of having possessed amongst them for so many years of his life the great Mozart, who on one occasion was a victim to their dancing mania. Staying at a house to give lessons to some of the family, the daughters besought him to write them some new waltzes, which, being much engaged in more serious music at the time, he was obliged to decline doing from want of sufficient leisure. No entreaties of theirs could prevail, and after a little lapse they desisted from their requests, appearing to have forgotten their wish in various occupations. Soon they invited him to walk into another room to look at some object of interest, which he did. No sooner there than the young ladies disappeared and locked the door upon him, assuring him from the outside he would not cease to be a prisoner till he had given them the waltzes they had asked for. In vain he rang the bell, which his fair tormentors took care should remain unanswered, and to all his entreaties for freedom returned the same reply. He then saw sheets of music-paper, pens, and ink had been already prepared, and, feeling convinced nothing was to be done, sat down to commence the task imposed upon him, which he soon entered into heart and soul, and in the end produced some of his most beautiful waltzes, for which the world at large is indebted to these exacting fair ones.

Sophien Insel, Prague.

As the old stone bridge is the communicating point between the Kleine Seite and the Alt Stadt, so a quarter of a mile higher up the Moldau is the suspension-bridge, the communicating point between the Kleine Seite and the Neu Stadt; between these two bridges runs the quay, which has not been completed many years, and forms in the spring the fashionable promenade. In the centre, surrounded by flower-beds, stands a statue of the Emperor Francis. Across the road is the newest row of houses in Prague, built in the English style, with small street-doors instead of the porte cochère, which is universal in the other parts of the city. The streets in the Neu Stadt are wider, more airy, and far better paved than those of the old town. Here are the principal residences of the nobility; mansions which may well be termed palaces for their magnificence.

Much has always been said of the difficulty met with by strangers in getting into society in any part of the Austrian dominions; but in no part of Europe have we ever heard of unknown persons dropping into society as if they fell from the clouds. In Bohemia, as in most other countries, letters of introduction are necessary, but even one high recommendation will open the doors of the élite of Prague,—that “crême de la crême” of which a popular authoress makes so much mention. It is true, if foreigners wish for sociability amongst the Bohemians, they will seek for it in vain; for, though charmed to welcome you when their pride and vanity are gratified by the display of their splendour and magnificence, they equally shrink from meeting the eyes of strangers in their robes de chambre and undecorated apartments in daily use.

The customs of foreign countries always appear singular to strangers visiting them; and we shall not easily forget our own amazement—our first evening in the beau monde of Prague—at seeing ourselves surrounded by dowagers and ladies of a certain age only, not one young face visible. No young ladies sit in the same room with their elders in society, but immediately on arriving, and having made their curtsies to their hostess, they assemble in “the young ladies’ room,” never rejoining their chaperones till it is time to return home. This custom is the more extraordinary, as the danseurs are admitted to this sanctuary with their partners, through the gardes dames must not show their faces there.

Suppers at these fêtes are the exception, the general rule being that people dance with indefatigable zeal from nine o’clock in the evening (for the beau monde do not assemble there as late as our London fashionables) always till five, and frequently till seven o’clock in the morning, keeping up their strength and spirits on tea, sugarplums, oranges, compotes, and every variety of cakes and ices; the quantity of bonbons consumed by hale, hearty men, on these occasions, is such as would make our substantial supper-loving countrymen open their eyes with amazement.

The public balls are all held at the Sophien Insel, an island in the Moldau opposite to the Neu Stadt, to which it is joined by a small wooden bridge. The balls of the élite at this place are conducted on the most exclusive system; the ladies of the highest rank in the town act by turns as lady patronesses, and send round a book by a confidential person who is furnished with a list of the families to whom alone “vouchers” may be given. The dancing-room is a very fine salle. Once, when Princess —— was the lady patroness, a very handsome supper was provided, to which ample justice was done by both ladies and gentlemen, in spite of the lack of refinement attached to the idea of hot dishes at a ball by the Bohemian superlatives!

But alas, for Prague! its beaux jours are over. We fear its sun is set; for such have been the changes in its society since the insurrection of 1848, though the ex-Emperor and Empress have their winter abode in the palace of the Hradschin, they live as in a city of the plague, while all that was gay is dead and gone!

