The days are shorter and the nights are darker in December as you gaze at Prague from the river. St Vitus Cathedral and Prague castle stand silhouetted against the sunset, and the baroque spires, turrets, and domes resemble an architectural capriccio such as Rex Whistler might have conceived. It is cold and an icy wind scurries down the Voltava causing clouds of seagulls to wheel round the saints clustered on the Charles Bridge. But it is a good time to visit for all the museums, galleries and places of interest are open and there are concerts in nearly every church, palace and concert hall, with the opera in full swing in the 19th century architectural extravaganza, which is the Opera House.
Visits are fortified by frequent supplies of hot-chocolate with whipped cream and a gooey cake… particularly stylish is the Café at the Hotel de Paris with its Art Nouveau interior. Needless to say everyone troops to the St Vitus Cathedral, which took 800 years to build, only being completed in 1929. Where else are you going to find a stained glass window by Alphonse Mucha and the tomb of St John Nepomuk (local celebrity saint) by the most sumptuous baroque architect Fischer von Ehrlach? This vast erection of solid silver towers probably thirty feet above the aisle surmounted by a baldacchino given by the Empress Maria Theresa herself. This is but one manifestation in the city of the exuberance of the Baroque, which abounds everywhere and a style which is not for the minimalist.
The consistency of Czech politics over the centuries is as variable as a weather vane. An example of this is down from the Cathedral where the Lobkowitz family have regained their palace, after multiple confiscations in the 20th century. Here the present incumbent has installed some wonderful treasures from their regained inheritance. Notable are some early examples of ceramics, weaponry, silver, musical instruments and the original scores of music by Beethoven, and Handel. It is a memorable moment to hear the Eroica played in your earpiece as you gaze at the original score. Paintings are aplenty; Velazquez, Rubens, Breughel, Cranach but the most spectacular must be the pair of Canalettos of London’s River on Lord Mayor’s Day. These hang at the end of the tour in a small bare room, quite a crescendo to the tour!
Other Lobkowitz palaces lie on the river bank at Nelahoeveses and Melnik and are being resuscitated gradually by the family. Melnik has its vineyards and Nelahoeveses has a notable suite of paintings depicting Versailles buildings lost to Louis XIV’s aggrandisements.
Further north the reinvigorated city of Dresden awaits, risen phoenix-like from the ashes and now displaying a sky-line closely resembling that painted by Bernardo Bellotto in the 1750’s
So much to see, so little time. The restored Frauenkirche, the Green Vaults, The new Green Vaults The Porcelain Collection, the Old Master Gallery, The Modern Master Gallery…….where do you start?
Fortunately all are not open, which solves a problem. The Green Vaults are not a bad place to start particularly if you need an injection of the curious and the magnificent. These chambers in the Royal Schloss survived the bombing of 1945 and have been immaculately recreated by the Saxon authorities. Here in a series of elaborate rooms are to be found some of the extraordinary objects acquired by the Electors of Saxony, most notably Augustus the Strong. Cabinets made of amber, mother of pearl boxes from Gujarat, silver ostriches, ivory turned cups and a carved blackamoor holding an emerald matrix. Surpassing all are the jewels which Augustus commissioned for himself, suites of gems in cornelian, garnets, sapphires, emeralds and, of course, diamonds. This is only the start for in the adjacent rooms are further wonders including the magnificent green diamond, as green as lime juice, weighing 41 carats. Nearby is the Porcelain Collection housed in the pavilions of the Zwinger. European porcelain was discovered near to Dresden in Meissen by the alchemist Böttger, Here on display is probably the finest collection in the world of the early products of this factory. Here was a discovery which was to transform social habits across Europe and to give Saxony a valuable, commercial monopoly. Augustus, a glutton for magnificence commissioned a series of animal and bird sculptures of colossal size, an extensive collection of which preen and pose in this staggering gallery amidst the dinner and tea services, vases and platters.
These are some of the highlights of a recent visit to the two cities of Prague and Dresden with Noble-Caledonia, when Nicholas gave a series of talks relevant to the voyage.
Nicholas will again be lecturing for the company on the Royal Crown between 29th April and 14th May 2015 between Amsterdam and Budapest. Across Europe by River.
See website www.noble-caledonia.co.uk. Please quote Nicholas Merchant when booking.