A Visit to Prague

by Jean Sneyd

A visit to Prague in the spring of 2004, divided between garden visits and city sightseeing, held a great many attractions.  Only the hotel, some way from the centre of town, was disappointing:  high-rise and modern but fortunately in a very quiet area.  Also in its favour, was its proximity to the remarkable Russian-built underground system spotlessly clean swift trains every four minutes and full of travellers immediately giving up their seats in respect of our years.  The hotel (two thousand beds) depended on numerous tour parties, mainly Japanese.  We soon mastered the breakfast siege:  searching through the menu one could identify processed ham, sauerkraut, eggs (like bullets), stale bread rolls, cold sliced bread, and processed cheese.  This menu seemed to appeal to the Japanese, but we had first to bag seats before searching for plum jam, butter and bread and doughnuts.  However, the Brits won the battle of the lifts:  when one broke down, we stealthily used the service lift rather than wait among a hundred others for the only lift that was working.  Lifts that are designed for eighteen become life-threatening when twenty-five people press in, we were grateful to the Swedish lady who repelled an enormous man before take off as he reeled backwards we shot upwards.

Prague is famous for its mediaeval buildings and we explored some of the main city, admiring the famous clock tower and Wenceslas Square (in reality a boulevard) and finding the Pilsner beer very reviving, but we had to suffer the slow trudge round the cathedral among thousands of other tourists.  Shopping in Prague is fine if you like dolls, marionettes, and glassware.

Surprisingly the city’s beautiful gardens are not always mentioned in the guidebooks but these were the reason we were here.  We gained enormously from the company of David Hurian, our expert guide and entertaining companion:  his knowledge of trees proved the key success of our garden visits.  David was a former editor of Gardeners Weekly and is now a freelance garden speaker and garden guide.

From Prague Castle (Przsky Hrad) there runs a series of sloping terraces descending to river level, each a haven of green flanked by remarkable trees.  These gardens were formerly royal property as were the Jizni Zahrady, the south gardens – only recently opened after expert restoration to the paths and lawns.  It was already hot when we were there in May.  Very few herbaceous plants or flowering shrubs can withstand the roasting summers:  instead, there were trees that seldom flower in a temperate climate, but thrive in heat.  One, which gave us great delight was Robinia pseudoacacia with strongly scented flowers, which also grow everywhere on waste land in the city.  It was flowering profusely in Prague’s climate.  We saw a magnificent weeping beech, said to be one of the largest in Europe, and in the royal gardens were some of the largest planes that David had ever seen – of huge girth and enormous height.  Among other specimens new to us, we admired Eleagnus angustifolia, and Gymnocladus dioicus (the Kennedy coffee tree) with its huge spectacular leaves.

A full day was given to visiting the national arboretum, Pruhonice Park.  Founded a century ago by a Czeck nobleman, but commandeered by the Russians during their occupation, it now belongs to the State.  In a magnificent yet intimate setting alongside a series of lakes, we wandered at leisure, though proceedings were rather drawn out by the young curator whose conscientious explanations had to be translated by our excellent guide.  Recent flooding had altered the course of a smaller lake, but refreshed the trees.  We were introduced to some unusual ones such as Corylus colurna ( the Turkish hazel) Ostrya carpinifolia (an attractive hop hornbeam), Picea clanbrassiliana and three fine oaks, Q. turneri pseudoturnerii, Q. velutina Albertsii and Q. coccinea, all with larger leaves than Q. rubra.  One very elegant tree was Cephalotaxus harringtonia, its broad needles larger than normal yew foliage, and Fraxinus ornus in full flower.

Unexpectedly, close to the city are the fine Botanic Gardens, and the Mozart Museum at Bertramka.  This is an elegant 18th-century villa arranged to show documents, engravings, musical instruments, and furniture of the period, with recordings from his operas playing quietly in the background.  Trees provided the shade there, vital to elegant summer life, forming a cool mini park.

The Botanic Gardens were extremely interesting and well kept:  a ready supply of irrigation means that perennials are displayed in large open beds, and I admired a magnificent planting of blue flax set in front of ornamental grasses.  We would have appreciated more plants bearing labels.  The gardens are extensive and contain fine bamboos, demonstration plots and, best of all, a well-mounted range of plants for sale.  I brought home an exquisite, small Shirley-type poppy of watery yellow.

On each of the days out of town we visited fine restaurants in old historic settings, and one evening we were offered genuine folk dancing, accompanied by traditional instruments including a dulcimer, often used in gypsy bands.  This is a strange instrument ‘having strings of graduated length stretched over a sounding board..struck with two hammers’*.  Like Coleridge’s Damsel in Khubla Khan the dulcimer player gave an inspiring performance as she struck the strings with vigour:  the rhythm was beautifully suited to the young dancing couple as they brought the evening to a close with a fast and happy performance to a favourite folk melody.

Our stay in Prague was a delightful holiday and to be highly recommended as long as one avoids the heat of summer:  we personally would avoid most of the city element to spend longer in the lovely unspoilt villages and countryside.

*  Oxford Companion to Music

Jean Sneyd

Henry and Jean Sneyd travelled with Victoria Garden Tours.