We have already adverted to the severity of the climate of Bohemia: the Moldau usually freezes in December, and the ice breaks up in the middle or end of February, and one year an ox was roasted whole on the river on Easter Monday, which happened to fall in March. Formerly the Moldau presented a very gay scene during those months, being not only frequented by skaters, but by vast numbers of the inhabitants in sledges; the traineaux of the wealthy were very gay and elegant in shape, the horses’ heads decorated with plumes of feathers of various hues, of which sky-blue was the favourite; but this custom has been abandoned since the Archduchess Hermione died of consumption brought on by a cold taken while driven en traineau by her brother Stephen. If, however, the weather in winter is severe, the heat of summer is proportionable, and accompanied with the most terrific storms we ever witnessed in any country.

The lower classes are very hardy, as may be judged from a habit of the country-girls when over-heated with dancing, of rushing into the court and plunging their heads into a bucket of water, or under a pump, to cool themselves, and before they are well dry, returning to their partners,—a hardihood all the more remarkable from the enervating manner of their rearing as infants.

When the season is sufficiently advanced to render bathing agreeable, the bathing-house and swimming-school are refixed in the Moldau, and both ladies and gentlemen re-commence their lessons. The instructor of the female sex is, or was, a retired sergeant; the younger portion of the female community wear a peculiar bathing-dress, consisting of tunic and full trowsers fastened at the ankles, in which costume the old sergeant draws them through the water by a rope fastened under their arms and round their waist, while he walks on a platform beside them.

The great spring fête day at Prague is the 16th of May, the fête of St. John Nepomuc, the patron-saint of Bohemia, who was thrown over the old bridge into the Moldau by order of a pagan king, for twice refusing to reveal the confession of his queen, who had become a convert to Christianity. Her husband had determined to become acquainted with the facts, and summoned her father-confessor to detail them to him, which his conception of duty would not permit him to do, though he was threatened with death if he persisted in refusing. Continuing firm in his resolution, he was seized by order of the monarch, his tongue was cut out, and he was thrown into the river.

Tradition says that, where the body fell, five stars shone in a half-circle above the head; and hence, on the evening of the 15th, when it becomes dusk, a boat glides up and down, close to the bridge, with five lights, in imitation of those planets which hovered over St. John Nepomuc in his dying moments. To the celebration of this fête thousands of persons come not only from all parts of Bohemia, but even out of far Hungary, so great is the veneration in which the memory of St. John is still held; so crowded is the bridge on which a chapel is temporarily erected for the occasion and service performed, that for twenty-four hours the police forbid all vehicles and horses from crossing to prevent accidents which must otherwise infallibly happen, and during that period all carriages must pass by the suspension-bridge above. The poor people start in parties from their own villages with a bundle of food, and their holiday attire, daily performing so many miles of their pilgrimage, always in the greatest order, and often singing hymns on their way. When assembled the city presents a most picturesque aspect, from the immense variety of costume of both males and females, of which Hungary furnishes the greatest number; from these come those Elizabethan ruffs and bolster-sleeves; also that other group with beautifully embroidered aprons and bodices, and hair tied with coloured ribbons; but the men in leather shorts, blue and red waistcoats, and large hats, are Bohemians from a very distant part; while the people in pointed hats, tight boots to the ankles, worsted stockings and jackets, are from the Tyrol. But to describe all the various costumes would be impossible, as every country has a different one, and even each county of that country varies. In the cathedral their wearers may be seen in extraordinary combinations, or, when church is over, sitting outside in rows, on cloths spread for themselves and their dinner, and which have been their beds on the stones all the preceding night. Their food is a cucumber and bread, often spread with their favourite lard, some varying it with curds in the form of cheeses; their drink, milk or water. How happy they appear with their simple fare, and as contented as any labourer in our land with his meat and beer. In the evening, of all those thousands collected, not one is to be seen “drunk and disorderly,” and not a voice distinguishably raised in anger or dispute! How far different would be the scene in London, Edinburgh, or Dublin!

Prague.—The Cathedral.

  1. The Barmherzichen Brudern (Brothers of Mercy) have not only a complete hospital for the sick within their convent walls, but are ever ready to attend and nurse the poor in their own homes when their services are required.